Clarence Gideon Story
A Wasted Life
The text of Gideon's biography, published in Gideon's Trumpet, documents a wasted life.
Gideon wrote that he was born in Hannibal, Mo., in 1910, the same year as Fortas. Gideon's father died when the boy was 3, and he rebelled in his adolescence against a strict upbringing by his Baptist mother and stepfather, members of what Gideon would later call the "factory workers' class."
He wrote, "My life was miserable, I was never allow to do the things of a ordinory [sic] boy."
Gideon quit school after eighth grade and ran away from home, living as a railroad vagabond. By age 16 he had begun compiling a petty crime dossier.
He spent a year in a juvenile reformatory for burglary. He found work at a shoe factory after his release but soon was lured back to quick-cash crimes.
At age 18 he was arrested in Missouri and charged with robbery, burglary and larceny. He was sentenced to 10 years but released after three, in 1932. In the meantime, the Great Depression had arrived. He said in his letter that he dreamed of legitimate work, but economics and his flawed character worked against him.
He spent most of the next three decades living on the margins and toiling at his four avocations: drinking, gambling, stealing and marrying. As he put it, "I done the same as always."
He served additional prison stretches at Leavenworth, Kan., for stealing government property; in Missouri for burglary, larceny and escape, and in Texas for theft. (He was arrested for a Missouri jailbreak after his mug shot was featured in True Detective Magazine.)
Between turns at penitentiaries he managed four marriages. The first three ended quickly, but the fourth lasted — perhaps because his wife, Ruth, was also an avid tippler. The couple had three children before welfare authorities took them away.
Ruth and Clarence Gideon settled in Orange, Texas, in the mid-1950s, and he found intermittent work as a tugboat laborer and barkeep until he was bedridden with tuberculosis for most of three years.
Gideon's children were born in 1956, '57 and '59—the first two in Orange, the third after he had moved to Panama City, Fla.
Gideon wrote in his biography that he worked as an electrician in Florida, but he was forced to supplement his income with gambling because the wages were so low. He said the couple turned to a local Baptist church for help in supporting and raising their children. He said alcoholism rendered his wife a useless mother.
He did not mention his own problem with the bottle. Only in his early 50s, he could have been mistaken for 75. He was thin and white-haired, and his hands and voice trembled.
He had served jail time for drunkenness in Florida. Yet he hadn't had any serious run-ins with the law since his last release from prison in Texas in 1952.
He may not have been proud of his life's record, but any shame he felt did not salve his indignation about the outcome of his trial.
He wrote Fortas, "I always believed that the primarily reason of a trial in a court of law was to reach the truth. My trial was far from the truth."