Fallen Heroes: Officer James Gambill

Nelson Zoch

December 1, 1936

In 1936, with vehicles and gasoline being in short supply during the Great Depression, Houston Police Officers were on occasions referred to as  Short Call Officers.  This term defined them as not doing active patrol, but responding to calls for service as they were reported.

On Tuesday morning, December 1, 1936, Officer James (Jim) T. Gambill and his partner, Officer George G. Seber, left the station house on Caroline Street at 8am to answer a call from Jennie Mae Holmes, who resided at 2001 St. Charles.  She had reported that her estranged husband, Martin Holmes, had come to her house at 4am and threatened her life.  They had a fight, she said, and he left just before the officers arrived.  She then offered to guide them to Martin’s residence.

Newspaper accounts of this story were as follows:

Quoting Officer Seber, “We took the woman with us in the police car and drove to his house at 2902 Tierwester.  When we got there, Holmes was standing by his truck in front of the house.  As we got out of the car, Holmes reached in his truck and got a pistol.  I disarmed him and put him in our car.  We turned around and started to town with him.  About the 2700 block of Calhoun, Holmes became unruly and tried to get out of the car.  I stopped the car and both of us got out and tried to handcuff him.  He was so powerful that we couldn’t make it”.

Officer Seber continued:  “Holmes was scruffing with Jim, trying to get his gun.  I got hold of Holmes and he came out of the car and grabbed me.  We scuffled over the possession of my pistol until Jim got out of the car and then Holmes grabbed Jim.  I then began shooting at Holmes.  I shot five times while Holmes had a hold of Jim.  At the fifth shot, he turned loose of Jim.  During the scuffle, Jim’s gun fired twice, but I don’t know who fired it.”

Just after the shooting, Jim fell backwards into a ditch. After the shooting, Officer Gambill and Holmes fell down together.  Officer Gambill then got up, took several steps and fell again, his pistol going off once more as he fell for the final time.   A civilian witness, Billie Schutte, who just happened to be driving by,  saw the fierce fight in progress.  His account matched that of Officer Seber.  However, after the shooting, Officer Gambill lay in the ditch and died of an apparent heart attack suffered during this struggle with the suspect.  He was forty-nine years old.

Martin Holmes, described as a powerful and giant man,  was taken to Jeff Davis Hospital with five gunshot wounds.  He expired at 4:05am the following morning, Wednesday, December 2, 1936.  Once again, the old saying applied-“a shiny new silver dollar was exchanged  for a rusty old penny”.

Officer James Thomas Gambill, a member of the Houston Police Department for 14 years, was survived by his wife, Mrs. Patty Annie Gambill, and one daughter, Miss Glenna Mae Gambill.  Also mourning his death were two brothers, Young Gambill and John Gambill, and one sister, Mrs. Annie Kyle, all of Houston, as well two aunts, Miss Mary Gambill of Rockdale and Mrs. John Gambill of Cameron.  There were a number of other kinspeople of the Officer residing in Milam County.

Funeral services were held at 3:15pm on Wednesday, December 2, 1936, in the chapel of the Houston Funeral Home.  Officiating at the service was Reverend D.L. Landrum of the Woodland Methodist Church.  Active pallbearers were William Galbreath, Bogard Inghram, William Luce, Tim Parker, George G. Seber, and P.D. Hanna.  Honorary pallbearers were all members of the Houston Police Department.  Burial followed at the Resthaven Cemetery in north Harris County.  Out of respect for Officer Gambill, Municipal Judge Ben Davison recessed police court for the afternoon.

This death being prior to the Medical Examiner authority over violent and/or public deaths, a Justice of the Peace was responsible for a ruling on the death.  Justice Tom Maes held an inquest into the death of Officer Gambill and returned a verdict of death due to natural causes.  It seemed that an important factor into this decision was that Officer Gambill had been in ill health for some time and was taking several different medications at the time of his death.

While this tragedy must have been quite a personal ordeal for Officer George G. Seber, he continued with HPD.  Unfortunately, he passed away from a heart attack in 1938.   However Officer Seber’s son and namesake, George L. Seber, had been on the Department along with his Dad since approximately 1928.

George  L. Seber was on a career path that would be distinguished beyond measure.  He was one of the original Homicide investigators when the division was formed.  This experience apparently served him well as in the years 1947-1953, he was the Captain in command of the Homicide Division.  When I came on the department in 1968, he was second in command of the Houston Police Department.  He was the Assistant Chief of Police under then Chief Herman B. Short.   With seven Inspectors (modern day Deputy Chiefs or Assistant Chiefs) on the command staff, it was widely known that he had a tremendous amount of decision making authority under Chief Short.  Chief George L. Seber retired from that Assistant Chief position in 1969 and passed away in 1975.  Chief Seber’s only son, Marvin Seber, served on the department also for a number of years.  He retired from the Auto Dealers Detail in 1988 and is now retired living near Waller, Texas.

While doing research for this story, I discovered that Officer Gambill’s burial place was at Resthaven Cemetery.  I was somewhat surprised that this resting place existed in 1936 as it also the site of six other LINE OF DUTY deaths in HPD-Bobby Joe Schultea-1956, Louis Lyndon Sander-1967, Kenneth Wayne Moody-1969, Robert Wayne Lee-1971, Alberto Vasquez-2001, and Rodney Johnson-2006.    With the utmost cooperation of the Earthman family, the first five of these are marked with 100 Club LINE OF DUTY markers at the sole expense and generosity of the Earthman Company.  The Johnson marker will likely be placed at a later date.

With the able assistance of Mr. John B. Earthman’s staff at Resthaven, I was able to locate this site.  His grave is marked with a footmarker with the inscription:

 

Husband, James T. Gambill, August 27, 1887-December 1, 1936

 

What was known of the family at this point is that one of his brothers, Robert Young Gambill,  passed away less than two years later on 11/10/1938.  Also, his only sister, Mrs. Anne Lela Kyle, passed away on 6/26/1961.  Officer Gambill’s widow, Mrs. Pattie Annie Gambill, born on May 1, 1892, passed away on October 22, 1978, having lived to the age of 86, nearly 42 years after her husband’s untimely death.  This story was originally published in the Badge and Gun with the above information.  As a result of that story, a source in HPD came forward with a clue and the following was learned about Miss Glenna Gambill:

From Colonel James S. Schisser, United States Army:  His Mom, Glenna Schisser, served her country as a member of the Women’s Air Corp in World War II, serving in Burtonwood Hospital.  She married Joseph George Schisser Sr., who had been a Japanese Prisoner of War for over three years.  She was a “working Mom” to James and his brother, Joseph Schisser Jr.  Back in Houston, she worked for a car dealership, the Social Security Administration, and ended up her career as the secretary to a top administrator at the Johnson Space Center.  Through the years, she remained active in the American Legion and the American Ex-P.O.W.’s.  Glenna was widowed in 1965 and in 2004 when I spoke to Colonel Schisser, his Mother was eighty-three years old and lived near Colonel Schisser and his family in the Washington D.C.-Virginia area.

Regarding his grandmother, Mrs. Pattie Annie Gambill, he stated that she lived out her life as a single working parent, relying solely on Social Security as she had not received anything from the Police Department as a result of her husband’s death as a police officer.

Officer James Gambill’s death obviously left a rather large void in the Gambill family.  His death was similar in nature and cause as the death of HPD Officer Dennis Holmes in 2001.  These deaths were ruled from natural causes, but it is very unlikely that neither would have occurred without the involvement of the unlawful activities of others.