Famous Henderson County Texas Lawman

Henderson County Sheriff for 20 Years

Henderson County Sheriff for 20 Years

This article from the Magnolia News

July-August issue 1957.

Wyatt Earp, Jessie James, and other famous fast-draw artists wouldn’t last long in front of today’s sharpshooters. So states Jess Sweeten, a 6-foot-4-inch Texan, who served as the sheriff of Henderson County for 20 years.

“Better guns and ammunition make the difference,” Jess says. “Those boys may have been fast on the draw, but none of them could win a shooting match today.”

Jess, who is now a right of way and claims agent for Magnolia Pipe Line Company, should know what he’s talking about. At the age of 10 he started shooting pistols and began putting on marksmanship exhibitions when he was 25 years old.

Jess shot at – and fortunately missed – former Texas governor James Allred. But he did hit what he aimed at – a cigar in the governor’s mouth. In his marksmanship exhibitions, Jess has shot the fire off a cigarette held in his wife’s mouth. Shot the spots off a playing card and then turned it edgewise and split it.

Such modern day pistol men as Tex Ritter, Autie Murphy, Randolph Scott and Johnny Mack Brown have watched Sweeten’s exhibitions. Afterwards they always ask Jess for his secrets and advice on the “fast draw.”

The record Jess made as a lawman in his 20 years as sheriff of Henderson County is so fantastic that a national magazine editor interested in a story about Sweeten said, “Why, if we told what he actually did, no one would believe it.”

Other nationally circulated magazines have carried many tales of the man who can draw and fire in six-tenths of a second. And of the man who can clam that during his terms as sheriff, no major crime went unsolved in Henderson County. Jess solved eighteen murder cases and arrested nearly 15,000 persons for crimes ranging from disturbing the peace to peddling dope.

Thinking back to the 1930’s Sweeten remarks, “Being a sheriff then was pretty rough because you never knew when you might run into such characters as Ma Barker, Machinegun Kelly, Baby Face Nelson, Clyde Barrow or Pretty Boy Floyd.”

In 1936, when he solved the four year-old murder mystery of a man, his wife and two small children Jess, received world wide recognition. George Patton, a farmer near Athens, thought he had committed the perfect crime. But when he committed a quadruple murder the day before Thanksgiving in 1932, he didn’t count on the persistence of the new sheriff of Henderson County, young Jess Sweeten.

A systematic and tiring search for evidence as well as once-a-week “friendly” visits to the farmer’s home finally paid off. A promise by Jess to the grieving mother was fulfilled when George Patton met his death in the electric chair. Letters telegrams and newspaper editorials from all over the world hailed Jess for his work solving this hideous crime.

Sheriff Sweeten was always persistent in his war on criminals. Two hours after a car was stolen in his county, Jess learned that the thieves were headed for El Paso, about 650 miles away. After calling the sheriff’s along the route, Sweeten started out after the criminals. Near Sweetwater, over three hundred miles from Athens, Jess caught up with the two youths that had stolen the car. One of the youths spoke a phrase heard over and over in East Texas, “We should have known that Jess Sweeten wouldn’t give up until he caught us.”

You might say that Sweeten was born into the law enforcement profession. Jess’ father served as a deputy federal Marshall and his grandfather served as a Marshall. Both his grandmother and grandfather were killed in a gun battle with members of the famous Sam and Belle Star gang.

Why did Jess work so hard for 20 years enforcing the law? “I just like to help people in trouble,” states Jess.

It was such a philosophy that in 1930 changed Jess from a young steelworker in Trinidad, Texas, to the deputy constable there.

Twenty-three years old six foot four and one half inches tall and weighing 190 pounds Jess strolled down the muddy main street of Trinidad one-day in the early 1930. The town overflowed with 1,500 construction workers. The muddy roads prevented any lawman from coming to Trinidad although they didn’t prevent two previous constables from being run out of town.

As he walked along, Jess heard the sobs of an old night watchman lying in the mud. Three drunken men stood over him. “Get up old man, it’s my turn to knock you down!” one of the men spit out.

Hurrying to the spot, already thick with sightseers, Jess spoke in his soft voice, “Now help the man up and give him back his gun,” said Sweeten.

The men stopped, looked in amazement at the soft-voiced stranger who dared tell them to stop.

One man balked at the order from the young Jess Sweeten and was quickly sent to the mud with a hard punch to the jaw. When it was all over the fight had cost the man six teeth and three days in the hospital.

The voice was soft but the fire and determination in the young steelworker’s fists indicated that he meant everything he had said. The other two men turned, shrugged their shoulders and left.

Word soon spread about the fight and before the church bells rang early Sunday morning, many, many others tried to whip the young stranger.

About a week later, Jess had finished his work in Trinidad and, on his way out of town, stopped to buy a pack of cigarettes. Bob King, owner of the café, asked, “Jess, why don’t you stay here and be our peace officer?” King had heard how Jess saved the old man from a beating. With most of the townspeople in agreement, King offered Jess $125 a month and $4 commission on each fine he collected.

“I may be a little rougher than you want me to be,” smiled Jess as he accepted the offer.

And he was plenty rough, but only on those who invaded the rights of peaceful, law-abiding citizens.

Duly sworn in as deputy constable on the following Thursday, Jess borrowed an old rusty gun, cleaned it, and began practicing his shooting harder than ever.

Things were pretty quiet until Saturday at noon when the 1,500 construction men got their week’s pay. Shortly after noon, a small Negro man came running up to Jess with a plea for help. Three redheaded brothers had taken all the man’s money. This was to be Sweeten’s big test.

Jess found the red heads and told them to give back the money.

“Pull that gun off and any one of us will whip you,” jeered the biggest brother.

Having lived with five sisters on a ranch most of his life, Jess had never in his life fought in a fistfight before Trinidad.

A challenge was a challenge and Jess took off his gun. He handed it to the Negro and the biggest brother charged. Twice the huge fists of Sweeten crushed into the man’s face. One down — two to go.

The second brother took up the fight and shortly he too was down – and out.

Then the third jumped in. By now Jess had learned a little footwork, and one blow knocked the last brother down. “He kept bouncing up like a rubber ball,” said Sweeten, but soon he too was out cold.

The Negro man got back his money, Jess got a broken fist and $43.50 in fines from the three men. That Saturday, Jess had twenty fistfights, lost three shirts, housed his prisoners in a rented boxcar and fought two more times before the construction workers realized that he would stay until the job was done.

Sunday morning, bruised and tired, Jess took the money collected in fines to a justice of the peace in nearby Malakoff. From every pocket Jess dug out rolls of bills. He turned over $1,400 to the justice of the peace – the fines collected from nearly 100 people arrested between noon Saturday and daylight Sunday morning.

The young constable had been tested. From then on, Trinidad was a peaceful town.

In 1932, Jess was elected Sheriff of Henderson County. He was the youngest sheriff in the state of Texas. Except for two years between 1946 and 1948, Jess held that job until 1954. He didn’t seek re-election then because “there’s not much excitement around Henderson County anymore.”

Jess’ love for children has saved many a youngster from becoming a lifelong follower of crime. After returning to office in 1948, Jess found juvenile delinquency a major problem in his county.

So teen-agers wouldn’t have to steal to get money for candy and movies, Jess set up a “borrowing” fund in his office. If a teen-ager wanted to borrow money – up to $2 at a time – he came to Jess and he loaned it to him. Payment of the loan came from money earned doing odd jobs around the town.

Soon the kids learned that Jess was their friend. Within a month all juvenile delinquency was stopped.

Keeping kids on the right track and keeping families together provided Jess with some of his most rewarding experiences as sheriff. One of the most humorous incidents happened to Jess when he passed a Chevrolet on a trip to West Texas. Just after he passed it, the Chevrolet came speeding around him then slowed down again. Jess in his Ford passed the car again, and a little way down the road stopped at a red light.

Up alongside Jess came the Chevrolet. The man driving leaned over toward Jess and said, “If you weren’t yellow you could out run me in that Ford of yours.”

Thinking he might know the man, Jess just smiled and waved. At that, the man got out and ran over to Jess, challenging him to a fistfight. Jess, never the one to let a challenge go unanswered, slowly slid out from behind the steering wheel. A slight scuffle and down went the driver of the Chevy. He got up and Jess hit him again. Down he went. This happened three times.

Propped up on one elbow and squinting up into Jess’ sweaty face, the man asked in a puzzled voice, “Just who are you anyway?”

“I’m Jess Sweeten,” snapped the Henderson County sheriff.

The man on the ground knew the reputation Jess had for using his fists. He forced a faint smile and remarked, “I guess I’m just about the biggest darn fool in Texas for starting a fight with you.”

Jess’ reputation has spread far and wide and people usually gather around him when he stops at some community to pay off a claim against the Magnolia Pipeline Company. At least once his law enforcement experience has helped him settle a claim.

A few years ago Jess walked up and knocked at a man’s door in West Texas to talk to him about a claim he made. The man jerked the door open, looked Jess in the eye and stated flatly that. “You better watch me, because I’m liable to come unwound, and when I do, I’m pretty mean!”

Jess met the man’s stare and quietly informed him, “Go right ahead, because I’ve had about 20 years’ experience winding guys like you back up.” The claim was settled without incident.

There are all types of claims against the Pipeline Company. Some are for large sums of money and some for small.

About a year ago an elderly farmer claimed Magnolia set off a charge of dynamite and caused his eggs not to hatch. Jess, a bit skeptical, asked how many were damaged.

“About a settin’,” drawled the farmer.

“How many is that?” asked Jess.


“How much do you figure they’re worth?” asked Jess.

“Fifty cents.”

Jess reached into his pocket and, taking out a half-dollar, handed it to the farmer. On the way back to the car, a big grin spread across Jess’ face. The other claims agents would sure get a laugh when he told them he had just settled up for a “settin’ of eggs.”

Hazel, Jess’ wife, is very happy her husband works for Magnolia now. “Even though he’s on the road quite a bit, he’s home more now than when he was sheriff,” Hazel claims.

The whole Sweeten family, Hazel and their two daughters, Jessie Nell and Peggy Ann, are all very good marksmen. Jessie and Peggy even as children learned about guns. Jess believes that every house should have a loaded revolver in it, and the children should be taught how dangerous they are. It’s always the empty guns that kill people.

Jess has always worked just as hard to prove a man innocent as to prove one guilty. Each person under arrest still has certain rights, and his right to a fair trial must be protected, Jess says.

Jess made headlines throughout the entire nation when a mob of more than 160 persons swarmed the jail to lynch a young Negro accused of rape. Unarmed, Jess faced the crowd and said, “When I took office, I swore to protect my prisoners and that’s just what I plan to do.”

The people knew he meant what he said. They turned and left.

Amazed at the modern techniques and facilities for solving crime, Jess still feels most of the sheriffs carrying a gun today should be out raising sweet potatoes. “Very few sheriffs have the training necessary to be good lawmen,” contends Sweeten.

Standing seven feet tall in his hat and boots, Sheriff Sweeten brought law and order to Henderson County for 20 years. Looking back on a life where danger was the rule rather than the exception, Jess sums it up by saying, “I guess I was just lucky to live through it.”