time East Texans refer to some of their revered and feared lawmen
as the "high sheriff," likely an unwitting reference to an even older
office of authority dating back to medieval England.
Sometimes our sheriffs have been pretty "high and mighty," because
their office was the first county office created in Texas and it yet
enjoys significant prerogatives among county office holders. We in
of our legendary A.J. Spradley, or more recently "Mister John" Lightfoot,
and citizens of San
Augustine tell stores about Nathan Tindall. In Henderson
County, the legend was Jess Sweeten.
Sweeten was born in Indian Territory, now Oklahoma, near Stigler.
He attended schools located in Johnson and Wapanucka counties, then
partnered with his father to operate a ranch in Cole County, Oklahoma.
In 1922 Sweeten moved to Kansas City, Kansas, to work for the Otis
Elevator Company, and transferred to the company's facility in Dallas.
In 1930 Sweeten entered law enforcement when he was appointed a deputy
constable in Trinidad,
Texas, and the next year became a deputy sheriff. In 1932 he was
elected sheriff of Henderson
County; at age twenty-seven, he was the youngest sheriff in Texas.
Sweeten remained county sheriff until 1954.
Standing six feet, four inches and weighing 225 pounds, Sweeten became
known as a tough enforcer of the law, and critics thought some of
his tactics went beyond the law. He reportedly interrogated one suspect
for sixteen consecutive days and nights, and some assumed they would
lose their lives if they crossed Sweeten. In fact, Sweeten did shoot
nine men, three fatally, during his tenure of office, including Gerald
Johnson, a.k.a. The Dallas Kid, following a high-speed chase through
the streets of Athens.
Likely Sweeten's tough reputation made more violence unnecessary.
After the Supreme Court restricted many law enforcement tactics in
the 1960s, Sweeten admitted that likely he would not have solved as
many cases had he been forced to follow more restrictive rules regarding
In 1954 Sweeten gave up his sheriff's badge for a job with Mobil Oil
Company as an investigator. He won election as mayor of Athens
in 1960 and served until 1970. Sweeten died in 1980 and is buried
| © Archie
A syndicated column in over 70 East Texas newspapers
This column is provided as a public service by the East Texas Historical
Association. Archie P. McDonald is director of the Association and
author of more than 20 books on Texas.
A couple of the
many, many stories about Henderson County Sheriff Jess Sweeten. Jess
was considered the best 'money shooter' in the state. Captain Frank
Hamer was always reluctant to get into shooting matches, but somebody
finally persuaded him to shoot against Sweeten. When they got to the
range, Hamer said "Do you mind if I warm up a mite?" He pulled Old
Lucky, his Colt Single-action Army, elevated the muzzle, fired--and
hit a white rock about the size of a man's fist at somewhere close
to 100 yards. Then he did it again. Jess Sweeten never took his pistol
out of the holster. "Forty yards is pistol distance," he said.
Subject: Jess Sweeten
There was an old black man in Athens who made and sold excellent tamales.
He had a tamale-vending cart, and he would push it around Athens,
calling out "Hot tamales! Hot tamales!" Eventually he began to call
out "Hot tamales--an' that ain't all!" A little investigation by the
sheriff disclosed that the old man was selling half-pint bottles of
moonshine as well as tamales. He sold excellent tamales and Sheriff
Sweeten was a regular customer. He had a long, private talk with the
old man, after which his call became "Hot tamales! Hot tamales! AND
THAT'S ALL!" -
C. F. Eckhardt, August 14, 2006