first recorded murder on the South Plains of Texas happened when
lawyer J.W. Jarrott was shot and killed while watering his team
of horses near the present-day community of Ropesville
on Aug. 27, 1902. An earlier killing in Dickens
misses the distinction because a judge ruled it wasn't murder at
The Jarrott killing was nothing less than a cold-blooded assassination.
The killer shot Jarrott four times and left him face down in a stock
tank for the scavengers to find. Generations of Texans have wondered
who did it. A better question is: Who hired it done?
James William Jarrott - Jim to his many friends and associates
- moved with his family to Lubbock
in June of 1901. The town was brand new, with just a couple hundred
residents, but it was surrounded by an ocean of land.
Much of the area west of town was home to a slew of big ranches,
many of them owned by foreign individuals or syndicates, with names
like the Mallet, Slaughter, Yellow House, XIT,
Spade and Lazy S. The cattlemen figured they had practically that
whole region of the flat and grassy Llano Estacado all to themselves.
They were wrong.
With the urging on his friend, state land commissioner Charles Rogan,
Jarrott paid to have the area west of Lubbock
re-surveyed. Sure enough, the surveyors had erred on a strip through
Hockley, Terry and parts of Yoakum
and Cochran Counties. The strip was only a few miles wide but 60
or so miles in length and totalled about 100 square miles of land.
The Strip, as it was called, became unclaimed public land. Jarrott
figured to get hold of it and bring in friends from Erath
and Parker Counties,
where he and his wife Mollie had lived for many years, to help him
settle it. They staked their claim on a piece of land in Hockley
County and set up a tent as a sign of habitation and improvement.
The ranchers made no secret of their loathing for these "nesters,"
their epithet for the settlers in The Strip. They particularly despised
the young lawyer who brought them there - Jarrott. Supposedly, an
employee of the L7 ranch named Painthorse Hamilton had threatened
Jarrott's life if he didn't cease and desist with his legal ways.
And it was all quite legal. Various ranching interests took Jarrott
and the nesters to court, but lost every time.
Aug. 2, 1902, Jarrott loaded a wagon with grits and groceries for
John Doyle, who was camped out on the Jarrott property while the
family stayed at the Nicolette Hotel in Lubbock.
According to present day Lubbock
attorney Chuck Lanehart, who has researched the Jarrott murder extensively
and written about it for an online blog, Jarrott had a choice of
two roads from Lubbock
to his place on the prairie.
The southern route featured a spot with two windmills known as the
Twin Sisters, near present day Ropesville.
That's the road Jarrott took. When Jarrott didn't show up at his
place, Doyle rode to Lubbock
and told his wife Mollie.
"Oh," she wailed. "I fear he has been murdered!"
Doyle and merchant J.D. Caldwell took the southern route to the
Twin Sisters and found the 41-year old lawyer, husband and father
of four face down in a stock tank with four bullet holes in him.
He hadn't died easy.
Jarrott murder polarized the West Texas community," Lanehart wrote.
"Townsfolk and farmers in the area blamed the ranchers, accusing
them of hiring a professional gunman to kill Jim in order to frighten
away The Strip's settlers. The ranching interests claimed to be
appalled at the deed, but rumors spread that Jim's wife Mollie may
have been involved."
The initial suspect, of course, was Painthorse Hamilton, but he
was in Portales, New Mexico before, during and after the murder.
Mollie, meanwhile, bitterly denied the accusations against her.
A year or so later, authorities accused four men with ties to the
Lake-Tomb Cattle Company, which owned the L7 Ranch, of the murder,
but the cases against all four men were dismissed due to a lack
of evidence. The case went cold for the better part of 30 years.
In the meantime, Mollie made a go of it on the Hockley County ranch.
She married Monroe Abernathy, for whom the town of Abernathy
is named. She invested in cattle and in Lubbock
real estate, and prospered many times over.
The case of her murdered husband slipped from the area's collective
memory until 1931, when a Lubbock lawyer and writer named Max Coleman
wrote a story for Frontier Times magazine that named a murderous
psychopath named Deacon Jim Miller as the murderer. According to
Coleman, Miller confessed to Gib Abernathy (no relation to Monroe,
apparently) that somebody - he wouldn't say who - paid him $500
to kill Jarrott. It was a nice and tidy conclusion, except that
"Among the problems with Miller's supposed confession is that Gib
Abernathy somehow forgot to tell anyone about it until 1914, five
years after the fact," Lanehart wrote. He concluded the story was,
at best, a legend recounted by Coleman, or, worse, an outright piece
Then, in 1933, Monroe Abernathy's cousin, John "Jack" Abernathy,
who was a U.S. Marshall of Oklahoma at the time of the Miller lynching,
wrote a letter to Monroe claiming that Miller confessed to him,
too. The circumstances, and the long delay in sharing the information,
continues to puzzle researchers.
But Lanehart and most other people who have delved deeply into the
murder believe that Deacon Jim Miller - aka Killing Jim Miller -
actually did perform the dastardly deed. Evidence both circumstantial
and direct, including a crooked and complicated land scheme, show
that Miller was well connected to the ranching interests suspected
of paying to assassinate Jarrott.
But we'll never know for sure that Miller did it, and we'll certainly
never know who hired him if he did. All that is gone with the wind.
© Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas"
October 3, 2016 column