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Texas | Columns | All Things Historical

HIGH SHERIFF
OF HENDERSON COUNTY
Jess Sweeten


by Archie P. McDonald
Archie McDonald Ph.D.

Old 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 Nacogdoches think 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 defendant's rights.

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 in Athens.

Archie P. McDonald
All Things Historical

August 14, 2006
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.



Forum:
Subject: Jess Sweeten

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.

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



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