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Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

Who killed J.W?

by Clay Coppedge

The first recorded murder on the South Plains of Texas happened when Lubbock 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 all.

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.

On 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.

"The 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 it wasn't.

"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 of fiction.

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

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