SHERIFF JOHN SPRADLEY'S 25 YEAR SEARCH FOR KILLER
OF REV. JAMES MORGAN TRUITT
To Comment on this writing please send to Reba James
Nelson "Cooney" Mitchell had a ranch on the Brazos River near Grandbury The Mitchell family consisted of old Cooney and five grown children...sons, Bill, Dan and Jeff, and two daughters. Bill Mitchell was the oldest son. At about twenty-two years old he already had a reputation as a man best left alone. The Mitchells owned a good bit of land and were well enough established that the site of their ranch took the name, Mitchell's Bend.
Out looking for strays on a spring morning in 1872, Cooney and Bill came upon a destitute family of immigrants, the Truitts.. Permenter Morgan, who was the son of Isaac Truitt, the younger brother of James Truitt. Isaac came to Texas with the James Truitt family in 1839. With Permenter was his wife and five sons, Jim (James Morgan- b.04-16-1850 d.07-20-1886), Sam, Ike, Lee and Alfred. The oldest, Jim was about twenty. The Truitts had run out of food, money, and most everything else on their ill-planned journey to find a future in Texas. The Mitchells felt sorry for them and "took them in".
They helped build them a home, and the Truitt boys assisted the Mitchell brothers in ranch work. There was a difference, though. The Mitchells were the typical rough-hewn Texas frontiersmen of the time. It gradually became obvious that the Truitts had "breeding", came from established backgrounds and were sharp and ambitious compared to the Mitchells. Jim Truitt, especially, was a quiet young man who liked to read and soon became active in work at the nearby Methodist Church.
Surprisingly, within two years of their meeting, the Truitts had gotten on their feet and had established a ranch of their own, obtaining deeds to land adjoining the Mitchell property. Jim had become the Reverend James Truitt. But this could not be a story without trouble, and trouble was brewing. In 1874, the two families, now disliking each other, went to court over a property boundary dispute. The Hood
County District Court ruled in favor of the Truitts. The night the trial ended, three of the Truitt boys started for home. Six miles out of Granbury they encountered some of the Mitchells....Old Cooney, Bill, Mit Graves, a brand new son-in-law of Cooney, W. J. Owens, another son-in-law, and a friend of Cooney named Jim Shaw.
When the smoke cleared, Sam and Ike Truitt were dead in the road and a badly wounded Jim was dashing away. The other Truitts were already home, and Jim made it there and eventually recovered. Cooney, Mitchell, Owens, and Shaw were arrested and charged with murder. Bill Mitchell was also charged, but could not be found. Mit Graves was not charged.
The trial was apparently highly dramatic. Reverend Jim Truitt gave an emotional testimony describing the ruthless gunning down of his brothers from ambush. Since there were no witnesses, it was a matter of one side against the other. The Mitchells testified that the Truitt boys had overtaken them on the road, cursed them and opened fire first. If so, they were pretty poor shots, as none of the Mitchell party was wounded. Possibly influenced by the words of the minister, the jury sided with the Truitts. Owens and Shaw were sentenced to long prison terms, and Cooney Mitchell was sentenced to death by hanging. The hanging date was set for October 9, 1875. During the months preceding the date for hanging, Cooney remained in the Hood County jail while his attorney went through the appeals process without success. Cooney's son, Jeff, was shot to death in a daring attempt to rescue his father.
The hanging drew a giant crowd; it was the first and last legal hanging in Hood County. From the wagon that served as the gallows, Cooney Mitchell addressed Jim Truitt, who stood far back in the crown. "Jim, didn't my family and me take your family in when all of you were down and out and starving?" Jim Truitt said nothing. "When you took up preaching, didn't I buy you your first suit of clothes?" Jim Truitt said nothing. "Didn't I buy you a good Bible?" Jim Truitt never replied. The sheriff shook the reins; the wagon rolled forward and old Cooney
Mitchell asked no more questions.
As they left, many citizens wondered if justice had really been done.
Gradually, over time the matter faded away. By l880 Jim Truitt had become the pastor of the Methodist Church in Timpson. By 1884 he was married, a respected citizen of Timpson, and editor of the Timpson Times.
(Note: The following account of the murder of Rev. Truitt was given to Henry C. Fuller, Nacogdoches newspaper man, by John Spradley, who served as a law officer and Sheriff in Nacogdoches for many years.)
The little town of Timpson in Shelby County was suddenly thrown into a State of excitement on July 20, 1886. A pistol shot, followed by piercing screams of a woman, quickly drew several hundred people to the residence of Rev. James Morgan Truitt. The body of Rev. Truitt lay on the floor, dead. Investigation showed that he had been shot one time only, with a pistol of large caliber, in the center of his forehead.
The widow gave the following account of the tragedy. Rev. Truitt was at the time looking through the Bible for the subject of his sermon the following day. Their five year old daughter was playing with her dolls in the corner of the room. Mrs.Truitt was looking over the Timpson Times when she heard heavy footsteps on the front porch. She looked up to see a strange man entering the room without knocking. "Is this the home of Rev. James Truitt?", he asked. "Yes, sir", answered Mrs. Truitt. Without a word, the man drew a pistol and shot the preacher through the brain. He turned and walked quietly away, mounted his horse, and rode out of town.
Center, the county seat, was some twenty miles away, and by the time a runner could be sent to fetch Sheriff Sims, some eighteen or twenty hours of precious time had elapsed. Sheriff Sims looked over the ground and questioned many people without obtaining a clue. He then sent a wire to Sheriff John Spradley of Nacogdoches to come up and help investigate this crime.
Upon reaching Timpson, Sheriff Spradley heard the story first from Mrs. Truitt, and set out to find if anybody saw the man enter or leave Timpson. Finally, he was directed to a negro man, who rumor said knew something. The man told Spradley: "Late on Saturday evening, a man on a big sorrel horse asked me, "Do you know where a man by the name of Jim Truitt lives?" I pointed to the house and he went on his way. A few minutes later, I heard a pistol shot and a woman scream. saw the man leave the house, mount his horse, and lope out of town". He then showed Spradley the road the man had taken, which lead to the village of Mount Enterprise. Spradley asked the man if he noticed anything about the horse or saddle that would make it east for it to be recognized. He told Spradley that the man carried a big blanket rolled up and tied behind his saddle, and that a small coffee pot was tied to the back of the saddle. "Hmmm…" thought Spradley, "Here is a real clue. The man who killed Truitt was fond of coffee, and the coffee pot tied to the saddle tells me that the man lives a long way from where the crime was committed. He could have concealed the pot, but he did not, and this unusual sight will be remembered by almost everyone he meets."
Spradley picked up the trail five miles out of Timpson, 48 hours after the murder was committed. The first place he stopped was in Douglas at a blacksmith shop owned by a man named Mote Walters. Walters informed Spradley that a man answering the description had his horse shod the very day on which Truitt was murdered, and that early the next day, he stopped on this way to the west and had the shoes on the horses feet tightened. This was evidence that the man had slept somewhere in the woods between Timpson and Douglas. Spradley then asked Walters if he noticed anything about the man that would make him east to identify. "Yes," Walters replied, "He carried a small coffee pot tied to the rear of his saddle."
Spradley knew that he was on the right trail. He followed the main highway to the Neches River and found that the man had reached the ferry at night, broken the lock of the boat chain and rowed the boat across himself. He had held the horse by the bridle and it swam along by the side of the boat. The place were the horse had gone down the bank into the river, and come out on the opposite side were plain.
Spradley reasoned that it would have taken several minutes for him to figure out how he was going to cross the river and he would, naturally, want a good cup of coffee. A few steps from the road he found where a fire had been built. Coffee had been made because there was a pile of coffee grounds near the fire. Spradley followed his tracks to the river, where he got water to make the coffee, and to a nearby field, where he had cut green corn to feed his horse.
Having decided that he was on the right trail, Spradley went back to Nacogdoches and took a train for Athens, in Henderson county. He hired a horse, and rode to the ferry on the Trinity River. There he learned that the man had crossed the river in the daytime, and the ferryman recalled his because he was carrying a small coffee pot tied to his saddle.
Spradley reasoned that it was almost certain that the man had come a great distance and that he was now making his way back to the southwest. Not knowing the mans destination, Spradley was following an uncertainty, so he decided to turn back and report to Sheriff Sims. Upon reaching Timpson, he found a jubilant Sims. He had learned that the man's name was Bill Mitchell. Also, Mitchell had been indicted for the murder of a Mr. Ctasbvol, and several years previously, the murder of the Truitts in Hood County. He had been captured by Young county officers, and was being held there. It was decided that Sims would go to Graham, the county seat of Young county where the man was being held. Upon arriving, he learned that the man arrested had been proven to be the wrong man. Sims returned to Shelby county.
Spradley, upon learning the name Mitchell and the murders of the Truitts in Hood County, went to Granbury, the county seat of Hood county. He lost no time in getting to work. He questioned a merchant about the Truitt killing, and the following is the story the merchant told.
"In 1874 or 1875, a man named Truitt, father of James Morgan Truitt, who was killed in Timpson, bought a tract of land in Hood County from a man named Mitchell. Both Truitt and Mitchell had a bunch of sons. Truitt made a down payment, and gave his vendors lien for the remainder of the purchase. There were four such notes, due each year for four years at a specified date. Three of these notes were paid and Truitt went to the home of Mitchell several days before the last note was due to pay it. Mitchell could not find the note, and became a little bit ugly, so Truitt left. The next day he took two men with him as witnesses and tendered payment, taking a receipt which specified that payment on the note was paid in full. This way of doing business dis-pleased Mitchell, who seemed to have regretted selling the tract to Truitt in the first place, and had tried to get it back in various ways. Time passed, and in 1879, Mitchell brought suit to foreclose on the land. Truitt could not produce the receipt, nor the witnesses, to prove that he had paid the note. Things looked bad for Truitt, but his lawyer explained the situation to the court and asked for a continuance in order to produce the two witnesses. Advertisements were placed in several big dailies in various places in Texas and, as luck would have it, both witnesses were found. The judge instructed the jury to bring a verdict in favor of Truitt. As evening was falling, the Truitts were riding through the woods on their way home. The road passed through a creek bottom. Shotgun blasts rang out. Two of the Truitts fell dead. Jim spurred his horse and escaped. He had recognized the killers, and reported the killings. Mitchell and one of his sons were arrested. The son was sent to the penitentiary for life, and old man Mitchell was hung, but Bill Mitchell escaped. One of Bill's brothers, Dan, lives here in Granbury. He had nothing to do with the killing of Rev. Truitt, because he was in my store the very day that Truitt was killed at Timpson. However, a strange man came to the home of Dan, and spent two days there." The merchant went on to describe the man, and once more, the inevitable coffee pot showed up.
After hearing this story, Spradley determined that Dan Mitchell was not the man who killed Truitt, but he knew who did. Not only that, he knew where the murderer lived. Spradley went to the home of Dan Mitchell, and was told that he was in the field plowing. He went to the field and arrested him, and at the same time telling him that he would have to accompany him to Timpson. Mitchell asked, "For what crime am I arrested?" "For the murder of James Truitt", Spradley answered. A slight smile passed over Mitchell's face. Spradley read into the smile that Mitchell thought what a laugh he would have on me. But - he laughs best, who laughs last.
Within an hour, they were on their way to Fort Worth. Spradley had chained Mitchell to his seat and tried to engage him in conversation. He would converse on every subject except the Truitt killing. Leaving Mitchell chained to his seat, Spradley found the conductor and asked him to get a telegraph blank, and envelope. Seal the blank in the envelope and bring it to him. He followed the instructions, and when Spradley was handed the fake telegram, he jumped up and said, "Bad news! A big Mitchell mob is forming the Shelby County to meet the train at Timpson and hang you. But don't worry, I will try to protect you. They will get me and hang you, but I will get several of them!" This made Mitchell nervous and uneasy, but he still refused to speak about the Truitt killing, except to say that he had nothing to do with it.
From Shreveport, Spradley wired Sheriff Sims to get up a fake mob, surround the train when it pulled into Timpson, and let every man file through out the train, take a look at Mitchell and say, "Yes sir, that is the man." When this happened, Spradley got up and pulled his gun and declared that he would kill the first man that touched the prisoner, and that he was taking him on to Nacogdoches for safe keeping.
In Nacogdoches, Mitchell was placed in a cell in which several big patches had been placed on the wall. Mitchell asked what that meant. Spradley told him, "Oh, nothing. Just a fool mob came here a few weeks ago and took a man out and hung him to one of the chinaberry trees near the public well. Don't worry, they are not going to get you." The window of the cell was left open so he could hear any loud talk from the outside. Around midnight, a crowd gathered and began discussing the best plan to get Mitchell out of jail.
When Spradley arrived at the jail the next morning he found Mitchell excited. With tears streaming down his face, he said, "Mr. Spradley, blood ought to be thicker than water, and it is a fearful thing to divulge a secret that may mean the hangman's noose for a dear brother, but I have a wife and several little children who look to me for their support, so it was my brother, Bill Mitchell, who killed James Truitt. He did it because it was the dying request of my father as he stood on the scaffold before being hurled into eternity." He told Spradley the whole story, leaving nothing out, beginning with the land transaction on down to the killing of James Truitt. After wandering around for several years, Bill had settled down on a ranch near Three Rivers, New Mexico and had been going by the name of John W. King.
Spradley decided to leave Mitchell in jail until he could travel to New Mexico and determine if the story was true. On inquiry he found that a John W. King did live fifty miles from Three Rivers in the mountains of Lincoln County. The name of the place was Fort Stanton, long since abandoned by the Federal Government. A former justice of the peace told Spradley that King had lived there, but now lived in Kinney County, Texas. So the bird had flown again. Spradley prepared for the long trip to Spofford Junction. The sheriff there told him that indeed a man named King did live in the county somewhere in the cedar brakes of the Neuces river. The sheriff was told the story of the murder of James Truitt, and was asked for two of his best deputies for a day or so to help capture King. None would help.
Spradley rode off alone, and came to the cedar brakes just as the sun was going down. He rested for the night. At the break of day, a Mexican boy and a collie dog came up within a few steps and asked, "Mister what are you looking for?" Spradley answered, "Who wants to know?" The boy answered, "Mr. Becket". Spradley had learned in New Mexico that King had married the daughter of John Becket, so he knew he was at the right place, and that this boy was a lookout for Becket and his son-in-law John King, alias Bill Mitchell. He told the boy to tell Mr. Becket that he was a cattleman looking for a place where his cattle could get water. The boy hurried away and was gone about thirty minutes. He returned, saying that Mr. Becket would see him.
About a half mile down the river was the Becket home, a large tarpaulin of tent cloth thrown over some mesquite stumps, under which was two or three beds. An old lady was fixing breakfast and invited Spradley to eat. It was served on a large box, and he noticed she poured coffee from a small and apparently much used coffee pot. The old lady caught his eye as he watched her pour the coffee." This pot belongs to my daughter. We all had dinner together last Sunday and she brought it here". The coffee pot was beyond doubt the very one that Bill Mitchell had used as he rode across Texas after killing Truitt!
After breakfast, feeling sure he was in the vicinity of Mitchell, he mounted his horse and rode away. Three hundred yards away, Spradley looked back and high up a rough hillside he saw a man - Bill Mitchell, sitting on a rock with a winchester across his lap. This made Spradley mad - this was a dare and he accepted it!
Back in Bracketville, Spradley wrote a note to old man Becket: "Officers of the law have arrested Dan Mitchell and are holding him in jail charged with the murder of James Morgan Truitt. Chances are that he will either hang legally or be mobbed. He says his brother, Bill Mitchell, is the man who committed the crime. I want to know if you and Bill will sit by and let a man be hung for a crime he did not commit? Please answer this by the person who hands you this letter." He paid a man $5.00 to take the note to Becket. The answer came back, "Go to hell!".
Spradley went to work. On his request rangers were sent into the Becket neighborhood and made it so hot for Bill Mitchell that he skipped out at night, leaving his wife and what belongings he had, and, for a time, evaded the law.
Time passed, and then information came that Mitchell was in a certain locality in New Mexico engaged in the ranch business on a considerable scale. Two of the bravest and best deputies the Hood County sheriff had were selected to go and bring him in, dead or alive. The deputies set out from Granbury in the autumn of 1910. They posed as cowboys, and carried recommendations from experienced cattlemen. They soon obtained employment from a rancher near the Mitchell business. Every minute of every day, one of the officers watched and listened. Mitchell was impressed with their good work, and finally offered them jobs on his ranch at increased salaries. Their eyes were on him at all times, but they were not able to catch him with both hands away from the six-shooter that he always wore. He was still an avid coffee drinker, and several times a day he would stop, make coffee, and drink two or three cups. One day, the three of them were sitting drinking coffee. Mitchell was the last to pick up his cup. In so doing, he used both hands - one on either side of the saucer. One of the cowboys winked at the other, and they both dropped their cups and threw themselves upon him.
Mitchell was a powerful man physically, but the deputies were younger. One pinioned his arms while the other snatched his pistol and threw it out of reach. A mighty struggle took place. Finally, one of the deputies yelled, "Shoot him through the heart and let's be done with this foolishness." This caused Mitchell to throw up his hands. While one deputy stood with a drawn pistol, the other tied his arms securely behind him. Mitchell was tied on a horse, and the three rode away. They carried him to El Paso where he was placed in jail until they could rest a few hours. They then took the train to Center, Texas, where he was indicted by the grand jury and charged with murder.
Mrs. Julia Truitt Bishop, wife of James Truitt, and now married to George Bishop, came from New Orleans as a witness. She looked into the face of the man and promptly identified him as being the man who killed her husband. In spite of the testimony of Mrs. Bishop and Sheriff John Spradley, one of the jurors was obstinate and held out that Mitchell had not been sufficiently identified. This resulted in a mistrial, and the case was taken to Cherokee county on a change of venue. A woman from New Mexico had testified at the Center trial that the defendant was at her house at the time Truitt was murdered. This same woman showed up at the trial at Rusk. With cold eyes, District Attorney Boley O'Quinn asked: "Mrs. Johnson are you any kin to this man, Bill Mitchell?" She hesitated, squirmed in her chair, and finally answered: "Yes, he is my brother."
The jury gave Mitchell 99 years in the penitentiary at Rusk, in the very town where he was tried and convicted, on the 25th day of March 1912. After serving two years, four months, and twenty days, he escaped. At the time of his escape, he was 64 years old. From the hour of his escape, Bill Mitchell disappeared completely, and probably died far removed from any human being that ever knew him as Bill Mitchell.
(Note: Thus ended Spradley's interview.)
There was something strange about a Mr. & Mrs. Russell who moved into San Simon, Arizona in 1928 and rented a house there. Mr. Russell laughingly told the townsfolk that they could call him "Baldy". He seemed to have money and was very vague about his personal affairs. His wife drove their Buick touring car around town - something a bit unusual for a woman in those days.
Suspicious, a city officer did some detective work. He corresponded with the Texas Rangers at Austin and became convinced that the recent newcomer to San Simon was old Bill Mitchell. Considering him to be armed and dangerous, the local police planned a raid on his house. While they were coordinating last minute details for the raid, they learned the Mr. Russell had collapsed with a heart attack.
At the hospital, in what may have been a sedated condition, "Baldy" confessed that he was, indeed, Bill Mitchell. His recovery was slow, and a police guard was assigned to his hospital room while he convalesced. A week later, the seventy-plus year old outlaw knocked his guard unconscious with a folding chair and fled. He had almost reached the car where his wife, Mary, was waiting when his heart shut down for good.
No one knows how many men went down under Bill Mitchell's gun. All anyone can say is that: "Bill Mitchell did it his way for fifty-four years, and died on his feet."
Reba January James