Spradley, Andrew Jackson (1853–1940)

By: Worth Robert Miller

Type: Biography

Published: June 1, 1995

Updated: September 28, 2020

Andrew Jackson (John) Spradley, lawman and political figure, son of Patrick Henry and Dicey (Williamson) Spradley, was born near Westville, Mississippi, on March 8, 1853. His father was an illiterate, although moderately prosperous, yeoman farmer. In the 1870s young Spradley killed two sons of a local planter in a gunfight, apparently in self-defense. His family immediately sent him to live with relatives near Nacogdoches, Texas, to prevent retaliation, then followed him to Texas the next year. Spradley married Victoria Johnson on May 2, 1878. They had two children before being divorced in 1891. In 1881 the sheriff of Nacogdoches County, Richard D. Orton, appointed Spradley as a deputy. Spradley had gained a reputation for standing up to ruffians and became sheriff the next year. In 1883 he joined the Masonic order. The next year he was baptized into the Catholic Church while he was unconscious; a drunk had shot him in the chest, and he was not expected to live. He did survive, however, and by the 1890s became more respected for the use of his wits than his gun or fists. His use of bloodhounds, which he raised and trained to track criminals, and his shrewd detective work soon became legendary. During Spradley's long career as a law officer he participated in a number of famous cases. He tracked outlaw Bill Mitchell throughout South Texas and New Mexico after Mitchell murdered James M. Truitt in Timpson. Spradley participated in an expedition against the remnant of the Dalton gang after they held up the First National Bank of Longview in 1894. He arrested outlaw Tex Wallace after he robbed the Cotton Belt Bank of Timpson.

Spradley became an early leader of the Populist movement in Nacogdoches and was instrumental in bringing Blacks, whom he treated fairly, into the party. He publicly shook hands with Blacks while campaigning and in 1894 called a number of prominent Blacks for jury duty, an action that caused a statewide sensation. He also briefly edited the local Populist newspaper, the Plaindealer, when it was founded in 1893. Spradley's brother, Matt, beat him for reelection in 1894, when voters became confused over which Spradley was which (the Populists carried the county). John Spradley married Hattie Grey on election day, November 6, 1894, and retired to his livestock business until 1896, when voters returned him to the sheriff's office. He lost again in 1898 but secured reelection in 1900 and 1902. During the latter two terms the Populist sheriff went to extraordinary lengths to prevent a lynching and vigorously defended Blacks against "whitecapping," a form of organized harassment of Blacks by Whites. He briefly returned to the Democratic party in 1904, but withdrew from the primaries when it became obvious that Democrats would establish a White primary. He hoped that withdrawing from the sheriff's race might remove the motive behind the exclusion of Blacks. When Democrats adopted the discriminatory legislation anyway, Spradley again ran for sheriff on the Populist ticket, but lost. Black voting declined significantly with the adoption of the poll tax (see ELECTION LAWS) in November 1902. Spradley won only two later races for sheriff of Nacogdoches, in 1908 and in 1914.

He became a United States marshal in 1906 and permanently returned to the Democratic party later that year. Only when he dropped his Populist rhetoric in 1908 and campaigned for law enforcement and against prohibition did he return to the sheriff's post. The aging lawman reversed his stand on the liquor question in 1910 when a drunken office-seeker, who had sought but not received Spradley's endorsement, shot him in the back of the head. The hard-headed sheriff was not seriously injured, but his new position on prohibition may have cost him the election of 1910. Spradley retired voluntarily in 1916 to farm, raise bloodhounds, and serve occasionally as a private detective. These had been his usual activities when out of office. In 1931 Henry C. Fuller collected Spradley's reminiscences and published them in A Texas Sheriff. Spradley joined Sacred Heart Catholic Church in 1939 and died of natural causes on November 10, 1940.

Austin Daily Statesman, October 15, 16, 1902. Dallas Morning News, October 20, 28, 1894. John Raymond Ross, Andrew Jackson Spradley: A Texas Sheriff (M.A. thesis, Stephen F. Austin State University, 1973).

  • Law, Law Enforcement, and Outlaws
  • Sheriffs

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Worth Robert Miller, “Spradley, Andrew Jackson,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 26, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/spradley-andrew-jackson.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

June 1, 1995
September 28, 2020