Sweeten, Jess (1905–1980)

By: Christopher Long

Type: Biography

Published: July 1, 1995

Jess Sweeten, colorful Henderson county sheriff and mayor of Athens, was born on May 7, 1905, in Enterprise, near Stigler, Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), the son of John and Nelle (Davis) Sweeten. He was educated in Oklahoma in the public schools of Johnson and Wapanucka counties before joining his father on a cattle ranch in Cole County, Oklahoma. In 1922 Sweeten moved to Kansas City, Kansas, to work for the Otis Elevator Company. He was transferred in 1926 to Dallas, where he lived and worked for the next several years. In 1930 Sweeten was appointed deputy constable at Trinidad, Texas, and the following year was promoted to deputy sheriff. In 1932 he ran successfully for the Henderson County sheriff's office, becoming the youngest sheriff in Texas, and served for the next twenty-two years. The six-foot-four, 225-pound Sweeten gained a reputation as a hard-nosed investigator and a crack shot. During his tenure he shot nine men, killing three, including Gerald Johnson, the so-called "Dallas Kid" whom Sweeten gunned down after a high-speed car chase through Athens. He also solved numerous high profile crimes, including the murders of the McGeehee family and Mr. and Mrs. W. T. German, both of which attracted the attention of the national media. In one instance, he reportedly interviewed a suspect in a kidnapping case for sixteen days and nights without letup. Not surprisingly, Sweeten's tough methods elicited both praise and criticism. In the 1960s in the wake of civil rights reforms he once said: "I broke 21 murder cases and sent three to the electric chair....But if I had to work under the conditions I'd have to work under today, I doubt if I could have broken all those cases." If you questioned a suspect like that now, he continued, "the Supreme Court would have put the sheriff in jail." In 1954 Sweeten stepped down from the sheriff's office to work for Mobil Oil Company in Right of Way and Claims and as special investigator. An expert marksman, he conducted shooting exhibitions for schools and civic clubs throughout his career, shooting at cigars and other objects held up by his one-armed assistant Gus Sowells. On one occasion, Sweeten reportedly fired 3,700 rounds in seven hours, shooting up some 600 pounds of potatoes. In 1969 Sweeten was elected mayor of Athens, serving until June 1970, when he resigned due to business commitments. During the 1970s he served as a special investigator for the local district attorney's office. Sweeten married Hazel Potter, a native of Goldthwaite, in Athens on April 2, 1933; the couple had two daughters. He died in Athens on November 16, 1980, and was buried in Oaklawn Memorial Park there.

Dallas News, July 11, 1968. Henderson County Historical Commission, Family Histories of Henderson County, Texas, 1846–1981 (Dallas: Taylor, 1981). Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.
  • Law, Law Enforcement, and Outlaws
  • Sheriffs

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

Christopher Long, “Sweeten, Jess,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 17, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/sweeten-jess.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

July 1, 1995