The Assassination of Pastor Truitt
It was about 8:00 PM on the sultry Tuesday evening of July 20, 1886, when calamity struck the parsonage. Newly arrived Pastor James Morgan Truitt was preparing a sermon to be delivered in the pulpit of the Methodist Church in Timpson, Shelby County, Texas. His daughter, Hallie, was playing with dolls in the corner, while wife, Julia, was knitting in a nearby rocking chair. They had recently started a local newspaper, in addition to preaching. So, a quiet evening was unusual.
Suddenly, a large man wearing dirty boots, dusty coat, and weathered Stetson barged through the door without knocking. As Mrs. Truitt confronted the stranger, he asked if this was the home of Reverend James Truitt. Frightened, Julia quietly said yes, and looked to her husband for help. As the pastor slowly closed his Bible and rose to speak, the stranger fatally shot him with a .45 caliber pistol. Then, without saying another word, the assassin left the house and rode off into the night.
In the chaos that followed, no one actually followed the gunman. Instead, the town elders sent a runner to Center, Texas, to ask the sheriff to come investigate. By the time young Sheriff Sims arrived and had assessed the situation, almost 21 hours had past. The assassin was long gone without a trace.
Eventually, veteran Sheriff A. J. Spradley of Nacogdoches, Texas, was called to investigate the case and to hopefully capture the gunman. What Sheriff Spradley uncovered has to be one of the most complicated family feuds in Texas history.
It all began under a tree on a Central Texas prairie. The Truitt Family was trying to start a new life on the frontier. They hitched their two ponies to a wagon and set out in 1872. About 50 miles southwest of Fort Worth, they ran out of provisions and one of the ponies died. At first, it would seem fortunate that Nelson (Cooney) Mitchell and son Bill stumbled across the desperate Truitt Family camped out under the old oak tree. The Mitchells offed the Truitts food and shelter until they could get on their way. But days turned into months, and the Truitt’s decided to stay in the area.
The two families had several children that were the same ages. But Bill Mitchell and Jim Truitt were both the elder sons and they grew up together as competitors. Bill was as rough as Texas and as wild as they come. He was most comfortable out on the range with the cattle and his guns. Jim was the opposite. He enjoyed reading and prayer. When Jim declared that he wanted to be a preacher, Cooney bought him his first Bible and preaching suit.
The initial spark of the feud between the two families was based in a land dispute. Eventually, in March, 1874, the two families met in court to fight over a small portion of land adjacent to the Mitchell ranch. When the judge ruled in favor of the Truitts, the Mitchells were furious. While details are sketchy, it appears that the Mitchells followed the Truitt boys home from court and attacked them on a lonely road. Several of the Truitt boys were murdered, and Jim barely got away with buckshot in his back.
Bill escaped, but Cooney and some of their gang were captured, and were placed on trial. The chief witness against Cooney and Bill was Jim Truitt. Based on his testimony, Cooney was sentenced to hang, and warrants were issued for Bill’s arrest. As the years past, Jim became a recognized minister. But Bill ran from the Law while assuming many different names. Bill never forgot Jim’s witness in court, and swore that he would settle the feud himself. Which brings us to the deadly night of July 20, 1886.
The man in the weathered Stetson was Bill Mitchell. When he escaped, Sheriff Spradley began an exhaustive search that lasted until December 23, 1910. On that date, Bill was finally brought to court. He was judged guilty of the assassination of Pastor Truitt, and was sentenced to life in prison. But two years later, 64 year old Bill Mitchell escaped from jail and has never been found. Rumors say that he died in 1928. If so, that feud lasted 54 years!
Julia Truitt remarried and continued to publish the newspaper until moving to New Orleans, and was later buried in 1932 in Birmingham, Alabama. She became well-known as an author under the name of Julia Truitt Bishop. Hallie also received acclaim as an author under the name of Hallie Truitt Yemni. Indeed, Hallie’s daughter Julia Truitt Yemni Hikes authored several books, too.
No one knows for sure the topic of the sermon Pastor Truitt was preparing on the night of his murder. Could it have been about the feud between Cain and Able in Genesis 4? After killing his brother, Cain became a fugitive and a wanted man, and could find no rest. Proverbs 29:22 NIV - “An angry person stirs up conflict, and a hot-tempered person commits many sins.”