Mary Margaret Stewart, daughter of Walker Stewart and sister of my great-grandmother Julia Ann Ellen Stewart, married James R. King Jr. Both sisters, Julia and her husband Wilson Taylor and Mary and James King, moved to Texas together in 1885, settling just a few miles from one another in Cookville. James R. King and Mary were unfortunate victims of the most celebrated murder case in the area. A version of the incident appears in the History of Titus County.1 However, contemporary newspaper accounts differ in several of the details and add to our knowledge of subsequent events.
Family of Eight Murdered on December 10, 1888
The Kings and their seven children were living on a farm two miles south of Cookville in December 1888 when James King rented a second farm less than a mile from his home. He killed some hogs and, in anticipation of moving to the new place, stored them in the smokehouse of the new farm to cure. He had his oldest son George King, then about 18, stay at the new farm at night to guard the meat until the family could move. On December 112 George King reported to the sheriff that he had returned home that morning to find his parent’s house burned to the ground and the whole family dead in the ashes.
The Titus County sheriff, Green B. Dickson, investigated the charred remains of the eight family members and and found that all their skulls had been crushed.3 He concluded that the family had been murdered and the fire set in an effort to cover up the crime. George King reported that he had chopped wood and left an axe at the gate to the yard before leaving for the new farm the evening before. The axe was apparently the murder weapon, as it and a hatchet were found among the ashes.
Will Shultz is Arrested
The Cookville community was consumed by the crime, but despite turning out several vigilante groups to roam the countryside no perpetrators were found. Suspicion gradually fell on a 21-year old neighbor named Will Shultz4 who lived on a farm about two miles away with his parents and a 22-year old brother named George, who was said to be “not too bright” and who had six fingers on each hand. The King’s eldest daughter Lular, aged about 16, had recently eloped with Will Shultz, who had forged James King’s name to the parental consent form in order to obtain a marriage license. James King was bitterly opposed to the marriage and was heard by several people to say that he intended to have Will Shultz prosecuted for the forgery, while Shultz, it was said, threatened King if he did so.
Eventually two young men came forward to testify that Will Shultze had done the murders with the assistance of his brother George. A young man named Albert Lunsford reported that Will Shultze had told him that he and his brother George intended to wipe out the King family in order to stop their forgery prosecution. A second friend named Tom Walker confirmed the story. Shultze was promptly arrested.
At Shultz’s trial Albert Lunsford was the star witness. He testified that he not only heard Will Shultze threaten to do the crime, but that in a subsequent conversation Will had confessed to murdering John King and his wife while his brother George Shultz killed the six children. There was also circumstantial evidence (a quilt and sack supposedly belonging to Shultz) found near the scene.
Will Shultz was convicted and sentenced to death in March 1889. Protesting his innocence, Shultz appealed the conviction on technical grounds. With an enraged community and the threat of a lynching to deal with, the sheriff had him jailed at Sulphur Springs to await his appeal.5 While there Shultz escaped from jail, but when recaptured he successfully argued that he was only returning home to see his sick mother. (In the meantime a cousin named Frank Shultz was arrested as an accomplice, but claimed that he was 45 miles away on the night in question.)6
Will Shultz’s conviction was reversed on appeal in December 1889 and a new trial was scheduled.7 Shultz’s attorney managed to extract an admission from Albert Lunsford that he had lied about Will Shultz’s confession. It was further determined that the quilt and sack found at the scene had been planted there by Lunsford. At the second trial Lunsford and Tom Walker both confessed to lying at the initial trial. Both Lunsford and Walker were subsequently convicted of perjury and sentenced to five years in prison. Lunsford served his sentence in the penitentiary at Huntsville and was released in 1896. Walker served his sentence at Rusk and was released in late 1895. The charges against Will Shultz were dismissed.
While he was in jail his wife left him and moved to Dallas. She seems to have disappeared, as she was not listed (as either King or Shultz) in city directories or in other Dallas records. Will also disappeared. However, on 19 March 1890, immediately after his acquittal, a fire broke out in Dallas and man named William Shultz was arrested while robbing a pawnbroker’s establishment next door.
Suspicion falls on George King
Much of the community’s sympathy for the only other surviving child, George King, had eroded during 1889 and many locals began to suspect that he might have murdered his family. He was widely suspected of several burglaries in Cookville and later that year was convicted of horse theft for stealing mules and sentenced to five years in prison. By the time Will Shultz was exonerated, George King was incarcerated in the penitentiary at Rusk.8
George King Robs a Train & Kills a Dentist
George King was released from prison in March of 1894 and moved to Tyler, Texas where he found employment with a farmer named Storey. In August of 1894 he returned to Rusk and he held up a train near the prison, shooting and killing a local dentist named Albert Drewry in the process.9 While in prison, George King had worked on the train that ran between the prison and a nearby coaling station, and which periodically carried the guards payroll of about $1,500. King had intended to rob the payroll, but the normal schedule was disrupted that month and the train carried only a dentist on his way to treat the prison guards. King constructed a barricade across the tracks and, when the train stopped, chased the crew away with his .45 pistol. Evidently angered at the absence of the payroll he fired four shots at the dentist, mortally wounding him, and took his gold watch and money. Dr. Drewry lived for two days, long enough to provide a description of the robber and of the stolen objects, including a $5 bill with a unique torn corner.
Although he had disguised himself with a false beard and mustache and managed to flee the scene, KIng was tracked down and arrested two days later. The only witnesses to the crime were the two convict trustees operating the train, who were not allowed to testify under Texas law at the time, but George King was tried and convicted on the basis of a mountain of circumstantial evidence that the Austin Weekly Statesman described as “one of the most remarkable and strongest cases of circumstantial evidence ever occurring in Texas”. 10 He had ordered a false beard and mustache from Chicago which he had left at the scene, and which several witnesses in Tyler had seen him with just days earlier. A bottle of mucilage purchased in Tyler was also found in the woods near the scene. He also had just bought a new .45 six-shooter which, when he was arrested, contained four spent shells. Further, he had Dr. Drewry’s gold watch and chain hidden in his underclothes and sandwiched inside a novel in his valise were three $5 bills including the one with the torn corner and two others that a witness later identified as money he had paid to Dr. Drewry the very day of the robbery. There were also “peculiar footprints” at the scene that matched unique imperfections in King’s boot soles, and one of his boots was missing a strap that had been found near the scene of the murder. If that weren’t enough, pulling his gun when confronted by the sheriff’s deputy didn’t help his case either. He was jailed while the case was prepared, finally indicted on November 18 and sent to trial a week later.
There was no doubt he would be convicted, but a mistrial was declared when one of the twelve jurors refused to agree to the death penalty. A second trial was swiftly begun and three weeks later the second jury unanimously voted for hanging. At the second trial George took the unusual step of taking the stand himself. He admitted to intending to rob the payroll but claimed that he abandoned the plan when he discovered that it had already been delivered. He spun a story about a mysterious accomplice who used George’s disguise and gun to carry out the crime and who later gave George the proceeds of the robbery. During the trials it was shown that George had made a number of statements to the deputies when he was arrested that proved to be completely untrue, and this final statement seemed just as false. He appealed the decision but the court of appeals upheld the conviction while lauding his court-appointed attorneys for their attempts to defend him. His attorneys then appealed the death sentence to the Governor, who refused to interfere.
George King Dies Without Admitting Guilt
George King was hanged at Rusk in Cherokee County on 2 July 1895 in a pasture in front of more than 5,000 spectators.11 Green Dickson, the Titus County sheriff, traveled to the execution hoping that he would admit to killing his family but George “denied most strenuously that he had committed the horrible deed and also said that he had no idea as to who did it” according to a newspaper report. 12 He also died protesting his innocence in the murder of Dr. Drewry.
In the absence of a confession, the sheriff and most of the Cookville community were left with the theory that George had assaulted his 13-year old sister Aminna, whose body was found separate from the others, and that he killed the rest of the family in an attempt to hide the assault. The crime remains officially unsolved.
- Traylor Russell, History of Titus County, Texas, Volume 1, (W. M. Morrison, Waco, 1965), pages 228pp. [↩]
- Traylor Russell’s account gives the date of the murders as December 11, but newspapers consistently reported the date as December 10. [↩]
- The remains of the family were later buried in a single grave in the Cookville Cemetery. [↩]
- Spelled in a variety of ways. [↩]
- A report in the Dallas Morning News issue of 30 March 1889 says he was jailed at Pittsburg initially then at Sulphur Springs to avoid a lynching. [↩]
- El Paso Times and Galveston Daily News issues of 6 April 1889. [↩]
- An account of the appeal is found in the Dallas Morning News issue of 20 December 1889, page 3. [↩]
- He entered the prison on 24 November 1889 and was discharged 16 March 1894. [↩]
- Galveston Daily News issue of 3 July 1895 carried a lengthy summary of the crime, the arrest, and the hanging. Dr. Drewry, the murdered man, was a native of Galveston and that newspaper covered the crime and trial in detail. [↩]
- Austin Weekly Statesman issue of 4 July 1895. [↩]
- Galveston Daily News issue of 3 July 1895, and others. [↩]
- Austin Weekly Statesman issue of 4 July 1895, in a lengthy article recapping both the crime and the hanging the previous day. [↩]