It was certainly tragic according to the headline in the Sept. 27, 1934 Athens Weekly Review: “Aged Couple Burned to Death When Home Destroyed.” The reporter continued how they “…perished in the fire and smoke that enveloped the structure. The bodies were burned beyond recognition.”
The six room home of Mr. and Mrs. William German in the Stockard community had been heavily damaged and “only the two chimneys of the comfortable dwelling remained standing this morning. A smoldering pile of debris marked the spot where the aged couple had met tragic deaths.”
Cause was possibly an exploding lamp but the couple had not escaped the flames. ”“The body of Mr. German was found near a fire place where he had usually slept on a cot,” the reporter related. “Mrs. German’s body was found nearer the center of the room and closer to the coal oil lamp …The bodies were lying within three feet of each other.”
The reporter described how Colt revolver, known to be the property of Mr. German, was found near his body, and this caused another theory, “It was thought, however, that the pistol, which was usually kept in a nearby trunk, had been left where it was after the flames had consumed the trunk and its inflammable contents,” the reporter wrote. However, this didn’t provide the answer to the question of whether the pistol had been inside the trunk or not.
Justice of the Peace B.C. Hall was called to scene to preside at a quickly called inquest to hear the testimony of Hughie [sic] Fulton, who apparently lived nearby. The witness explained that he’d heard noises about 8:30 p.m. “I was eating supper at the time,” he stated, “My wife discovered the fire and told me. I came to the South gate entering the German yard. When I got there the front room was the only room burning. The roof was fixing to fall in, in that room. I called to Mr. German but got no reply.”
However, as the subhead stated about the fire: “Theories about Fire Differ.” The implication is that it could have been more than just an accident.
The German’s were in their seventies, with Mrs. German a native of the county and her husband from Mississippi. They had lived on their farm for more than thirty years and “Mr. German was one of the Henderson county’s must substantial farmers.” The couple had six surviving children, who were notified by telegrams. It was believed that the funeral services would be conducted in a few days, probably at the First Baptist Church.
So while the Review article related the background of the story for what happened next we find that in Sigvard Lindquist’s biography “Jess Sweeten, Texas Lawman.”
As he went over the grounds around the burned house the sheriff noticed some distinctive footprints in a field – prints that indicated that they were made by someone running. Plaster casts were taken of the footprints. Also, there was left in the house a five gallon kerosene can, something that R.T. German, a newly arrived son, was sure that should not have been in the house at all.
The next day there came a tip describing an abandoned yellow Chrysler roadster in the area and when Sweeten checked it out he discovered that near the car were footprints that matched those found near the house. Also discovered in the car were some valuables from the German home.
The tipster informed Sweeten that the car had been driven by a man named by Elmer Pruitt from Van Zandt County and further inquiries located Pruitt in a Dallas hotel – where he seemed to have plenty of money.
Dallas authorities assisted Sweeten in the case, then when the sheriff returned to Athens R.T. German informed him that his parents had had over a thousand dollars in the house. This seemed to indicate robbery as a motive.
Meanwhile, Elmer Pruitt was on the run but though he wasn’t caught for two years fortunately when he was finally arrested he could easily be identified by a unique physical defect. He’d been born with an extra finger on each hand then had surgery to remove them, so the scars could identify him.
When he was finally arrested, Pruitt told his story and named his accomplices, Huey Fulton and another man. The trio had gone to the couples’ home one night looking for money when none was produced, they murdered the couple. To conceal the evidence of their crime they brought in a can of kerosene then drenched the house and set it afire.
Pruitt, Fulton and the other man were tried in 1936 and Pruitt was sentenced to die in the electric chair, a sentence that was carried out the next year. The other two got life in prison.