While America suffered a crime wave during the 1930s with such gangsters as John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd running rampant, the Athens area seemed to be immune to such major offenses.
Unfortunately, that was not the case, for Henderson County did indeed have such an event, when in 1932 an entire family was murdered.
And it was the renowned Sheriff Jess Sweeten and his associates who brought the criminal to justice.
So what’s the story?
In January, 1933, Mrs. Florence Everett came to Henderson County officials, seeking information about her daughter, Carrie McGehee, and her family, since she had not heard from them for several months.
The McGehees lived in the Sand Hill area about 10 miles northwest of Athens. But though Mrs. Everett had contacted other relatives, and even distributed pictures of the family, there seemed to be no trace of them.
Carrie McGehee, her husband J.W., and sons Doyle (age 4) and Bobby (age 2), lived and worked with a local well-respected farmer named George Patton.
However, when questioned by officials about the family, Patton told them that the McGehees had left the farm late Thanksgiving Day with two men who offered J.W. a job in the Oklahoma oil fields.
However, inquiries with Oklahoma officials revealed that no one had either seen or heard of the McGehee family.
The stories about the family leaving with two men in an automobile was unlikely, since as Sheriff Sweeten later related to a reporter, such a vehicle was sure to be noticed by neighbors.
“The farm is a long way from a highway,” he said, “and can be approached by automobiles only by running in low gear, because of the heavy sand.”
Yet neighbors were sure no such car had come to the farm that night, and officials also knew that finding buried bodies in the sandy farm soil would be almost impossible after so long a time.
Sheriff Sweeten and other officials were convinced that Patton knew something about the family’s disappearance, and over the next several years, they often detained and questioned him.
One of those times about 10 months after the family’s disappearance, he was questioned by the best officers available, but as a newspaper later put it, “They reported that he was the hardest nut they had ever attempted to crack.”
Sheriff Sweeten personally pursued the investigation over the next few years, until events began to climax, when Patton, a lifelong bachelor, married a 16-year-old girl in February, 1936.
Sweeten theorized that Patton’s guilty conscience meant he did not want to live alone, so once again he was arrested and closely questioned.
They were finally successful in getting the information they sought. Sweeten later described it: “After 16 days and nights of questioning, he caved in. Finally, he threw up his arms, and said, “If you’ll take me out there, I’ll dig them up.”
At the farm, officials found the bodies in an area where they’d previously dug, buried deeper than where they’d first excavated.
According to Patton’s confession, as described by Jo Ann Surls in a 1985 article, the assault began with an argument with J.W. And as Patton struck him with a pipe, Carrie ran out to stop the fight.
“And as I swung at J.W.,” Patton told the officers, “I accidentally hit Carrie in the head, killing her instantly. Then I turned around, and finished McGee off.”
The oldest boy, Bobby, ran up crying, so Patton killed him with a rock.
The younger boy, Doyle, seemed oblivious to what had happened, and eventually fell asleep on the bed. Patton then found a shovel, dug a grave for J.W., Carrie, and Bobby, and then looked for Doyle. He wrapped up the sleeping boy in the bedclothes and placed him in the grave – buried alive.
Patton’s attorneys requested a change of venue, so the trial in November, 1936 began in Waxahachie in Ellis County. And after four days, Patton was convicted.
Since Sweeten believed Patton had killed two other individuals, he visited the prisoner on death row to ask him about it. Patton refused to discuss the matter, yelling, “For God’s sake, sheriff, let me fry in peace!”
Even on the eve of the execution, when Sweeten thought Patton might confess about that other case, he was dissuaded by the prison warden, saying it was too late.
“The priest has got him ready to die,” Sweeten was told. “If you go in there, and start to question him, we’re liable to have to do it all over again and get him ready.”
Apparently, without giving Sweeten any more information, Patton was executed in Huntsville in July, 1937.
According to the 1985 article, Patton’s now widow “gave a celebration dance in the little house in Sand Hill, which she shared with the murderer for such a short while.