Two shotgun blasts 100 years ago rocked Crosbyton, exposing the tiny Texas South Plains town as a seeming cauldron of sexual promiscuity, leading to death, scandal, and intrigue. Yet the compelling Roaring Twenties tale of Sam Cates, at the center of the drama, seems to have been forgotten. Until now…
Cates and Burton
Little is known of his childhood, but a family tragedy must have had a devastating effect on young Sam. In 1915, Sam’s father, Samuel, attended a Methodist Church ladies’ box supper at Jean, in north Central Texas. Following the meal, Samuel was shot three times and killed.3 He was 49 years old.
Two young men were arrested for the killing of Samuel but no-billed by the grand jury.4 Predictably, there was idle talk in the Young County community about the reason the men were not prosecuted.5 Samuel’s 47-year-old widow, Maggie, was left to care for her three youngest children on her own. She never remarried and died at age 82.6
Samuel’s son, Sam, was rather small, 5’8” tall and 135 pounds, with brown eyes, light hair, and gold crowns covered his two front teeth. He did not smoke or drink.7
His registration form for the 1918 World War I draft listed his occupation as “farmer,” and he listed his residence with his mother in Walters, Oklahoma.8 Perhaps Sam was attempting to dodge the draft, for he did not live in Oklahoma in 1918. Since 1917, he had lived in the tiny South Plains town of Crosbyton—population 800.9
Sometime prior to 1920, Sam was accused of homicide, though no details of the crime are known. Attorney J.W. Burton of Crosbyton was said to have helped him avoid the hoosegow.10
Joseph Warren Burton was born in Iowa in 1873. He and his wife, Metta, an Indiana native, were married in 1905. According to a newspaper account, he was the first man to settle the town of Crosbyton, yet no evidence backs the dubious claim.11 12 He was “a well-known practicing lawyer” on the South Plains and was called “Judge” Burton.13 There is no record of J.W. having served on the bench, but his father was once a district judge in Iowa.14
Despite the mysteries surrounding the relationship between J.W. and Sam, it is clear J.W. hired young Sam to work as a clerk in his law office and as a chauffeur for his wife, Metta.15 16 Sam also boarded at the Burton home.17
On Monday, March 8, 1920, Sam drove to Lubbock to pick up Metta, who had been hospitalized for a “mental and nervous” condition.18 When Sam and Metta returned to their Crosbyton home at about 10 p.m., J.W. was waiting.19
Jealous accusations flew, as Metta accused her husband of having an affair with her young niece, Florence Carlton, a houseguest. Sam had informed Metta that, while she was away, J.W. and Flo had taken two excursions, one to Lubbock and one to “the canyon,” each time returning home after midnight.20
Sam told Metta, “They might have found an opportunity for the gratification of any mutual desire they might have had.”21 According to Sam, “Mrs. Burton had been taught from past bitter experiences that her husband was not immune from the lure of the opposite sex.”22
Then all hell broke loose.
Metta began “fighting and upbraiding” her husband, Sam said. J.W. accused Sam of spreading lies about Flo and the lawyer. He told Sam to leave the Burton home the following morning. As Sam described the scene, an enraged J.W.—over six feet tall—suddenly attacked the smaller Sam and then backed Metta against a wall, violently beating and choking his wife.23 24 25
Sam settled the dispute. He grabbed a shotgun and fired two blasts, the first hitting the lawyer’s arm, a superficial wound. The second blast, to J.W.’s side, proved fatal.26
Sam placed a pillow beneath the head of the dying lawyer and apologized. “Mr. Burton, I’m awful sorry this happened.” He heard J.W.’s reply, “Sam, I jumped on the wrong man, I jumped on two innocent kids.”27 J.W. clung to life and remained conscious for hours, whispering his last words early Tuesday morning. He was 46 years old.28
If J.W. Burton left a will, it was never probated.29
Immediately after J.W.’s death, Metta executed her will, leaving almost half of her estate to Sam Cates! Within a few weeks, the widow was dead. “Her constant refusal of nourishment in any form, together with the sorrow caused by the untimely death of her husband is conceded to have been the cause of her death,” according to her obituary.30 She was 45. Sam’s inheritance amounted to about $7,000, worth $90,000 in present-day dollars.31
The relationship between 23-year-old Sam and 45-year-old Metta must have generated much local gossip. Sam eventually admitted the couple was involved in a torrid two-year sexual affair.32
Another major beneficiary of Metta’s estate was her maid and cook, 22-year-old Mary Steffen. Mary, who had worked for the Burtons since age 16, was—like Sam—bestowed property valued at $90,000 in modern dollars.33
Despite the shameful controversy, J.W. and Metta Burton were buried side-by-side in an Iowa cemetery.36
The First Trial
The district attorney and district judge arrived in Crosbyton and conducted a “preliminary trial,” probably an examining trial. Sam was immediately arrested and jailed.37
In May of 1920—only three months after the shooting—the Crosby County Courthouse was the setting for Sam’s trial. The indictment charged “murder with malice aforethought,” a capital crime. If convicted, Sam faced the prospect of execution by hanging.38 39
The jury was told of Metta’s generous bequest in favor of Sam. They also heard of Sam’s intense interest—from jail—of whether Metta had executed her will before her death.43
Sam testified, and denied having a sexual relationship with Metta.44 But in later court documents, he described their love affair in quaint prose.
Sam “had access to the person of Mrs. Burton almost as unlimited and free as that of the deceased himself,” court pleadings revealed. “Such relations were invited by Mrs. Burton and took place not only in distant parts of the country, but also in the home of the deceased.”45
Sam attempted to deflect the issue of his inheritance from Metta. He alleged one of the State’s witnesses, attorney Parke N. Dalton, had engaged in a love affair with Metta. Dalton was J.W.’s law partner and was left a small inheritance from the lawyer’s wife.46
An eyewitness to the shooting was 22-year-old Mary Steffen, the Burton’s maid and cook.47 She was expected to be the prosecution’s most important witness.48 Instead, Mary testified for the defense. She portrayed J.W. as the aggressor on the night of March 8, “jumping” on Sam and choking Metta.49
However, on cross-examination, Mary’s testimony did not help Sam.
The defense argued the prosecution used unreasonable pressure to persuade Mary to reveal evidence harmful to Sam’s defense. According to Sam’s lawyers, “She was not accustomed to quick thinking . . . readily susceptible to psychological suggestion.”50
She described in explicit detail Sam’s love affair with Metta, including far-flung liaisons she witnessed in Texas, Iowa, and Illinois.51 Mary’s testimony may have sealed Sam’s fate. She said a defenseless J.W. was on the ground—and not choking his wife—when the fatal second shot was fired.52
Several State’s witnesses discredited Sam’s claim that J.W. choked Metta, offering testimony that there were no marks or bruises found on Mrs. Burton’s neck.53
The defense countered, “Mrs. Burton was wearing a high fur collar closely fastened about her neck . . . of sufficient thickness to have prevented . . . the leaving of marks upon the flesh of her neck.”54
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled in Sam’s favor: The evidence of his inheritance from J.W.’s wife Metta was inadmissible.58 The matter was returned to Crosby County for a new trial, but the case was so notorious, an impartial jury could not be found.59 Lubbock County was chosen for a change of venue.60
The Second Trial
Lubbock was four times larger than Crosbyton but was still a small town—population of 4,000. The city was just 40 miles west of Crosbyton, so the residents had been subjected to a fair amount of publicity on the Sam Cates case in the Lubbock Avalanche. But it was June of 1921, and the Burton killing was now a year in the past. Twelve male jurors were chosen in less than a day.61
Sam’s defense lawyer was the powerful W.H. Bledsoe of Lubbock, famous for winning an acquittal for his client in the first Lubbock County murder trial eight years earlier.62 In 1923, as state senator, Bledsoe would sponsor legislation that brought Texas Technological College to Lubbock.63 The establishment of the college was the defining moment in the educational, economic, and cultural history of Lubbock.
How Sam was able to afford such a prominent attorney is curious, as Sam’s inheritance from Metta never materialized. Her sister, Letta McCullough of Illinois, contested the will. Many witnesses testified Metta was of “unsound mind” when she executed the document.64 Affidavits were filed claiming she was “ranting and raving” much of the time following her husband’s death.65
Witnesses said Metta suffered from a variety of “mental and nervous diseases” for many months. After her husband’s death, she would talk about how much she loved “poor Jodie,” which was J.W.’s nickname. In the next breath, she would talk about her affection for “poor Sam,” and then she would rage against everyone in Crosbyton in the most “vile and obscene language.”66
The probate judge agreed the will was illegitimate.67 Both Sam and Mary Steffen lost their claims to Metta’s estate.68 Ironically, Bledsoe represented the successful will contestant, Letta McCullough.69
It seems the lawyer who convinced the court to deny Sam his inheritance would have a serious conflict of interest representing the same man in his murder trial, but that’s exactly what happened. Perhaps legal ethical rules of the day were not well understood or enforced. Or did Bledsoe feel guilty and offer to represent Sam pro bono? No records show Bledsoe was court-appointed, so the matter remains a mystery.70
The Crosbyton Review and the Lubbock Avalanche published dramatic accounts of the second trial in June 1921.
The gathering of legal talent could have been called the West Texas “dream team” of the 1920s.
The defense was led by Bledsoe, assisted by Lloyd Wicks of Ralls and Lubbock lawyers W.C. Huffhines and Clark Mullican. Prosecutors were District Attorney Gordon McGuire of Lamesa, R.E. Underwood of Amarillo, Parke Dalton of Crosbyton, and John R. McGee, Lubbock county attorney.71 Judge W.R. Spencer, the first district judge to be based in Lubbock, presided.72
Many witnesses were “taken through a close examination, and when the State would draw out several points in their favor, the counsel of the defendant would tear down the evidence until so to speak, they would break about even.”73
Metta’s niece, Florence Carlton, a houseguest at the time of the shooting—and accused by the defense of having an affair with J.W.—testified she heard no threats from the lawyer.74 She saw Sam fire both shots and saw J.W. lying on the ground when the second shot was fired.75
Sam testified for five hours. “Answering in a very mild and polite tone of voice, and sometimes with a smile,” he swore J.W. attacked him and then attacked Metta.76
He said his first shot was not to kill, but to show he meant business. Sam said he accidentally wounded J.W. in the arm. The lawyer did not fall but continued to choke his wife. J.W. cried, “Kill me, damn you!” Sam then shot to kill.77
“I knew at this time my life was in danger,” Sam testified. “Judge Burton was in the habit of keeping a revolver in the house. I have known him carrying a revolver with him. He was looking for trouble all the time.”78
If J.W. was in the act of choking his wife when Sam fired the shotgun, it is remarkable Metta was not injured by the deadly blast.
The prosecution subpoenaed Mary Steffen to repeat her vivid description of Sam and Metta’s love affair, and to testify she saw a defenseless and wounded J.W. on the ground when Sam shot-gunned the lawyer to death.
However, in a bizarre but brilliant move, minutes before she was to take the witness stand, Mary and Sam were joined in holy matrimony in a civil ceremony at the courthouse! Mary’s testimony, harmful to Sam’s case, was never heard, barred by the marital privilege.79
The legal-stunt marriage probably saved Sam from a much longer prison term. After a week-long trial, the Lubbock jury convicted Sam and sentenced him to 14 years in the Texas penitentiary.80
The law of the era provided a successful appeal and retrial could result in no worse than the lenient 14-year sentence Sam received. So, with little downside to filing an appeal, Sam’s lawyers took his case to the Court of Criminal Appeals a second time.81
But this time his appeal did not get far, because Sam took an unauthorized leave of absence.
In August of 1921, while housed at the Lubbock County Jail awaiting transfer to prison, Sam wrote a letter to Clyde Anderson of Dallas: “Listen, Clyde, we are in great need of some ‘hack saws.’ You get a half dozen, and pack them in a box of candy. You know how to pack them so ‘would-be Sheriff’ won’t find them. Do this as quick as possible. Address the candy to Hewlett Smith, your brother. Have it to return to a fake name, you will know how to do that old stuff.” A deputy intercepted the note, and no hack saws were delivered to the jail, averting a possible getaway.82
A month later, when Lubbock County Sheriff Charles A. Holcomb and his wife, Minnie, served lunch at the jail, Sam and two other prisoners attacked.83
The sheriff fought back, but the prisoners overpowered him, and Sam took the sheriff’s gun, commanding Holcomb: “Throw up your hands! Put ‘em up!”84
The sheriff shouted, “Shoot him, John!” The deputy fired, but the bullet passed under Cate’s arm. After the deputy’s miss, Sam sprang for the door. The sheriff took advantage of the chaos and tackled Sam, wrestling the gun away. All prisoners were subdued.87
When the dust settled, the inmates were locked away in the jail’s “dark cell,” which the sheriff thought was escape-proof.88 As Sheriff Holcomb busied himself investigating a major chicken theft involving 35 hens and seven fryers, he was confident the prisoners were secure in his dungeon.89
But the sheriff was wrong.
On September 30, 1921, Sam and his accomplice, Hewlett Smith, busted out of jail.90 Parts of their cots were strewn about the cell, and a small steel bar about the size of a pencil was also found.91 It was a mystery how the two broke out of the escape-proof dark cell.
Later, the sheriff gave the editor of the Crosbyton Review a tour of Sam’s escape route. The editor wrote, “It is a miracle how Cates and his companion effected their escape from the dark cell, but after going through the jail and having the situation fully explained, one is convinced that such a thing is possible, for the time lock on the cell is defective and a mastermind with nothing else to do but experiment with such things might do wonders.”92
Sam left what might be described as a sarcastically tender parting note to Sheriff Holcomb: “Dear Charlie and Family, I hope you all the best of luck all the rest of your days. Don’t think too hard of me for doing this. I too am very sorry for our other troubles so please forgive me. If you people don’t ever catch me, you can bet that I will always be a good boy. Give my best regards to my Mary. With love, always, Sam.”93
Sam and his accomplice, Smith, went their separate ways after the jailbreak.94 Three days later, traveling by foot at night, Sam reached Seminole. He caught a ride to Midland, sold his watch to his driver, and used the money to reach El Paso. He made his way to Mexico and eventually surfaced in the remote desert town of Indio, California. Using the name of John Lewis, he waited tables at a restaurant and made many friends in the small town of about 1,000 residents.95
Unfortunately for Sam, he made the mistake of telling a friend he was wanted by the law in Texas. The remark was passed along and reached the local sheriff’s office. In January of 1922, a deputy approached Sam from behind as he was cutting bread in the restaurant. He pressed the barrel of a revolver against Sam’s back and ordered him to put his hands in the air, but the outlaw kept the knife in his hands until forced to drop it. Sam was handcuffed and initially feigned ignorance of his Texas arrest warrants, but he soon admitted his identity.96
Upon his recapture in California, Sam had $250 in the bank ($3,000 in current dollars), fine clothes, and other valuable possessions. A letter signed by Indio’s most prominent citizens attested to his excellent character.97 He had been in Indio less than four months.
His employer said, “He was very faithful and honest with me,” and asked authorities to keep him informed of Sam’s fate.98 He seemed always to be “a good boy” in Indio.
Sheriff Holcomb hurried to California to retrieve Sam, the man who had held a gun on the sheriff and choked his wife during a failed escape attempt. He was naturally curious how Sam had broken out of the sheriff’s not-so-inescapable “dark cell.”99
Sam was happy to brag on his intricate and complicated jailbreak. The Avalanche reported, “He and Smith worked out a plan for turning the combination on the jail with a belt made of strips of their cot, opening the other doors and locks with a mechanical device constructed of the lumber in the cot, using as a guide to direct their work on one of the taps they had to take off a small looking glass which was fastened to a long cot rail. The wrench they constructed of two pieces of the cot, making a V shape instrument out of it, pounding the tap off after several tedious attempts and when they finally reached the top of the jail and the open windows, made a ladder of what sheeting and other cloth they had in their cell and swung to the ground.”100
Meanwhile, the Court of Criminal Appeals refused to hear Sam’s appeal of his 14-year Lubbock County murder sentence, deciding “the jurisdiction of the appellate court does not attach because of the escape pending appeal.”101
Soon transported back to Lubbock for court, Sam had two years added to his penitentiary term for his assault of Sheriff Holcomb during his failed jailbreak in 1921.102 In addition, Sam was sentenced to four years in prison for a Crosby County forgery, with the sentence to run concurrently with his other convictions.103 The assault sentence was stacked atop the 14-year murder judgment, so he was to be imprisoned for a total of 16 years.
His prison release date was calculated: February 25, 1938, when Sam would be 42 years old.104 Sam set about to rearrange his release date.
Soon after arriving at an East Texas penitentiary in March of 1922, Sam appeared to assume the demeanor of a model prisoner. He wrote to the Avalanche, reporting the prison library had burned all its books. Sam politely requested donations for the new library, and the newspaper promised to send a carload of books and magazines.105
But Sam had no plans for casual reading.
Within a year of writing the letter, Sam sawed through the bars of his cell window, stole a car, and escaped.106 When recaptured, “20 lashes” were ordered, but somehow the “punishment [was] set aside and lost [good] time restored,” according to his prison conduct record.107
In 1926, after having served less than four years of his 16-year sentence, Sam was granted a full pardon by Texas Governor Miriam “Ma” Ferguson, and he was released from prison.108
Governor Ferguson—who granted more than 4,000 pardons during a four-year period—was rumored to have granted many reprieves in exchange for cash payments.109 Most of Ferguson’s pardons were for those convicted of liquor-related crimes during the Prohibition era.110 As Sam was not a bootlegger and apparently had little money, it is a mystery why he was favored by the governor’s pardon.
In 1940, census records show Sam was living in Harris County and was employed as a cook at a downtown restaurant. He was divorced, and there is no record he ever fathered children.111
Mary—the girl Sam wed just before she was to testify against him—seems to have disappeared after her name appeared in the 1920 census as a “servant” in the Burton home.112 Records indicate she may have been buried in Wisconsin in 1966 at age 66 or 67.113
When he registered for the 1942 World War II draft, Sam was 45 years old. In 1918, he had registered for the draft during World War I, but never served in the military during either World War.114
In his 1942 draft registration documents, Sam described himself as self-employed and gave the same address he gave as his place of employment in the 1940 census. Perhaps by 1942 he was the proprietor of the downtown Houston restaurant.115
Nothing more is known of Sam’s life after 1942. He died in 1984 at age 87 and is buried in Parker County, Texas.116
It seems Sam Cates, Crosby County’s crafty miscreant, was “always a good boy” after his pardon by Governor Ferguson. He had no more troubles with the law and made no more daring escapes.
It remains a mystery how Slippery Sam—mostly—got away with it all.