William Sutton was the only Sutton involved in this feud, but he had a lot of friends, including some members of Governor E. J. Davis’ State Police. The Taylor faction consisted of the sons, nephews, in-laws and friends of Creed and Pitkin Taylor. Creed apparently did not join the fight and Pitkin, an old man, became involved when Sutton supporters lured him out of his house one night by ringing a cowbell in his cornfield. Shot and severely wounded, he lived six months before he died in 1872. At his funeral, his son and several relatives vowed to avenge the killing. “Who sheds a Taylor’s blood, by a Taylor’s hand must fall” became the mantra.
Lawlessness ran rampant in Texas after the Civil War and resentments flared with the arrival of the Reconstruction government including Carpetbaggers—Northerners, some of whom took advantage of the impoverished conditions by paying back taxes on land to acquire farms belonging to Confederate soldiers–and black Union soldiers assigned to keep order.
Evidence of the building tensions appeared in 1866 when Buck Taylor shot a black sergeant who came to a dance at the home of Taylor’s uncle. Hays Taylor killed a black soldier in an Indianola saloon. Then, in 1867 Hays Taylor and his brother Doby killed two Yankee soldiers in Mason. No arrests were made in any of the cases.
William Sutton’s first foray into the “troubles,” came in 1868 while he served as Clinton deputy sheriff. In an attempt to arrest horse thieves, Sutton killed Charley Taylor and arrested James Sharp. When Sharp “tried to escape,” a recurrent problem with prisoners during that period, Sutton shot Sharp in the back. A few months later, Buck Taylor and Dick Chisholm accused Sutton of dishonesty over the sale of some horses. They settled the matter with guns, which resulted in the death of both Taylor and Chisholm.
Then, William Sutton did the unthinkable by joining the hated State Police force under Captain Jack Helm. Historians discovered not all of the State Police were corrupt or politically motivated, however, the faction working under Jack Helm apparently used “Reconstruction,” as an excuse to terrorize large sections of South Central Texas. For example, Helm’s men arrested sons-in-law of Pitkin Taylor on a trivial charge, took them a short distance from home, and killed them in front of one of their wives.
After several incidents came to light regarding Jack Helm’s misconduct, the State Police dismissed him, but to the chagrin of many people in the area, Helm continued serving as DeWitt County Sheriff. It was not long before Jim Taylor and John Wesley Hardin, (see recent blog) the notorious murderer, killed Jack Helm.
With Helm gone, William Sutton became leader of the group. After old Pitkin Taylor, mentioned above, was lured out and killed, his son Jim and several relatives wounded William Sutton when they fired at him through at saloon door. After a second unsuccessful attempt to kill Sutton, they settled for killing a member of Sutton’s group.
The murders continued to terrify the countryside. Residents of the region were forced to take sides and lived in constant fear of being pursued or ensnared in a trap. No one felt safe from the rampage. Finally, William Sutton moved to Victoria and got married. When his wife was expecting a child, he decided they should leave the country. Gabriel Slaughter accompanied them on the train to Indianola. On March 11, 1874, as Sutton and Slaughter boarded a ship with their wives, Jim and Bill Taylor shot and killed both men.
In retaliation, the Sutton faction arrested three Taylors for cattle theft, and put them in the Clinton jail. Despite probable innocence, they were taken out of jail on the night of June 20, 1874, and hanged.
After being arrested for the murder of Sutton and Slaughter, Bill Taylor awaited trial in the Indianola jail in September 1875. Eager to witness the trial involving a member of the notorious feud, a huge crowd from all over the state converged on Indianola. Instead of a trial, they witnessed a devastating hurricane with winds of 110 miles an hour. When water began filling the jail, Bill Taylor and the other prisoners were released.
The murders continued when John Wesley Hardin killed the new leader of the Suttons. The next month, a gunfight left Jim Taylor and two of his friends dead. The Texas Rangers finally stepped in and arrested eight suspects after masked men executed four prominent citizens. When no one dared testify, the trial ended with only one conviction and that man, after twenty years of legal maneuvering received a pardon.
The Sutton-Taylor Feud ground to an exhausted halt. Known as the longest and bloodiest feud in Texas history, the confirmed death toll in the Taylor faction reached twenty-two. The Sutton group lost about thirteen.