It was every mother’s fear: nice girl falls for bad boy, and it ends tragically.
The girl was 19-year-old Zella Faulk. The boy was Rufus Coates, age somewhere between 18 and 22. (His true age would be important at his trial.) She lived with her widowed mother Mollie at 2001 Bryan Ave. on the North Side and had three married sisters and two brothers. As a 9-year-old girl in 1908 she sent her letter to Santa Claus to the Star-Telegram, asking him to remember her “mamma” and her “little niece.”
Rufus, too, lived on the North Side, with his parents at 2611 Chestnut Ave. He was the youngest of five sons whose mother raised him, as she explained, “like a girl ... trained to do the housework.” He never completed school and now worked at the Armour meatpacking plant.
Zella attended the Church of Christ, which did not keep her from seeing boys. In the spring of 1917, she had been seeing both Rufus and Levi Hutto. Neither was much of a catch. Rufus ran the streets and smoked and drank heavily, though he sometimes went to church with Zella. He had a notoriously volatile temper. Zella once told a sister, “If I’m ever killed, you’ll know who did it.” Still, she saw him, and Rufus believed they were going to marry as soon as he could save a little money. Somehow there was an engagement ring in the story, which became a subject of debate later.
On the night of June 2 Rufus and Zella went to a carnival on Marine Creek. They left about nine o’clock in the company of J.F. McBride and headed back to Zella’s sister Lizzie’s house. The conversation grew heated when Zella demanded that Rufus marry her. After all, she was not getting any younger, and he had promised. When he refused, she said, “I’ll make you,” and he retorted, “There’s no damn law to make me.” She slapped him and went inside.
Rufus then went drinking with his buddies only to return a little later and ask her to go for a walk with him along the river. Still dressed in her frock and white pumps, she agreed. What he did not tell her was that though not ready to get married he was eaten up with jealousy that she was seeing other boys. They stopped on the path and sat on the ground. When Zella began crying, Rufus stood up, picked up a tree limb, and smashed her repeatedly over the head. Then he ran to the house of a friend, Clyde Tucker, and confessed what he had done. Clyde suggested they return to the site, and when they discovered Zella was still alive, one of them finished her off by slashing her throat with a dull pocketknife. Early Sunday morning they caught a train for Oklahoma City. Rufus used a dollar he took from Zella’s stocking to purchase his ticket.
The body was discovered about 11 a.m. Sunday, and the news spread like wildfire. Lacking facts, newspapers across the state provided their own details. “Her throat was slashed, her clothes torn, and her body mangled,” reported one, getting two out of three details wrong. Police soon identified Rufus and Clyde as the prime suspects in what the newspapers were calling a “crime of passion.” Later, the garrulous Coates told a Star-Telegram reporter that a week before the murder he and Zella had run into Levi at Lake Worth, and Rufus had demanded she choose between them. “She chose me,” he bragged. As he told the story, Zella was a coquette who made him “mad with jealousy.”
On Monday morning the body was released by the coroner and prepared by Shannon’s Funeral Home. Then Zella’s sister, Mrs. J.W. True, held a family-only service at her home, presided over by the preacher of the North Side Church of Christ. Interment was at Mount Olivet Cemetery in a plot owned an uncle, Frank Owens. Why they skipped the customary viewing is another mystery in the case.
Rufus and Clyde were picked up in Portland, Oregon. in July after a national manhunt. Rufus obligingly related the details of what had happened to the authorities and signed a full confession. He even re-enacted the crime at the scene for prosecutors. Clyde turned state’s evidence and testified against his pal.
At Rufus’ trial, his lawyer tried first to plead mental incompetence then switched to temporary insanity brought on by drunkenness. Both sides referred to Zella as his “sweetheart.” The jury did not buy either defense and sentenced him to die. His lawyer tried a final hail-Mary, filing an appeal to have the sentence commuted, claiming that Rufus was too young at the time of the crime to be legally executed (17 under Texas law). That did not fly either, and Judge George Hosey sentenced him to hang. Twice he was reprieved by Gov. William P. Hobby before he went to the gallows in the old Tarrant County jail on Nov. 15, 1918. The Rev. J. Frank Norris signed on as his spiritual advisor and preached a stem-winding sermon from the platform. Rufus’ relatives living in Azle saw to it that he had a proper burial in a marked grave.
As for poor Zella, her final resting place remains an unmarked grave in the James Bowie Lawn of Mount Olivet Cemetery. Buried beside her are her sister Lizzie Epperson, who died just 17 months later, and her mother Mollie, who passed away several years later. Unlike Zella and Mollie, Lizzie has a nice, standing granite headstone. Between Rufus and Zella, it is obvious which grave is deserving of a nice marker.
Author-historian Richard Selcer is a Fort Worth native and proud graduate of Paschal High and TCU.