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Genealogy Researcher Finds Ancestor That Won't Let Her Rest

Publishes True Story of Old West Murder

STEPHENVILLE, TX -- It’s easy to see why Sherri Knight was an award-winning history teacher. As she speaks of an ancestor’s “trouble-filled life,” she makes the time-period come alive – her sentences punctuated with passion and enthusiasm. That same enthusiasm carried Knight through several years of research and, ultimately, through the publication of her first book, “Tom P’s Fiddle.”

Tom P.’s Fiddle examines the life of Tom P. Varnell, Knight’s great-great uncle -- for years regarded as the family’s proverbial black sheep. Through exhaustive research, Knight was able to separate the legend and lore from the facts and truth and weave it all into a compelling read about a man who was charged with rape and murder, and spent his last few years on earth as a fugitive.

Along the way, readers learn first hand of the “love, betrayal, revenge, trials, escapes and family loyalties” that was the life of Tom P.

Despite the fact that research, writing, publishing and publicizing Tom P’s Fiddle has dominated several years of her life, Knight said she didn’t actually set out to write a book.

“My cousin came to me after I retired and wanted to know if I’d be willing to help with a family reunion,” she explained, adding that at the time she agreed to do a commemorative DVD for the reunion.

“I had no background in family research,” she said, “but of course I knew about it. When I was teaching honors-level history I had students do something called History Fair. In History Fair, you research, doing primary sources. And since I had to force my students to do it, I decided I needed to know how to do it. So I had the background in that kind of work – I just had not turned it toward genealogy.”

Knight retired from teaching in 2005, after having taught for 31 years. “I’ve taught every grade but first,” she said. “But most of my teaching was as a high school history teacher.”

Once she started genealogy research on the DVD, Knight said it didn’t take her long to realize she’d have to narrow her focus.
“My grandfather had nine brothers and sisters --10 siblings in all -- so what I decided to do is to stop with those 10,” she said. “In other words, they were at one end, and I went back from them. I felt like the family somewhat knew the history from those 10 siblings forwards, but they didn’t really know the history going backwards. So that’s what I concentrated on – when did the family come to Texas? Where did they settle? That sort of thing.”

It was at this stage of the research that Knight became fascinated by one ancestor in particular.
“I found out that my great-great grandmother’s brother was Tom P. Varnell,” she said. “He was someone the family whispered stories about. The only thing I could tell for sure from these stories was that he’d killed a man. I didn’t know if he was a good guy or a bad guy. I just knew that the stories had been kept alive – I didn’t know exactly what had happened.”

Knight decided that once the DVD project was complete she’d continue her research on Tom P. Varnell.

“He wouldn’t let me rest,” Knight said. “I went ahead and put him into the DVD, and I told the family stories about him. But now when I look at the DVD, about half of what I reported on him, based on old family stories, is just not accurate.”

About two years of research went into the book, according to Knight. “At first, I was not saying ‘I’m writing a book,’” she said. “At that time, I just wanted to find out who the real Tom P Varnell was. I asked my cousins (the same ones who’d roped her into the family reunion preparations) to meet me for lunch. I told them I wanted to find out who the real Tom P was, and they encouraged me to do so.”

Much of Tom P’s story took place in Hill County. “My cousin, Jerry Templeton, lives in Hillsboro,” Knight said, “and he’d already done some research on him.”

Knight admits that when she first looked at the documents that her cousin had unearthed, district court minutes, she did not understand them. “It’s not like reading testimony,” she said, “and I had not researched enough court documents to really understand them. I’ve since found out quite a lot.

Sherri Knight, courtesy photo

The thing I didn’t realize is that they don’t have files in which they keep all the testimony from the trials. All they have in the files, if they have files, are subpoenas, bail information and indictments. I had to learn all this legal jargon.”

Knight said there was no actual file at Hillsboro on Tom P.

“All they had on Tom P was the court minutes, it was like trying to decipher a foreign language,” she said, “but I was finally able to do it.”

For most research, Knight said a timeline is crucial, and the book on Tom P. was no different. “I sat down and started a timeline,” she said, “and I put every verified date on there that I had. Not knowing when certain things happened made it difficult to look anything up in newspapers. When I first started, it was about a half page long. Now it is eight pages, front and back.”

Knight said that she’s proud of the fact that she was able to go “from someone who didn’t know anything about it (genealogy research), to someone who’s able to help others.”

“I give genealogy workshops now,” she said.

The timeline Knight completed was helpful in both her research and writing, but at first there were so many gaps.

“The first date I was able to come up with was the day he shot the man, March 5, 1883, the day that changed his whole life,” she said. “I was able to find the date, and get the particulars. I didn’t realize it at the time but the newspapers had so sensationalized the story that the truth of what happened got dropped by the way-side, and Tom P was unable to tell his story because he ended up on the run.”

Knight said she found herself thinking that Tom P should have stayed and explained what happened instead of running. “And let the truth will-out,” she said. “But I’ve since learned that when men were charged with as heinous a crime as he was -- that anybody that did something as bad as that, some people didn’t believe he deserved to have a trial. Because not only was he charged with first degree murder and with rape, but the man he killed was trying to save his daughter’s honor and Tom P just blew him away. I came across this editorial that out-and-out stated that Tom P should not have a trial, and that the minute they found him he should be strung up.”

Knight said that another thing that made research difficult was having no idea where Tom P ran. “All of that was a bit daunting,” she said. “But I kept plugging away. I knew he’d been tried, I knew he’d had more than one trial -- the first conviction had been overturned. I found out later that it was overturned because the judge was so biased against him.”

Knight said she was “very meticulous” with her research. “I was very careful with this book,” she said. “The truth, or as close as I could get it, was very important to me. And I felt like the newspapers didn’t bother to get very close to the truth.”

It’s evident from her tone, that Knight became very attached to her relative from long ago. She even got her immediate family involved in the book on Tom P’s life.

Sherri’s husband, Arden Knight, served as editor for the book. And her children, Bill Oxford, Jr., 39, and Julie Moeller, 36, had a hand with the book as well. “Julie designed the book’s cover,” Sherri Knight said. “She teaches software application at Weatherford Community College. The cover art is really three photographs morphed together –with the text applied to the top. I told her the concept I wanted and she designed it. And the figure with the fiddle (in silhouette) is actually Bill.”

The fiddle plays a prominent part in the book – just as it did in Tom P’s life.

“Tom P had two ‘positive constants’ in his life,” Knight said. “He had the love and loyalty of his mother, LaDocia Varnell, and his music,” she said. “Even when he was on the run, it seems, his music kept him company. Research revealed that not only was Tom P a uniquely gifted fiddler – even composing his own tunes – but that he came from a whole family of fiddlers. Knight was even able to locate Tom Ps fiddle, as well as his hand-written original compositions, at the Hill County Cell Block Museum (in the old county jail house) in Hillsboro.

Although she traveled a great deal while doing her research, Knight’s biggest break-through occurred right in her own hometown of Stephenville, at Tarleton State University. While going through old newspapers on microfilm in the university’s library, Knight found more than 100 pages of information on Tom P, most of them from the Dallas Morning News.

“From there I was able to completely set up his time-line,” she said, “and I got major dates. And with those dates, I could go to other newspapers. I was able to find out when, and where he was captured, and what happened. He was in Magdalena, New Mexico on his sweetheart’s doorstep. I found out that the second trial, which took place in Ellis County because of a change of venue, ended with a hung jury, so I got to do my ’12 Angry Men’ chapter. It was just amazing the things I found out. There were jail breaks – two of them.”

Knight said that there was so much negative press about Tom P that sometimes she wondered if she was on the right path.

“The newspapers were so negative about him that it sort of colored my thinking,” she said. “I’d wake up in the middle of the night and think ‘maybe he really was the terrible person they’ve made him out to be.’ But then I would stumble across another little clue to his true character.”

Among the things that Knight believes pointed to Tom P’s true character is the fact that he had people who risked everything to help him.

“He had an awful lot of friends and they protected him,” she said. Knight also offers up another example of Tom P’s moral fiber when she tells of him entering a farm house and taking food (after a jail break) but leaving money and a note.

“I believe he had a code of honor,” she said. “It was a cowboy’s code of honor, where he believed in loyalty and hard work.”

Without revealing whether Tom P’s story had a happy ending or not, Knight admitted that he never found the “normal” life of which he dreamed.

“But I think the journey itself was interesting,” she said. “This is the quintessential story of a man accused of a crime, and how it shaped his life. You’ve got everything. I’ve had people read the book and say that it’s better than a ‘western’ because it all really happened. You have sheriffs and posses and shoot-outs and jail breaks. You have all the things that made the west really wild -- and it really happened. He talked the posse into leaving. That didn’t make the paper, but the family knew about it. He does find love in New Mexico. His story, his odyssey, his journey to try to find a normal life, all makes for a fascinating story, as does the fact that he never finds it – but he had such a resilient spirit.”

For more information on Sherri Knight, or Tom P, or to buy a copy of Tom P’s Fiddle go to www.tompsfiddle.com.

—— by Laura Kestner