The late William Penn Jones Jr. is best known for his unrelenting quest to uncover the truth behind the Kennedy assassination. When the longtime Midlothian resident, who went by his middle name, passed away in 1998, the Dallas Morning News obituary called him “the grandfather of Kennedy assassination researchers.” Soon after the Warren Commission report was published in 1964, he called the findings into question. Jones published the first of four volumes of his book, Forgive My Grief, two years later with the lengthy subtitle “A Critical Review of the Warren Commission Report on the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy.” He showed his own copy of the Zapruder film to anyone willing to hear his theory of where the gunshot originated, and he led an annual moment of silence from Dealey Plaza every November 22 from 1964 onward for decades.
Jones was called a troublemaker, a nut, and “the Gabriel García Márquez of Dealey Plaza” by writer Ron Rosenbaum when Texas Monthly profiled him twenty years after Kennedy’s assassination. Jones described to Rosenbaum all the mysterious deaths of individuals surrounding the Kennedy investigation. He convinced Rosenbaum to climb down into an Elm Street manhole he believed one of Kennedy’s assassins had hidden in. Curiosity got me reading about several of those unexplained deaths, and some are indeed shockingly suspicious. Then I read the theory of nine gunmen that Jones shared with Rosenbaum. “They loaded them in the two getaway planes and then just blew up the planes,” Jones said of the gunmen’s collective fate the day after the assassination. “Dedicated conspiracy theorist” seemed to be an apt description of Jones by then.
But before the assassination, the Warren Commission report, and the four volumes of Forgive My Grief, Jones was a small-town newspaper publisher. At 31 years old, he purchased the Midlothian Mirror in 1946 with $4,000 he had saved during his service with the 36th Infantry Division in World War II. “I couldn’t tell the difference between a job press and a newspaper press,” Jones told the Dallas Morning News in 1949. But he learned. As one of the few liberals in the conservative town thirty minutes south of downtown Dallas, he made plenty of enemies with his scathing editorials. After the 1946 death of segregationist Georgia governor Eugene Talmadge, whose coffin was draped with a KKK wreath, Jones ran an editorial in response to the news that read, in full, “Good riddance.”
Jones called out the city of Midlothian for mixing rusty nails into the gravel when paving the roads in the African American neighborhood. In the Mirror‘s front window, he displayed a bucket of nails he retrieved from the gravel himself. Jones refused to print a newsletter for the KKK on his printing presses. The Morning News described Jones’s editorials as “down-to-earth and tough as a hickory stick.” He didn’t back down from a fight, whether it be in print or in person. When Edgar Seay, a member of the far-right John Birch Society, was allowed to speak at Midlothian High School in 1962, Jones met with the school’s principal, Roy Irwin, to suggest another speaker with an opposing viewpoint. That meeting ended in a fistfight between the two men. Seay later confronted Jones at the Midlothian Mirror office and questioned his patriotism. Another fistfight ensued. Although Jones was just five two, Seay sustained a black eye, and the Morning News dubbed Jones the “half-pint hurricane.”
Four days after the confrontation, the Mirror was firebombed. A gallon-size Molotov cocktail was thrown through the front window at 2:34 a.m. on Tuesday, May 1, 1962. It caused significant damage to the interior but only damaged one of three printing presses. The next issue of the Mirror went out that Wednesday. Jones announced defiantly, “I’m going to stay here—of course if they burn me out that’ll be the end of it—they missed by about twenty minutes this time.” He said a city councilman had asked night watchman J. T. Garvin, who had alerted the fire department shortly after the bombing, “why the hell he didn’t wait fifteen minutes more to turn in the alarm.”
Jones suspected the John Birch Society was behind the bombing. The following year, he received the Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award for courage in journalism. The Houston Chronicle’s Texas Magazine called him “Texas’ Toughest Country Editor.” Police later learned the culprit was a sixteen-year-old local, and they had him committed to Terrell State Hospital for a few months. No matter the perpetrator, Jones had gained a nationwide reputation as a no-nonsense newspaper editor who went against the grain even when it was professionally and personally uncomfortable. That reputation was overshadowed after the Kennedy assassination, even locally. That’s why restaurant owner Jordy Jordan thought it was time to recognize the local legend in the building that once housed the Midlothian Mirror.
Jordan has lived in Midlothian for a couple decades, and he had always wanted to open a barbecue joint in town. He has successfully run the original Big D BBQ in Mansfield, fifteen minutes northwest, for the past nine years, and he felt the time was ripe for an expansion. He leased two historic spaces on Avenue F in downtown Midlothian, both dating back to at least 1901. One of them was once the home of the Mirror, and Jordan used the space to pay homage to Midlothian’s own Penn Jones Jr. when opening the second Big D BBQ in April.
Jordan commissioned Burleson artist Brad Smith to paint a large version of the Midlothian Mirror logo on the exposed brick wall in the dining room. Hanging next to it are three canvases, each eight feet tall and five feet wide, commemorating Jones’s writing career and dedication to the Kennedy assassination case. On the floor just beside the ordering counter is a scar in the concrete left from that firebomb. “The whole space is to bring the history of Midlothian to light,” Jordan said.
We sat on two cushy leather couches in the back of the restaurant, which feels more like a lounge than a barbecue joint. Our seats were surrounded by mirrors of various shapes and designs. I skipped past the eight local beers on draft and asked the server to prepare a smoked old-fashioned. I had the option of several different wood varieties for the shavings the bartender would use to load the smoking gun to infuse the bourbon. I chose cherry to match the drink’s ingredients.
As we talked, Jordan leaned in to share the Midlothian connections to the Kennedy assassination he’d gathered in reading Jones’s work. The restaurant had cleared out after lunch service, but he still spoke in hushed tones about unexplained deaths, like the one of Lee Bowers. Bowers witnessed the assassination and testified to the Warren Commission that he heard three gunshots. He died in 1966 in a single-car crash into a bridge structure in Midlothian.
The tension eased during a pit-room tour from pitmaster Rob Sedino. Big D BBQ built a new pit room behind the building, opposite a new patio. Inside is an old Bewley offset smoker fueled with oak. The joint’s barbecue is similar to what I’ve enjoyed in Mansfield, though a bit smokier. Jordan still prefers tender baby back ribs to spares, and smoked turkey remains a good seller. The brisket was also well smoked with a great bark. I would have happily had seconds on the potato casserole, but I’d skip the cheesy corn next time. You’ll have to wait until Fridays for the double-cut smoked pork chop special that runs all day and the smoked prime rib in the evening.
Jordan said Midlothian has been receptive of the new barbecue joint in town. He had originally opened with the intent of focusing on barbecue for lunch and the bar crowd in the evening (hence the loungelike atmosphere), but the barbecue was just too dang popular at dinnertime. Now he’s expanding. A sandwich shop and wine bar Jordan was operating next door is now closed, so the space can become the dining room for the barbecue joint. It will adjoin the current restaurant, and the existing space will become a dedicated bar that Jordan plans to call Penn to Paper. He said he hopes it will keep folks in Midlothian from feeling like they have to schlep up to Dallas for nightlife, and he added that “we want to help bring people to Midlothian.” They’ll find a solid tray of smoked meats while getting acquainted with a remarkable Texan whom Jordan won’t let his patrons forget.