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A Lawless Breed: John Wesley Hardin, Texas Reconstruction, and Violence in the Wild West

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John Wesley Hardin!
His name spread terror in much of Texas in the years following the Civil War
as the most wanted fugitive with a $4000 reward on his head. A Texas Ranger
wrote that he killed men just to see them kick. Hardin began his killing
career in the late 1860s and remained a wanted man until his capture in 1877
by Texas Rangers and Florida law officials. He certainly killed twenty men;
some credited him with killing forty or more. After sixteen years in
Huntsville prison he was pardoned by Governor Hogg. For a short while he
avoided trouble and roamed westward, eventually establishing a home of sorts
in wild and woolly El Paso as an attorney. He became embroiled in the dark
side of that city and eventually lost his final gunfight to an El Paso
constable, John Selman. Hardin was forty-two years old.  Besides his reputation as the deadliest man
with a six-gun, he left an autobiography in which he detailed many of the
troubles of his life. In A Lawless Breed, Chuck Parsons and Norman Wayne
Brown have meticulously examined his claims against available records to
determine how much of his life story is true, and how much was only a half
truth, or a complete lie. As a killer of up to forty men, Hardin obviously
had psychological issues, which the authors probe and explain in laymen's
terms. To Hardin, those three dozen or more killings were a result of being
forced to defend his life, his honor, or to preserve his freedom against
those who would rob or destroy him or his loved ones. Was he a combination
freedom fighter/man-killer, or merely a blood-lust killer who became a
national celebrity? This deeply researched biography of Hardin and his
friends and family will remain the definitive study for years to come.

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25 Chapters

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1. First Blood




“To be tried at that time for the killing of a Negro meant certain death at the hands of a court, backed by Northern bayonets. . . . Thus, unwillingly I became a fugitive, not from justice, but from the injustice and misrule of the people who had subjugated the South.”

John Wesley Hardin

On May 19, 1847, the Rev. James Gibson Hardin (age twenty-five), and Mary Elizabeth Dixon (a year younger than he), were joined in holy matrimony in Navarro County, Texas. History has not preserved any details of the ceremony, however. Presumably, the groom wore his best suit of clothes, and the blushing bride her best dress, but no newspaper account has been found to verify the details of their wardrobe. Any information about the guests also remains undiscovered. The only record that has been preserved is a court document proving that Justice of the Peace Q. N. Anderson solemnized the ceremony.1


2. Gunfire in Hill County




“He commenced to fire on me, firing once, then snapping, and then firing again. . . . I fired with a Remington .45 at his heart and right after that at his head. As he staggered and fell, he said, ‘O, Lordy, don’t shoot me any more.’ I could not stop.”

John Wesley Hardin

Hill County lies in north Central Texas, a day’s ride south of Fort Worth and two or three days’ ride north of Austin in Hardin’s time. The county was created in 1853—the year Wes Hardin was born—and an election was held to select county officials on May 14 of that same year, twelve days prior to Wes’s birthday. James H. Dyer was elected county judge and Charles Davis the first sheriff. That the county strongly supported Secession was made obvious to any who may have doubted by the final vote: 376 for and only 63 against. Home Guards were established to protect the citizens from possible marauding parties; three cavalry units were created and left to fight during the war, mainly in Louisiana and Arkansas. Following the war’s end great resistance was made against the occupation troops. Enough turmoil was reported that Gov. Edmund J. Davis deemed it necessary to declare martial law in January 1871 to re-establish order by sending in the State Police, although by then Hardin had moved on.1 How much of this historical background Hardin was aware of cannot be determined, but he would become familiar with the character and purpose of Governor Davis’ police force.


3. Mexico or Kansas?




“As he was only a boy they did not watch him closely, and at night lay down to sleep. Hardin arose in the night and killed every one of them.”

Dallas Herald, August 25, 1877

With the advent of the Texas State Police many men, some former slaves, applied for a commission. Those who were accepted were sworn in for a period of not less than four years—“unless sooner removed.” Policemen also would earn what some considered an inordinate amount for services: a private would receive $60 per month, each sergeant $75, each lieutenant $100, and each captain would receive $125. In addition, if a policeman captured a fugitive for whom there was a reward offered, he could claim the reward as well as draw his regular salary.1

Although Hardin had a sizable reputation, his image had not yet appeared on any wanted posters, and his physical description could have fit many young Texans. But the work of the police would make his existence more dangerous. Each police captain was to inspect the criminal dockets of the various counties in their assigned district, and in addition, was to “use every means in their power to arrest all parties who may have committed offenses and who have not been arrested.” Then captains were “to ascertain the whereabouts of all persons evading arrest, and should it be found that such persons are out of the district, a copy of indictment will be forwarded to the Chief of Police, and the necessary information given of the whereabouts of the accused, to the end that measures may be taken to secure the arrest.”2


4. Shedding Blood in Kansas




“I have seen many fast towns, but I think Abilene beat them all. The town was filled with sporting men and women, gamblers, cowboys, desperadoes, and the like. It was well supplied with bar rooms, hotels, barber shops, and gambling houses, and everything was open.”

John Wesley Hardin

Twenty miles south of Wichita was a crossing over Cowskin Creek, although Hardin mistakenly remembered it as Cow House. There a group of men met the Texans. They were not to cause trouble for the drovers but wanted the herd to be driven west of Wichita, opening a trail to their community to build up “a new town on the north bank of the Arkansas River.” They furnished a guide, and the group followed a plow furrow. On the north bank of the Arkansas was the new town with the imposing name of Park City, some fourteen miles northwest of Wichita. Then, it was not yet much of a town; today it is part of ever-expanding Wichita. Once there, having the river behind them, “a delegation from the new town came out to meet us and invited all those that could leave the cattle to enjoy the hospitality of the new town.”1


5. The Texas State Police




“It has been Said of me before I reached my majority that I had vanquished E. J. Davis’s police force from the red river to the rio grand from matamoris to Sabine Pass that I had defeated the diabolical Burero agents and US soldiers in many contests.”

John W. Hardin

Hardin and cousin John Gibson “Gip” Clements arrived at Uncle Barnett Hardin’s in Hill County where they met Mannen Clements, Gip’s older brother, as planned. Hardin recalled the date as July 30, but it was closer to the end of August. After visiting a week with relatives the trio then started for home in Gonzales County, some 200 miles south. Although a fugitive, Hardin did not purposely avoid entering the various towns along the way; in fact, with his aggressive attitude toward State Policemen, his irresponsibility and his disregard for societal mores he may have been reckless enough to welcome a confrontation with a figure of authority.


6. Capture and Escape




“I am either killed or shot. If all the gold in the world belonged to me, I would freely give it to kill him. I have one consolation, however, I made the coward run.”

John Wesley Hardin

Fugitive Hardin did not leave Sabine County in a gallop as one might expect him to do after wounding a state policeman. He intended to return to Gonzales County—to Jane—but on the way he stopped in Polk and Trinity counties to visit relatives. At a store not far from Livingston he and a man identified only as Hickman engaged in a horse race. The winner would walk away with a purse of $250. There were several Hickman families living there at the time: Bartley, Asa, Hezekiah, Morton S. and James as heads of households. They were all from Louisiana with the exception of Morton S. Hickman who was a native Texan. These all constituted a group who were related.

What is most interesting is that an acquaintance named Richard B. “Dick” Hudson now informed Hardin that the Hickmans intended to take the $250 winning purse whether they won or lost the horse race. It was set for noon on a certain day. Each party put up an initial sum of $100 “as a forfeit.” Hardin informed Hudson that he was aware of what the Hick-mans intended to do, and that he was ready to fight them, as “I wanted [them] to understand that no man or set of men could take my money without killing me unless they won it,” and if they wished to fight, “they would not commence any too soon to suit me.”1 No race occurred, nor did a fight occur, as the “Hickman Bros.” learned of Hardin’s response—carried to them by Hudson certainly—and they backed off, surrendering the $100 forfeit money as well as the $250, totaling $350 for the non-race. Hardin, in relating this incident, acknowledged that Hudson and he had been boys together in Polk County. At this point in time the two were trusted friends, but that would soon change.


7. The End of Jack Helm




“They [Jack Helm and Jim Cox] said there were but two sides—for them or against them. I talked as if I would join them, and they told me of a dozen or more of my friends whom they wished to kill, and who were the best men in the community, their sin lying in the fact that they did not endorse the vigilant committee’s murdering.”

John Wesley Hardin

Why did Brown Bowen kill Thomas Haldeman? Bowen later stated that Hardin killed him, because “he was afraid of him being a spy” for Joe Tumlinson, Jack Helm and W. W. Davis of the Sutton faction. Tumlinson, Helm and Davis had all been members of the State Police force, which Hardin so despised. Tumlinson had served as a private from July 13, 1870, until April 30, 1871. Helm had been chosen one of the first four captains, serving from July 13, 1870, until his resignation on November 30, 1870. William W. Davis began as a sergeant on April 6, 1872, and served until October 31, 1872, when he resigned.1 These three men were now leading figures of the Sutton faction, feuding with the Taylors and their followers. Bowen claimed that he was a friend of Haldeman and therefore would not have had any motive to kill him. “[Hardin] told me himself that these men had sent Holderman [sic] to watch him. . . . I went one time and took Holderman away from Hardin; in fact, several times. . . . Hardin and Gyp Clements went into the [Billings] store and commenced drinking, after which [Hardin] told me he was going to show me how to kill a man. . . . Hardin told [Clements] it was equal to our Kansas trip.” Bowen claimed Hardin then said to him that if anything was said of the killing that he—Bowen—was to say that he himself did the killing. Hardin supposedly went to David Haldeman, Thomas’ father, and told him that Brown Bowen had killed his son.2


8. Killing Intensifies




“The feud between the Sutton and Taylor parties, which had likely to have provided a bloody encounter lately, at Cuero, has been happily adjusted.”

Austin Daily Democratic Statesman, January 22, 1874

The killing of Jack Helm certainly caused members of the Sutton party great concern as it was obvious that with Hardin’s leadership, the lay of the battlefields had changed in favor of the Taylors. Hardin’s unbridled and psychopathic aggressiveness was now openly shown. He may have seen himself as a freedom fighter, killing the enemies who would kill him and his friends or deny his liberty. Sutton had been wounded in an ambush and he and Capt. Joe Tumlinson both now may have pondered their next moves in the wake of the killing machine that Wesley Hardin was. As Jim Taylor had made it clear to all, he wanted the chance to kill Bill Sutton, and he would if he could get to him before any of the others did. Now the obvious target was Joe Tumlinson.


9. A “Bully from Canada”




“But the lynx eyes of the Taylors never lost sight of him. Jim and Bill Taylor, implacable as fate, followed him to Indianola. Sutton’s noble little wife suspicioned their intentions, and so assiduous was her solicitude for her husband that she remained at his side, and thus shielded him from the murderous lead already molded and consecrated for his destruction.”

Victor M. Rose, The Texas Vendetta

It was common knowledge that the Taylors had attempted to kill Sutton several times. Jim Taylor had shot him in a Cuero saloon, breaking his arm; he had had a horse killed under him on the prairie in another assassination attempt, and another horse killed under him while crossing the Guadalupe River. Hardin complained that Sutton “was looked upon as hard to catch, and I had made futile efforts to get him myself. I had even gone down to his home at Victoria, but did not get him.” The fact that Sutton was “so wiley that he always eluded us,” explains why the Taylors had found it expedient to bring in an outsider, a man whom Sutton would not know. Joe Hardin and cousin Alec Barekman now entered into the feuding country, but whether Wes requested them for the specific purpose of setting up Sutton, or if it was simply a visit to him that took on this deadly addition is uncertain. But Joe did go to Indianola where Sutton’s cattle were to be shipped from to investigate: “I told Joe that Bill Sutton was my deadly enemy,” Wes recalled, “and that he was soon going to Kansas by way of New Orleans. Further instructions were that he was to find out when Sutton would be there to leave Indianola, in order that word could get to Jim Taylor in time.” Joe Hardin and Alec Barekman actually “got acquainted” with Sutton and learned when Sutton planned to leave.


10. Fighting Waller’s Texas Rangers




“[Captain Waller] aroused the whole country and had about 500 men scouting for me, whose avowed purpose was to hang me.”

John Wesley Hardin

Charles M. Webb, deputy sheriff of Brown County, lay dead on the street in Comanche. This victim was different from Hardin’s previous ones: he was not a member of the unpopular State Police; he was not a soldier wearing the uniform of an occupation army; this man was a former Texas Ranger and a white lawman, respected by the populace and apparently with many friends. Hardin, the Dixon brothers, Jim Taylor and other family and friends now faced the wrath of the Comanche citizenry. Wes and some of his friends galloped to “some mountains” four miles from town. On the twenty-seventh brother Joe and some other friends found him. He then sent back with Joe the horses they had used to make their escape from town. Hardin did not want people to think him a horse thief, which notion was admirable in this extreme case of emergency, but neither he nor his friends appreciated the anger of the Comanche County citizens. Hardin and Taylor and the Dixons no doubt felt that within a week or so the anger would pass, and this violent incident would be forgotten. They could not have been more wrong.


11. Leaving the Lone Star State




“The pursuing party [was] fixing to surround us again, [so] we got on our horses and ran off from them. It seemed to me as if their horses stood still. . . . Good horseflesh is a good thing in a tight.”

John Wesley Hardin

The herd in Hamilton County was no longer in control of any of Hardin’s hands, but confiscated by the Rangers. Waller’s men had arrested the cowboys, or most of them, including James M. “Doc” Bockius, Rufus P. “Scrap” Taylor, Alf “Kute” Tuggle, Thomas Bass, James White, G. W. Parkes, and John Elder. Alf Day and Charley the cook were also taken in, but Day and Charley had somehow managed to get away. Whether the seven cowboys were placed in the inadequate Comanche jail or remained prisoners in the Ranger camp is unknown. Attorney at Law John D. Stephens wanted them out of the country as quickly as possible and started arrangements to have them delivered to DeWitt County.


12. Troubles in Florida




“[W]hiskey is the cause of many troubles in this life. . . . may the God of mercies have mercy on us all [and] Remember the advice of your dear departed Father.”

Robert E. Hardin to John Wesley Hardin, May 9, 1877

Why Hardin, traveling under the name of Walker, chose to visit Cedar Keys, Florida, is unknown. Incorporated in 1869 as the “Town of Cedar Keys”1 the population by the time of its first census was 400. It scarcely increased through the years, not even doubling by the year 2000. The Keys had been a base for Seminoles, then the Spanish and later for such pirates as Jean Lafitte and Captain Kidd. This was the initial land stop for Mr. and Mrs. Walker and child. Apparently the family’s stay there was very brief. Leaving Cedar Keys they then went to Gainesville, county seat of Alachua County, some forty-five miles inland.

Gainesville in 1874 was in some ways similar to the wild cow town of Abilene of 1871 and conceivably because Hardin was aware of this he chose this community for the next stage of his Florida escape. It was a rough and wild town; whites as well as blacks went armed outside of their homes, and the sound of gunfire was not uncommon. Naturally much of the violence was caused by racial animosities. There was a Young Men’s Democratic Club which was in reality a cover for the Ku Klux Klan. Strangely there was but one police officer, and it was impossible for him to have much influence over anything. There was no fire department in an era of common wooden buildings.


13. “Texas, by God!”




“Jane I am in good hands now they treat me Better than you have any Idea and assure me that I will not be mobed [sic] . . . Jane Be in cheer and don’t take trouble to Heart . . . But what I have done in Texas was to Save my own Life[.]”

J. H. Swain, August 25, 1877.

On the afternoon of August 23, 1877, Mr. John H. Swain was ready to leave Pensacola and return home to Jane and their three children. He was seldom alone on these gambling ventures, and this afternoon was no different: he was with several friends who together boarded the train, going into the smoker car. They may have been doing more than gambling, as they placed their shotguns above their heads in the baggage racks. Had they been hunting? What the other passengers did not know was that even with their shotguns out of reach, Jim Mann and John Swain had at least one pistol on their person; possibly Hardy and Campbell carried one as well, but not openly. The “peaceable Mr. Swain” and his companions, James Mann,1 Shep Hardy2 and Neil Campbell Jr.3 now settled in for the train ride. As far as the community knew this quartet was of no significance to anyone, had never caused any trouble, and any gambling they did was more for enjoyment than any other reason. They chose this car as Mr. Swain had now taken up smoking a Meerschaum pipe, which he now readied to light up.4 There may have been a few other passengers in this smoker; if there were his smoke would not be considered a bother by them.


14. Hardin on Trial




“I want justice. I want to be dealt with according to law. All I ask is legal protection against mobs.”

John Wesley Hardin, August 28, 1877

Armstrong and Duncan arrived in Texas on August 27. From Longview Duncan sent a telegram to his brother S. W. S. Duncan informing him where they were and that they were “all safe” and that they would arrive in Austin the following day.1 All along the way, once the news was out that Hardin the man-killer was on the train, people crowded the depots desperate to glimpse the notorious desperado. At Palestine, the county seat of Anderson County, a reporter provided a brief description for his readers. Working his way closer amongst the hundreds of people there he saw that Hardin was “heavily ironed with shackles and handcuffs.” He also saw the Rangers; the trio had to disembark to change trains before they “took supper” there at the La Clede hotel on Spring Street, where proprietor James Denyven provided meals to travelers at all hours.2 Someone in the throng called out, “What have you got there?” Aware only of guarding their $4,000 prisoner, neither Armstrong nor Duncan thought of an answer, but Hardin did and responded: “A panther.” At supper they chanced to remove Hardin’s handcuffs and he “ate quite heartily and unconcernedly, his manner being easy and indifferent.” Hardin’s attire even brought attention, “quite ordinary” to the reporter’s eyes, “the Texas white wool hat with dark alpaca coat. His health is good and robust.” A final word of assurance was that “there is no doubt of his identity.”3


15. Huntsville and Punishment




“I was carefully guarded by Lieut. N. O. Reynolds, who commanded twenty-five well armed brave men; but I knew the power of the mob, the spirit that possessed them, and knew that my life hung on a tread.”

John Wesley Hardin

While waiting the result of his appeal, Brown Bowen was placed in the Travis County jail with Hardin, sent there from Gonzales. Confined together in the Travis County jail they could not avoid each other. On January 29, 1878, Hardin wrote to Jane, pointing out that friend Bill Taylor’s conviction for killing Gabriel Webster Slaughter back in March of 1874 had been remanded; hence there was hope Taylor would be somehow acquitted of the deed, and be released from Galveston jail. Cousin Mannen Clements was to go to Gonzales for a bond hearing, and Hardin was confident he was “Sure to Get out Soon.” He encouraged her to keep her spirits up, reminding her that where “there is a will there is a way and that the darkest hours are Just before day[.]” Of course Brown joined him “in Sending Love to all[.]”1


16. Dreams of a Future




“Dearest Be carefull with our Sweet Little children for the way a twig is Bent the way it wil[l] Grow”

John Wesley Hardin to Jane, July 27, 1879

How did John Wesley Hardin later describe this punishment of thirty-nine lashes? He only knew the pain of it being inflicted, not knowing or caring that the administration of lashes was a form of corporal punishment which harkened back centuries. Ancient Jewish punishment demanded that the maximum number of lashes allowed per infraction was forty, given in multiples of three, effectively making the maximum number at thirty-nine. The one left off was to show “compassion,” although no prisoner ever felt there was any shown.

Hardin wrote that his cellmate had betrayed him. The night of the betrayal “about twenty officers” entered his cell and tied his hands and feet. Down upon the concrete floor, stretched to the extreme Hardin certainly knew what was going to transpire. Two men held the ropes which held his hands; two men held the ropes holding his feet. Then under-keeper Philip J. West1 took the 29-inch long strap, 2-1/4 inches wide, attached to a handle a foot in length. “He began to whip my naked body with this instrument. They were now flogging me and every lick left the imprint of every lash, of which there were four in this whip, consisting of thick pieces of harness leather.” Hardin heard someone yell out, “Don’t hit him in the same place so often.”2 According to his account the superintendent was also there, as witness to the punishment, who ended it after the thirty-ninth lash. Perhaps Hardin only glimpsed the instrument as having four straps of leather rather than three. He then was forced to walk in snow to another building, his back and sides “beaten into a jelly,” and placed on a diet of bread and water. He refused to inform on those other convicts who had been involved in the failed escape plot. The punishment was the result of the “break” that Jane inquired about. He responded to her inquiries,


17. Seeing Jane Again




“Dear child . . . common Sense and common intelligence of mankind wil[l] vindicate your father . . . there will be no Stigma attached to my name for the blood which I have Spilt is of that kind which can never Stain.”

John Wesley Hardin to daughter Jane, July 14, 1889

It is evident from the Hardin correspondence beginning the second decade of his imprisonment that his studying showed results in greatly improved writing. His letters, although still far from grammatical and with occasional misspelled words, unfortunately are filled with axioms and proverbs, biblical quotes or paraphrases, and advice to his children. Rarely does he refer to his actions, which would have provided the historian details of his life. He continued to condemn the legal system that placed him in prison, his “unfair” trial, the appeal, the unjust imprisonment, and the legal murder of his brother and relatives. These were the things that were entirely unjust and actually criminal in his mind. At the same time he expressed pride in his achievements.


18. A Full Pardon




“Enclosed I send you a full pardon from the Governor of Texas. There is time to retrieve a lost past. . . . The hand of every man will be extended to assist you in your upward course and I trust that the name of Hardin will in the future be associated with the performance of deeds that will ennoble his family and be a blessing to humanity.”

William Seat Fly, to John Wesley Hardin

Following the brief visit with Jane and the children—strangers to him now, just as he was a stranger to them—prisoner 7109 returned to his cell. His feelings were mixed: euphoric at seeing and holding his family together, but seeing Jane no longer the beautiful woman he recalled, now worn, tired and dying. There are no further letters from him to Jane. A letter to his brother-in-law Joseph Benton “Buck” Cobb in mid-September reveals she was approaching death. He thanked Cobb “from the deepest deapths [sic] of my heart” for all he was doing, his taking her to various doctors for whatever assistance the medical profession could provide for what is believed to have been tuberculosis. He could only “hope and pray” that the “wise care and attention bestowed upon her by her friends relatives and medical advisers” along with her “courage prudence and patience” would soon restore her to her accustomed health. Further, he still believed he would be out in November—two months away—but in the meantime Cobb could “Say to her Softly” that all he wanted to do was to dedicate all his strength and efforts to her and “our lovely Children.”1


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