John Wesley Hardin - part 2: 'Texas, by God!'
By Edward Southerland
Jul 20, 2016
Print this page
Email this article

Like the Lee-Peacock fracas, the Sutton-Taylor feud appeared to be fueled by the bitter divisions of the Civil War and the battles between those still loyal to the Southern cause and the forces of Northern-mandated reconstruction. While cloaked in righteous and noble sentiments on both sides, the truth was more a tale of a bloody turf war between rival groups than of sullied honor.


On May 15, 1873 Hardin was involved in the deaths of Jim Cox and Jake Christman, both Sutton supporters, at Tomlinson Creek in DeWitt County, but his primary claim to infamy came when he killed DeWitt County Deputy Sheriff J. B. Morgan in Cuerro on May 17, and then later in the day gunned down Morgan’s boss, Sheriff Jack Helm, a former captain in the Texas State Police, on the town square of Albuquerque, Texas.


During his time with the Taylor forces, Wes Hardin probably killed Thomas Holderman and had a hand in the murder of Bill Sutton in March 1874. Then, in April, he and Jim Taylor traveled to Comanche to hold up with Joe Hardin.


There was a reward of $500 for Taylor, and Joe Hardin was openly engaged in crooked cattle dealings, but for a while the authorities made no move on the men. Wes Hardin was celebrating his twenty-first birthday in a local saloon when Brown County Deputy Charlie Webb arrived in Comanche, possibly to arrest Taylor, possibly to kill Hardin. Taylor, Hardin, and another of Hardin’s Fannin County cousins, Bud Dixon, killed Webb in shootout in the town.


The wanted poster issued by Texas for Hardin.
Four days later, twenty-two citizens of Comanche County petitioned Austin for help, and Governor Richard Coke ordered Texas Ranger Company A of the Frontier Battalion commanded by Captain John R. Waller, into action. The Rangers moved quickly, arresting Hardin’s parents, his wife Jane, his brother Joe and his wife, Bud and Tom Dixon, and collection of other relatives and cohorts.


Hardin was afraid that if he were arrested the outraged citizenry would lynch him, and indeed, Capt. Waller had a reputation of studied indifference toward the safety of prisoners. Hardin went into hiding with Taylor and Alex Barekman and Anderson Hamilton, two more of his seemingly endless array of cousins. When word came Hardin and his three friends were camped six miles north of Comanche, the Rangers went after them.


On June 1, they caught up with Barekman and Anderson and killed both men. Hardin and Taylor escaped. That same day, twenty cattlemen from Brown County rode into Comanche, hauled Joe Hardin and the two Dixons out of the jail and strung them up in retaliation for the shooting of Charlie Webb. Wes Hardin decided it was time to get out of Texas.


Jane Bowen Hardin and child
Jane Hardin had family in South Alabama and the Florida panhandle, and so with her and the children, Hardin fled to Gainesville, Florida where he assumed the name of John W. Swain and bought a saloon. The murder of a black man, for reasons unknown, caused the Hardins to pick up and move again, first to Micanopy, Florida, then to Jacksonville. Then John Wesley Hardin disappeared.


Back in Texas, the Legislature had posted paper on Hardin carrying the then unheard of sum of $4,000 for his apprehension and “the delivery of the body” to the Travis County jail in Austin. The condition of the body, dead or alive, was not addressed. But despite the tempting price on his head, Hardin was not to be found.


In the spring of 1877, Ranger Lieutenant Lee Hall gave the job of tracking down Hardin to Sergeant John Armstrong, a veteran of Leander McNelly’s Special Ranger Force that had cleaned up the Nueces Strip earlier in the decade. The first problem was to find the fugitive Hardin.


Hall got word that their quarry was in Florida, so he hired John Riley Duncan, a former Dallas policeman and the man reputed to be the best detective in the state to locate him. Duncan went to Gonzales County, where he went undercover and got close to Hardin’s in-laws, the Bowen family. Eventually Duncan determined Hardin was in Pollard, Alabama, and after arranging for arrest warrants to be forwarded to Montgomery, he and Armstrong were on their way.


Duncan went to Pollard, where he learned Hardin was away on a gambling trip to Pensacola. Armstrong and Duncan arrived in that Florida city and made an alliance with the sheriff of Escambia County, William Henry Hutchinson. While they waited for the warrants from Austin to arrive, the lawmen decided to make the arrest when Hardin boarded the train for Alabama at the Pensacola station.


On August 23, Hardin and three companions, Shep Hardy, Neal Campbell, and Jim Mann got on the smoking car and waited for the train to pull out. Sheriff Hutchinson had twenty men in and around the station when he, Deputy A. J. Purdue, Sergeant Armstrong, and Detective Duncan boarded the car.


Texas Ranger John B. Armstrong, taken later in his life.
As Armstrong came around the corner of the vestibule, Hardin spotted the sergeant’s Colt revolver with its 7½-inch barrel, a signature weapon of the Rangers. He shouted, “Texas, by God!” and went for his own piece, which caught in his suspenders.  Armstrong’s Colt came crashing down on Hardin’s head as Mann went for his pistol and was shot dead by the other officers.


It was not until after the fight that Armstrong told the Florida officials the man they had arrested was the notorious Texas desperado. The sheriff and the deputy got $500 each for their part in the capture.


Armstrong delivered “the body,” of John Wesley Hardin, in this case still alive, to the Travis County Jail on August 28. It had been an anxious trip back. Armstrong had been concerned Hardin’s friends might try to stop the train and rescue the prisoner, and a delay in getting the proper warrants and extradition documents from Austin had Hardin’s lawyers looking for a way to get the courts to spring the gunman. They would argue later Hardin had been kidnapped rather than properly arrested and extradited, but those kind of legal niceties had no purchase in 1877. Texas had him, and Texas would keep him.


Under a heavy guard, Hardin went back to Comanche County to stand trial for the murder of Charlie Webb. Twelve men, tried and true, pronounced him guilty on September 29, 1877, and on October 5, the twenty-four-year old killer, walked through the gates of the penitentiary in Huntsville with twenty-five years to serve.


Next... John Wesley Hardin – Part 3

“…Four Sixes to Beat.”