Anytime one attempts to record the story of events that happened in days gone by, it is difficult at best and impossible at worst to sequence those events upon a perfect timeline. The John Wesley Hardin story as it occurred in the little frontier town of Comanche, Texas is no different. I’m not sure that even Hardin himself had his dates completely straight on every event that happened within the span of those horrible few days, and that is totally understandable considering the forced isolation and then what must have been almost debilitating grief when he discovered the staggering loss his family had endured.
All I can say for sure is that about the time his cousins, Ham Anderson and Alec Barekman, left Round Mountain, Hardin decided to slip back to the outskirts of Comanche in order to visit his parents’ home and see just what in the world was going on that kept them from sending the needed supplies. Of course, he had no idea that his parents were under house arrest and completely surrounded by guards.
That fact became evident when in the middle of the night, John Wesley Hardin and Jim Taylor quietly approached the Hardin home, only to find men located everywhere around the property. Several different versions of this story exist, but the one I tend to believe (found in the scrapbook of Dora Nabers Greene) is that Johnny Hardin remained hidden until he saw his mother walking around in the yard that night and then he began making his way toward her.
As Mrs. Hardin went to draw water from the well, her son approached and softly called out to her. Startled, the woman turned to face Johnny who also got the shock of his life to see that the “woman” wasn’t a woman at all, but rather a decoy meant to lure him into a trap. However, the male decoy, Thomas Jefferson “Jeff” Greene, was so shocked and scared that he was immobilized, giving Hardin the chance to escape. Hardin was so shocked and scared…that Jeff was given a chance to keep his life!
It was at this point that Hardin and Taylor realized that they had to get out of the county immediately! What the young men on the mountain had not known was that the sheriff’s promise had come true. Texas Rangers were indeed in the town of Comanche, and they were there about 500 (according to some sources) strong. However, they weren’t there to protect John Wesley Hardin and his family…to say the very least.
Before we continue further into our saga, I want to share something with you that I probably should have used to preface this series of articles because I think it is completely impossible for any of us to understand why young Wes Hardin had become such a folk hero in Texas and why he still had those supporters even after the death of Charles Webb. Although scores of articles from the major newspapers of the day exist, I have chosen an excerpt from a late 1871 or early 1872 edition of the Galveston News. It will serve to remind us all just how badly hated the State Police actually was…and why Johnny Hardin was deemed a hero every single time he killed another member.
“Two more murders have been committed by the Governor’s followers. The members of the State Police have again imbued their hands in innocent blood. We have often said in these columns that no man’s life was safe in Texas, so long as Davis was entrusted with his present powers…A short time since two men were murdered at Tyler; now two men have met their fate in Nacogdoches County…in this state we have the additional peril of a gang of men who are licensed by the governor to commit murder…”
Every article that I can find in papers brave enough to print them carries the same theme and the same tone, and the truth is that many Christian men living in 1870s Texas had to ask for forgiveness for silently applauding each and every death that Wes Hardin was able to inflict upon Davis’ flunkies…and if someone like Charles Webb was also sacrificed…well…again, the state was full of people who just didn’t care.
Back in Comanche County, it took a while, but Hardin and Taylor slowly made their way out of the county, traveling (I believe) across property owned by Frazier Clark today and then stopping at Bud Tatum’s (on the Comanche-Hamilton line) to spend the night. Tatum was just another Texan who would never have considered turning the men into the police. In fact, Tatum agreed that Hardin could leave money with him to be given to Jane (Hardin’s wife).
As I told you in another segment, after everyone left Round Mountain, the “rest of the story” is cloudy. As you can imagine, three hangings and two more killings within not too many hours of each other had the entire countryside in an uproar of fear, distrust, and trepidation as people wondered who would be next….this was the crux of the story, you see…not that Webb had been killed, but rather that a mob of men had taken the law into their own hands and killed five people and arrested many, many more…
And that’s what I haven’t told you (in order to simplify the story). It was not only those related to Hardin who found themselves held within the confines of the temporary jail in Comanche. No…as the Tommy Patterson song says, “You’ll be guilty by association…” and I would encourage you to do your own research to see just who it was that was still in custody at this time. The list is fairly long.
Eventually, Hardin and Taylor made their way back to the Taylor place near Austin, which seems crazy to me since that was so near police headquarters, but I suppose they didn’t know where else to go. It was there that Johnny Hardin learned a few days later that he had lost five members of his family, including the brother who had tried so long and so hard to keep him out of trouble. I can only imagine the amount of grief and guilt that must have consumed the young man.
For those back in Comanche, when the dust began to settle just a bit, the rumors swirled faster and faster until most of the town was apparently behind locked doors, believing that JWH would be swooping down any moment to revenge the murders of his family. This did not happen.
In fact, even though books abound with authors claiming that Hardin continued to frequent Comanche County for revenge, and even though Hardin himself claimed to have found revenge, I can’t find it. The idea makes for book sales, and it probably made Hardin feel better about himself, but the fact is that I believe that he returned to Comanche County exactly once in 1874. This was right after he learned of the murders…murders of family members carried out by the hands of just plain old citizens with not one ounce of authority, I might add.
Anyway, we all agree that Johnny Hardin did come home after learning of the deaths. There he knelt at the graves where dear old Mart Fleming had buried Jo* along with Bud and Tom Dixson. He did not visit his family since it was simply too dangerous for everyone involved. Then, John Wesley Hardin mounted and rode away, and I feel sure as he rode he wondered just what it was about that race day pot that had ever looked so good. I find no evidence that he returned to Comanche County again until 1877.
*As I said the story has lots of cloudy spots in it. I think we all agree that it was Mart Fleming with some hired help who finally cut the boys down. It may have been Mart Fleming who actually buried them as well. However, a June 5, 1874, article in the Comanche Chief claims that quite a lot of people followed “the remains” of Jo Hardin to his final resting place. I don’t know that there was an actual funeral for Jo, but I do know that frontier minister Peter Gravis held some type of a service for the men, probably over their graves. Since Hardin’s sister testified that she viewed her brothers body still hanging, I assume that June 5 is the day they were cut down by Fleming.