I swear that I meant for this to be the final chapter in our study of John Wesley Hardin, even titled this segment as the final chapter, but the story is too big and many of you too impatient to wait! So, here’s yet another chapter in the saga that just won’t end!
Books abound with various authors’ ideas of exactly what JWH did for the three years after fleeing Comanche County. There are all types of stories that exist about his being back in that county while committing all types of nefarious acts; however, I don’t find anything to suggest any of that and having lived in a small town all of my life, I know exactly how rumors tend to swell, grow, and sensationalize. And when people are afraid, all of these things magnify unbelievably. It also makes for a great story for someone to “think” he saw whatever…
Common sense makes me believe that the young man, killer or no, got himself out of the area and stayed out of it. Besides, within just a very short time, his parents and siblings were packed and gone as well.
The following is a snapshot of the Grand Jury document concerning Hardin.
It was three years before detectives smoked out the letter that made JWH’s Florida whereabouts known, and they devised a plan to capture the man who was probably literally the fastest gun the West ever saw. The details of that capture have been written over and over again and are fairly easy to find if you wish to do so. As with all history, readers have to weed out the fact from the sensational on that story as well.
As far as we are concerned here at Texansunited.com, we will ignore those years and resume our story with bringing JWH back to the town of Comanche for trial.
Of course, newspapers all over the state carried articles about the capture of JWH and his return to Comanche, Texas for trial. These are all worth reading if you have the interest. One thing that you will find in at least some of the articles is the crazy fact that people in Texas were still infatuated with the now twenty-four-year-old, lining streets and roadways to see him pass, trying to give him gifts or flowers, and some even asking for autographs although I would venture to say this was not the case in Comanche where his trial began in September of 1877!
The case was No. 435 on the docket. Judge J.R. Fleming was the District Judge, and N.R. Lindsey prosecuted the case. Hardin was represented by a Mr. Nugent of Stephenville. Other names that appear on the papers are W.S.J. Adams, G.R. Hart, Mr. Renick, and Mr. Lipscomb.
The testimony of witnesses in the case is fairly long, but I’ll try to condense the list a bit. It seems to me that everyone pretty much agreed on two things. One, when JWH met Webb at the door of the saloon, he had some choice words for the deputy. Two, all of the witnesses either testified that Webb shot first or that they were unclear of who fired the first shot. (Getting a conviction would normally have been completely impossible in the frontier town of Comanche where it was not uncommon for men to be convicted of stealing a ham while others walked away from rape and even murder charges.)
As you know, eye witness accounts can vary greatly simply because of stress and the fact that we don’t always see what we think we see. I have a bit of a problem with understanding the positioning of the players from these accounts.
During the trial, James Carnes, Jr., brother to Sheriff John Carnes, testified that he was standing on the northeast side of Jack Wright’s saloon with his brother and James Taylor, and he could see John Wesley Hardin as he stood talking to Frank Wilson. According to James Carnes, he heard Hardin say, “Here comes that damn Brown County sheriff now.”
This particular Carnes brother said that he watched Webb come toward Hardin and then act as if he would continue on into the saloon. He heard Hardin ask Webb if he was the sheriff of Brown County and heard Webb answer that he was the deputy sheriff. Hardin then asked if Webb had any papers for him to which Webb answered that he did not know who the man was. According to Carnes, Wes replied, “I am that desperado, John Wesley Hardin, as people call me, now you know me.”
Continuing to testify, Carnes said that Webb claimed that he had no papers for Wes who then asked Webb what he had in his hand. “Nothing but a cigar,” the deputy answered, according to Carnes who continued to testify.
“Lawyer Thurmond, who was standing in the street between Elliott’s store and the saloon, called to Webb and said, ‘Charlie come here,’ whereupon Hardin turned to Thurmond and said, ‘I am tending to Charlie now.’
“Webb started to go to Thurmond, and Hardin said, ‘You can’t go off from me that way.’ Webb then stepped back and said, ‘No, damn you. I am not afraid of you,’ drew his pistol and fired before he got it presented. Taylor, Hardin, and Dixson all fired at Webb, killing him.
“When Webb fell, Hardin said, ‘Shoot them every damn one,’ and I ran. The time was nearly sundown. Hardin and Webb fired very close together though Webb fired first. Hardin was in front of Webb, Taylor on his left and Dixson on his right. When Webb fell he laid his pistol on his knee and fired at Hardin.
“‘I saw the shot in his [Webb’s] right cheek. Did not examine other wounds. I had seen Hardin that evening between town and the race track. Can’t say that Hardin had his hand on his six shooter when Webb fired. If he attempted to fire first, I did not see it; did not see Hardin’s pistol at all until he fired at Webb.”
The testimony of the next Carnes brother, David “Dave,” added something that I don’t believe I have ever read anywhere else and that is that there was obviously some friction on this day between Hardin and Taylor. Dave Carnes was in the Carnes-Wilson saloon when Hardin walked in and found James Taylor there. According to Carnes, Hardin was very upset with Taylor, “You didn’t come to the race track; you knew I was expecting trouble there; you went back on me and you are the last man in the world I thought would do that.”
Carnes then watched the two men exit the saloon through the back door where they sat on a log and talked for a long while. The men eventually came back inside the saloon where they stayed only a few minutes before walking up the street to Jack Wright’s saloon.
“I went up there too. Hardin asked us to take a drink and we did.”
“’Frank Wilson came in and went with Hardin out of the east side door. Taylor and I went out also. Taylor advised John Wesley not to drink any more. I was expecting a difficulty and that was why I went out.” (Here, I’m skipping the part of this testimony that matches that of James Carnes.)
“They all fired at once or nearly so. If there was any difference, Webb shot first. I stood and looked on until six shots were fired, and they were getting ready to fire again, and I got around the corner of the house. I then heard a great many more shots. At the time of the shooting Hardin stood right in front of Webb, Taylor on Webb’s right and south of him.
“Webb fell at the first crack of Hardin’s and Taylor’s pistols. I saw him when he was picked up. His head was against the wall of the saloon. He was shot in the right cheek…Hardin spoke in a loud tone of voice, excited and angry, when talking to Webb. Webb spoke in a very low tone, very cool and collected. They were 5 or 6 feet apart. Webb fell at the first fire. Taylor advanced on him and shot him again.”
Thus ended the testimony of Dave Carnes, brother of Sheriff John Carnes.
The next witness was Peter Avery who testified that he had come from Brownwood and that everyone fired about the same time.
P.M. Thurmond (who called to Webb just before the shooting) testified that he ran as soon as the shooting began.
J.W. Johnson simply said that he heard Hardin say, “I am the notorious John Wesley Hardin, the desperado as people call me; I am considered an outlaw, but I always carry the documents to protect me.”
Comanche County Deputy Frank Wilson was the next to testify.
“I was in conversation with the defendant a few minutes before the shooting. I told him he had better go home as he was drinking and would hurt somebody. He said he was not armed and pushed back his coat to show me, making the impression on my mind that he was not armed. He said he would go. Some one remarked that the town authorities had arrested him for carrying arms, but he said he had no arms and threw back his coat. About this time Webb came up.” [Here the testimony matches that of the Carnes men.]
Frank Wilson went on to tell the same story about Hardin, Webb, and Thurman; however, he omitted the choice words that the Carnes brothers claimed Hardin used. Then, he described the shooting.
“Just then Webb grabbed for his pistol, and it fired just as he got it out of scabbard while it was at an angle of 45 degrees and before it was presented. When the firing closed there was no one on the ground but Taylor, Hardin, Dixson, and myself and Webb who was lying mortally wounded.
“As soon as the firing ceased, Hardin threw the empty shells out of his pistol and said, ‘Fill up, boys, and hold the house.’ [This testimony contradicts that of James Carnes since holding the house would not have meant something entirely different from killing them all.] He reloaded his pistol and started to the saloon.”
According to Wilson, Hardin then changed his mind before entering the saloon, saying that he would surrender to Wilson himself. Then, upon seeing the sheriff in the street, Hardin decided to surrender to him. Wilson went on to say that when next he saw Hardin, he and Taylor were running across the street (east) where they grabbed a couple of horses standing there behind Elliott’s store and rode off.
“I was standing with one hand on Hardin’s shoulder and one on Webb’s when the conversation began between them. There was considerable excitement after the shooting, and the people eagerly crowded around the dead man. I heard Tom Dixson ask Bud Dixson, Barrickman [sic], and the Anderson boys that evening if they would stand by him. Bud said he would but if Hardin got into any trouble with anybody else he would stand by him.”
I’m not sure about this comment since the pronoun him is used in place of nouns, plus Bud and Tom were brothers so I’ll just have to say that I’m not sure what Bud meant here.
Frank Wilson’s testimony interests me for one main reason. Through the years the idea that he was actually teamed up with Webb to help kill Hardin continues to be a common thought, and yet, if he is telling the truth here, he was the closest lawman to the shooting and his claim for the State is that Webb drew first. If his goal was to rid the world of JWH, he could just as easily or conveniently have altered his testimony…don’t think I’m making any claims here…just thinking out loud, so to speak!
In a closing statement to the jury Hardin spoke for himself and said, “People will call me a killer, but I swear to you gentlemen that I shot only in defense of myself. When Sheriff Webb drew his pistol, I had to draw mine. Anybody else would have done the same thing. Sheriff Webb had shot a lot of men.”
There are, of course, other pieces of testimony from the JWH trial that you might want to read if you have the interest. The following is from the Comanche Chief.
“The trial was very vigorously contested…the State endeavored to prove that Hardin provoked the difficulty with Webb in order to kill him. It is not clear that such was the case.
“The history of that tragic event would have been different if Webb had not been in such a hurry to fire. He had a short time before that bought a pistol, and not knowing it had a hair trigger, in drawing it, it went off prematurely.”
And I have to insert here that it is beyond me how anyone would have gone gunning for John Wesley Hardin, literally the fastest gun anyone had ever seen, and not have practiced over and over with whatever gun he planned to use! Anyway, the article went on…
“There is little doubt that he would have killed Hardin, though he himself would surely have been killed in any event by Taylor and Dixson.
“…The jury was composed of the following persons: M. Aiken, F.M. Onstott, Wm. Seaton, J.F. McCarty, G.L. Martin, D.L. Dodds, J.B. Price, P.B. Lassiter, W.R. Edington, J.W. Chilton, J.J. Randolph, T.M. Renfro. Their verdict was. ‘We the jury find the defendant guilty of murder in the second degree and assess his punishment at confinement at hard labor in the penitentiary for 25 years.’
“The Chief reporter inquired of Judge Lindsey, who assisted in the prosecution, why the penalty was so light, and he replied that the proof of a conspiracy to kill was slight, and he rather thought Hardin only intended to ‘cuss out’ Webb and not kill him. He said that none of Hardin’s shots hit Webb; that Taylor and Dixson killed him…”
And thus it was that John Wesley Hardin was convicted for a murder that could not be proven he committed and that was considered self-defense by all who saw it play out in front of them. Then, there was the prosecutor who admitted to a reporter that Hardin himself had probably killed no one, which was why he was only convicted of 2nd degree murder….and only given 25 years hard labor….
Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m going to have a pretty tough time going to prison for something even the prosecutor doesn’t believe I did! Of course, fifteen long years later, JWH was pardoned for the shooting in Comanche, Texas.