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Part 2: Why Red Hall Pursued Bonham, Texas, Gentleman Outlaw, John Wesley Hardin, with a Fury

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Part 1 Disclaimer: John Wesley Hardin was never a Texas Ranger. My gut told me that was incorrect information, but the source was credible; not so now. Researching John Wesley’s truth remains elusive and problematic even as the author of his biography, The Life of John Wesley Hardin. (1)


In 1874, Governor Richard Coke replaced Reconstruction Governor Edmund Davis, who served one term as Texas Reconstruction governor from 1870 to 1874. Davis’s administration was far beyond unpopular; it was abhorred along with his State Police program. Governor Coke stepped into the Texas U.S. Senator’s office and Governor Hubbard took control in 1876.


Enter John Wesley Hardin: May 26, 1853


John Wesley Hardin was born in Bonham, Texas, in 1853, the son of James Gibson “Gib” Hardin, Methodist preacher, circuit rider, schoolteacher, and lawyer, and Mary Dixon Hardin. Reverend and Mary Hardin had ten children. * John Wesley’s older brother, Joseph Gibson Hardin, moved to Comanche, Texas, in Comanche County in the early 1870s, established himself well, and his extended family followed. Unbeknown publically (for a while), Joe busied himself with illegal land and cattle sales by falsifying numerous document titles of owners to the same property.


Today, we would call John Wesley a psychopath. At age 13, John Wesley stabbed and almost killed classmate, Charles Sloter, over the authorship of graffiti which insulted a schoolgirl. Two years later in 1869, he shot a black man to death during an argument. The Texas Reconstruction government put John Wesley on a wanted poster for that murder.


Reconstruction was hell on Texans and Texans were hell on Reconstruction. General Phillip Henry Sheridan, commander of the U.S. Army’s Fifth Military District, appointed to oversee Reconstruction in Texas and Louisiana, is famous for saying, “If I owned Texas and Hell, I would rent out Texas and live in Hell.”. General Sheridan removed Confederate Texas Governor James Throckmorton in 1867.


Texas-born, Union army officer, Edmund J. Davis, fled Texas in May 1862, met President Lincoln in Louisiana, and received a colonel’s commission to provide arms to the Union, won the 1869 Texas election for governor. Suffice it to say, John Wesley and the majority of Texans did not hold respect for Davis’s Union-style law. John Wesley went on to kill four Union soldiers in Texas in 1868. By 1871, we find John Wesley trailing cattle on the Chisholm Trail.


Joe Hardin’s Cattle Deal


In March 1874, Jim and Billy Taylor with Joe and John Wesley Hardin killed the original leader of the Sutton gang, Bill Sutton, as he boarded a ship in Indianola, Texas. The four boys fled. In May, John Wesley was readying cattle for a drive to Kansas near Comanche, Texas, southwest of Fort Worth, with a crew of drovers. Jim Taylor joined John Wesley and a few of his relatives in order to stay out of sight in DeWitt County. John Wesley ordered his drovers to head north with the herd while he, his relatives, and Jim went to Comanche to visit and to prepare another herd in Brown County to join up later with his first herd.


Joe Hardin brokered the deal for John Wesley’s second herd; it was in litigation. Even so, John Wesley and company stole that herd. Brown County cattlemen hired former Texas Ranger, Charles Webb, to find the thieves. Webb arrested two locally known cattle thieves, Jim Buck Waldrip and James Beard. Later, Joe, John Wesley, and gang ate dinner at the Waldrip ranch where Jim Buck’s wife complained about her husband’s arrest. Historical speculation arose that the plot to kill Webb began at Mrs. Waldrip’s dinner table.


The Hardin-Webb Gunfight


On May 26, 1874, John Wesley and company spent his 21st birthday celebrating at a Comanche festival where he won 50 head of cattle and several hundred dollars at the horse races and then partied at the saloons. John Wesley was a belligerent drunk. At Jack Wright’s saloon, his party along with Sheriff Karnes became wary that something bad was “gonna go down”. John Wesley claimed that he never met Webb. There is speculation that John Wesley’s gang met Webb in Brown County and cursed him. There is a rumor that John Wesley put a price on Webb’s head, and Webb heard about it. Regardless of his reason, Webb came to Comanche looking for John Wesley that day.


Webb found John Wesley in Jack’s Wright’s saloon. The two exchanged words. Webb stayed calm while John Wesley acted increasingly obnoxiously. The exact words between the two, only known by witnesses, are probably long forgotten. According to John Reid, of the Brownwood Bulletin in 1988, the exchange that “…followed was the actual conversation between Hardin and Webb:


Hardin, “Do you have any papers for me?”


Webb. “No, I do not have any paper for you.”


Hardin, “Look out!”


Hardin wheeled around and fell to the ground firing his Colt pistol as he fell.”


It appeared the two fired on each other at the same time. Webb’s bullet grazed the side of John Wesley’s torso, and his bullet hit Webb under his left eye. Jim Taylor and Hardin cousin Bud Dixon blasted their guns into the Webb-Hardin gunfight. Webb tried to shoot John Wesley in the back and died. ***


An inflamed mob immediately gathered outside of the saloon, and John Wesley surrendered his gun to Sheriff Karnes. The sheriff tried to protect the boys from the mob as John Wesley and gang escaped out a side door and left Comanche in a hurry. Previously, under Reconstruction, John Wesley’s murderous crimes gained him popular support among Texans. The Texan’s hatred for the Reconstruction State Police, plus the respected standing of his father, protected John Wesley from capture. All he had to do was gallop off to a friend or relative’s house to hide out; his father supported him.


Not this time. Governor Coke’s administration had restored Texas-style law and order. John Wesley Hardin left Texas. One of the largest manhunts in history ensued with the Texas Rangers and multitudinous posses on the lookout for the young killer. The John Wesley roundups did not produce the 21-year-old outlaw with a $5,000 price on his head, dead or alive. ** (2, 3, 4)


The Last Killing Spree of the Sutton-Taylor Feud


Doctor P. H. Brassell moved his family from Georgia to near Yorktown, Texas, in DeWitt County in 1870. He and his wife, Mary Ann, had seven children; George was the oldest. Around 10 p.m. on September 19, 1876, the Brassells heard,


“Hello!”


Mary Ann lit two lamps and heard, “Surround the house, boys.”


A man referred to as Mr. Sheriff forced his way into the Brassell home.


Mr. Sheriff said, “Don’t be alarmed, we are after someone, but we have no idea if he is here; we won’t hurt a hair on your head.”


Another voice ordered, “All come out here, you women folks; put on your clothes and come out of that house. Old man, get up and come out of there; come out, old man.”


Dr. Brassell arose out of bed. With sons George, Theodore, and Sylvanus, they walked into the dark barely dressed. The intruders allowed the three sons to go back into the house to dress as Mr. Sheriff searched the house, but again forced them outside. Mary Ann thought she counted eight to ten men. While inside dressing, George told Mary Ann that some of the men were Dave Augustine, Bill Meador, Jake Ryan, and Joe Sitterlie and that he knew all of the intruders.


Outside with their four Brassell hostages, one of the intruders asked the best way to get out of the yard.


George smarted off with, “The same way you entered.”


Dr. Brassell said, “Here’s the gate; don’t tear down the fence.”


The raiders took their hostages a short way down the road. Ten minutes later at the Brassell home, the family heard gunshots. On the road, Theodore and Sylvanus ran to the brush dodging bullets. They made it to the house of a neighbor, Mr. Ainsworth, with the news that they just witnessed the cold-blooded murder of their father and brother. Mr. Ainsworth returned with the boys to inform Mary Ann that she was a widow.


Why?


That was the last killing spree during the Sutton-Taylor Feud conducted by the Sutton faction. The feud was not considered officially over until Bill Taylor was convicted and pardoned by Governor Sayers in 1899. Outraged Texans were horrified because Dr. Brassell had no stake in the feud. The raid and murder of Dr. Brassell forced Governor Hubbard to take action. No conclusion has been generated for why the raid on Dr. Brassell’s family, but historians cite several speculative reasons.


George Brassell carried a shady reputation. He knew the men who murdered him and his father. Dr. Brassell had recently defeated Dave Augustine in the local school board election, and Augustine may have convinced the Sutton’s to kill him. In legal papers studied years later, researchers found that a man impersonating John Wesley Hardin (gunman on the Taylor side) had filed a complaint that Dr. Brassell had threatened Hardin’s life. The Hardin theory makes no sense. The most reasonable theory that most historians agree on is that Dr. Brassell’s execution was a case of mistaken identity. (5, 6)


Plans to End the Sutton-Taylor Feud


Dr. Brassell’s account is important to the reason for Texas Ranger Red Hall’s quest to capture and convict John Wesley Hardin in 1876. The execution of Dr. and George Brassell spurred the Texas government to ramp up the manhunt for John Wesley Hardin. He was suspected of killing numerous Suttons and more undocumented murders. With Dr. Brassell’s execution, Texas set out to end the Sutton-Taylor Feud. ****


Red Hall did not come into play until late 1875. McNelly was down with tuberculosis but still in command until shortly before he died in September 1875. Red’s plan to capture John Wesley proved much more far-reaching than previous law enforcement endeavors and followed McNelly’s pension for spy networks. After Dr. Brassell’s execution, John Wesley Hardin’s fugitive status and innumerous murders compelled Red to launch a multiple, southern U.S. state manhunt to get his man.


Stay Tuned for Part 3: Red Hall and Company Capture John Wesley


* James "Gib" Gibson Hardin’s descendants still live in Lake Texoma counties and towns today.


** Ham Anderson, and Alexander Barekman, two Hardin cousins were present at the Webb-Hardin gunfight and added to wanted posters.


*** Jim Taylor had a $500.00 price on his head before the Webb-Hardin shootout.


**** No one knows for sure, but Hardin is reputed to have gunned down between 20 and 50 men. Hardin loved to embellish his murderous legend. He claimed murders and crimes that cannot be traced back to him.


***** The Sutton-Taylor Feud took place in 24 Texas counties:
Atascosa, Bastrop, Bee, Bexar, Blanco, Caldwell, Calhoun, Colorado, Comal, Dewitt, Fayette, Gillespie, Goliad, Gonzales, Guadalupe, Hays, Karnes, Kendall, Lavaca, Live Oak, Mason, McMullen, Travis, Victoria, and Wilson.


Pictures


1. John Wesley Hardin Wanted Poster
2. Young John Wesley Hardin
3. John Wesley Hardin
4. Book Cover of John Wesley’s Autobiography
5. James “Gib” Gibson Hardin-John Wesley’s Father
6. $5,000 Price on John Wesley


Sources


1. The Life of John Wesley Hardin, https://tinyurl.com/y45q4f7s


2. Metz, Leon. John Wesley Hardin. Handbook of Texas Online, Texas State Historical Association. accessed August 05, 2019,
http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fha63.


3. http://freepages.rootsweb.com/~ammons/genealogy/JohnWesleyHardin.html


4. https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fsh26


5. Reid John. “Once Upon A Time.” Brownwood Bulletin, 20 November 1988.
https://www.brownwoodtx.com/lifestyles/article_25a3829c-b5b5-5d57-9224-08d591378cc8.html


6. Parsons, Chuck. Sutton-Taylor Feud: The Deadliest Blood Feud in Texas. Denton: Univ Of North Texas Press, 2013. Print. A. C. Greene Series # 7. pp. 228-231.




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