Another Texas gunman
We were talking recently about old West lawmen (click the link for that) who operated on both sides of the line, as it were, men who wore a badge but were at least half criminal, if not more.
Such a one was John M Larn, sometime sheriff of Shackelford County, Texas, a rustler and a pretty cold killer by most accounts and a man who ended, himself in jail, shot to death by vigilantes.
Although he is perhaps one of the ‘lesser’ gunmen of the time, and I know of no Westerns, big-screen or small, that feature him, there are a number of books and articles about him, and two of the writers of them are ones I respect: Leon Metz, of El Paso, biographer of John Wesley Hardin and John Selman, who includes Larn in his book The Shooters, and Robert DeArment, who has written many books, among them lives of Bat Masterson, Frank Canton and Jim Courtright, and is author of Bravo of the Brazos: John Larn of Fort Griffin, Texas (University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, OK, 2002).
By the way, if you do know of a Western movie or TV show that featured Larn, please leave a comment.
Larn was born in 1849 in Mobile, Alabama. He would have been too young to enlist in the Civil War but as a teenager he traveled to Colorado, where he worked as a ranch hand until allegedly murdering his employer during an argument over a horse and lighting out for New Mexico. He then seems to have settled, more or less, at Fort Griffin, Texas, perhaps in 1867, probably working as a cowhand.
In the summer of 1871 William J Hayes, known as Bill, a rancher in the area, decided to put together a cattle drive to the developing market in Trinidad, Colorado Territory, where prices for beef cattle were on the rise. He hired Larn as trail boss. Though still only 22, Larn had already been up the trail to Colorado, knew cattle and was tough enough to manage a group of cowboys who themselves were no choirboys. One of them, twenty-year-old Henry Comstock, wrote a memoir of the trip, so we know a good deal about it, and the crew.
These included a certain Delbert C Clement, commonly known by the alias Bill Bush, a man who bragged of his killings, whom Larn chose as his second-in-command. Bush (let’s call him that) was evidently a violent and erratic man. There were also three guys named Wilson – Charlie, Billie and Jim – though unrelated, as well as Frank Freeman, Bill Hill and Tom Atwell. John Pettigrew cooked and drove the chuck wagon. There were two other youngsters beside Comstock, Albert Shappell and Font Twombly. Hayes himself did not accompany the herd but traveled by stagecoach to Trinidad to negotiate the sale of the steers.
According to Comstock, episodes of violence marked the drive, as Larn and his lieutenant Bush murdered two Mexicans and a sheepherder they encountered, throwing the three bodies in the Pecos River, and Bush shot and killed Billie Wilson over a minor disagreement.
Once in Trinidad, DeArment tells us, “Bush continued his reckless ways, stealing a valuable racehorse from a stable and riding it up into the mountains. Pursued by lawmen, he eventually returned the animal to its stable but left a written warning for the officers, threatening their lives should they attempt to arrest him.” There was also a ruckus in the Bank Exchange Saloon, Trinidad – which would become the site of a famous gunfight between Frank Loving and John Allen in 1882, but that’s another story. In 1872, members of the Hayes crew in the saloon shot and killed a certain Juan Cristobal Tafoya, sheriff of Las Animas County. Other officers chased the cowboys back to camp but, when confronted by an array of Winchester rifles, they beat a tactical retreat without attempting to make arrests.
Leaving Hayes still negotiating the sale of the herd, Larn, accompanied by Atwell, returned to Fort Griffin, carrying with him a power of attorney given him by Hayes. This paper authorized Larn to manage Hayes’s remaining cattle in Shackelford County until the rancher’s return.
Cattleman in his own right
On November 28, 1872 Larn married Mary Jane Matthews, the fifteen-year-old daughter of Joseph Beck Matthews, another respected rancher of Shackelford County.
Using the stones of an old military post (which had once been commanded by a US Army lieutenant colonel named Robert E Lee) Larn built a three-room ranch house he called ‘Honeymoon Cottage’. He would later design and build a six-room L-shaped stone house across the Clear Fork from the cottage, a home so well constructed that it has remained continuously occupied to the present day. Larn now established himself as a cattleman in his own right.
Now, however, Larn teamed up with another disreputable type, John Selman. Metz says, “Of the two, Selman was crude, Larn much more polished and smooth.” Together they used the power of attorney from Hayes to incorporate most of Hayes’s remaining cattle into the Larn herd. When Bill Hayes finally disposed of his cows in Trinidad in the summer of 1873 and returned, he was shocked to find that Larn had betrayed his trust in such a manner.
Obtaining a contract to deliver a thousand head of cattle to the reservation agency at Fort Sill in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) in late fall, Bill Hayes and his brother John put together a crew of drovers, and hired none other than Bill Bush, Larn’s deputy on the earlier drive, as trail boss. Hayes told Bush not to be too particular about the brands on the cows he assembled for the drive; they were probably rightfully Hayes cattle anyway.
Learning this, Larn asked neighboring rancher G Riley Carter, who held a sheriff’s commission as constable, for a warrant for Hayes’s arrest on a charge of rustling. With this warrant, Larn put together a posse that included John Selman and his brother ‘Tom Cat’, and a cattle inspector named Beard. They called on Lt Col. George P Buell, commander of the garrison at Fort Griffin, and secured the assistance of troops in their pursuit. The civilian posse and a detail of 2nd Lt Edward P Turner and seventeen black cavalrymen, the celebrated buffalo soldiers, set out on December 3 after the Hayes outfit.
The Bush Knob Creek Massacre
There now occurred what has become known as the Bush Knob Creek Massacre.
As the pursuers approached what was known as Bush Knob Creek, in south-central Throckmorton County, a young line-rider for the Browning brothers’ ranch, Drew Kirksey Taylor, caught sight of them. “I was just a boy then, but I remember the incident quite clearly,” he later wrote.
[I] saw a party of men at a distance, and at first I was not sure whether they were Indians or white men. I stopped for a while and looked at them, and as they did not ride like Indians, I decided they were soldiers. I then galloped my horse around a bunch of cattle I was driving, and was riding west, when suddenly they started on a run toward me. I then stopped and waited until they came up. And as they approached, I heard one of them say, ‘Oh, that’s just a boy’. They rode up, and one of them asked me if I knew of any cow outfit passing through or camped in that part of the country.
Taylor told them that the Hayes brothers’ herd was resting about six miles further on, and the pursuing party rode away. “I did not know then that I had given these inhuman brutes the information that led them to the camp where they brutally murdered unsuspecting and innocent men,” Taylor recalled. “These Negro soldiers, headed by two white outlaws, one by the name of John Laren [sic] and the other named John Selman…followed the direction I had given them and located the camp of the Hayes outfit.”
Descriptions of what now happened are far from clear. The only known account by an actual eyewitness was Lt Turner’s official report to his superiors. He said that when four men in the Hayes camp spotted the posse they grabbed their weapons and began shooting. In the answering fire, two were killed instantly, while the other two were “shot as they tried to escape”.
An account of the affair in The Galveston Daily News was more detailed and quite different. According to this version an attempt was made to take all four men into custody, but only two submitted to arrest, “and the other two resisted by firing their revolvers at the constable’s party. At the time the firing commenced, the two who were in arrest attempted to escape, one of them grasping a carbine belonging to a member of the guard, and the four were instantly shot and killed.”
The young cowboy Drew Taylor said the posse opened fire without warning, killing all four. “I was one of the men who helped to bury those unfortunate cowboys, and when I say it was diabolical murder, I know whereof I speak.”
Although he was not there, Henry Comstock thought, “As I picture it, knowing the men as I know them, I would say that Laren [sic] killed Bush first and Hayes next and possibly one or two of the others. Bush [was] known by Laren as the dangerous one, and Hayes because he was in Laren’s way.”
Murder or not, the posse rode after the other members of the Hayes outfit. They found them and arrested them without incident. Larn then told some of his men to turn the herd back toward Shackelford County. That night the rest of Larn’s group shot the remaining members of the Hayes party. Again, accounts of how that happened are contradictory. In his official report Lt Turner stated the four attempted to escape, and guards shot them down, but of course we’ve heard that one before. The Galveston Daily News repeated his version.
While acknowledging that eight men had died violently at Bush Knob, both military and civilian officials alike just shrugged. Others, however, roundly condemned the slayings as cold-blooded murder. “Laren and Selman claimed that those cowboys made a fight and would not surrender, and that they had to kill them in self-defense, which was not true,” said Taylor. “They did not give those cowboys a dog’s chance.”
Comstock, knowing Larn well, said he had no doubt “but that Laren killed the four prisoners, because I heard Laren say many times that dead men tell no tales.” The posse burned the saddles of the four men, he said, a good indication the killers had shot their victims in the head while they slept, cowboy fashion, using their saddles as pillows.
On rangeland near Fort Griffin local ranchers held the Hayes brothers’ captured herd for inspection to retrieve stolen Longhorns, with Larn heading the list of claimants. There was no inquiry into the eight deaths at Bush Knob. As Taylor recalled, “In that day and time there was not very much said and nothing done in the way of prosecution with regard to anyone found dead.”
Sheriff John Larn
In 1874 John Larn joined the so-called Tin Hat Brigade, a group of vigilantes, in Fort Griffin. These men specialized in bringing “justice” to cattle and horse thieves – this justice involving hanging them from trees without trial. Larn became such a leading light in the group that he was elected county sheriff at Fort Griffin in April 1876.
According to one account, in the next three months, the Fort Griffin vigilantes shot two more horse thieves and hanged six others.
Larn now entered into a contract with the local territorial garrison to deliver three steers of cattle per day. However, he and Selman simply rustled the cattle from neighboring ranchers rather than providing his own. Suspicions were finally aroused when a number of ranchers noticed that while their herds were slowly shrinking, Larn’s remained unaffected.
After serving for less than a year, Larn resigned as sheriff on March 7, 1877, and was replaced by his deputy, William Cruger. According to Leon Metz, this was because of a violent fracas in the Beehive Saloon in which two Larn partisans, Bill Bland and Charlie Reed, wounded County Attorney Jefferies and Cruger, the former seriously, and also left one bystander dead and an Army lieutenant dying. Bland was also killed.
Moving on to outright cattle rustling, Larn and Selman continued to profit. Amazingly, Larn and Selman got appointed as hide inspectors. In this capacity they were to check out all cattle herds entering and leaving the county, as well as supervising the butchers. Larn continued to supply Fort Griffin with its beef and as more and more cattle went missing, the complaints grew louder and louder.
Finally, in February 1878, a group of civilians secured a warrant to search the river behind Larn’s house, looking for hides that didn’t belong to him. Six were recovered from the river with brands other than Larn’s own. Though Larn was arrested, he was later released and depredations continued.
However, in June 1878 a local rancher named Treadwell, who had reportedly uncovered the cattle rustling, was wounded by Larn, and the Albany court issued a warrant for his arrest. Sheriff William Cruger was then tasked with arresting his former boss, which he did on June 22, 1878. Metz says Cruger found Larn without a gun sitting on a three-legged stool and milking a cow. He was taken to the county seat at Albany, where there were likely to be fewer Larn supporters. Nevertheless, after placing Larn in the jail, Cruger had the local blacksmith shackle him to the floor of the cell to prevent a breakout or rescue.
In the early hours of June 24, 1878, as Larn sat under arrest and in irons in the county jail at Albany, a band of nine vigilantes (presumably not Larn’s own) broke into the jail, overpowered the guard John Poe (who would later be with Pat Garrett when he killed Billy the Kid in Fort Sumner) and, finding that they could not drag him to a tree because of the irons, they riddled him with bullets instead.
As for Selman, he shrewdly lit out for lawless Lincoln County, New Mexico, where he started a vicious gang called Selman’s Scouts. For two months these outlaws terrorized the area, stealing horses and cattle, murdering innocent men and boys, and pillaging businesses and homes.When Governor Lew Wallace issued a proclamation threatening martial law, Selman returned to Texas where he was captured by Texas Rangers in 1880 and taken back to Shackelford County to stand trial for his previous crimes. However, he soon escaped and made his way to Chihuahua, Mexico where he lived until 1888. The Texas charges were then dropped and he moved to El Paso where he remarried and made his living primarily as a gambler and sometimes as a city constable. On August 19, 1895 Selman shot John Wesley Hardin in the back of the head in El Paso’s Acme Saloon. Selman’s own life ended abruptly on Easter Sunday, April 5, 1896, when Deputy US Marshal George Scarborough shot him dead in an El Paso alley.