DEADLIEST FEUD IN TEXAS

It’s called the Sutton-Taylor Feud, but William Sutton was the only Sutton involved in this fight. He had a lot of friends, including some members of Governor E. J. Davis’ State Police. The Taylor faction consisted of the sons, nephews, in-laws, and friends of two

brothers––Creed and Pitkin Taylor. The tale gets more complicated: Creed Taylor, who had fought in every major Texas battle from the “Come and Take It” skirmish at Gonzales through the Mexican-American War, did not join the feud. His brother Pitkin was an old man in 1872 when the feud was well underway. Sutton supporters lured him out of his house one night by ringing a cowbell in his cornfield. Shot and severely wounded, he lived only six months. At his funeral, his son and several relatives vowed to avenge the killing. “Who sheds a Taylor’s blood, by a Taylor’s hand must fall” became their mantra.

Lawlessness ran rampant in Texas after the Civil War and resentments flared with the arrival of black Union soldiers assigned to keep order and Carpetbaggers—Northerners, some of whom took advantage of the impoverished conditions by paying back taxes on land to acquire farms belonging to Confederate soldiers.

Evidence of the building tensions appeared in 1866 when Buck Taylor shot a black sergeant who came to a dance at the home of Taylor’s uncle. Then Hays Taylor killed a black soldier in an Indianola saloon. The following year, Hays Taylor and his brother Doby killed two Yankee soldiers in Mason. No arrests were made in any of the cases.

William Sutton’s first foray into the “troubles,” began in 1868 while he served as Clinton deputy sheriff. In an attempt to arrest horse thieves, Sutton killed Charley Taylor and arrested James Sharp. When Sharp “tried to escape,” a recurrent problem with prisoners during that period, Sutton shot Sharp in the back.

A few months later, Buck Taylor and Dick Chisholm accused Sutton of dishonesty over the sale of some horses. They settled the matter with guns, which resulted in the death of both Taylor and Chisholm.

Then William Sutton did the unthinkable by joining the hated State Police force under Captain Jack Helm. Historians believe not all of the State Police were corrupt or politically motivated, however, the faction working under Jack Helm apparently used “Reconstruction,” as an excuse to terrorize large sections of South Central Texas. For example, Helm’s men arrested sons-in-law of Pitkin Taylor on a trivial charge, took them a short distance from home, and killed them while one of their wives watched from hiding.

After several incidents came to light regarding Jack Helm’s misconduct, the State Police dismissed him. To the chagrin of many in the area, Helm continued serving as DeWitt County Sheriff. It was not long before Jim Taylor and John Wesley Hardin, the notorious murderer, killed Jack Helm.

With Helm gone, William Sutton became the leader of the group. After old Pitkin Taylor, mentioned above, was lured out and killed, his son Jim and several relatives caught William Sutton in a saloon; they fired through the saloon door, but only wounded him. After a second unsuccessful attempt to kill Sutton, they settled for killing a member of Sutton’s group.

The murders continued to terrify the countryside. Residents of the region were forced to take sides and lived in constant fear of being pursued or ensnared in a trap. No one felt safe from the rampage. Finally, William Sutton moved to Victoria and got married. When his wife was expecting a child, he decided they should leave the country.  Gabriel Slaughter accompanied them on the train to Indianola. On March 11, 1874, Sutton, his wife, and Slaughter were boarding a ship when Jim and Bill Taylor shot and killed both men.

In retaliation, the Sutton faction arrested three Taylors on charges of “cattle theft,” and put them in the Clinton jail. Despite probable innocence, they were taken out of jail on the night of June 20, 1874, and hanged.

In September 1875, Bill Taylor went on trial in Indianola for murdering Sutton and Slaughter. Huge crowds from all over the state––eager to witness the trial of a member of the notorious feud––converged on Indianola. Instead of a trial, they witnessed a devastating hurricane with winds of 110 miles an hour. When water began filling the jail, Bill Taylor and the other prisoners were released.

The murders continued when John Wesley Hardin killed the new leader of the Suttons. A gunfight the following month, left Jim Taylor and two of his friends, dead. When masked men executed four prominent citizens, the Texas Rangers finally stepped in and arrested eight suspects. No one dared testify. The trial ended with only one conviction and that man, after twenty years of legal maneuvering, received a pardon.

The Sutton-Taylor Feud ground to an exhausted halt. Known as the longest and bloodiest feud in Texas history, the confirmed death toll in the Taylor faction reached twenty-two. The Sutton group lost about thirteen.

 

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The Making of a Ghost Town

After the Civil War, Indianolans were determined to rebuild and recapture the financial momentum that had driven the local economy before Texas seceded from the Union. They welcomed northern businessmen like Francis Stabler who came from Baltimore with a very successful method to preserve beef by using carbonic acid gas. He opened a meat canning plant and a tallow operation that spread to markets in New Orleans and New York.

Indianolans were as wary as were all the citizens of the former Confederacy when the Reconstruction Government imposed military rule and moved in federal forces assigned to see that the civil rights of the freed slaves were protected. Since there were only a small number of slaves in the entire county and the area had never been dependent on slave labor, the infantry companies found their task relatively easy. And residents began to see the occupying force as gentlemanly and courteous.

By the end of the war, the number of unbranded cattle had exploded. Steamships lined up at Indianola’s long piers to take on loads of cattle. Massive numbers of longhorns were driven to the railheads in Kansas.

In July 1869, the world’s first refrigerated warehouse was built at Indianola to hold thirty beef carcasses at a temperature just above freezing. Thus, began a new business constructing refrigerated warehouses and a future of shipping fruits and vegetables from as far away as the West Indies.

Gaslighting, washing machines, and Steinway pianos became readily available and there were more fine hotels with billiard rooms and fancy bars and restaurants known for oysters and seafood of all kinds.

Despite the completion of the railroad that hauled goods over the sixty-five-mile route to Cuero, the streets remained congested with hundreds of freight wagons and Mexican carretas loaded with raw materials and silver from mines in Northern Mexico and the produce from Western Texas farms. Ships from across the Gulf Coast and as far north as New York and Boston brought finished lumber and manufactured goods that the teamsters hauled to eager merchants at inland towns. The activity at the port of Indianola began to rival Galveston.

In the midst of the economic revival, resentment increased over men having to swear that they had never supported the South in order to receive amnesty. If they had been part of the Confederacy they were disenfranchised. The outrageous increase in taxes finally drove Democrats and moderate Republicans to join forces in 1874 and vote out the administration of Governor E. J. Davis.

Indianola continued to thrive and enjoyed very little of the political unrest and outright defiance of the law that stirred many communities across other parts of the South. However, on March 11, 1874, Indianola was thrust into the middle of the Sutton-Taylor feud, a bloody series of revenge killings that started after the Civil War and raged across DeWitt County. William Sutton, one of the principals in the fight had been persuaded by his pregnant wife to leave the area. Accompanied by his wife and a friend, they arrived on the train from Cuero and were walking up a ship’s gangplank, when two of the Taylor boys appeared out of the crowd and killed the two men.

The murder trial was scheduled to be held at the Indianola courthouse in mid-September 1875. Crowds from Victoria, DeWitt, Calhoun and surrounding counties descended on Indianola for the sensational event. They filled the hotels and boarding houses to capacity and buoyed the town with a spirit of excitement.

The winds picked up on Tuesday, September 14, and by Wednesday children and visitors were enjoying the white-crested waves. It looked like all the people gathered for the trial would return home with additional tales of the storm. By dawn on Thursday, the bay had moved into the streets and the surging water tore at foundations. The road out of town had become impassable and the force of the waves ate away at the railroad track. Observers scrambled to the second floor of the concrete courthouse and families used boats to move to structures that appeared stronger. As night covered the city, the winds increased and buildings were swept into the darkness of the prairie and bayous for twenty miles behind the town. People tied cotton bales together to form rafts. Banks secured cotton bales around the safes that allowed them to float when the buildings collapsed.

The silence of the center came after midnight. Then the deafening roar returned as the opposite side of the eye sucked the water back to sea with such force that it carried with it many of the weaken structures. Friday morning dawned clear and cool with a stiff wind. Three-fourths of the buildings had disappeared; most of the others were severely damaged; five bayous had been cut across to Power Horn Lake that sprawled behind the town. Entire families were gone, yet some people were found miles away after floating on doors or roofs. Because of the number of visitors in town, no one knew how many had perished. Almost three hundred bodies were found, many so mutilated that they could not be identified. Unknown numbers had been swept out to sea.

Aid flowed in from all over the country in the form of cash and supplies to help Indianolans rebuild their lives. Ironically, Charles Morgan, the shipping tycoon who had increased his fortune by filling his steamships at the local wharves sent only a letter with an expression of sympathy.

The people imagined deepening the bayou that led into Powder Horn Lake and rebuilding their port on the higher ground beside the inland lake. When it became clear that representatives of the aging Charles Morgan would not help with such an expensive endeavor, many people and businesses moved to Victoria and Cuero. However, a determined core of residents decided to continue the shipping business and to build on the seaport’s natural assets––clear bay water, gleaming white shell beaches, excellent fishing, and hotels and restaurants of the first order. They named the beautiful beach drive that paralleled the bay The Promenade, and they advertised all the features that expanded their port city into a vacation and fishing locale.

The campaign began to work and Indianola rose again as a prominent coastal community for business and pleasure. Then on August 19, 1886, after a summer of extreme heat and drought, telegraph signals warning of an approaching storm failed to reach Indianola before the rising tide cut off all hope of moving to safety. During the fierce winds, a fire broke out and burned all but two of the downtown buildings. Structures that had withstood the 1875 storm collapsed under the wind and water. Although the wind speed was greater than the first hurricane, the rapid movement of the storm decreased the surge of water from the bay and the devastating outflow.

The end had come. Residents who could find portions of their homes, gathered up the pieces, renumbered the boards and began the sad process of abandoning their city by the sea. A few diehards hung on for a year or two and then the coast returned to the windswept place it had been when the first Germans arrived in December 1844.

STEIN HOUSE, A GERMAN FAMILY SAGA tells the Indianola story through the lives of Helga Heinrich and her four children who operated Dr. Joseph Stein’s boarding house through all those joy-filled and turbulent years.

The new edition of Stein House.
Cover image of Federal troops leaving Indianola in 1861 is from the collection of the Calhoun County Museum, Port Lavaca, Texas.

Indianola Survived and Thrived After the Civil War

STEIN HOUSE, A GERMAN FAMILY SAGA, tells the story of immigrants operating a boarding house in the thriving Indianola seaport. They arrived with hope for a new life and were thrust into the political choice of supporting a land that had welcomed them or standing for their principles that did not include slavery.

The new edition of Stein House.
Cover image of Federal troops leaving Indianola in 1861 is from the collection of the Calhoun County Museum, Port Lavaca, Texas.

The Civil War came to Indianola with the federal blockade of the Gulf of Mexico, which halted supplies coming through Pass Cavallo, the narrow channel from the gulf into Matagorda Bay. By October 1862, when a federal fleet made a foray into the bay, the family had already offered their sons to the war. Residents of the Stein House watched from the upstairs porch as Indianola officials refused to sell supplies and beef to the waiting Union ships. Cannons exploded in a brief battle that resulted in the death of one Union and two Confederate soldiers. The Federal troops looted Indianola, sailed up the coast and looted Lavaca, then moved back out into the Gulf of Mexico.

The waiting game began. It was only a matter of time before Federal forces would make another push to invade the middle Texas coast to stop the movement of cotton—the Confederacy’s means of exchange with Great Britain and other European countries.

Efforts to move cotton through the Gulf blockade quickly proved inadequate, promoting dependence on the Cotton Road, a route through the central part of Texas and across the Wild Horse Desert, the untamed and unpoliced land between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande. At Brownsville, freighters ferried cotton across the Rio Grande and then hauled it along the Mexican side of the river to Bagdad, a port at the mouth of the river. There, hundreds of foreign ships anchored in neutral waters off the Mexican coast to exchange the precious cotton for Winchester rifles, ammunition, medical supplies, and equipment desperately needed by the Confederacy.

News of the war was scarce but word came of Confederate troops putting up little resistance when Federals attacked Galveston. General John Bankhead Magruder, convinced that Texas would be invaded along the coast at Indianola, ordered a scorched earth defense––burn bridges, destroy lighthouses, dismantle the railroad out of Lavaca, and burn the warehouses and wharves at Indianola. He met bitter resistance from the locals who refused to destroy their own infrastructure. In war, they expected the enemy to destroy property, not their own officials. There would be time enough when the Yanks made a move. Then spirits lifted on hearing that Confederates had retaken Galveston on New Year’s Day 1863.

In November Brownsville fell, cutting off the shipment of cotton into Mexico. Confederates moved the cotton crossing on up the river to Laredo and as far west as Eagle Pass.

Indianolans waited as Federals began a relentless march from the Rio Grande up the Texas coast. They captured town after town until they reached Indianola in December 1863. Residents of the Stein House stood again on the upstairs porch to watch the brief battle. Within hours, troops descended on the property, camped in the yard, and took over the upper floors of the boarding house.

The occupants of the Stein House foraged for food, fed families of men who were off fighting, educated the children and waited for word from their men.

On March 14, 1864, less than three months after they arrived, the Federal forces began to depart. As they watched pontoon boats carrying men to the waiting ships, one of the boats took on water and began to sink. People along the shore rowed out to the rescue only to see twenty-one men drown in the shallow water. In gratitude for their help, the commanding office donated military clothing that the women of Indianola dyed and refashioned for children who had become threadbare.

The sudden troop withdrawal led to speculation that an invasion of Texas was imminent. In fact, the Yankees planned to invade from Northwestern Louisiana near Shreveport. When the Red River Campaign failed on April 8, 1864, Union forces made no further effort to control Texas.

With the troops gone, Indianolans started rebuilding their destroyed homes, filled in the rifle pits that scarred the landscape, and replanted gardens that had been stripped bare. The legislature allowed residents who had no money to pay their taxes in goods or articles that were redistributed to destitute families. When the war ended with the surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox on April 9, 1865, hope returned for a future of peace and prosperity.

The Federal blockade of the Gulf of Mexico ended in June, swinging wide the gates of commerce. The Chihuahua Road reopened and hundreds of wagons and Mexican carts loaded with silver, copper, and lead from the mines in Mexico rumbled into the port. Lumber and manufactured goods, which had been halted by the blockade, flooded through Indianola. Charles Morgan, the shipping tycoon, reclaimed and rebuilt his ships that had been confiscated by both sides in the war. He intended to regain his lost shipping empire, and Indianola benefited.

The arrival of the Army of Occupation that came to maintain order and see that the freedmen were not harmed, sent shivers through Indianola and the wary residents of the Stein House. A young Yankee lieutenant took a room at the Stein House and soon eased the tensions of Reconstruction and tempered the anger generated by the government requirement that citizens sign amnesty oaths, and the denial of the right to vote for anyone who had any political or military association with the Confederacy.

Indianolans continued to look to the sea for their survival. Ships brought in everything from groceries to building materials and exported cotton, wool, hides, and even beeswax. Ice, cut from the ponds of New England, arrived during the warm months. They repaired bridges, constructed roads, and built houses next to the grading for the future railroad that had been stopped by the war.

Indianolans believed that getting their economy and their seaport back in operation and maintaining a working relationship with all the country was in their best interest. The seaport thrived––even rivaled Galveston––until 1875.

Next week: Storms that Created a Ghost Town.

TALES ABOUT JOHN WESLEY HARDIN

John Wesley Hardin
Wikipedia

The handsome and gentlemanly John Wesley Hardin, son of a Methodist preacher, was named after the founder of the Methodist Church. Perhaps his proper upbringing caused “Wes” to view himself as a pillar of society who claimed he never killed a man who didn’t need killing. The number of dead differ, as do the stories about his escapades, but John Wesley Hardin managed in his forty-two years to kill at least thirty men. Some accounts claim forty.

Born in Bonham in 1853, Hardin at age fourteen stabbed a fellow student in a schoolyard fight. He might have been expelled for the incident except his father founded and ran the school. Like many men too young to fight in the Civil War, Hardin became the product of the hatred generated by the conflict. The restrictive policies and draconian laws of the Reconstruction government fueled anger, which encouraged citizens, especially impressionable young men, to lash out at freed slaves and at black members of the Union army sent to enforce the new order. A year after the stabbing, Hardin met a black man, got into an argument, and shot the man dead.

His relatives, sure that Wes could not receive a fair trial from the Reconstruction government, encouraged him to flee, which began a pattern of relatives and friends hiding Hardin from the law. When Hardin heard that three Union soldiers were headed for his hideout at his brother’s house, he later wrote: “I waylaid them, as I had no mercy on men whom I knew only wanted to get my body to torture and kill. It was war to the knife for me, and I brought it on by opening the fight with a double-barreled shotgun and ended it with a cap and ball six-shooter. Thus it was by the fall of 1868 I had killed four men and was myself wounded in the arm.”

Some accounts say within a year he killed another soldier. All stories agree that Wes Hardin served at age 17 as trail boss for a cattle drive up the Chisholm Trail. One account says he got into an argument with Mexican cowboys who tried cutting their herd in front of his. All the stories about the cattle drive agree that John Wesley Hardin killed six or seven men on that trip to Abilene, Kansas.

Some say Hardin became friends with city marshal Wild Bill Hickok whom he admired. Others say he forced Hickok to stand down. Whatever really happened, Hardin left Abilene in a hurry. He wrote regarding the episode, “They tell lots of lies about me.  They said I killed six or seven men for snoring. Well, it ain’t true, I only killed one man for snoring.” The gentleman to whom he refers slept in the next hotel room and Hardin shot through the wall to stop the snoring.

Wild Bill Hickok
Wikipedia

Hardin returned to Central Texas, married Jane Bowen a beautiful cultured girl from a respectable family who had been his childhood sweetheart. He did not, however, settle down. Despite constant absences, while he ran from the law, Jane remained loyal.  After being arrested, breaking out of jail, and taking sides in a major Central Texas feud, Hardin finally killed a deputy sheriff. Finding himself under constant pursuit, Hardin fled with Jane and their three children to Florida where they lived for two years under an alias. Some accounts claim he killed as many as six men while he was on the run.

Finally caught in 1877, Hardin stood trial in Austin and was sentenced to twenty-five years in prison for killing the deputy. While in prison, he made repeated escape attempts, read theology, served as superintendent of the prison Sunday school, wrote his autobiography, and studied law. He received a pardon from the governor in 1894 and was admitted to the Texas bar.

After raising their three children, Jane died while Hardin served his prison term.  Upon his release, he headed to El Paso where he opened a law practice, became involved with a client’s wife, and hired several law enforcement officers to assassinate the husband. One of the hires, Constable John Selman, possibly angry over not being paid for killing the husband, found Hardin in the Acme Saloon and shot him in the back of the head. Hardin died instantly. The career of one of Texas’ most notorious killers came to an end on August 19, 1895, but the legends and legacy continue to stir imaginations.

NORRIS WRIGHT CUNEY RISES TO POWER AFTER THE CIVIL WAR

Born into slavery in 1846, Norris Wright Cuney did not lead an ordinary slave’s life. His education and other opportunities led the way to his becoming one of Texas’ most powerful black political leaders of the nineteenth century. Cuney’s father, Colonel Philip Cuney, one of the largest landholders in Texas, owned 105 slaves and operated the 2,000-acre Sunnyside Plantation near Hempstead. Cuney’s mulatto mother Adeline Stuart was one of the colonel’s slaves, but she worked as the colonel’s chief housekeeper and bore eight of his children. Cuney’s mother made sure that he and his siblings never lived in the slave quarters or worked as plantation field hands. In fact, Cuney learned to play the bass violin and carried it with him when he traveled with his father on trading trips.

Norris Wright Cuney

During the time Cuney was growing up, his father also had a white family. About the time his father married his second wife in 1843, he also embarked on a political career as a member of the House of Representative of the Republic of Texas. He became a delegate to the Convention of 1845 that voted for Texas annexation to the United States, and he served as a brigadier general in the Texas Militia. After Texas joined the Union he became a member of the Texas State Legislature and the State Senate.

In 1853, not long after Colonel Cuney married his third wife, he left his plantation in the hands of an overseer and moved all his family to Houston, including Adeline Stuart and her children. That same year he began freeing his black children, starting with Cuney’s older brother Joseph went to the Wylie Street School for blacks in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. Over the years Colonel Cuney continued freeing his children and their mother Adeline Stuart.

In 1859 Cuney and his sister Jennie were freed. Cuney went to school in Pittsburgh and Jennie sailed to Europe for her education. Jennie later passed as a member of the white community.

The Civil War disrupted Cuney’s studies, and he spent the wars years working on steamboats between Cincinnati and New Orleans where he met and became influenced by black leaders such as P.B.S. Pinchback, who became Louisiana’s first black governor after the Civil War.

After the war, Norris Wright Cuney settled in Galveston near the homes of his mother and brothers. He began studying law and took advantage of being a literate, educated mulatto son of a wealthy white man. He worked with the Freedmen’s Bureau and the Union League during the Reconstruction-era to push former slaves to the voting booth, which resulted in more than 100,000 blacks voting annually into the 1890s. When the Reconstruction Legislature established a public school system, Cuney worked to ensure that tax money also went to black students within the segregated system.

Cuney married Adelina Dowdie, a schoolteacher, and daughter of a mulatto slave mother and a white planter father. The Cuney’s had two children, and since both parents were musical—Cuney played the violin and Adelina was a singer— art and music filled their home, and they emphasized education. Their son Lloyd Garrison Cuney, named for the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, became an official in the Congregation Church. Their daughter Maud Cuney Hare studied at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston and became an accomplished pianist, folklorist, writer, and community organizer in Boston. She wrote Norris Wright Cuney: A Tribune of the Black People.

Maud Cuney-Hare

 

Over the years of Cuney negotiating with white elites and despite serious strikes, unionized blacks finally gained access as workers on Galveston’s docks.

After being elected the Texas national committeeman in the Republican Party in 1886, Cuney became Texas party chairman, the most powerful position of any African American in the South at that time. However, his position did not sit well with some Republicans in Texas and throughout the country, which led to some in the party trying to have black leaders expelled. Cuney coined the term “Lily-White Movement” to describe the Republican effort.

In 1889 Cuney was appointed U.S. Collector of Custom in Galveston, the highest-ranking position of any black man in the South in the late nineteenth century. However, Cuney’s death that year coincided with efforts across the South to disfranchise black and poor white voters. Legislatures passed laws that made voter registration difficult and Texas instituted the Poll Tax and White Primaries (only whites could vote in the primaries) that greatly reduced the number of black voters from the high of 100,000 in the 1890s to less than 5,000 by 1906. During the Great Depression, racial strife within the unions dissolved much of the labor cooperation that had been established between blacks and whites.

Despite Cuney’s legacy of inspiring other black leaders, and the designation by some historians of the period between 1884 and 1896 as the “Cuney Era,” it would take the passage in the 1960s of the Civil Rights laws before blacks across the South regained the right to vote.

Norris Wright Cuney: A Tribune of the Black People

SUTTON-TAYLOR FEUD

William Sutton was the only Sutton involved in this feud, but he had a lot of friends, including some members of Governor E. J. Davis’ State Police.  The Taylor faction consisted of the sons, nephews, in-laws and friends of Creed and Pitkin Taylor.  Creed apparently did not join the fight and Pitkin, an old man, became involved when Sutton supporters lured him out of his house one night by ringing a cowbell in his cornfield.  Shot and severely wounded, he lived six months before he died in 1872.  At his funeral, his son and several relatives vowed to avenge the killing. “Who sheds a Taylor’s blood, by a Taylor’s hand must fall” became the mantra.

Lawlessness ran rampant in Texas after the Civil War and resentments flared with the arrival of the Reconstruction government including Carpetbaggers—Northerners, some of whom took advantage of the impoverished conditions by paying back taxes on land to acquire farms belonging to Confederate soldiers–and black Union soldiers assigned to keep order.

Evidence of the building tensions appeared in 1866 when Buck Taylor shot a black sergeant who came to a dance at the home of Taylor’s uncle.  Hays Taylor killed a black soldier in an Indianola saloon.  Then, in 1867 Hays Taylor and his brother Doby killed two Yankee soldiers in Mason. No arrests were made in any of the cases.

William Sutton’s first foray into the “troubles,” came in 1868 while he served as Clinton deputy sheriff.  In an attempt to arrest horse thieves, Sutton killed Charley Taylor and arrested James Sharp.  When Sharp “tried to escape,” a recurrent problem with prisoners during that period, Sutton shot Sharp in the back.  A few months later, Buck Taylor and Dick Chisholm accused Sutton of dishonesty over the sale of some horses.  They settled the matter with guns, which resulted in the death of both Taylor and Chisholm.

Then, William Sutton did the unthinkable by joining the hated State Police force under Captain Jack Helm.  Historians discovered not all of the State Police were corrupt or politically motivated, however, the faction working under Jack Helm apparently used “Reconstruction,” as an excuse to terrorize large sections of South Central Texas.  For example, Helm’s men arrested sons-in-law of Pitkin Taylor on a trivial charge, took them a short distance from home, and killed them in front of one of their wives.

After several incidents came to light regarding Jack Helm’s misconduct, the State Police dismissed him, but to the chagrin of many people in the area, Helm continued serving as DeWitt County Sheriff.  It was not long before Jim Taylor and John Wesley Hardin, (see recent blog) the notorious murderer, killed Jack Helm.

With Helm gone, William Sutton became leader of the group.  After old Pitkin Taylor, mentioned above, was lured out and killed, his son Jim and several relatives wounded William Sutton when they fired at him through at saloon door.  After a second unsuccessful attempt to kill Sutton, they settled for killing a member of Sutton’s group.

The murders continued to terrify the countryside.  Residents of the region were forced to take sides and lived in constant fear of being pursued or ensnared in a trap.  No one felt safe from the rampage.  Finally, William Sutton moved to Victoria and got married.  When his wife was expecting a child, he decided they should leave the country.  Gabriel Slaughter accompanied them on the train to Indianola.  On March 11, 1874, as Sutton and Slaughter boarded a ship with their wives, Jim and Bill Taylor shot and killed both men.

In retaliation, the Sutton faction arrested three Taylors for cattle theft, and put them in the Clinton jail.  Despite probable innocence, they were taken out of jail on the night of June 20, 1874, and hanged.

After being arrested for the murder of Sutton and Slaughter, Bill Taylor awaited trial in the Indianola jail in September 1875.  Eager to witness the trial involving a member of the notorious feud, a huge crowd from all over the state converged on Indianola.  Instead of a trial, they witnessed a devastating hurricane with winds of 110 miles an hour.  When water began filling the jail, Bill Taylor and the other prisoners were released.

The murders continued when John Wesley Hardin killed the new leader of the Suttons.  The next month, a gunfight left Jim Taylor and two of his friends dead.  The Texas Rangers finally stepped in and arrested eight suspects after masked men executed four prominent citizens.  When no one dared testify, the trial ended with only one conviction and that man, after twenty years of legal maneuvering received a pardon.

The Sutton-Taylor Feud ground to an exhausted halt.  Known as the longest and bloodiest feud in Texas history, the confirmed death toll in the Taylor faction reached twenty-two.  The Sutton group lost about thirteen.

JOHN WESLEY HARDIN, KILLER

Handsome and gentlemanly John Wesley Hardin, named for the founder of the Methodist Church, was the son of a Methodist minister and circuit rider.  Perhaps his proper upbringing caused “Wes” to view himself as a pillar of society who claimed he never killed a man who didn’t need killing.  The numbers of dead differ, as do the stories about his escapades, but John Wesley Hardin managed in his forty-two years to kill at least thirty men.  Some accounts claim forty.

Born in Bonham, Texas, in 1853, Hardin at age fourteen stabbed a fellow student in a schoolyard fight.  He might have been expelled for the incident except his father founded and ran the school.  Like many young men too young to fight in the Civil War, Hardin became the product of the hatred generated by the war.  The restrictive policies of the Reconstruction government fueled anger, which encouraged citizens, especially impressionable young men, to lash out at freed slaves and the Union army overseeing Reconstruction. A year after the stabbing, Hardin met a black man, got into an argument, and shot the man dead.

His father, sure Wes could not receive a fair trial from the Reconstruction government, encouraged his son to flee, which began a pattern of relatives and friends hiding Hardin from law officers.  Hearing three Union soldiers were headed for his hideout at his brother’s house, Wes later wrote, “I waylaid them, as I had no mercy on men whom I knew only wanted to get my body to torture and kill.  It was war to the knife for me, and I brought it on by opening the fight with a double-barreled shotgun and ended it with a cap and ball six-shooter.  Thus it was by the fall of 1868 I had killed four men and was myself wounded in the arm.”

Some accounts say within a year he killed another soldier.  All stories agree Wes Hardin served at age 17 as trail boss on a cattle drive up the Chisholm Trail.  One account says he got into an argument with Mexican cowboys who tried cutting their herd in front of his.  All the stories of the cattle drive agree John Wesley Hardin killed six or seven men on that trip to Abilene, Kansas.

Some say Hardin became friends with city marshal Wild Bill Hickok whom he admired.  Others say he forced Hickok to stand down.  Whatever really happened, Hardin left Abilene in a hurry.  He wrote regarding the episode, “They tell lots of lies about me.  They said I killed six or seven men for snoring.  Well, it ain’t true, I only killed one man for snoring.” The gentleman to whom he refers was sleeping in the next hotel room and Hardin shot through the wall to stop the snoring.

Hardin returned to Central Texas, married Jane Bowen a beautiful cultured girl from a respectable family who had been his childhood sweetheart.  He did not, however, settle down.  Despite constant absences as ran from the law, Jane remained loyal.  After being arrested, breaking out of jail, and taking sides in a major Central Texas feud, Hardin finally killed a deputy sheriff.  Finding himself under constant pursuit, Hardin fled with Jane and their three children to Florida where they lived for two years under an alias.  Some accounts claim he killed as many as six men while he was on the run.

Finally caught in 1877, Hardin stood trial in Austin, Texas, and was sentenced to twenty-five years in prison for killing the deputy.  While in prison, he made repeated escape attempts, read theology, served as superintendent of the prison Sunday school, wrote his autobiography, and studied law.  He received a pardon from the governor in 1894 and was admitted to the state bar.

After raising their three children, Jane died while Hardin served his prison term.  Upon his release, he headed to El Paso where he opened a law practice, became involved with a client’s wife, and hired several law enforcement officers to assassinate the husband.  One of the hires, Constable John Selman, possibly angry over not being paid for killing the husband, found Hardin in the Acme Saloon and shot him in the back of the head.  Hardin died instantly.  The career of one of Texas’ most notorious killers came to an end on August 19, 1895, but the legends and legacy continue to stir imaginations.