The Man Who Killed John Wesley Hardin

Howard, writing to August Derleth on September 4, 1933, mentions an infamous Texas town and the man who shot and killed John Wesley Hardin, a gunman Howard admired and wrote of often in this letters:

Fort Griffin is a sleepy little village, scarcely big enough to even be called a village, slumbering at the foot of the hill where stand the ruins of the old fort. But once Fort Griffin was the toughest, wildest and woolliest town on this continent, back in the sixties and seventies when it was crowded with cavalrymen, buffalo hunters, gunmen, gamblers, reckless cowboys, horse thieves — the salt of the earth and the scum of the earth mingled in a mad chaos. It was from Fort Griffin that John Selman fled, riding hard from the shadow of the noose, and the writhing, kicking, straining figure against the sky that was his partner Johnny Larney. Empty handed Jonn Selman fled, but not empty handed he came into El Paso many days later. He drove a flock of sheep he had found herded by Mexican boys in the grasslands. Under the menace of his sixshooter they drove their sheep to the breaks of the Pecos river. From there on, Selman acted as his own herder. The cryptic vultures that haunt the thickets of the Pecos could tell the fate of the rightful owners of the flock. Selman sold the sheep for a dollar a head, and he drifted on, into New Mexico and the outlaw rendezvous. Later he returned to El Paso and was an officer of the law for years, during which time he killed the famous John Wesley Hardin. Shortly after that affair, he too was shot down in a private quarrel.

Indeed, as Howard states, Selman was a piece of work. On the evening of Aug. 19, 1895, Hardin was rolling poker dice with a merchant named H.S. Brown in the Acme Saloon. Hardin threw the dice and said, “You have four sixes to beat.” At that moment, Selman walked up behind Hardin and fired a shot into the back of his head. The bullet exited just below the gunman’s left eye. Hardin managed to reach for his gun, but collapsed face first and died before he could clear leather. Selman fired two more bullets into Hardin’s prone body — a third missed — before his policeman son, John Jr., who arrested him, said, “Don’t shoot him anymore, Pa. He’s already dead.”

John Henry Selman was born in Madison County, Arkansas on November 16, 1839. The Selman family moved to Grayson County, Texas in 1858. A few years later, on December 16, 1861, Selman’s father died and the young Selman joined the 22nd Texas Cavalry, fighting as a private in the Civil War. In 1863, he deserted the Confederate Army and returned home only to be arrested and brought back for court martial. Fortunately for him, by that time the war was over, and Uncle Sam was in charge again. John was allowed to return to his family at Fort Davis. Even though he was a deserter, the local townsfolk did not condemn him, but admired him for returning to care for his widowed mother, his three sisters and brother. One odd feature that Selman possessed was his eye color. They were such a light shade of blue, it was hard to tell where the blue began and the white stopped. Some folks even remarked they were a cold gray, soulless color and not blue.

On August 17, 1865, he married Edna Degrafenreid and the couple eventually had four children: John Jr., William, Henry and Margaretta. Selman moved his family to Colfax County, New Mexico briefly before returning to Texas and settling in Fort Griffin, located in Shackelford County. During those days, the town and the surrounding area was known as “Babylon on the Brazos” becasue of the many unsolved killings, rampaging Indians and even bold cougars, one of which got into Selman’s home and attacked one of his children before a family friend, a giant of a man named Hewitt, grabbed the animal with his bare hands and managed to free the child while Selman grabbed a rifle and fired two shots into the beast, killing it. They dragged the cougar’s body outside and measured it – from its nose to the tip of its tail, it measured eleven feet. The whole episode seems like something out of a Breckinridge Elkins story.

In 1877, Selman became a Deputy Inspector for Hides working under fellow Inspector, ex-Shackelford County Sheriff John M. Larn. During this time he crossed paths with several notable gunmen, including Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and Dave Rudabaugh, who passed through Fort Griffin. Along with Larn, he fought against rustlers and dealt out vigilante justice in that very wild and dangerous area of northwest Texas. The pair were involved in several shootouts with bandits and outlaws during the period that followed. However, soon Larn and Selman, instead of controlling the area crime, became criminals themselves, rustling cattle, murdering cowboys and otherwise terrorizing the county. On June 24, 1878, vigilantes shot Larn to death in an Albany, Texas jail cell. Larn had been arrested after six hides which did not belong to him had been found behind his house. The vigilantes planned to lynch him, but were unable to break him out of his cell. Even though Selman was out of town at the time, he found himself a wanted man, and was being hunted by the same vigilantes, who were friends with several men who had previously been either arrested or killed by him. Actually, Howard told the story of John Larn (though Howard refers to him as “Johnny Larney”) differently than the historical accounts — Larn was shot to death, not hung.

Selman fled westward toward New Mexico with his brother Tom “Cat” Selman, leaving his four children and pregnant wife behind. On February 24, 1879, tragedy struck when his wife died during childbirth — the newborn baby also perished. Motherless and with their father a fugitive, the Selman children were placed under the guardianship of the J. C. McGrew family in Brown County.

The two outlaw brothers soon found themselves in Lincoln County, where Selman became the leader of a gang of hard cases nicknamed “Selman’s Scouts.” The gang was involved in holding-up businesses, rustling cattle, killing folks and causing general mayhem. But this was just after the end of the Bloody Lincoln County War and the U.S. Army still had a large presence in the area. Soon “Selman’s Scouts” got the Army’s attention and the resulting pressure caused the gang to break up. The Selman brothers were forced to return to Texas, but by March, 1879, John had already organized another band of rustlers, which operated throughout West Texas.

The gang was operating in the Fort Davis-Fort Stockton area, when in June, 1880, Selman was arrested in Fort Davis. His brother Tom was not so lucky – he was lynched when he was taken into custody. After losing two people close to him to vigilantes, Selman was not taking any chances — as soon as he was transferred back to Shackelford County for trial, he bribed his jailers and escaped.

Selman fled to the state of Chihuahua, Mexico, but he was very ill with Small Pox. He wound up in San Pablo where he was found near death in the desert by a woman named Niconora Zarate and her father. They took him to their home and nursed him through the Small Pox. Once he recovered, he married Niconora and used the money he had fled Texas with to buy a saloon. His fortunes fell when the saloon failed and he was forced work in a silver mine. In 1881 John sent for his family. The McGrews let John and William go, keeping Henry and Margaretta. The two boys, age 11 and 6, traveled 285 miles to San Pablo where their father and new stepmother Niconora lived. She was a schoolteacher and educated young John.

By 1888, the cattle rustling charges filed in Albany were dropped against Selman, and the family left Mexico and headed for El Paso. Once in El Paso, he and his two sons all worked for A. S. & R. Mining. Around 1891, Niconora passed away — the cause of her death is unknown. Selman ran for Constable of El Paso in 1892 and won. He helped  his son, John, Jr. get hired as a police officer. John, Jr. was only 19 and was well know around El Paso. The newspapers frequently spoke well of him and he was acting Constable when his father was away.

The same year Selman married Romula Granadion. She was 15 (her guardian swore she was 16) and he was 54. Needless to say, this age difference led to a very stormy marriage and John, Jr. was called on many occasions to break up the fights. His two sons, ashamed of their father’s actions, moved uptown away from him. The fact that their stepmother was younger than them was something they could not tolerate.

On April 5, 1894, a former Texas Ranger named Bass (“Baz”) L. Outlaw, who was a close friend to George Scarborough, an El Paso Deputy Marshal, was on a tear in El Paso. He was highly intoxicated, had verbally threatened to kill a local judge and had already been ordered by Selman to return home and sleep off his drunkenness. Instead, Outlaw decided he wanted to visit his favorite prostitute, who worked in Tillie Howard’s brothel and headed toward the house of ill-repute.

Selman followed Outlaw into the establishment and waited while Outlaw looked for his prostitute. Upon learning she was with another client, he became enraged and stormed out the back door, throwing chairs and cursing. Suddenly a shot rang out from the backyard of the brothel – Outlaw had dropped his gun. Selman rushed to see what had happened, as did Texas Ranger Joe McKidrict, who was in the neighborhood and ran to see what the commotion was about.

McKidrict was a good friend of Outlaw and tried to calm him down. Suddenly, Outlaw, for no apparent reason, shot McKidrict in the head, the impact spun him around and Outlaw fired a second shot into his back, killing him instantly. Outlaw then fired at Selman, nearly striking him in the eye — the pistol ball passed so close to his face, the hot black powder seared the skin around his eyes. Selman returned fire – his bullet find its mark just above Outlaw’s heart. The mortally wounded Ranger staggered back and fired two more shots, hitting Selman above the right knee and in the thigh.

Outlaw then stumbled into the street where he surrendered to Texas Ranger Frank McMahon. He died four hours later. Selman recovered from his wounds, but suffered a permanent disability that required him to walk with a cane for the rest of his life. His eyesight was also affected by the black powder from the bullet nearly struck his eye. John Selman was then put on trial for killing Outlaw, but the judge instructed the jury to find him not guilty.

Around this time, unbeknownst to Selman, a new player was about to enter his life. John Wesley Hardin was one of the deadliest gunmen in the Old West. Born in Bonham, Texas on May 26, 1853, his father James was a Methodist preacher, circuit rider, schoolteacher, and lawyer. His mother, Mary Elizabeth was purpotered to be highly cultured and given to acts of charity. Hardin’s violent career started in 1867 with a schoolyard fight in which he stabbed another youth. He killed his first man when he was only 15 during the violent period of post-Civil War reconstruction. Hardin did not look back, killing at least 40 more men during the following 10 years. In between killings, Hardin managed to settle down long enough to marry Jane Bowen and father a son and two daughters.

By the time Hardin arrived in El Paso in April 1895, he had rehabilitated himself and become a lawyer, but his reputation as a gunfighter preceded him. He had just served 15 years of a 25-year hard-labor prison sentence in Huntsville, Texas for killing Charles Webb. Hardin was passing through Comanche, Texas when he killed Webb, a deputy sheriff of Brown County. After killing the deputy, Hardin went on the lam, heading to Florida with his wife and children, purportedly, killing five more men along the way. He was captured by Texas Rangers in Pensacola on July 23, 1877 and returned to Texas where he was tried and convicted of killing Webb, and sentenced to 25 years in prisonon September 28, 1878. Hardin served fifteen years before he was pardoned and released in March of 1894. While in prison, Hardin made good use of his time — reading theological books, becoming the superintendent of the prison Sunday School, and studying the law. His wife died in 1892 while he was incarcerated from burns suffered in a house fire. Hardin’s children eacaped unaharmed and taken in by Jane’s relatives.

In personal appearance Hardin looked like he stepped out of a dime novel as a typical Texas desperado. He was of medium weight, nearly six feet tall, straight as an arrow and dark complexioned, with an eye as keen as a hawk. Hardin was an expert shot and was the equal of either King Fisher or Ben Thompson. He could shoot as quickly and aim as straight as either of them. It was almost certain death for anyone who was in front of his gun when he drew a bead on them. While opinions vary on an exact body count, it is safe to say the total number was well over forty. He was fond of saying he never killed anyone who did not deserve it. Evidently he crossed paths with a lot of people who deserved it. Hardin was also a bit of a show man, demonstrating his marksmanship by shooting holes through playing cards in saloons, autographing them with his initials and handing them out to the patrons.

Two other key players in the death of Hardin were Martin Morose and his wife. Morose was a small-time cattle and hog thief, who was partnered up with another unsavory character, Victor Queen. Both were wanted all over the Southwest for cattle rustling – feeling the heat, the duo fled across the border to Juarez. Before he left, he made sure his wife, a blond, blue-eyed former prostitute named Helen Beulah, had enough cash to tied her over until his return.

As luck (or bad luck) would have it, Morose and Queen were nabbed by Mexican police in March of 1895 and Beulah, with Morose’s money, sought a lawyer in El Paso. When Beulah breezed through the door of Hardin’s office, the gunman turned lawyer was instantly smitten with the beautiful young wife. Obviously this caused an instant conflict of interest, but Hardin wasn’t too conflicted since he quickly became her lover.

Meanwhile, the resourceful Morose and Queen managed to bribe their way out of jail. Morose tried to convince Beulah to join him in Juarez, but she refused, being otherwise occupied with Hardin. As for Queen’s plans, he decided that he had had enough of the outlaw life and returned to New Mexico where he turned himself in and made things right with the authorities. He went to work for a mining company and took a wife. While he tried to forget about his outlaw past, someone else still remembered it and shot Queen in the twice back on December 17, 1904. He managed to turn to face his attacker only to get finished off by a shotgun blast to the stomach.

The two lovers, Hardin and Beulah, were now scheming on how to get the freed Morose back from Mexico and get their hands on a large sum of money he had taken south of the border. But Morose did not want to go back to prison so he stayed in Juarez. At the same time, two other people had the same idea about separating Morose from his money. Deputy United States Marshal George Scarborough and Deputy Marshal Jeff Milton wanted both Morose’s money and the reward money that was being offered in neighboring New Mexico Territory. They even went so far as to visit Morose in Mexico and tried to convince him to return to Texas. It is also possible that the pair told Morose about his wife’s affair with Hardin to help him with his decision to return — or perhaps he found out some other way. 

Despite his better judgment, Morose’s love for Beulah got the best of him when he agreed to meet Scarborough at the border at 11:00 PM on June 21, 1895. The meeting took place as planned; however, at first, Morose balked at crossing back into Texas, but finally said he would go.

Scarborough escorted Morose across the Mexican Central Railway Bridge where Milton and Scarborough’s brother in law, Texas Ranger Frank McMahon, waited in ambush. Once Morose reached the Texas side of the border, he was felled by a barrage of pistol and shotgun fire. Eight bullets and two shotgun slugs found their mark – Morose was assassinated. The cold-blooded killing was too much even for the jaded citizens of El Paso to overlook. All three were charged with his murder and all three were acquitted. That was life in the Old West where folks regularly got off the hook for murder. Of course, having one’s friends and family on the jury didn’t hurt, along with the fact that only men were allowed to serve — the pinnacle of the good old boy network in action.

In the end, no one stepped forward to accompany Morose’s body the graveyard. Four strangers were rounded up by the undertaker from the street to help lay him to rest. At Concordia Cemetery, two mourners were the only people present – his widow and her lover.

In 1895, El Paso’s sheriff tried to make the town a less violent by outlawing the carrying of guns within city limits. Of course, the result was outlaws still covertly carried guns while the law abiding citizens did not. In early August of 1895, Hardin was out of town on a business trip when Beulah got herself in a bit of a jam. She was drunk and shooting off one of the two concealed hand guns she often carried in her parasol. John, Jr. arrested her and took her to jail where she spent the night. The next morning, Beulah paid a $50.00 fine and was released. When Hardin returned, he was furious at the handling of the matter by John Jr. and confronted both the elder Selman and his son. He was abusive and threatened both of them with bodily harm. At the time of this confrontation, Hardin only had two more weeks to live

Selman and some El Paso newspaper accounts have him besting Hardin in a face-to-face gunfight, but eyewitnesses and the physical evidence rule that scenario out. The assumption that Selman could best Hardin in a straight-up shootout is laughable. At best, Selman was a journeyman gunfighter while Hardin was a master at his craft. Selman was more of a back-shooter and worse.  Early in his career he and Larn murdered four cowboys as the slept in their bed rolls around a campfire.

As for the reason as to why Selman killed Hardin, that is about as clear as mud, but history leaves us with several possibilities. First, Selman was angry that Hardin had threatened him and his son over the arrest of Beulah and wanted to strike first. Second, if Hardin reacted to Morose discovering his wife’s affair by hiring Scarborough, Milton, McMahon, and possibly even Selman, to kill his lover’s husband, Selman, may have demanded that Hardin pay him more money for the job after the deed was done. Hardin refused, so Selman opened fire on him in the Acme Saloon, killing him instantly.

Ultimately, no one knows for certain if Selman was acting out of anger, self-protection, or perhaps to bolster his own reputation as a gunslinger. The quarrelsome and deadly Hardin was not very popular with El Paso’s citizenry. It is no surprise an El Paso jury apparently felt that Selman had done the town a favor. The jurors acquitted him of any wrongdoing.

In early 1896, John, Jr. found himself in a bit of trouble south of the border when he was arrested in Juarez on a charge of abducting a young girl holding her against her will in his hotel room. Selman reached out to Scarborough, one of the killers of Morose, to help him get his son released from jail. However, Scarborough proved to be of no help at all. This greatly angered Selman.

On the second anniversary of his friend Baz Outlaw’s death, Scarborough convinced Selman to accompany him into the back alley behind the Wigwam Saloon for a private talk. Once there, the two men argued and started fighting. No one knows what they argued about, but odds are it was the money stolen off of Morose’s corpse. Or Scarborough may have held a grudge against Selman for killing his friend. The argument escalated and Scarborough claimed both men drew their guns, with Scarborough shooting Selman four times. However, no gun was found on Selman’s person. Witnesses later testified that they had found Scarborough standing over a bleeding Selman. The Constable had been shot through the back of the neck, the right hip, the side, and the left knee. Selman died on the operating table the next day.  Conveniently, a thief was arrested before Scarborough’s trial who claimed to have stolen Selman’s gun immediately after the supposed gunfight. Needless to say, Scarborough was acquitted and soon left El Paso for good, moving to Deming, New Mexico, where he worked as a gunman for the Grant County Cattlemen’s Association.

It was exactly four years later, on April 5, 1900, when Scarborough found himself pursuing of a band of train robbers in eastern Arizona. The robbers were thought to be the fleeing survivors of Butch Cassidy’s Hole-in-the-Wall gang. A .30-.40 bullet tore through his leg and killed his horse. The wounded Scarborough was taken to Deming, New Mexico, where he died after the amputation of his leg.  This closed the circle on the deadly chain of events set in motion when Selman killed Baz Outlaw on April 5, 1894.