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 Texas : Features : Columns : Bob Bowman's East Texas

A gunfight in Hemphill

by Bob Bowman
Bob Bowman
With deep roots in East Texas, John Wesley Hardin was our most famous outlaw and gunfighter, but many of his raids and shootings in the pineywoods have remained unchronicled.

A little-known incident in which he won a gunfight with a Sabine County deputy sheriff at Hemphill is found in two autobiographies, one by Hardin himself and another by John Allen Veatch, a Hemphill newspaper editor.

On July 26, 1872, after winning a considerable sum of money at a Nacogdoches horse race while riding his favorite mount Coaly, Hardin came to Hemphill, near the Sabine River, to promote another race. He was accompanied by John and Jess Harper.

The trio spent the night with Dr. D. M. Cooper and the next morning Hardin placed his horse in Cooper’s livestock pen and walked to Hemphill to promote the race. Standing in front of the courthouse, Hardin overheard Deputy Sheriff Sonny Speights cursing a young boy.

Hardin spoke up, “That boy is too small for you to talk to in such fashion. Curse somebody who is your own size and see how far you will get with it.”

Speights accepted the challenge and both men reached for their pistols. But before Speights could fire, Hardin sent a bullet from a derringer spiraling through the deputy’s right wrist. The lawman’s gun fell to the ground and exploded.

“I could just easily have shot him through the heart and dropped him dead, but I had no wish to kill him. I only wanted to defend myself and teach him a lesson in the use of firearms,” said Hardin.

When Sheriff Elmore Harper heard the shots from the courthouse, he rushed outside. But recognizing Hardin, Harper backed away long enough to allow Hardin to mount a horse owned by Bill Fullen, who watched the shooting.

Hardin spurred the horse and raced from Hemphill with Fullen screaming, “That damn horse thief stole my mare right before my eyes.”

Returning to the home of Dr. Cooper, Hardin abandoned the stolen horse and jumped on his own horse, which had been saddled by the Harper brothers when they heard the gunshots in town. Knowing Hardin and his propensity for gunfights, they were sure he was involved.

But, when the Harpers tried to remove the gate bars to the lot where Coaly had been penned, the bars were stuck. Looking down the road, Hardin saw Sheriff Harper and another deputy, Jap Smith, approaching the Cooper home.

The outcome was reminiscent of a dime western novel. Hardin spurred his horse and encouraged him to jump over the fence. Just as he cleared the fence, Deputy Smith fired two blasts from a shotgun. The blasts missed Hardin, but pieces of buckshot hit his horse in the neck, inflicting no serious injury.

“Down the road, the racer sped like a black shadow out of hades, and was out of sight before the people could recover their breaths and speak. The last seen of John Wesley Hardin, he was waving his hand back to those behind him in a most friendly manner. No attempt was made to follow him,” wrote Veatch. Hardin’s brief visit to Hemphill was talked about for years and left Deputy Sonny Speights with a unique legacy. He was the first man shot in Hemphill and, considering Hardin’s reputation, he was lucky to be alive.

Related Topics: Small Town Sagas | Outlaws
Bob Bowman's East Texas
June 21, 2009 Column.
A weekly column syndicated in 70 East Texas newspapers

(Bob Bowman of Lufkin is the author of more than 40 books about East Texas. He can be reached at bob-bowman.com)

Related Topics:
Texas
East Texas
Texas Towns
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Bob Bowman's "All Things Historical"

The Forgotten Towns of East Texas, Vol. I
By Bob and Doris Bowman
66 stories about forgotten town in 45 counties
 
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