(November 29, 1996)
It's been 122 years since John Wesley Hardin rode hard out of Comanche to avoid an Old West-style suspended sentence -- the suspension being from a tree at the hands of a lynch mob.
That was in May 1874, but Comanche hasn't forgotten Hardin. Obviously, no one remains alive who knew the gunman or his brother Joe, a Hardin the mob did succeed in hanging, but Hardin and his exploits make up a major part of this community's history.
On a Sunday afternoon a couple of weeks ago, 150 people -- nearly four percent of the town's population of 4,000 -- lined up at the Comanche Public Library to buy an autographed copy of Leon Metz's well-done new biography of Texas' most famous shootist. (Librarian Margaret Waring, who helped Metz with his Comanche County research, is one of the people he dedicates his book to.)
If Hardin was Texas' most dreaded outlaw, Metz is arguably Texas' most read writer of books dealing with outlaws and lawmen. "John Wesley Hardin: Dark Angel of Texas" is the El Paso-based writer's 13th book. Published by Mangan Books of El Paso, the 352-page book sells for $39.95.
In a way, Metz has been doing research for this book on Hardin throughout his career as a writer. His first book was a biography of the not-always-peaceful peace officer who would kill Hardin, El Paso constable John Selman.
For a long time, though, Metz thought there wasn't room for another book on Hardin. Eventually, however, he realized there were new sources available -- family letters, legal documents and newspaper stories not studied by previous writers and material gathered by dedicated collectors -- and a need to delve further into the background of a man who killed somewhere between 20 and 50 people.
Hardin did not come from Comanche County, he was born in East Texas. And the gunfighter did not die in Comanche County. El Paso got the honor of being the scene of Hardin's demise and that's where he's buried. But Comanche County, in the middle of Texas, also was square in the middle of the Hardin story.
A brochure put out by the Comanche Chamber of Commerce proclaims Comanche as a place of "Family Fun!" where folks can come to enjoy "the warm hospitality" and "relax in the small town atmosphere." As Metz does a fine job of showing in his book, that's not the way things were around Comanche in the early 1870s.
Cattle stealing was a major local industry, the saloons ran wide open and local enforcement left something to be desired. In fact, the county sheriff did not seem to be able to find Hardin to serve him with arrest warrants even though virtually everyone in town knew Hardin and his family. The sheriff also stood by idly in the crowd when Hardin killed Charles Webb, a deputy sheriff from nearby Brown County. And brother Joe, portrayed by some writers as the good younger brother of a killer, was what we today call a "white collar" criminal. A lawyer, Joe Hardin ran a fraudulent land title racket. He also was filing bogus documents to cover cattle rustling.
When John Hardin fled Comanche after the killing of Webb, the mob lynched his brother and several of Hardin's associates just to underscore their general displeasure. Though John Hardin had killed numerous men before this shooting of Webb, it was that crime that got the State of Texas exorcised enough to hunt him down and send him to Huntsville for 25 years.
Hardin served 15 years of that sentence, then got a pardon in 1895. He had studied law behind bars and ended up hanging out his shingle in El Paso. But Hardin preferred the law of averages to the laws of man and spent most of his time gambling and drinking. On the night of August 19, 1896, Constable Selman sent a .45 round into Hardin's head as the 42-year-old outlaw rolled dice in the Acme Saloon.
When a man's been dead for a century, one would think a biographer's work would be limited to the subject's lifetime.
About the time Metz was finishing his book, however, the Hardin story rose from the grave. So, almost, did Hardin himself. Not on his own accord, but a group of shirttail Hardin kin from the small community of Nixon in Gonzales County got a permit to exhume Hardin and return his remains to South Texas to be buried next to his first wife, Jane.
A group of El Paso historians got word of the plans and hurriedly obtained an injunction to delay the planned exhumation. The two factions met, sans firearms, in a New West showdown in El Paso's Concordia Cemetery the day the Gonzales County delegation proposed to dig up Hardin. An El Paso police officer handed over a copy of a temporary restraining order. A district judge later issued an order that the gunfighter would stay put in El Paso. The matter is currently on appeal, so the Hardin story is not over yet.
(November 22, 1996)
It's an old story, probably apocryphal, but who knows?
Major Ripley Arnold, commander of the military garrison on the Trinity River known as Fort Worth, is standing on the edge of the bluff overlooking the river, gazing to the north.
"What are you looking at sir?" one of his men asks.
"I'm not looking," the officer is said to have replied. "I'm just listening to the footsteps of the oncoming thousands."
A military presence on that bluff proved necessary for only four years, from 1849 to 1853. But old Fort Worth and its Second Dragoons was the nucleus of Fort Worth the city, which grew from an outpost on the Trinity to a brawling cow town, booming oil town and finally into the western anchor of the large metropolitan area someone decided to call the Metroplex. The footsteps of the thousands, and hundreds of thousands, indeed came to the bluff.
No trace of the old fort remains. The site, just west of the North Main Street Bridge, is covered by downtown Fort Worth. But old Fort Worth has been re-established -- in a book.
That book is "The Fort That Became A City: An Illustrated Reconstruction of Fort Worth, Texas, 1849-1853" with drawings by William B. Potter and text by Richard F. Selcer. The 198-page softcover book, published by Texas Christian University Press, sells for $19.95.
Based on military records, the artist rebuilt the old fort on paper with detailed sketches and architectural drawings. Since there are no known photographs of the old fort, perusing this book is likely as close as anyone will get to knowing what the military post actually looked like.
Unless Potter prevails in his hope that the old fort, based on his drawings, can be reconstructed as close to the original site as possible.
Fort Worth was a frontier fort, but it did not look the way most of us probably think a frontier fort should. There were no palisades of sharpened logs and since there was no wall around the fort, there were no blockhouses perched on each corner. The fort consisted of simply log buildings arranged around a parade ground. From a large staff in the center of that parade ground, the U.S. flag -- minus many of the stars it has today -- could be seen for miles around.
In addition to showing what the old fort must have looked like in the mid-19th century, author Selcer tells us what the fort was like, taking readers through the daily military routine while relating the history of the fort.
The result is a visually striking, interesting and innovative book.
A logical companion for this book is another TCU Press title, "Fort Worth's Legendary Landmarks." This book documents significant Fort Worth structures built prior to 1945 with photographs by Byrd Williams and text by Carol Roark. The 233-page book sells for $42.50 in hardback.
The book focuses on some 80 Fort Worth houses and buildings, from an old residence built around an early-day log cabin to the distinctive buildings of the stockyard district to the city's two vintage railroad stations.
One minor flaw with this book. The photo captions are printed in very light ink, making them very difficult to find and read. The photographs, on the other hand, are striking, even if it's pretty hard to figure our what you're looking at.
Though Fort Worth dates back as a community to the time the Army occupied the bluff on the Trinity, only a couple of structures in the city predate Fort Worth's 1876 growth spurt that accompanied the coming of the railroad.
(November 15, 1996)
I get more interesting letters than I do bills, so it's always a pleasure to go to the post office.
Here's an accumulation dating back to the first of the year: In reviewing Frederick Wilkins' "The Legend Begins: The Texas Rangers 1825-1845," and discussing Captain Jack Hays' supposed fight with the Comanches at Enchanted Rock, I said the rock was in Gillespie County.
Of course, it's in Llano County. In my defense, I'll point out that the state park which includes the rock is right on the Gillespie-Llano County line, but the actual rock is in Llano County.
Jackie Hatfield, manager of the Llano County Chamber of Commerce, was kind enough to point out the "geoboo-boo."
Speaking of Llano County, the Chamber will like this news:
Reviewing a book on grizzly bears, I mentioned that a brown bear had been killed on a golf course in Alpine last summer.
Austinite Kramer Wetzel wrote to report a bear sighting in Llano County in the early 1990s. The proprietor of a barbecue place in Llano supposedly saw the bear and her cubs and got a snapshot of her.
Anna Brotcher of Post wrote about Sister Agatha, who did a book in the 1930s called "Texas Prose Writings." I had mentioned her in a column about anonymous authors.
Sister Agatha, my correspondent relates, taught at Incarnate Word Academy at 609 Crawford St. in Houston.
"She was a high school teacher -- she taught my older sisters," Brotcher wrote. "They said she was very spunky and outgoing. All of the high school girls liked her."
Her book remains one of the better sources for insight into early Texas writing.
The Austin Civil War Roundtable, which is so well-organized that had it been in charge of the Confederacy, we'd all probably be speaking Southern today, writes to get the word out on the 3rd annual Civil War Site Preservation Seminar on November 23 in Hillsboro.
Sponsored by the Civil War Roundtables of Austin, Houston, Waco and Wichita Falls, the seminar will focus this year on Gen. Stonewall Jackson.
Guest speakers will include former Texas A&M University President and noted Civil War scholar Frank Vandiver, Stephen F. Austin University professor Archie McDonald, Virginia Tech professor James I. Robertson and National Park Service historian Frank O'Reilly.
For more information, contact Dan Laney, Austin Civil War Roundtable, 110 Wild Basin Road, Suite 290, Austin, Texas, 78746.
Responding to a column in which I said the short story writer William Sydney Porter (O. Henry) has never been honored with a U.S. postage stamp, Floyd E. Camp of Brownfield wrote to say the Postal Service also should consider Sgt. Alvin York, hero of the World War One battle of the Argonne. York won the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Camp suggests that the stamp should be issued in 1997 on the 110th anniversary of York's birth, or in 1998, the 70th anniversary of the battle he helped to win.
It does seem that if we can honor Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe with stamps, we can put in a lick or two for a world famous American writer with strong Texas ties and a doughboy war hero.
Remembering who remembered the Alamo and Goliad:
Who should get the credit for the famous battle cry, "Remember the Alamo! Remember Goliad!" wonders Austin attorney Lewis Avery Jones.
"J. Frank Dobie, in his book Coronado's Children, page 19, attributes the saying to Captain Jesse Billingsley of San Jacinto fame. This allegation is substantiated in the exhaustive genealogical work, The Billingsley Family in America, by Major Harry Davis," Jones writes.
Billingsley, he continued, later served as a representative to the Republic of Texas Congress from Bastrop.
The New Handbook of Texas, however, credits the battle cry to Gen. Sydney Sherman, not Billingsley.
Jones wants to know who deserves the credit.
Finally, to correct my first mistake of 1996. Mrs. J.R. Brown of Austin wrote to point out that Larry McMurtry's first novel was "Horseman, Pass By," not "Horsemen Pass By."
McMurtry's title came from William Butler Yeat's poem, which includes the line, "Cast a cold eye on life, on death. Horseman, pass by."
(November 8, 1996)
Made my every-few-years-or-so visit to the Alamo the other day, just to check up on things since the last time I wandered by.
By so doing, I ended up with walk-on parts in a couple of tourists' home videos. I wasn't trying to mug the cameras - I was just peacefully minding my own business as I walked past this famous shrine, which has got to be one of the most photographed buildings in America. I don't know how many still photos I walked in on as well. I couldn't help it. Video recorders and disposable cameras were everywhere.
At any rate, the Alamo is still standing and still attracting visitors from all parts of the world. The Alamo, if any of us doubted, is remembered still.
The only thing different for me on this pass by the Alamo, a place I have visited since I sported a Davy Crockett coonskin cap in 1964 or so, was that my 2½-year-old daughter Hallie was with me. This was far from being her first time to San Antonio. But it was her first time to walk through the Alamo with her dad, or anyone else.
I spared her a detailed account of the history of the place, deciding to settle on an excited comment to her that this was an important place and that we'd come back when she's bigger.
Hal's really into rocks, so it took considerable amount of energy to persuade her she shouldn't carry off a piece of landscaping gravel she picked up on the Alamo grounds. "It might be an important artifact," I said, again making my voice sound excited. She bought it, this time.
In the Alamo gift shop, they're selling another new Alamo book, among the many stocked by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas.
This latest book is "Eyewitness to the Alamo," by Bill Groneman, an Alamo scholar with several other published books on aspects of this story. Published by the Republic of Texas Press (an imprint of Wordware Publishing of Plano and not associated with the DRT or any group), the 267-page softcover sells for $12.95.
It is a collection of accounts of the battle from survivors and witnesses, from 19th-century accounts to accounts recorded early in this century. This book makes a good companion to "The Alamo Remembered: Tejano Accounts and Perspectives," published in 1995 by the University of Texas Press.
The difference between the two books is that Groneman has included all known accounts in his book, and placed them into perspective. The UT Press book has a stricter focus.
Some 50 people, according to Groneman, are believed to have witnessed all or part of the battle and then described what they saw. Counting Mexican soldiers, hundreds witnessed the battle, but not many wrote about the battle or were interviewed concerning it.
"Eyewitness to the Alamo" is a solid reference book, well-researched and well-written.
(November 1, 1996)
It is a singularly striking illustration for a book, one capable of latching onto the imagination and not letting go.
The small, matter-of-fact caption in the upper right corner that explains this large two-page color photograph belies the image's power: "Excavated Battle-Damaged Union Relics."
The first object in the picture to catch my eye was a rusty canteen, an imprecise triangle punched in its side. Comparing the artifact with a fine print description beneath the caption, I learned that the hole had been caused by a flying shell fragment. Someone had probably been carrying that canteen on their shoulder at the time, which doubtless explains why a relic hunter found it years later on a Civil War battlefield. The shrapnel probably continued on into the body of the soldier toting the canteen.
Another rusty canteen in the picture had a neat bullet hole punched in it.
The illustration also features a rifle, its barrel more than likely exploded by a young, scared soldier who in the heat of battle forgot his weapon already was loaded and loaded it again before finally pulling the trigger.
Then there is a rifle barrel, roughly bent into the shape of a question mark. At the point where the barrel is bent the most is a six-pound cannon ball, which fits into the space perfectly. Some soldier had been holding that weapon, barrel upright, when a cannon ball struck it!
This forensic-quality still life is a powerful commentary on America's bloodiest war, as is the excellent book it is in, William C. Davis' "The Battlefields of the Civil War." Published by the University of Oklahoma Press, this 256-page, large format paperback edition of a book first published in England sells for $19.95.
The author, who has written or edited more than 30 books on the Civil War, concentrates on the 13 most significant battles of the war, including the first battle of Manassas, Shiloh, Antietam, Vicksburg, Gettysburg and the Wilderness.
"The Battlefields of the Civil War" is very nearly a perfect book. One flaw, however, is particularly irritating. For each battle, the book features a two-page color map showing troop movements, the choreography of conflict. Unfortunately, a reader would have to break the spine of the book to get the two pages flat enough to see what happened in the middle of each of these battlefields. The facing pages bleed down too far into the center of the book, leaving some features virtually uninterpretable.
Otherwise, the author and the designers of this book have done a magnificent job. In addition to the well-written text, there are 63 color illustrations of artifacts and detailed drawings the soldiers who used them, 166 period photographs printed in sepia and the 16 color battlefield maps.
The first 209 words of the introduction are worthy of being set in stone.
"Throughout history men have revered and memorialized the places where their armies have met and fought," Davis begins, pointing out that these sites have been marked with monuments throughout recorded history. Most of the time, these markers, from obelisks to arches of triumph, are raised by the victors.
But, Davis goes on, the meaning of these battlefield memorials goes beyond vainglory: "No human experience is more personal or traumatic than a battle. When men in their legions go to war, it is as an army; when they go into battle, each soldier goes on his own, acutely aware that his may be one of the lives lost."
From skirmishes to battles involving whole armies, the North and the South met more than 10,000 times in combat from 1861 to 1865. Many of these battlefields are marked with slabs of stone and statues of bronze, but the photograph in this book of that rusty canteen pierced by a single bullet is some anonymous Yankee's lasting monument and a powerful message for all of us.