deep roots in East Texas,
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.
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
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.
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,
saw Sheriff Harper and another deputy, Jap Smith, approaching the
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
“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
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.
Bob Bowman's East Texas June
21, 2009 Column.
A weekly column syndicated in 70 East Texas newspapers