hot August night in 1895, John Selman, a gambler and constable in
walked into that city's Acme Saloon and shot John Wesley Hardin three
times, thus putting an end to the notorious gunman's life. But a bounty
hunter named John "Jack" Riley Duncan ruined Hardin's life long before
Selman ended it.
Duncan was working as a Dallas
policeman when Texas Ranger Captain Lee Hall made Duncan an offer
he couldn't refuse. If Duncan would quit his $600 a month job rounding
up drunks and feral dogs in Dallas,
he could go to work for the rangers as an undercover officer and track
down Hardin for a share of the record $4,000 bounty on Hardin's head-or
die trying. Duncan turned in his resignation that very day.
Hardin was already the author of a dozen or more murders when he shot
Brown County Deputy
Sheriff Charles Webb to death in Comanche
County and went on the run. The rangers figured Hardin might be
hiding out in Gonzales
County, where he was a major contributor to the bloody Taylor-Sutton
feud (on the Taylor side) and where his in-laws lived. The rangers
sent Duncan there to learn Hardin's whereabouts.
Duncan adopted the name Williams and drifted into Gonzales
County as a handy man and laborer. He kept a low profile but made
it a point to profess his loyalty to the people to whom Hardin pledged
allegiance and unconditional hatred for Hardin's enemies. Statements
like "I wish he (Hardin) would kill all of Comanche and I would help
him do it" were well received in Gonzales
Neal Bowen, Hardin's father-in-law, took a strong liking to the "Williams"
kid, even taking him in as a boarder. Duncan took advantage by tricking
Bowen into writing a letter to his son-in-law, which a trusting postmaster
turned over to Duncan. The letter was addressed to a "Mr. J.H. Swain"
in Pollard, Alabama and left no doubt that Swain and Hardin were one
and the same.
Duncan wired veteran Texas Ranger John B. Armstrong: "Come get your
horse." That was the rangers' cue to swoop into town and arrest Duncan,
aka Williams, and haul him away in shackles while boasting that they
now had one of Hardin's gang in custody.
Armstrong secured arrest warrants for both Hardin and Swain
a clever and lucrative bit of planning, as it turned out and
boarded a train with Duncan to Montgomery, Alabama. From there Duncan
made his way to Pollard, a few miles north of the Florida border,
and then to the tiny community of Whiting, where he learned that "Swain"
was on a gambling trip to Pensacola, Florida.
Duncan, Armstrong, Escambia County sheriff William Henry Hutchinson
and deputy A.J. Perdue captured "Swain" aboard a train bound for Pensacola
on August 23, 1877. Hardin tried to fight it out, but Armstrong changed
his mind by knocking the outlaw unconscious with the butt of his pistol.
One of Hardin's companions was killed in the fracas and another arrested.
The Florida sheriff received $500 for his help capturing "Swain" while
Armstrong and Duncan split the $4,000 reward for Hardin. The Florida
lawmen were not at all happy about this.
Hardin, who spent the next 17 years in jail, was none too happy either.
"He (Hardin) threatened my life a number of times," Duncan later said.
"If we ever met one of us would have been killed."
Months after Hardin's capture, Duncan was still having dreams of being
shot to death. He had quit the rangers and was working in Dallas
as a private detective and bounty hunter in February of 1878 when
a woman named Hattie Washburn, aka Hattie Bates, shot him with his
own gun at the local brothel where she worked.
The bullet lodged in his right lung, forcing doctors to perform an
emergency tracheotomy. The operation saved his life but forced him
to use a silver tube inserted in his throat to breathe and speak.
Duncan continued to work successfully as a detective and bounty hunter
until the job market for bounty hunters waned and he took on more
pedestrian lines of work. He died in 1911 in a car wreck, of all things,
and left behind a wife and at least one child.
In a fine piece of revisionist history, a farewell tribute to Duncan
in the Fort Worth Record and Register read in part: "He was
wounded a number of times while engaged in this work and for the past
twenty-five years wore a silver tube in his throat, through which
he breathed, his windpipe having been severed by a bullet while arresting
a gang of cattle rustlers."
But the inscription on the back of his tombstone gets it right: "Dallas
Policeman. Texas Ranger. Private Detective. Got Wes Hardin. August