Wednesday, August 29, 2018

John Larn -- Texas Lawman, Vigilante, & Outlaw


John M. Larn was born in Mobile, Alabama, on March 1st, 1849. As a teenager, he drifted into Colorado, then later New Mexico, and finally Texas.

There's a story about how he found work as a ranch hand in Colorado but ended up murdering his employer during an argument over a horse. Supposedly, after the killing, he fled to New Mexico where he supposedly killed a lawman who he thought was on his trail.

The problem of course is that while stories like that make great backstory to give a tale more substance, I hate that I can't prove it's true or not. Also, the killing of a lawman in the Old West was big news. And also ask yourself this, if he did kill a lawmen and someone know enough about it to write that he did, why wasn't he ever pursued over that killing? And frankly, I can't substantiate it.  

What we do know is that when he arrived in Fort Griffin, Texas, he was listed on the 1870 census as residing in the household of Susan Newcomb. Of course there is the story that he arrrived in Fort Griffin and was employed by a local rancher. Some say he was hired on as a Trail Boss. But frankly, that seems odd that Larin would have been offered the job of Trail Boss. That job usually went to someone who had a lot of experience on trail drives, and who were very well known for their honesty. Larin had no experience at all from what I can see. So him coming on as a hand, or a flank rider maybe that was the case if he had proven that he was good with cattle and was a good rider. Coming on riding drag was certainly a possibility. But to arrive and be immediately be put on as a Trail Boss when no one knows you, I don't believe it. 

His character and honesty was not known to the folks there. He is said to have drifted into Texas, but no one knew from where? And since Fort Griffin attracted all sorts of seedy types, no one knew if he were on the run or not.

There's a story about John Larn supposedly leaving Fort Griffin for California. The tale goes that he murdered two Mexicans on the way there. He is to have killed them and dumped their bodies in the Pecos River, and that's what made him decided to stay in Texas. Of course, like the tale about his murdering his employer in Colorado, or killing a lawman, it sounds too unbelievable to be true. Besides, who knows if that's true or not since again there isn't a mention of it anywhere. And if there isn't a record or mention of it, where did that story come from in the first place? 

We know that at some point between 1870 and 1872, John Larn did go to work for rancher Joseph Beck Matthews. The Matthews were originally from Alabama, and were of the earliest settler families in Shackelford County, Texas. It's said that they were one of the first white settlers living on the Clear Fork River area. As for J.B., he devoted his life to his family and the cattle business.

Mary Jane Matthews was the third of six children born to J.B. and his wife Caroline Spears Matthews. Mary was born on June 6th, 1857. She married John Larn on November 28th, 1872. The Larin's began their married life in a rock home on the site of where Camp Cooper once stood. 

In 1874, John Larn joined the local militia known as the Tin Hat Brigade. They were also known as the Fort Griffin Vigilance Committee, the local vigilance group in Shackelford County. Just a little of a year later, the Larn family moved into a six room house on the South side of the Clear Fork River. They later established a ranch there and called it the Camp Cooper Ranch. 

As for Fort Griffin, by then it was a town theming with low life gamblers, con-artists, thieves, rustlers, outlaws on the run, the shady and the seedy, a lot of desperate characters.

Many sources say John Larn was a personable man who never cursed, gambled, drank, or smoked. Because of his good reputation within the vigilance committee, he agreed to run for the position of Shackelford County Sheriff when he was asked. He won that election becoming the second sheriff of Shackelford County in February of 1876. He was actually sworn into the position that April when the old sheriff's time was up.

When John Larn was elected sheriff in 1876, he appointed then county clerk William R. Cruger as his deputy. Cruger was almost 10 years older than Larn. When Cruger moved to Shackelford County, Texas, in 1873, he was in on organizing Shackelford County. He was the first county clerk and Albany was named by Cruger after his birthplace and former home of Albany, Georgia.

Right after being sworn in as the new sheriff, he was pressured by his friends in the vigilantes to do something to stem the tide of lawlessness especially the cattle rustling. So, armed with a warrant for his arrest for cattle rustling, Sheriff Larn and Deputy Cruge trailed outlaw Bill Hays and his gang all the way to Dodge City, Kansas.

Sheriff Larn brought Bill Hays and one of his men to stand trial. The vigilantes in Shackelford County were happy with what they saw in their new county sheriff. The vigilantes and Larn teamed up and cleaned out the rustler element from Shackelford County. Of course, a rope was the tool of vigilantes and that didn't seem to matter to Sheriff Larn.

Some sources say he had help from his father-in-law J.B. Matthews when he  established his own cattle business just after becoming sheriff. Larn didn't seem to have a problem keeping his cattle operation going while sheriff, but soon his cattle business started people talking. The talk started going around that their new sheriff and fellow vigilante may have been more than he appeared.

Some folks there speculated Larn was using his badge and his ties to the vigilantes to help him rid the county of outlaws who were in reality his competition. While he was supposedly effective in ridding the county of outlaws, many started wondering if maybe he was an outlaw. It wouldn't be the first time a lawman in the Old West hid behind and badge to do whatever he wanted. And frankly, he wouldn't be the last to kill and steal and cheat. 

Suspicion among decent hard working cowboys and ranchers started when some in the area smelled something fishy going on with Larn's Army contract. He was contracted to sell two to three steers a day to the Army during the winter of 1876 to feed the soldiers and the Tonkawa Indians at the garrison. While there was nothing strange about that, other ranchers started noticing something strange going on with Larn's herd. Though Larn had a contract to provide cattle to the Army, it appeared to many that Larn was doing so with other people cattle and not parting with any of his own cattle. The county sheriff was suspected of rustling cattle.

By the fall of 1876, Sheriff Larn had also deputized longtime friend John Selman. If the name John Selman sounds familiar to you, it should. This is the same back-shooting John Selman who on August 19th, 1895, walked into the Acme Saloon in El Paso, Texas, shortly after midnight to commit a premeditated homicide.

Selman walked up to the door of the Acme, drew his pistol, then walked up behind John Wesley Hardin who was playing dice at the bar and shot Hardin in the back of the head. While it killed Hardin instantly, John Selman fired three more rounds Hardin as he lay on the floor. Selman claimed self-defense. And believe it or not, he got off even though it was a clear cut case of murder in the first degree.

This was the man who Sheriff John Larn had deputized. Selman was also the man who Larn partnered with in his cattle rustling operation. A rustling operation that was unraveling because suspicions were being raised by other ranchers. The other ranchers took notice that while Larn was selling a lot of cattle, and their own herds were slowly shrinking due to sales, Larn's herd remained the same or was in fact growing in number. Folks wanted to know how that was the case?

When he was exposed as being the only rancher unaffected by rustlers, when he was exposed for having rustled cattle from neighboring ranchers to replace the cattle that he was selling to the Army, Sheriff John Larn was forced to resign as sheriff on March 7th, 1877.

Some say Sheriff John Larn refused to resign his position as county sheriff at first. Some say what pushed him into resigning was when his Deputy Willian Cruger shot and killed a couple of cowboys. Cruger's confrontation with those cowboys started when he was trying to restore order in a Fort Griffin saloon. The story goes that things got out of hand and soon a gunfight resulted in a number of cowboys being killed. All while Deputy Cruger and the county attorney who was also present were wounded in the exchange.

Some thought the dead cowboys were actually Larn's cohorts in his rustling operation. After all, there had to be more men involved in that since everyone knows it take more than just one or two men on horseback to rustle a large number of cattle. So it was very obvious to most at the time that more men were involved with Larn.    

After John Larn resigned, Deputy William Cruger was appointed his successor on April 20, 1877.

About now, one would think that Larn would heed the writing on the wall and lay low for a while. But no, that wasn't the case. Though he resigned as sheriff and was replaced by Deputy Cruger just a month later, he continued to rustle cattle.

Fact is, after resigning, many think he bribed someone in the county because he was soon appointed a County Hide Inspector. And believe it or not, Larn made John Selman a Deputy Hide Inspector. In those positions, the two were actually responsible for inspecting butchers, slaughter houses, and inspecting all of the cattle herds entering and leaving that county. So they would have complete access to cattle.

Also, even though he was exposed as being suspected of rustling which was enough to get other hanged in other places, Larn was still under contract to supply beef to Fort Griffin. Of course, during that time, cattle still went missing from neighboring ranches. So all in all, his being out of office as sheriff didn't change a thing.

We should note that while this was going on, the men who were in cahoots with him started to reveal themselves as his gang openly terrorized anyone who he suspected of wanting to testify against him. His band increased their harassment of ranchers who thought about standing up to John Larn. They were shot at, bushwhacked, had their herds driven off, and they even had their horses shot and killed for no reason other then to intimidate and terrify.

In February of 1878, a few brave citizens petitioned for a warrant to search the Clear Fork River which ran behind Larn's ranch house. Looking for hides that didn’t belong to him, Texas Rangers arrived and are said to have fished out over 200 hides with different brands from the Clear Fork. Since the brands were other than Larn’s own, he was arrested. But because he pleaded that the evidence against him had been planted there, he was later released. 

Right after his release, Larn's men increased their attacks and intimidation. This time targeting those citizens behind that search warrant.  

His brazen attacks came to an abrupt halt in June of 1878, when a local rancher who was known to have uncovered Larn's cattle rustling operation was shot and wounded by Larn himself. If he had killed him, things would have been different for John Larn. But instead, the man lived and soon identified the former sheriff as his would be assassin. 

With that, Shackelford County issued an arrest warrant for John M. Larn. It was the job of Sheriff Cruger to do so and he did in fact arrest Larn on June 22nd, 1878, at the Larn ranch while his former boss was milking a cow. Cruger took him in without incident. At the county jail in Albany, he was placed in a cell without a whole lot of fanfare.   

The next day, while still dark out in the early morning hours of June 23th, 1878, twelve hooded men rushed the Shackelford County jail and tried to take Larn out to be hanged. The men held the jailer at gunpoint while they attempted to pull Larn's out of his cell. Very quickly they realized that they couldn't. 

The hooded men didn't know that after placing former sheriff Larn in his jail cell on the previous day, Sheriff Cruger had a local blacksmith come in and shackle the former sheriff to the floor of his cell. Cruger did so because he figured his prisoner being shackled would prevent his cohorts from breaking him out of jail.

I've sort of wondered if Sheriff Cruger thought about what happened next. That is, what would happen if it weren't Larn's friends to come and get him?  

That morning when those men broke into the jail and found they couldn't remove former sheriff John Larn from his cell because of his being shackle, some say in frustration they just opened fire and shot John Larn full of holes right there while he was still in his cell. One report later said that Larn pleaded with them before being killed, telling them that he was one of them and they should let him go.   

John Larn's body was returned to his Camp Cooper Ranch where he was buried beside his infant son, Joseph B. Larn. The outlaw sheriff was survived by his wife and 5 year old son, William A. Larn. His wife Mary would go on to remarry. It said her next husband was a preacher.  

As for those wearing hoods who shot him in his cell. Well, some say it was the Tin Hat Brigade, the Fort Griffin Vigilance Committee, that stormed the jail intending to hang him. Some say when they found they couldn’t lynch him, that they shot him in his cell to make sure that he wouldn't get off. Some say they shot him dead so that he wouldn't implicate any of them in any of the crimes that they had committed. Some say they killed him because they felt duped and used by him. For whatever reason, former sheriff, fellow vigilante, cattle rustler, outlaw John Larn had more than 9 bullet holes in him when they found him dead.

It's said that their killing of John Larn, who was in fact a fellow vigilante, someone who they knew and trusted, was the last vigilante act of the Fort Griffin Vigilance Committee. Many believe it was their last act because they felt they couldn't trust those within their own ranks. Others say Sheriff Cruger did such a good job that the vigilantes saw themselves as no longer needed.

As for Sheriff Cruger, some say he was offered a lot of money to look the other way and let Larn go. Some say he didn't bend to temptation and was truly a man of honor and integrity. He was seen as a man who may have had a chance to join Larn and make a lot of money, but didn't. Instead he chose to do his duty and was reelected. He served until he resigned on July 20th, 1880.

A year later, William R. Cruger was hired on as Town Marshal in Princeton, Kentucky. He served the town greatly by most accounts. Then on May 29th, 1882, while Marshal Cruger was escorting a man charged with being drunk and disorderly, he was shot dead. He and the drunk were attempting to walk up a set of stairs from the street that led to Marshal Cruger's office. That's when the prisoner produced a gun, spun around, and shot Marshal Cruger the head. He died instantly. He was murdered by a prisoner that he didn't search. 

William Cruger was buried in the place of his birth, Albany, Georgia. He was survived by his mother and a sibling, wife Mary R. Boynton and their one child. It was a sad end of a very good man.

Tom Correa

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