John Wesley Hardin: Ruthless Old West Killer

Last week I told you about modern-day killer Colin Ferguson. This week, we take a trip back to the old West to meet John Wesley Hardin. He’s not as famous as, say, Billy the Kid or Wyatt Earp (they had better publicists). But Hardin was a prolific killer. He claimed to have killed 42 men. Contemporary newspapers put the count at 27.

Ferrotype mirror image of John Wesley Hardin (Public Domain)
Ferrotype mirror image of John Wesley Hardin (Public Domain)

John Wesley Hardin — A Violent Boyhood

John Wesley Hardin entered the world near Bonham, Texas in 1853. His father, a Methodist preacher, named his son after the founder of the Methodist denomination. The Civil War broke out when Hardin was eight years old. The next year, when he was nine, he tried to run away with his cousin and join the Confederate army. His father dissuaded him with “a sound thrashing.”

John Wesley Hardin
John Wesley Hardin

When Hardin was 14, he got into a fight with classmate Charles Sloter, a boy Hardin described as a bully. Sloter wrote something on the chalkboard disparaging a girl at the school. History doesn’t record what the writing said, but Sloter then claimed Hardin had written it. Hardin denied it. According to Hardin, Sloter punched him and pulled a knife. Hardin had a knife of his own and stabbed Sloter in the chest and back, nearly killing him.

Hardin’s First Killing

In November 1868, Hardin and a cousin engaged in a wrestling match with a former slave named Major “Mage” Holshousen. During the match, Hardin and his cousin threw Holshousen to the ground, cutting his face. Hardin claimed that the next day, the former slave “ambushed” him as he rode past. Hardin then shot Holshousen five times with his Colt .44.

Union troops occupied Texas in the wake of the Civil War. More than a third of the state police were former slaves. Hardin’s father felt a fair trial for killing a black man would be impossible, so he urged Hardin to go into hiding. Some historians believe Hardin wouldn’t have had any problems with an all-white jury, but he left anyway.

John Wesley Hardin
John Wesley Hardin

According to Hardin, while he was on the run, authorities discovered where he was hiding. They sent three Union soldiers to arrest him. Hardin laid in wait for the soldiers and killed two of them with two blasts from a double-barreled shotgun. The third soldier ran, and Hardin pursued him. The soldier shot at Hardin, hitting him in the arm. Hardin shot the man dead with his pistol.

Outlaw on the Run

By now, John Wesley Hardin was a full-fledged outlaw. He roamed around Texas and, for a while, even taught school in the tiny town of Towash. The students had a reputation for being unruly and frightening off teachers. But Hardin earned their respect—and attention—by carrying a revolver to class.

On January 20, 1875 the Texas Legislature authorized Governor Richard B. Hubbard
to offer a $5,000 reward for the apprehension of John Wesley Hardin.
On January 20, 1875 the Texas Legislature authorized Governor Richard B. Hubbard
to offer a $5,000 reward for the apprehension of John Wesley Hardin.

Respectability wasn’t in Hardin’s future, though. On January 5, 1870 (some sources say Christmas Day, 1869), he got in a card game with Benjamin Bradley. He had a run of luck and Bradley threatened to “cut out his liver” if he won again. Hardin was not armed and left. Later, though, the two men found themselves facing each other in the street. The classic “walkdown” made famous by books and movies was, in fact, quite rare in the old West. They occasionally occurred, though, often among southern gunmen as a continuation of the idea of the “gentlemen’s dual.” Bradley fired and missed. Hardin shot Bradley in the head and chest, killing him.

John Wesley Hardin Kills a Man for Snoring

In the early 1870s, the fugitive John Wesley Hardin (using an alias) met James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok. Hardin admired the lawman-gambler and the two became friends. Hardin claimed that on one occasion, Hickok arranged for one of Hardin’s cousins to escape from jail.

In 1871, Hickok was the town marshal of Abilene, Kansas, a rough-and-tumble Cowtown. On August 6, Hardin checked into Abilene’s American House Hotel after a night of drinking and gambling. Sometime during the night, loud snoring coming from the adjacent room occupied by Charles Couger awakened him. After shouted demands to “roll over” had no effect, Hardin drunkenly fired several shots through the wall. Although he probably intended only to wake Couger, one bullet pierced his heart, killing him instantly.

James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok (Portrait taken in 1873 by George Gardner Rockwood at his New York studio three years before Hickok's death in Deadwood)
James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok (Portrait taken in 1873 by George Gardner Rockwood at his New York studio three years before Hickok’s death in Deadwood)

Hardin—half dressed and still drunk—saw Hickok coming with four policemen. He escaped out a second-floor window onto the hotel’s roof, then jumped to the street. He hid in a haystack all night. The next morning, he stole a horse and escaped. He never returned to Abilene.

The incident apparently embarrassed Hardin. He later complained about the press he received from it and omitted it entirely in his autobiography.

Prison and Afterwards

Hardin evaded the law for several years. But on August 24, 1877, Texas Rangers and local lawmen accosted him on a train near Pensacola, Florida. Hardin attempted to draw a Colt .44 cap-and-ball pistol, but it caught in his suspenders. The lawmen knocked Hardin unconscious and took him prisoner.

Hardin went on trial for killing Brown County, Texas Deputy Sheriff Charles Webb. On June 5, 1878, he was sentenced to 25 years in Huntsville Prison. He attempted to escape–unsuccessfully—several times. Eventually, though, he adapted to prison life. He read and studied law. He also penned an autobiography in which he wildly exaggerated and even fabricated incidents in his life.

Harden was released from Huntsville prison in February 1894. He was forty years old. Eventually pardoned, he passed the state bar examination and earned a license to practice law.

The Death of John Wesley Hardin

In El Paso, Texas, lawman John Selman, Jr. arrested an acquaintance of Hardin’s and the two men got into a verbal altercation. That night, Hardin was playing dice in the Acme Salon. Selman’s father, 58-year-old John Selman, Sr., entered the saloon, walked up behind Hardin, and shot him in the head, killing him instantly. As Hardin lay on the floor, Selman fired three more bullets into him. John Wesley Hardin was buried the next day.

John Henry Selman, Sr.
John Henry Selman, Sr.

Selman stood trial for murder. He claimed self defense and got a hung jury. Before his retrial, though, he himself was killed in an argument over a card game.

John Wesley Hardin's grave in Concordia Cemetery, El Paso, Texas.
John Wesley Hardin’s grave in Concordia Cemetery, El Paso, Texas.

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Colin Ferguson: Sensational Shooting on the LIRR

In last week’s blog, we saw “Dapper” Dan Hogan. St. Paul, Minnesota’s “Irish Godfather” blown to kingdom come by a car bomb. This week, we look at Colin Ferguson and a scary shooting on a New York commuter train.

Colin Ferguson

Colin Ferguson was born in Jamaica in 1958. His father was a wealthy pharmacist and the managing director of a large pharmaceutical company. Young Colin had a normal upbringing, although one that was privileged by Jamaican standards. His high school principal described him as a “well-rounded student.” He graduated in the top third of his class.

Colin Ferguson in court.
Colin Ferguson in court.

His privileged life fell apart though when Colin was 20. First, his father died in a car crash in 1978. Then his mother died of cancer shortly thereafter. The deaths left the family fortune in shambles. In 1982, Colin left Jamaica for the United States.

In the US, Colin Ferguson met and married Audrey Warren, an American woman of Jamaican ancestry. He and his wife moved to Long Island, New York and had a son. There Colin attended a community college, making the dean’s list three times. However, Audrey sued for divorce in 1988 and won custody of their boy. Colin ended up living in what was essentially a flophouse in Brooklyn.

Terror on the Long Island Railroad

The Long Island Railroad is a series of commuter lines running from Manhattan’s Pennsylvania Station to Queens and Long Island. Several branches run to different destinations on the island.

Colin Ferguson staged his attack here, at the Merillon Avenue (LIRR station) in Garden City, New York (DanTD)
Site of the shootings, Merillon Avenue (LIRR station) in Garden City, New York (DanTD)

On December 7, 1993, Colin Ferguson boarded the third car of an eastbound train at the Flatbush Avenue station in Brooklyn. He carried a Ruger P89 handgun and a canvas bag with 160 rounds of ammunition. As the train approached the Merillon Avenue stations near Garden City he drew the gun and stood up. Then he opened fire. During the next three minutes, he walked slowly toward the front of the car shooting people on the left and the right. The New York Times wrote that he was “as methodical as if he were taking tickets.”

Ferguson emptied two 15-round clips during the shooting spree. As he was loading a third, someone yelled, “Grab him!” Michael O’Connor, Kevin Blum, and Mark McEntee tackled him and pinned him to a seat. These three and other passengers kept the shooter pinned down until Andrew Roderick, an off-duty LIRR policeman, boarded the train and handcuffed him.

Victims receive emergency attention at Merillon Avenue in Garden City after gunman Colin Ferguson fatally shot six people and injured 19 on an LIRR train (Newsday / Al Raia)
Victims receive emergency attention at Merillon Avenue in Garden City after gunman Colin Ferguson fatally shot six people and injured 19 on an LIRR train (Newsday / Al Raia)

The shooting spree left six people dead or dying. Nineteen other passengers suffered bullet wounds while two suffered injuries in the stampede of passengers trying to exit the train.

Colin Ferguson under arrest.
Colin Ferguson under arrest.

Colin Ferguson on Trial

A Nassau County grand jury indicted Colin Ferguson in January 1994 on 93 counts. The district attorney announced that he would not accept a plea bargain. In March of that year, radical attorney William Kunstler and his partner, Ron Kuby, agreed to take the case on a pro bono basis.

Radical lawyer William M. Kunstler ca. 1989 (Joel Seidenstein). Kunstler volunteered to defend Collin Ferguson without fee.
Radical lawyer William M. Kunstler ca. 1989 (Joel Seidenstein)

Kunstler and Kuby decided to argue a “black rage” defense. They contended that racial prejudice he suffered in America had driven Ferguson temporarily insane. Apparently, even Ferguson himself found this offensive. The lawyers also questioned his competence to stand trial. But Ferguson insisted he was competent, although his bizarre courtroom behavior suggested otherwise. When his attorneys filed notice that they would pursue an insanity defense, he fired them and insisted on representing himself.

Ferguson conducted a disjointed an ineffective defense. His list of potential witnesses included President Bill Clinton, although in the end he called no witnesses. He argued that another person was the actual shooter, but every eyewitness identified him. His cross-examination often repeated witnesses’ statements, a legal no-no as it mostly reinforces the original testimony. And by failing to object to testimony and during closing arguments, he lost the right to appeal on those points.

Epilogue

Unsurprisingly, the jury found Colin Ferguson guilty of murder and attempted murder. Judge Donald E. Belfi sentenced him to 315 years and 8 months to life. He will be eligible for parole in August 2309.

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Dan Hogan — New Attack Kills “Irish Godfather”

Last week’s blog met Judge Joseph Force Crater who disappeared without a trace in 1930. This week’s blog introduces “Dapper” Dan Hogan, the so-called “Irish Godfather” of St. Paul, Minnesota. Like the judge, Hogan’s case remains unsolved.

St. Paul the Gangland Haven

St. Paul in the early twentieth century was one of the most corrupt cities in America. When John O’Connor became Chief of Police in 1900, he instituted what became known as the O’Connor Layover Agreement. The system was straightforward. Criminals could hide out in St. Paul if they followed three simple rules. First, they had to check in with O’Connor’s representative when they got into town. Second, they had to pay a small bribe. And third, they were not to commit major crimes within the city during their stay.

St. Paul police chief John O'Connor ca. 1912. Dan Hogan was O'Connor's "ambassador" to visiting criminals
St. Paul police chief John O’Connor ca. 1912

O’Connor’s first contact man was William “Reddy” Griffin. When criminals came to town, they would “check in” with Griffin at the Savoy Hotel and pay the required bribe. Griffin was O’Connor’s “ambassador” until he died suddenly of a stroke in 1913.

The Layover Agreement made St. Paul one of the most crime-free cities in America—for a while. But surrounding cities and towns suffered as crooks committed the crimes the planned in St. Paul there.

Dan Hogan Arrives on the Scene

Dan Hogan arrived in St. Paul around 1908. He began organizing crimes under the auspices of O’Connor’s system and became politically connected. He operated the Green Lantern, a saloon on Wabasha Street. The saloon catered to the underworld element and laundered their stolen money. It also had a casino and, during Prohibition, was a speakeasy.

"Dapper" Dan Hogan
“Dapper” Dan Hogan

Hogan took advantage of William Griffin’s death to become O’Connor’s “ambassador” to the criminals seeking shelter in St. Paul. However, O’Connor retired from the police force in 1920. The O’Connor Layover Agreement persisted for several more years, but it began to change in ominous ways. St. Paul’s crime rate, which had been low while O’Connor was active, began to climb.

A Car Bomb Kills Dan Hogan

On December 4, 1928, Dan Hogan got into his Paige coupe and stepped on the starter. A nitroglycerine bomb wired to the starter circuit exploded. Men both respectable and disreputable lined up at the hospital to donate blood, but Hogan slipped into a coma and died about 9:00 p.m.

A St. Paul newspaper reports Dan Hogan's death
A St. Paul newspaper reports Dan Hogan’s death

Hogan’s death marked the beginning of the end for the O’Connor Layover Agreement. The repeal of prohibition at the end of 1933 accelerated its decline. With prohibition gone, so were the profits from illegal liquor sales. Bootleggers turned to kidnapping for ransom. Once known for its lack of serious crime, St. Paul became infamous for its criminal activity. Thanks to a recently energized FBI and a crusading newspaper man, the O’Connor Layover Agreement finally ended in 1935.

Epilogue

The murder of Dan Hogan was an early instance of assassination by car bomb, a technique perfected in New York. Police never arrested anyone for the murder, and it remains officially unsolved. However, recently declassified FBI files reveal that the likely killer was Hogan’s underboss, Harry Sawyer.

Police identification card for Harry Sawyer
Police identification card for Harry Sawyer

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Judge Crater: An Odd Disappearance and Possible Murder

Last week, I told you about the disappearance and reappearance of evangelist “Sister Aimee,” Aimee Semple McPherson. This week we meet Judge Crater, once described as “the missingest man in New York.”

Joseph Force Crater

In the summer of 1930, Joseph Force Crater could look on his legal career with satisfaction. In April of that year, Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed him Associate Justice of the New York Supreme Court for New York County. At age 41, Crater was relatively young for this position, even if in New York, the Supreme Court is a trial court and not the appellate “Supreme Court” of most states. Some were bold enough to hint that he bought his appointment, pointing to the $20,000 he withdrew from his bank around that time. Crater’s fondness for showgirls did nothing to remove the whiff of scandal that surrounded him.

Judge Crater, the "Missingest Man in New York"
Judge Crater, the “Missingest Man in New York”

On Thursday, August 3, 1930, Judge Crater interrupted a Maine, vacation leaving his wife, Stella behind. He returned to New York, he said, to attend to some unspecified business. Instead, he took one of his mistresses, showgirl Sally Lou Ritzi, to Atlantic City. After returning from the seashore, he spent the morning of August 6 in his chambers at the Foley Square courthouse. People saw him going through documents, possibly destroying several. He then had his law clerk cash two checks for him totaling $5,150. At noon, Crater and the clerk took two locked briefcases to the judge’s apartment. He then told the clerk to take off the rest of the day.

A modern photograph of 40 Fifth Avenue, where Judge Crater and Stella lived
A modern photograph of 40 Fifth Avenue, where Judge Crater and Stella lived

Judge Crater Vanishes Without a Trace

Thursday evening, Crater dined with a lawyer friend, William Klein, and Sally Ritzi at Billy Haas’s Chophouse. The restaurant in the heart of the theater district at 332 West 45th Street. Earlier Crater had purchased a single ticket for that evening to see the comedy Dancing Partner at the Belasco Theater. The three enjoyed appetizers of cool lobster cocktails and had cold chicken for dinner.

Sally Ritzi with an unnamed actor
Sally Ritzi with an unnamed actor

Klein and Ritzi initially told authorities that after dinner, Crater took a cab in front of the restaurant. They assumed he was on his way to the theater, even though this left his dining companions on the sidewalk. They later changed their story, saying that they had taken the cab leaving Crater on the sidewalk. It was the last time anyone reported seeing the judge.

The Belasco Theater, Judge Crater's destination the night he disappeared
The Belasco Theater, Judge Crater’s destination the night he disappeared

Judge Crater’s disappearance merited only a muted response at first. Several days after he failed to return to Maine, his wife started calling friends in New York. Fellow justices also instituted a quiet search after he didn’t appear for the opening of the courts on August 25. Finally, they notified the police on September 3. The case immediately became front-page news.

What Happened Next

Investigators followed several leads that looked promising, but they turned out to be dead ends. A Grand Jury meeting in October found insufficient evidence to determine whether Judge Crater disappeared voluntarily or was the victim of a crime.

Crater’s wife, Stella, petitioned to have him declared legally dead in July 1937. The courts granted her request in 1939. She remarried to Carl Kunz in 1938 but they separated in 1950. Stella always believed her husband had been murdered. She presented that theory in her 1965 ghostwritten book, The Empty Robe. She died in 1969 at the age of 70.

Judge Crater and wife Stella shortly before he disappeared
Judge Crater and wife Stella shortly before he disappeared

Epilogue

Judge Crater quickly became part of the American lexicon. Although not in common usage today, 90 years ago “to pull a Crater” meant to disappear. Nightclub acts often included “Judge Crater, call your office” as a throwaway gag. Crater was, at least until the advent of Jimmy Hoffa, the most famous missing man in America. Like Hoffa, he never reappeared alive or dead.

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