John Wesley Hardin, one of the most vicious outlaws of the Old West, killed at least two dozen men, including a Comanche County deputy sheriff in 1874. Hardin fled the state, but three years later John B. Armstrong, a Texas Ranger, tracked him down in Pensacola, Florida. Instead of shooting Hardin, Armstrong brought him back to Texas, where he was put on trial. It took half a day to pick a jury in Comanche, then another day and a half to try the case. The jury debated for three hours, found Hardin guilty of second-degree murder, and gave him 25 years. He appealed and lost; in September 1878 Hardin was sent to Huntsville, where he served almost 16 years before being released.
Bill Kroger believes that the way Texas dealt with Hardin says a lot about the state’s history. “Texas has a reputation as being the Wild West,” says the Houston lawyer, “but Jesse James was gunned down in Missouri, and Billy the Kid was gunned down in New Mexico. Hardin was brought to justice.” Kroger is chair of the state Supreme Court’s Texas Court Records Preservation Task Force and has become something of an unofficial state historian. “Texas wasn’t settled by gunmen,” he says. “It was settled in large part by developing, county by county, a system of laws, with due process, an independent judiciary, and a functioning bar of lawyers. It’s why the center of every county seat is not a church but a courthouse.”
In 2009 Kroger was looking through the archives of the Comanche County district clerk’s o...