The Tin Hat Brigade was one of the best known and probably the most active vigilance committee in Texas during its wild west days. The vigilante group was based out of a settlement that had grown up near Fort Griffin, Texas. This small town began at the bottom of the hill and was first called “The Bottom,” “The Flat,” or “Hidetown” before it took on the name of the fort.
The settlement that grew up around the post quickly became a bustling frontier town attracting an array of buffalo hunters, tradesmen, soiled doves, and cowboys passing through with their cattle herds on the Western Trail. The town also attracted a host of outlaws, thieves, and desperate characters, becoming a hotbed for violence. Before long, the town sported a roster of those who passed through the area that reads like a “whos-who of the American West,” including Pat Garrett, Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp, Johnny Golden, John Wesley Hardin, Lottie Deno, and Mollie McCabe.
Law and order were much needed in the wild and wooly community it became so bad that in 1874, the lawlessness required the military to declare martial law on the town as the Fort Griffin soldiers tried to run many of the lawbreakers out for good.
However, this was not enough for a particular faction of men in the town who decided to take the law into their own hands. Seeing to the protection of the lives and property of the people in the surrounding area, this band of men, who called themselves the Tin Hat Brigade, determined that swift “justice” was more effective. Soon, many a horse thief was found hanging from a tree near the river.
In 1874, a man named John Larn joined the brigade, and the respect that Larn gained as a member of this group helped get him elected sheriff of Shackelford County in April 1876. That same month, the Tin Hat Brigade caught a man in the act of stealing a horse and promptly hanged him to a pecan tree. Leaving his body hanging there for all to see, they also left a pick and shovel below his gruesome remains for anyone who might have wished to remove the thief and bury him.
The Fort Griffin vigilantes shot two more horse thieves and hanged six others in the next three months. In the meantime, Sheriff Larn hired John Henry Selman to work for him, but the two were not what they appeared to be. Instead of controlling the area crime, they controlled the vigilantes, rustling cattle and otherwise terrorizing the county. After serving less than a year as sheriff, Larn resigned and moved on to outright cattle rustling. Within a year, a warrant had been issued for Larn’s arrest, and the new Sheriff William Cruger, who had formerly been Larn’s deputy, was tasked with arresting him.
Bringing Larn in on June 22, 1878, Cruger shackled him to the jailhouse floor to prevent a breakout by Larn’s supporters. Instead, the Tin Hat Brigade stormed the jail intending to hang Larn the next night. They shot him in his cell when they found they couldn’t lynch the shackled man. At about the same time, an unknown man was found hanging outside of town and the town marshal, William C. Gilson, went missing. The rumor was that Gilson knew too much about the vigilantes’ going-ons and was killed to keep him quiet.