John M. Larn – Vigilante, Outlaw, Lawman

John M. Larn

John M. Larn

So respected as a vigilante in the lawless settlement of Fort Griffin, Texas, John M. Larn was elected sheriff, a mistake the town’s population would not soon forget.

Born in Mobile, Alabama, on March 1, 1849, Larn traveled to Colorado as a teenager, where he found work as a ranch hand. However, after an argument with his boss over a horse around 1869, he shot and killed him. Soon he fled to New Mexico, where he killed a local sheriff who he thought was trailing him. Continuing into Texas, he settled in Fort Griffin, where in 1871, he worked as a trail boss for a local rancher named Bill Hays. While on a cattle drive to Trinidad, Colorado, he allegedly killed two Mexicans and a sheepherder. Somewhere along the line, Larn married Mary Jane Matthews from the noted Matthews family and became a well-known citizen of Shackelford County.

Shaunissy's Saloon at Fort Griffin, Texas

At Shaunissy’s Saloon in Fort Griffin, Wyatt Earp first met Doc Holliday. The saloon has been recreated atop its old foundation by Kathy Alexander.

However, by 1873, allegations began to surface that Larn was involved in cattle rustling. Ironically, that same year, he got a warrant for the arrest of every member of Bill Hays’ cattle outfit for rustling.

As he accompanied a posse of 13 soldiers from Fort Griffin, the men ambushed and killed every member of the outfit near Bush Knob, Texas. In 1874 he joined the Tin Hat Brigade in Fort Griffin, a vigilante group that worked swiftly bringing “justice” to many a horse thief who was left hanging from a tree near the river. As a member of the Tin Hat Brigade, he gained so much respect he was elected sheriff of Fort Griffin in April 1876. That same month, the Tin Hat Brigade caught a man 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 in the next three months and hanged six others.

Shortly after taking the sheriff’s position, Larn entered into a private contract with the local territorial garrison to deliver three steers of cattle per day. However, Larn had different ideas and began to make a plan with a longtime friend and recently deputized John Selman to simply rustle the cattle from neighboring ranchers rather than having to provide his own. Before long, he and Selman, instead of controlling the area crime, controlled the vigilantes, rustling even more cattle and otherwise terrorizing the county. However, suspicions were soon raised as several ranchers noticed that while their herds were slowly shrinking, Larn’s remained unaffected. Obviously profitable, Larn soon built a house at Camp Cooper Ranch on the Cedar Fork in Lambshead, Texas.

John Selman

John Selman

After serving less than a year, Larn resigned as sheriff on March 7, 1877, and was replaced by his deputy, William Cruger, a month later. Moving on to outright cattle rustling, he and Selman continued to profit and, in March 1877, were appointed as deputy hide inspectors for Shackelford County. Opportune positions for the cattle thieves, they were to inspect all cattle herds entering and leaving the county, as well as supervise the butchers. Larn also continued to supply Fort Griffin with its beef and as more and more cattle went missing, the complaints grew louder and louder. A number of violent acts were also being reported as a band of men, allegedly led by Larn and Selman, were bushwhacking area ranchers, driving off their cattle, shooting horses, and firing potshots at the homes of terrified citizens.

Finally, in February 1878, a group of civilians secured a warrant to search the river behind Larn’s house. Looking for hides that didn’t belong to him, six were recovered from the river with brands other than Larn’s own. Though Larn was arrested, he was later released, and violence continued.

Fort Griffin, Texas Jail by Kathy Alexander.

Fort Griffin, Texas Jail by Kathy Alexander.

However, in June 1878, a local rancher named Treadwell, who had reportedly uncovered the cattle rustling, was wounded by Larn and the Albany court issued a warrant for his arrest. Sheriff William Cruger was then tasked with arresting his former boss, which he did on June 22, 1878. After placing him in jail, Cruger had the local blacksmith shackle Larn to the floor of the cell to prevent a breakout by Larn’s supporters.

Instead, the Tin Hat Brigade stormed the jail the next night, intending to hang Larn. They shot him in his cell when they found they couldn’t lynch the shackled man. Afterward, his body was returned to Camp Cooper Ranch, where he was buried beside his infant son.

After Larn was captured and killed, Selman took off for lawless Lincoln County, New Mexico, where he started a vicious gang called Selman’s Scouts. For two months, these outlaws terrorized the area, stealing horses and cattle, murdering innocent men and boys, and pillaging businesses and homes.

They were finally stopped when Governor Lew Wallace issued a proclamation threatening martial law. Selman returned to Texas, where he was captured by Texas Rangers in 1880 and taken to Shackelford County to stand trial for his previous crimes. However, he soon escaped and made his way to Chihuahua, Mexico where he lived until 1888. The Texas charges were then dropped, and he moved to El Paso, where he remarried and made his living primarily as a gambler and sometimes as a City Constable. On April 5, 1894, he killed former Texas Ranger Baz (Bass) Outlaw during a fight in Tillie Howard’s brothel.

George Scarborough

George Scarborough

The following year, on August 19, 1895, he killed the famous gunman John Wesley Hardin in the Acme Saloon. Though charged with murder, his trial resulted in a hung jury. While out on bond, he ran into Marshal George Scarborough, and when talk elevated into a dispute, then to gunplay, Scarborough shot Selman four times. Selman died on April 6, 1896, and Scarborough was acquitted of murder.

© Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated November 2022.

Also See:

Fort Griffin

John Selman

Texas Rangers

John Wesley Hardin