Killing of John Vaden at Fort McKavitt
By John Warren Hunter
In 1868 Texas was under military rule and Federal troops were stationed in nearly every town of any consequence in the State. The presence of these soldiers at a time when the animosities engendered by the Civil War were yet at white heat and the tyranny, coupled with the cupidity of Federal soldiers in command, embittered the people and many of the younger men, those whose youth prevented their going into the army, and who cherished an inherited hatred towards the Yankees, were led to enter upon a career of crime that usually resulted in an untimely end at the hand of violence.
The meanest negro, whose insolence had provoked the wrath of a white man, could hasten to a Federal commandant with his plaint, a squad of soldiers was sent out, the citizen arrested and confined in the stockade, and it soon became known that however well to-do a man might be, if he ever entered one of these Federal stockades as a prisoner, he came out a poor man.
Besides the negro element there was a class of men who, under the cloak of loyalty to the Union during the war, neglected no opportunity to involve honest men in difficulties with the military authorities, and but for these men the civil officers could have enforced the law, preserved order, and there would have been no need for the intervention of the military arm of public service. It was one of this class—one Peacock—who succeeded in arraying the military authorities against Bob Lee of Collin county, a good citizen, a man who had served with merit and distinction in the Confederate army, and when General Lee surrendered, Bob accepted the situation, came home and entered upon the peaceful pursuits of civil life with the resolve to live blameless before all men. The same can be said of Cullen Baker of Bowie county, and hosts of others whose resentment against the wrongs heaped upon them by these so-called loyal Unionists and the petty officers and troops composing these garrisons over the country, that drove them to deeds of bloody retaliation. There are many living today who remember seeing at every crossroad in North Texas large posters announcing the offer of $1,000 reward for the apprehension, dead or alive, of Bob Lee, Cullen Baker and Ben Biggerstaff. All three of these men were killed and I suppose their slayers got the reward.
Billy Vaden, a righteous, God-fearing man, lived some twelve or fifteen miles north of Sulphur Springs, in Hopkins county. He had three or four sons, among whom was John Vaden. When John Vaden should have been in school he fell in with Ben Biggerstaff and became a member of the Biggerstaff gang. I do not recall the antecedents of this outlaw, nor do I know what provocation led him to declare uncompromising war against the Federal authorities in 1868, but at all events, he became a terror to the Federals and all peaceable citizens alike, but negroes and Yankees were the principal objects of his vengeance and many of these went down under his unerring aim.
A man living out in the country a few miles from Sulphur Springs had just cause to chastise an insolent negro; the latter hastened to town and reported the man to the commandant. Captain Tollman of the Sixth Cavalry with a troop of about twenty men held the post, and a detail of five men under a sergeant was sent to arrest the man who had whipped the nigger. Biggerstaff and Vaden got wind of the arrest, ambushed the party within half a mile of town, killing three or four of the soldiers and the negro and released the prisoner.
Two days after this, as an act of mere bravado, John Vaden, mounted on a little sorrel race mare, dashed through Sulphur Springs, passing within forty feet of the soldiers' barracks. Captain Tollman and his young wife were sitting on the front gallery of the Cotton hotel and as Vaden dashed by he fired at Tollman, missing his head by about one inch. Further down the street, and while under full speed, he fired the fatal shot that settled old Grimes, a noted negro about town, and before the Federals could collect their wits and give pursuit, John Vaden had vanished.
Lige Reynolds was raised at Sulphur Springs, and when the war came up he refused to renounce his allegiance to the Union. He left his wife and two little children and went to Mexico, and from thence to New Orleans, where he enlisted in the First Texas Cavalry U. S. Volunteers, and was mustered out at San Antonio in 1866. From San Antonio he came home and settled down on a place some five or six miles west of Sulphur Springs. Reynolds had occasion to go to town and while there he made a few purchases and set out on his return. That was the last ever seen of Lige Reynolds alive. Four days later searching parties found his body in the brush some distance from the main road. He had been murdered. His favorite dog that followed wherever he went had been shot and stretched across the body of his master.
Suspicion and circumstantial evidence pointed to the Biggerstaff gang but no real tangible clue was available and the matter rested. Biggerstaff was killed at Alvarado, Johnson county, shortly afterward and Vaden drifted west. Some years later he was arrested in San Angelo and taken to Sulphur Springs where he stood trial for one of the murders laid to his charge, and was acquitted. Other cases pending against him were dismissed and he returned to West Texas.
I next met John Vaden at Menardville in the fall of 1884. He had married a Miss Jackson, who was of an excellent family, her father being James Jackson who lived on the San Saba below town. An election was being held and armed with a Winchester, John stood within a few feet of the polls threatening to shoot any Mexican who refused to vote his way, and before the polls closed I saw him kick out the glass windows of the courtroom, where the election was being held, just because the votes were not cast to suit him. A deputy sheriff and the county judge were present but no one there wanted to take the risk of being killed. John Vaden was known as being a bad man and men feared him.
Of course I knew John Varden on sight but kept my own counsel and as he did not recognize me, I took no occasion to renew his acquaintance. I had not forgotten Lige Reynolds and the suspicion resting on the Biggerstaff crowd of which Vaden was a member. Lige had befriended me in boyhood, he had befriended me in Mexico before he joined the Federal army and working in conjunction with his widow and her son and daughter, who were at this time living in Mason, I was on the alert to find some clue to the real murderer.
Two years later, November, 1886, a number of men gathered after nightfall at Sam Wallick's store in Fort McKavett to wait for the coming of the Menardville mail hack. Among the number was John Vaden, who at the time and some years prior to that date, lived in McKavett. John took a seat on the office stove, a box shaped affair and began to relate some of his past experiences. Those who had known him most instantly noticed that on that occasion he was unusually loquacious. There were 11 men present; I counted them and before we adjourned at eleven o'clock I had taken the name of every man in the house. Vaden began by relating his experiences with the Mexicans while in the sheep business and the number he had killed. He reverted to the earlier years of his career and told of men he had killed in North Texas; of the raids and adventures and scoutings he had engaged in while with Ben Biggerstaff and others. He recounted his achievements on the race course and in the gambling houses and told of the unfair methods he employed to win success. And thus he regaled a group of earnest listeners until a late hour. He seemed not only boastful, but exultant, over the death of men whom he had slain and often exclaimed: "I thank my Christ that I did kill him!"
Observing his unusual communicativeness, I ventured to draw him out on the manner of Mr. Reynold's death by questioning him with regard to the shooting of the soldiers and the nigger just west of Sulphur Springs, the shooting at Capt. Tollman, the killing of old Grimes and others. He willingly related all the particulars and when I remarked, with assumed nonchalance: "Well, some of you fellows got off with that fellow Reynolds!"
"I killed Lige Reynolds myself and I thank my Christ for it!" was his startling reply.
"We fell in with him a few miles out of town. We took him off the road a short way into the brush and I shot him off his horse. I then got down to get the packages of goods he had let fall and his dog bit me right here, here is the scar," and he rolled up his pants and showed us a scar on the calf of his leg.
"Why did you fellows want to kill Reynolds? He always seemed like a harmless sort of a man," I asked.
"Because he was an infernal Yankee!" was the reply, and that reply secured for Mrs. Reynolds a pension that had been denied her for so many years.
Of the eleven men who were present that night and heard Vaden's confessions and boastings. I can only recall the names of Sam Wallick, D. T. Priest, John Q. Adams, Charles Adams and Doc Word. I think Tom Ball and Tom Elliott were also present, but of this I am not sure.
After the crowd dispersed Mr. Priest, who had known Vaden since the latter's first advent into the country, said to Mr. Wallick: "John Vaden is going to kill somebody tomorrow, or else somebody will have to kill him. I know him better than any man in McKavett and you mark my words. He is in one of his dangerous moods."
In addition to his large stock and mercantile interests in McKavett, F. Mayer owned a saloon and Ben Daniels, a deputy sheriff under J. W. Mears, was his barkeeper. Vaden had operated a saloon in McKavett but had closed out. He and Daniels had always been on good terms and only the day previous Daniels had accepted an invitation to dinner at Vaden 's house.
Early the next morning, following the gathering at Wallick's, Vaden entered the saloon and began to abuse Daniels. He set about to smash furniture and to create a rough house generally. He threw a billiard ball at Daniels, which barely missed his head and crashed into a large mirror behind the bar. Bystanders interfered and Vaden swore he would go home, only a few steps away, and get his gun. Charley Adams now living at Sonora, went with him and as they neared the house, Adams gave Mrs. Vaden the sign and she ran into the room and hid the gun. Failing to find the weapon, Vaden picked up a set of brass knucks and put them in his pocket saying something about what he would do to Daniels with these knucks. Meantime, Daniels had closed the saloon, buckled on his pistol and went into an old corral at the back of Mayer's store, where, in order to avoid Vaden, he remained until three o'clock that evening.
Finding the saloon closed and Daniels gone, Vaden next went into Wallick' s store and picked up a long shaft or wooden handle to which was attached an iron hook used in that day by merchants to take down tinware from overhead. With this and without provocation he began to thrust a Mexican, who had called to get his mail, and to tear his clothes. The Mexican said something about such treatment whereupon Vaden flew into a rage and would have killed the fellow but for the intervention of Sam Walliok and others. He next turned his attention to the horses hitched to the trees on the little square and it seemed to afford him great amusement thrusting and lacerating these poor animals just to see them jump, kick and surge against the halter. Groups of men were broken up, chased around and scattered with the same gusto and the same weapon. Brave fearless men there were in those groups, but they knew John Vaden and they did not care to kill him or take chances on being killed. It was his day off, and they let it go at that.
At about 3 o'clock in the evening, Vaden, after a brief respite, had resumed his antics with his hook and pole in front of Mayer's store where quite a crowd had assembled. He had the boys jumping sideways for Sunday, when Ben Daniels came in view. Oblivious of what had been going on during the day Ben had remained in the old corral. Supposing that Vaden had quieted down, Ben ventured out with the intention of giving Mr. Mayer the keys to the saloon and to throw up the job of bartender. It was necessary for him to enter the store through the front door. and as he turned the corner of the building, coming round to the front, he found himself facing, and within twenty feet of Vaden who at once made a dash at him as if to prod him with the sharp iron on his pole. Daniels drew his pistol and told him to desist. but Vaden gave no heed to the order and continued to advance, Daniels giving back and repeating his warnings. Finally Daniels opened fire, four shots going wild. The fifth struck Vaden about the collar bone and produced almost instant death.
The killing of John Vaden created no excitement among the citizens. On the contrary, a deep sense of relief seemed to pervade every circle. Vaden was buried the day following the tragedy in McKavett cemetery. Besides his widow and two or three bright little children there were few if any mourners. He sleeps in an unmarked grave.
The grand jury investigated the killing of Vaden and refused to find a bill of indictment against Daniels. Sometime afterward, Daniels left the country and the last news I had of him he was in New Mexico doing well. Vaden's two sons grew up and I have been told that they are useful citizens and highly respected.