Stephen F. Austin State University

Bad Times in the Big Thicket (November 2011)

Bad Times in the Big Thicket

By Renee Hart Wells

The founding of Hardin County in 1858 did not result in immediate peace and prosperity for the pioneers. In addition to their reliance upon game from the Big Thicket, they were dependent upon favorable weather for their farm products and good prices for their cattle. Illness was common and medical care was scarce. In an outbreak of fever at Batson Prairie in 1861, young mother Marie Doucet wrote a letter in French to her aunt pleading for help as "la fievre and frissons" had affected her family and most of the community.

Joseph Neal Dark, a doctor, helped the community through several of these fever epidemics and was highly regarded at Batson Prairie. A tall, imposing man, he was a cattle rancher and farmer and enlisted as a major in the Confederate cavalry early in the Civil War. Before his departure for active duty, it was said to be common knowledge that Dark had a large sum of money hidden in the family's cabin. The money was from a successful cattle drive and he planned for his wife Permelia to use it to support the family while he went off to war.

Three Hardin County men, Austin Chessher, Thomas Magness, and G. H. Willis, heard about Joseph Dark's success and hatched a coldblooded plan to murder Dark and force his wife to reveal the location of the hidden money. The plot began to unravel when the three men arrived at the family home on the evening of September 16, 1861. They called to Dark, and he recognized the voice of Willis, a man he knew. When Dark opened the door, Willis fired but missed his target. Magness and Chessher then fired into the house through the door, missing the baby's crib but wounding Mrs. Dark and the family servant. As soon as he could retrieve his own gun, Dark shot and killed Chessher.

Fleeing for their lives, Magness and Willis evaded a Hardin County posse for only a short time. Willis was caught in Jasper County and Magness in Tyler County, and the posse brought them back to the courthouse at Old Hardin where they faced a mob determined on quick justice. There was time for Willis to write out his confession for Chief Justice John W. Crozier on the second floor of the courthouse in which he confessed to their attempt to murder and rob Dark. He also included details of plots against others, including Jerasin Guedry, another rancher at Batson Prairie. Before he finished his confession, the impatient mob roared their intention to hang the two men and, according to the story, Willis fainted. The two men were hanged near the courthouse.

Overshadowing news of the war, word spread across Hardin and nearby counties of the attempted murder and the vigilante justice. Philip Caudill tells that Celina Duncan reported the incident in a letter to her husband William while he was away from their home near Liberty on a cattle drive.

In an update to the Major Dark story, various artifacts were collected by the Mayo family for placement in a museum. Pictured are Tom Magness's fiddle, Judge Crozier's gun, and the door from Major Dark's cabin. The door, complete with its bullet holes, was installed on an old cabin still used by the Mayo cousins as a hunting camp.

(Picture on the left courtesy of Renee Hart Wells, on the right courtesy of
Larry Fisher Collection at Lamar University)