John Wesley Hardin (May 26, 1853—August 19,
1895) was an American outlaw, gunfighter, and controversial folk hero
of the Old West.
He was born in Bonham, Texas. Hardin found himself
in trouble with the law at an early age, and spent the majority of his
life being pursued by both local lawmen and federal troops of the
reconstruction era. He often used the residences of family and friends
to hideout from the law. Hardin is known to have had at least one
encounter with the well-known lawman, "Wild Bill" Hickok.
When he was finally captured and sent to prison in
1878, Hardin claimed to have already killed 42 men, but newspapers of
the era had attributed only 27 killings to him up to that point. While
in prison, Hardin wrote his autobiography and studied law, attempting
to make a living as an attorney after his release. In August 1895,
Hardin was shot to death by John Selman, Sr. in the Acme Saloon,
in El Paso, Texas.
Hardin was named after John Wesley, the founder of
the Methodist faith. Hardin was born in Bonham, Fannin County, Texas
in 1853 to Methodist preacher and circuit rider, James "Gip" Hardin,
and Mary Elizabeth Dixson. Hardin described his mother as "blond,
highly cultured... charity predominated in her disposition.
Hardin's father traveled over much of central Texas
on his preaching circuit until, in 1859, he and his family settled in
Sumpter, Trinity County, Texas. There, Joseph Hardin taught school,
and established a learning institution that John Wesley and his
Hardin was a direct descendant of Revolutionary War
hero, Col. Joseph Hardin, who was a legislator from North Carolina,
the "lost" State of Franklin, and the Southwest Territory. John Wesley
Hardin was the second surviving son of 10 children. His brother,
Joseph Gibson Hardin, was three years his senior.
Trouble at school
While attending his father's school, Hardin was
taunted by another student, Charles Sloter. Sloter accused Hardin of
being the author of graffito on the schoolhouse wall that insulted a
girl in his class. Hardin denied writing the poetry, claiming that
Sloter was the author. Sloter charged at Hardin with a knife but
Hardin stabbed him, almost killing him. Hardin was nearly expelled
over the incident.
At the age of 15, Hardin challenged his uncle
Holshousen's former slave, Mage, to a wrestling match which Hardin
won. According to Hardin, the following day, Mage hid by a path and
attacked him as he rode past. Hardin drew his revolver and fired five
shots into Mage. Hardin claims he then rode to get help for the
wounded ex-slave (who died three days later). Because James Hardin did
not believe his son would receive a fair hearing in the Union-occupied
state (where more than a third of the state police were ex-slaves) he
ordered his son into hiding (even though this event could have been
deemed self-defense by contemporary Texas law). Hardin claims that the
authorities eventually discovered his location, and sent three Union
soldiers to arrest him. Hardin said he chose to confront his pursuers
despite having been warned of their approach by older brother, Joe.
I waylaid them, as I had no mercy on men whom I
knew only wanted to get my body to torture and kill. It was war to
the knife for me, and I brought it on by opening the fight with a
double-barreled shotgun and ended it with a cap and ball
six-shooter. Thus it was by the fall of 1868 I had killed four men
and was myself wounded in the arm.
A fugitive from justice
Hardin couldn't return home. As a fugitive from
justice, Hardin initially traveled with outlaw Frank Polk in the
Pisgah, Navarro County, Texas area. Polk had killed a man named Tom
Brady. A detachment of soldiers sent from Corsicana, Texas pursued the
duo. Hardin escaped the troops, but Polk was captured.
At Pisgah, Hardin briefly taught school. While
there, he claimed that to win a bottle of whiskey in a bet, he shot a
man's eye out.
On January 5, 1870 Hardin was playing cards with
Benjamin Bradley in Towash, Hill County, Texas. Hardin was winning
almost every hand, which angered Bradley, who then threatened to "cut
out his liver" if he won again. Bradley drew a knife and a
six-shooter. Hardin (who was unarmed) excused himself and left. Later
that night, Bradley went looking for Hardin. Seeing him on Towash
Street, Bradley allegedly fired a shot at Hardin, which missed. Hardin
drew both his pistols and returned fire —one shot striking Bradley's
head and the other his chest.
A month later, on January 20, 1870 in Horn Hill,
Limestone County, Texas, Hardin reportedly killed a man in a gunfight
after an argument at the circus. Less than a week after this incident,
in nearby Kosse, he was escorting a saloon girl home when they were
accosted by a man demanding money. Hardin threw his money on the
ground; Hardin shot the would-be thief when he bent to pick it up.
Arrest and escape
Hardin was arrested in January 1871 for the murder
of Waco, Texas, city marshal, Laban John Hoffman (which he denied
having committed). Unable to persuade a judge of his innocence, he was
held temporarily in a log jail in the town of Marshall, awaiting
transfer to Waco for trial. While locked up, he bought a revolver from
another prisoner. Texas State Policemen, Captain Edward T. Stakes and
officer Jim Smalley, were assigned to escort Hardin to Waco for trial.
According to Hardin, they tied him on a horse with no saddle for the
trip. While making camp along the way, Hardin escaped when Stakes went
to procure fodder for the horses. According to Hardin, he was left
alone with Smalley, who began to taunt and beat the then 17-year-old
prisoner with the butt of a pistol. Hardin feigned crying and huddled
against his pony's flank. Hidden by the animal, he pulled out his gun,
fatally shot Smalley and escaped on Stakes' horse. He later forced a
blacksmith to remove his shackles.
After this incident, he found refuge among his
Clements cousins, who were then gathering at Gonzales, in south Texas.
They suggested he could make money by getting into the cattle market,
which was then rapidly growing in Kansas, and which would allow him to
get out of Texas long enough for his pursuers to lose interest. Hardin
worked with his cousins, rustling cattle for Jake Johnson and Columbus
Carol. Hardin was made trail boss for the herd. In February 1871 while
the herd was being formed up for the drive to Kansas, a freedman, Bob
King, attempted to cut a beef cow out of the herd. When he refused to
obey Hardin's demand to stop, Hardin hit him over the head with his
pistol. That same month, Hardin wounded three Mexicans in an argument
over a Three-card Monte card game.
While driving cattle on the Chisholm Trail to
Abilene, Kansas, Hardin was reputed to have fought Mexican vaqueros
and cattle rustlers. Toward the end of the drive, a Mexican herd
crowded in behind Hardin's and there was some trouble keeping the two
herds apart. Hardin exchanged words with the man in charge of the
other herd. Both men were on horseback. The Mexican fired his gun at
Hardin, putting a hole through Hardin's hat. Hardin found that his own
weapon, a worn-out cap-and-ball pistol with a loose cylinder, would
not fire; he dismounted and managed to discharge the gun by steadying
the cylinder with one hand while pulling the trigger with the other.
He hit the Mexican in the thigh. A truce was declared and both parties
went their separate ways. However, Hardin borrowed a pistol from a
friend and went looking for the Mexican, this time fatally shooting
him through the head. A fire fight between the rival camps ensued.
Hardin claimed six vaqueros died in the exchanges (five of them
reportedly shot by him), but this claim appears exaggerated Hardin
also claimed to have killed two Indians in separate gunfights on the
same cattle drive.
On July 4, 1871, a Texas trail Boss named William
Cohron was killed on the Cottonwood Trail (40 miles south of Abilene)
by an unnamed Mexican, who "fled south" and was subsequently killed by
two cowboys in a Sumner City, Sumner County Kansas, restaurant on July
20, 1871. Hardin admitted to being involved in the shooting of the
A Texas Historical Marker notes that in the 1870s,
Hardin would hide out not just in Gonzales County, but in the Pilgrim
time in Abilene, Kansas
The Bull's Head Tavern, in Abilene, had been
established by gambler, Ben Thompson, along with businessman and
gambler, Phil Coe. The two entrepreneurs had painted a picture of a
bull with a large erect penis on the side of their establishment as an
advertisement. Citizens of the town complained to town marshal, "Wild
Bill" Hickok. When Thompson and Coe refused his request to remove the
bull, Hickok altered it himself. Infuriated, Thompson tried to incite
his new acquaintance, Hardin, by exclaiming to him: "He's a damn
Yankee. Picks on Rebels, especially Texans, to kill." Hardin, then
under the assumed name, "Wesley Clemmons" (but better known to the
townspeople by the alias, "Little Arkansas"), seemed to have had
respect for Hickok, and replied, "If Wild Bill needs killin', why
don't you kill him yourself?" Later that night, Hardin was confronted
by Hickok, who told him to hand over his guns, which he did. Hickok
had no knowledge of Hardin being a wanted man, and he advised Hardin
to avoid problems while in Abilene.
Second Abilene encounter with "Wild Bill" Hickok
Hardin again met up with Marshal Hickok, while on a
cattle drive in August 1871. This time, Hickock allowed Hardin to
carry his pistols in Abilene —something he had never allowed others to
do. For his part, Hardin (still using his alias), was fascinated by
Wild Bill and reveled at being seen on intimate terms with such a
shooting of a "snoring" man
Hardin and several of his fellow cow herders had
put up for the night at the "American House Hotel". Sometime during
the evening, Hardin, and at least one other cow hand, began firing
bullets through the bedroom wall and ceiling, in an attempt to stop
the snoring which was coming from the next room. A sleeping stranger,
Charles Cougar, was killed. (In his autobiography, Hardin claimed he
was shooting at a man who was in his room to rob or kill him, and that
he did not realize they had accidentally killed a man in the other
room until much later.) Hardin realized he would be in trouble with
Hickok for firing his gun within the city limits. Half-dressed, he and
his men exited through a second story window and ran onto the roof of
the hotel —just in time to see Hickok arriving with four policemen. "I
believe," Hardin wrote later, "that if Wild Bill found me in a
defenseless condition, he would take no explanation, but would kill me
to add to his reputation".
A contemporary newspaper report of the shooting
noted: "A man was killed in his bed at a hotel in Abilene, Monday
night, by a desperado called "Arkansas". The murderer escaped. This
was his sixth murder." Hardin leaped from the roof into the street and
hid in a haystack for the rest of the night. He stole a horse and made
his way back to the cow camp outside town. The next day, he left for
Texas, never to return to Abilene. Years later, Hardin made a casual
reference to the episode: "They tell lots of lies about me," he
complained, "They say I killed six or seven men for snoring. Well, it
ain't true. I only killed one man for snoring."
In his autobiography, Hardin claimed that following
this shooting, he ambushed lawman, Tom Carson, and two other deputies
at a cowboy camp 35 miles outside of Abilene, but did not kill them,
only forcing them to remove all their clothing and walk back to
In October 1871, Hardin was involved in a gunfight
with Texas State Policemen, Green Paramore and John Lackey, in which
Paramore was fatally wounded. After this, Hardin claimed that about 45
miles outside Corpus Christi, Texas he was being followed by two
Mexicans, and that he shot one off his horse while the other "quit the
the Sutton-Taylor feud
In early 1872, Hardin was in south central Texas,
in the area around Gonzales County. There, he reunited with some of
his Clements cousins, who had become allied with the local Taylor
family, which had been feuding with the rival Sutton family for
In June 1872, at Willis, Texas, Hardin claimed that
some men tried to arrest him for carrying a pistol "...but they got
the contents instead."
Hardin was wounded by a shotgun blast in a Trinity,
Texas gambling dispute on August 7, 1872. He was shot by Phil Sublett,
after he had lost money to Hardin in a poker game. Two buckshot
pellets injured Hardin's kidney, and for a time it looked like he
While recuperating from his wounds, Hardin decided
he wanted to settle down. He made a sick-bed surrender to law
authorities, handing over his guns to Sheriff Reagan of Cherokee
County, Texas, and asking to be tried for his past crimes "to clear
the slate." However, when Hardin learned of how many murders Reagan
was going to charge him with, he changed his mind. A relative smuggled
in a saw, and Hardin escaped after cutting through the bars of a
On May 15, 1873, Jim Cox and Jake Christman were
killed by the Taylor faction at Tomlinson Creek. Hardin, having by
then recovered from the injuries from Sublett's attack, admitted that
there were reports that he had led the fights in which these men were
killed, but would neither confirm nor deny his involvement: "...but as
I have never pleaded to that case, I will at this time have little to
In Cuero, Texas in May 1873, Hardin killed Dewitt
County Deputy Sheriff, J.B. Morgan, who served under County Sheriff,
Jack Helms (a former captain in the Texas State Police). Both were
Sutton family allies. Hardin's main notoriety in the Sutton-Taylor
feud was his part in the assassination (on the afternoon of May 17,
1873, in Albuquerque, Texas) of Sheriff Helms.
The feud culminated with Jim and Bill Taylor
gunning down Billy Sutton and Gabriel Slaughter as they waited on a
steamboat platform, in Indianola, Texas on March 11, 1874, as the two
were planning to leave the area for good. Hardin admitted in his
biography that he and his brother Joseph had been involved along with
both Taylors in Sutton's killing.
Hardin (who had re-settled his family –living under
the assumed name of "Swain"– in Florida) later admitted that he had
knocked a black man down and shot another during a disturbance outside
the Alachua County jail on May 1, 1874, while he was in Gainesville,
Florida. A black prisoner named "Eli" - who was held on a charge of
attempted assault of a white woman - was killed when the jail was
burned down by a mob. Hardin claimed to have been part of the mob.
Hardin returned to Texas, meeting up (on May 26,
1874 in a Comanche saloon) with his "gang" to celebrate his upcoming
21st birthday. Hardin spotted Brown County Deputy Sheriff, Charles
Webb, entering the premises. Hardin asked Webb if he had come to
arrest him. When Webb replied he had not, Hardin invited him into the
hotel for a drink. As he followed Hardin inside, Hardin claimed Webb
drew his gun, and one of Hardin's men yelled a warning. However, it
was reported at the time that Webb was shot as he was pulling out an
arrest warrant for one of Hardin's group. Either way, in the ensuing
gunfight, Webb was shot dead. Two of Hardin's accomplices in the
shooting were a cousin, Bud Dixson, and Jim Taylor.
The death of the popular Webb resulted in the quick
formation of a lynch mob. Hardin's parents and wife were taken into
protective custody; and his brother Joe and two cousins, brothers Bud
and Tom Dixson, were arrested on outstanding warrants. A group of
local men broke into the jail in July 1874 and hanged Joe, Bud and
Tom. It is claimed that the hanging ropes were deliberately cut too
long (in order to cause death through slow strangulation), as grass
was found between their toes. After this, Hardin and Jim Taylor parted
ways for good. After his brother's lynching Hardin claimed that he
twice drove away men who came after him after killing a man in both
Shortly afterward, Hardin and a new companion, Mac
Young, were suspected of horse thievery, and were pursued by a posse
near Bellville, in Austin County, Texas. Hardin pulled his pistols on
Austin County Sheriff, Gustave Langhammer, but did not shoot him,
while separately Young was arrested and fined $100 for carrying a
On January 20, 1875 the Texas Legislature
authorized Governor Richard B. Hubbard to offer a $4,000 reward for
the apprehension of John Wesley Hardin.
The Texas Rangers finally caught up with Hardin
when an undercover ranger, Jack Duncan, intercepted a letter that was
sent to Hardin's father-in-law by his brother-in-law, the outlaw
Joshua Robert "Brown" Bowen. The letter mentioned Hardin's whereabouts
as being on the Alabama/Florida border under the assumed name of
"James W. Swain".
On August 24, 1877, Hardin was arrested on a train
in Pensacola, Florida, by the rangers and local authorities. The
lawmen boarded the train to arrest Hardin. When Hardin realized what
was going on, he attempted to draw a gun, but got it caught in his
suspenders. Hardin was knocked out, and two others arrested. During
the event, Texas Ranger John B. Armstrong shot and killed one of
Hardin's companions, named Mann.
Just prior to his capture, two black men (and
former slaves of his father), "Jake" Menzel and Robert Borup, had
tried to capture Hardin in Gainsville, Florida. Hardin killed one and
blinded the other.
Trial and imprisonment
Hardin was tried for the killing of Deputy Charles
Webb, and was sentenced to Huntsville Prison for 25 years. Hardin
early on made several attempts to escape, but he eventually adapted to
prison life. Using prison as an opportunity to better himself, he read
theological books; became superintendent of the prison Sunday school;
and studied law. Hardin was plagued by recurring poor health in
prison, especially when the wound he had received from Sublett became
re-infected in 1883, causing Hardin to be bedridden for two years.
During Hardin's stay in prison, his wife, Jane, died on November 6,
After prison life
Hardin was released from prison on February 17,
1894, after serving seventeen years of his twenty-five year sentence.
He returned to Gonzales, Texas. Later that year, on March 16, Hardin
was pardoned; and, on July 21, he passed the Texas state's bar
examination, obtaining his license to practice law.
According to a newspaper article in 1900, shortly
after being released from prison, Hardin committed negligent homicide
when he made a $5 bet that he could "at the first shot" knock a
Mexican man off the soap box he was "sunning" himself, winning the bet
and leaving the man dead from the fall and not the gunshot.
On January 9, 1895, Hardin married a 15-year-old
girl named Callie Lewis.The marriage ended quickly, although it was
never legally dissolved. Afterward, Hardin moved to El Paso.
El Paso lawman, John Selman Jr., arrested Hardin's
friend and part-time prostitute, the "widow" M'Rose (or Mroz), for
"brandishing a gun in public." Hardin confronted Selman, and the two
men argued. Selman's 56-year-old father, Constable John Selman, Sr.,
(himself a well-known gunman) approached Hardin on the afternoon of
August 19, 1895, and the two men exchanged heated words.
That night, Hardin went to the Acme Saloon, where
he began playing dice. Shortly before midnight, Selman Sr. walked into
the saloon. In the ensuing confrontation, he shot Hardin in the head,
killing him instantly and before he could return fire. As Hardin lay
on the floor, Selman fired three more shots into him.
Selman Sr. was arrested for murder and stood trial.
He claimed he had fired in self defense, and a hung jury resulted in
his being released on bond, pending retrial. However, before the
retrial could be organized, Selman was killed in a shootout with US
Marshal George Scarborough (on April 6, 1896) following a dispute
during a card game.
Hardin is buried in Concordia Cemetery, located in
El Paso, Texas.
On August 27, 1995, there was a graveside
confrontation between two groups. One group, representing the
great-grandchildren of Hardin, sought to relocate the body to Nixon,
TX, to be interred next to the grave of Hardin's first wife. A group
of El Pasoans sought to prevent the move. At the cemetery, the group
representing the descendants of John Wesley Hardin presented a
disinterment permit for the body of Hardin, while the El Pasoans
presented a court order prohibiting the removal of the body. Both
sides accused the other parties of seeking the tourist revenue
generated by the location of the body. A subsequent lawsuit ruled in
favor of keeping the body in El Paso.
contacts with the law
Besides his killing of Deputy Sheriff (and ex-Texas
Ranger), Charles Webb, on May 26, 1874 and his arrest on August 24,
1877, Hardin had several confirmed clashes with the law:
On January 9, 1871 he was arrested by Constable
E.T. Stakes and 12 citizens in Harrison County, Texas on a charge of
four murders and one horse theft.
On January 22, 1871, Hardin killed Texas State
Police officer, Jim Smalley and escaped. Up to November 13, 1872,
the Grand Jury of Freestone County, Texas had not filed an
indictment against Hardin for the killing of Smalley
On August 6, 1871, in Abilene, Dickinson County,
Kansas Charles Cougar was killed in the American House Hotel.
Hardin, aka "Wesley Clemens", was found guilty by a coroner's jury
of the killing.
On October 6, 1871, in Gonzales County, Texas
State Policemen Green Paramore and John Lackey tried to arrest
Hardin. Paramore was killed and Lackey wounded.
On July 26, 1872, Texas State Policeman Sonny
Speights was wounded in the shoulder by Hardin in Hemphill, Texas
In September 1872, Hardin surrendered to the
Sheriff Reagan, but escaped in October 1872.
On November 19, 1872, Hardin, despite a guard of
six men, mysteriously escaped from the sheriff of Gonzales
County, Texas. A reward of $100.00 was offered for his re-capture.
In May 1873, Hardin was involved in the killing
of Deputy Sheriff J.B. Morgan of Cuero, Texas; and on August 1,
1873, of Dewitt County Sheriff, John Helms. These killings were
during the Sutton-Taylor Feud.
On June 17, 1873, outlaw, Joshua "Brown" Bowen
was broken out of Gonzales County jail by his brother-in-law, John
Wesley Hardin. (Bowen had been charged with the killing on December
17, 1872, of Thomas Holderman. Hardin was implicated in Holderman's
death as well).
In October 1873, Hardin was indicted in Hill
County, Texas, for the 1870 death of Benjamin Bradley, but was never
In November 1876, Hardin (under the alias of
"Swain"), and Gus Kennedy were arrested in Mobile, Alabama and
ordered to leave town.
In August 1877, Hardin was reported to have been
under indictments in five Texas counties on three separate murder
charges and two separate charges of assault with intent to murder.
In July 1895, he was fined $25.00 for gaming
after using a pistol to get back money after losing $100.00 at the
Gem saloon some weeks before. His gun was confiscated.
In his autobiography, Hardin made several claims to
have been involved in events which either cannot be confirmed or which
have proven to be unreliable:
Hardin said he shot one of the two soldiers
killed in 1869, in "Richland Bottom", the other having been shot by
his cousin, Simp Dixson, a member of the Ku Klux Klan and a man who
hated Union soldiers. Hardin claims they each killed a soldier.
Hardin claimed in January 1870 that he killed a
circus hand at Horn Hill, Texas. A contemporary newspaper account
did report a fight in Union Hill, Texas between Circus "canvasmen"
and "roughs" who tried to get in without paying-although the outcome
did not come out the way Hardin claimed it did!
Hardin claimed that during his January 1871
escape from Stakes and Smalley, he also killed a Mr. Smith, a Mr.
Jones, and a Mr. Davis in Bell County, Texas. There is no
contemporary newspaper accounts from Bell County to confirm these
He claimed that after killing Paramour in October
1871, he forced an African-American posse to flee after killing
three of them. There are no contemporary newspaper, or other,
accounts to confirm this.
After being wounded by Sublett in August 1872,
Hardin claimed that in September he either killed, or drove off, one
or two members of the Texas State Police in Trinity, Texas. Hardin
gave different versions of the event at different times.
He claimed to have been involved in the killing
of two Pinkerton agents on the Florida/Georgia border sometime
between April and November, 1876, after a gunfight with a "Pinkerton
Gang" who had been tracking him from Jacksonville, Florida. This
never happened. The Pinkerton Detective Agency never pursued Hardin.
Hardin claimed that in a saloon on election night
of November 1876, he and a companion, Jacksonville, Florida
policeman Gus Kennedy, were involved in a gunfight with Mobile,
Alabama policemen in which one person was wounded and two killed. He
further claims that he and Kennedy were arrested (but later
released). This also never happened. Hardin and Kennedy were
arrested and driven out of town simply for cheating at cards.
Hardin's legacy as an outlaw has made him a
colorful character and the subject of various media works from his own
time up to the present day.
Hardin's autobiography was published posthumously
in 1925 by the Bandera printer, historian, and journalist, J. Marvin
Hunter, founder of Frontier Times magazine and the Frontier
Many people came to know of Hardin through the TV
ad for Time-Life Books "Old West" series. During the description of
one book in the series, The Gunfighters, the well-known claim
is made: "John Wesley Hardin, so mean, he once shot a man just for
snoring too loud."
In fictional literature
Hardin has also been the subject or supporting
character of various works about the Old West, such as:
Larry McMurtry's novel Streets of Laredo.
Western novelist J. T. Edson uses Philip José
Farmer's Wold Newton family theory to insert John Wesley Hardin into
his novels as the paternal nephew of Ole Devil Hardin and cousin of
Dusty Fog, the protagonist of Edson's "Floating Outfit."
James Carlos Blake wrote The Pistoleer, a
novelized version of Hardin published in 1995.
L. B. McGinnis wrote Reflections in Dark
Glass, a historical fiction novel that was published in 1996 and
reflected on the life of John Wesley Hardin.
Four Sixes To Beat: The Tale of a Killer
by Bruce N. Croft is a novel first published in 2004, a fictional
tour of Hardin's life in the West.
There is a reference to him in the 2008 book,
The Book with No Name.
Hardin is Morgan Kane's antagonist in the book
Duel in San Antonio, one of the 83 books in the Morgan Kane book
Hardin has been portrayed on film by:
John Dehner in the 1951 film The Texas
Rock Hudson in the 1953 film, The Lawless
Jack Elam in the 1970 film, Dirty Dingus
Max Perlich in the 1994 film, Maverick;
Hardin was mentioned in the John Wayne film, The
Actor Richard Webb played Hardin in a 1954
episode of Jim Davis' syndicated western television series,
Stories of the Century. The segment shows Hardin shooting two
Indians in the back; gunning down a sheriff in a saloon in Abilene,
Kansas; and finally being outgunned himself by an El Paso officer
attempting to arrest him.
A 1959 episode of Maverick, "Duel at
Sundown," has the character of Bart Maverick posing as "John Wesley
Hardin" in order to stage a fake gunfight against his brother, Bret,
so he can avoid a real gunfight with a local tough, played by Clint
Eastwood. As Bret and Bart ride out of town, they meet a stranger
who wants directions to find this "fake" John Wesley Hardin. The
stranger is none other than the "real" John Wesley Hardin.
Country music singer, Johnny Cash, wrote and
recorded a song about Hardin entitled "Hardin Wouldn't Run," released
on his 1965 album Johnny Cash Sings the Ballads of the True West.
It relates some of the true events of Hardin's life, including his
death at the Acme Saloon.
Folk rocker, Bob Dylan, named his 1967 album
John Wesley Harding after the outlaw, although the name was
spelled differently. The title track depicts Hardin as "a friend to
the poor" who "was never known to hurt an honest man."
Baltimore based creative folklore ensemble,
Television Hill, has recorded a 6 song concept EP called My Name's
Hardin, the title of which pokes fun at Bob Dylan's misspelling of
the outlaw's name while paying homage to Dylan's and Cash's work. It
is a biographical work exploring Hardin's life and draws from Hardin's
Letters from Prison, and an assortment of other biographical
and relevant source material.
"Here's to John Wesley Hardin" is a song composed
by former street musician, Moondog, and released on his album,
H'art Songs, in 1979.
Singer-songwriter, Wesley Stace, uses the stage
name, John Wesley Harding..
Hardin is among the outlaws mentioned in the song,
"Rhymes of the Renegades," by western singer-songwriter, Michael
Guns and effects
Court records show John Wesley Hardin was carrying
a Colt "Lightning" revolver and an Elgin watch when he was shot and
killed on August 19, 1895. The revolver and the watch had been
presented to Hardin in appreciation for his legal efforts on behalf of
Jim Miller at his trial for the killing of ex-sheriff, George "Bud"
Frazer. The Colt, (with a .38 caliber, 2½" barrel) is nickel-plated,
with blued hammer, trigger and screws. The back-strap is
hand-engraved: "J.B.M. TO J.W.H." It has mother-of-pearl grips. This
gun and its holster were once sold at auction for $168,000. Another
Colt revolver (known as a .41 caliber "Thunderer"), which was owned by
Hardin and used by him to rob the Gem Saloon, was sold at the same
auction for $100,000.
In 2002, an auction house in San Francisco,
California auctioned three lots of John Wesley Hardin's personal
effects. The lot containing a deck of his playing cards, one of his
business cards, and a contemporary newspaper account of his death sold
for $15,250. The bullet that killed Hardin sold for $80,000.
Wesley Hardin & The Shootist Archetype
For all his
many confrontations, practiced enemies and capable adversaries, John
Wesley Hardin never faced a greater opponent or more serious threat
than his own formidable self. While claiming his every violent act
was out of the “first law of nature: self preservation,” again and
again he made choices more likely to jeopardize than secure his fiery
mortal spark. And contemporary historians have even implicated him in
his own fall and destruction.
vintage 1924 article, John Hunter quotes John Wesley Hardin's midwife
as predicting he would either turn out to be a “great hero” or a
“monumental villain.” In truth he was wholly neither.... and a little
a prime example of that special breed of men known collectively as
“gunfighters.” Given the proliferation of firearms in the Old West of
the 1860’s, 70’s and 80’s, just the fact of packing a Colt wasn’t near
enough to qualify someone as a true gunslinger. Nor did a single
occasion of firing a gun in defense or anger make one an accomplished
We all know
that the Western gunfight seldom if ever occurred the ways it’s been
commonly portrayed by historically illiterate Hollywood writers and
directors: the mannerly encounter at high noon, revolvers holstered
until the very last second. Giving one’s opponent the chance for a
fair draw. Guns shot out of hands, without a bloody shattering of
fingers and palms.... or apologizing to a downed hombre in the
Virginian’s dusty drawl. It is nonetheless a fact that there once
was, and probably still exists a certain special breed of men whose
violent encounters involve face to face action– men who hold that
they’re right, who insist on looking their antagonists in the eye, and
being the last thing they see on the day of their death.
“shootist” was neither a bushwhacker, robber nor assassin per se– but
rather, a highly effective and often volatile individual whose violent
deeds usually arose spontaneously and out of reaction to a perceived
insult or slight. He was more likely to be a loner than either a gang
or posse member.... and when reprising the roles of Sheriff or outlaw,
white hat or black, he usually filled the part well. Silent, pleasant
or petulant– he fairly exuded both character and style. He felt safer
and perhaps saner outside the general fraternity and shallow
associations of civilized men– and likely trusted his own intuition,
discernment, skill, instincts and responses above anyone and
everything else. Slow to enter into alliances of purpose or
convenience, the shootist adhered to the classic martial dictum that
“offense is the best defense.”
backed down– not because he was inhumanly fearless, but rather,
because he knew how to use his fear as fuel for assertive and
sometimes explosive action. Whether objectively right or wrong, the
shootist acted out of a moral certainty.... adhering to his own
personal code of honor even when breaking existing laws and cultural
measure Wyatt Earp was more entrepreneur and vigilante than archetypal
shootist. On the other hand Doc Holliday qualifies, even though his
willingness to inflict harm could be considered a far greater
determining factor than his occasional acts of violence and few
resulting victims. The gregarious Billy the Kid had four confirmed
kills in fourteen fights, but for all his bravado we know he would
have preferred a life of dancing at Mexican “fandangos,” and making
love to warm Señoritas instead of fingering cold grey revolvers!
was a thief even if a partially politically motivated one, he always
worked with a sizable gang, and apparently got over any intrinsic
compunctions about shooting from a “hide” or pumping bullets into
turned and quivering backs.
Allison, however, was mostly an upfront shootist.... if also an
unredeemable, homicidal maniac who once literally “shot himself in the
foot.” And no one can doubt that lawman James “Wild Bill” Hickock was
a prime example of the classic gunfighter. His total of eleven kills
is impressive, averaging as he did one kill per fight. But then his
record might have been a lot bloodier if not for his penchant for
using the butt of his revolver to “brain” or “buffalo” those
miscreants he aimed to arrest, instead of just shooting them where
and Hickock were ungodly accurate, as well as the prerequisite
willing– willing not only to take someone’s life at the drop of a hat,
but willing if necessary to die. Even the supposedly profficiant Ben
Thompson had only four kills in over fourteen altercations.
Seventy-five percent of the rounds fired at the famous The “Gunfight
At The O.K. Corral” was actually the “Gunfight In The Alley Behind
Fly’s Photography Studio, with the combatants firing some thirty-two
rounds at distances of no further than twelve to fifteen feet.... and
yet only twelve of those shots even connected.
most gunmen on both sides of the law were notoriously poor shots,
partly due to the scarcity and expense of ammunition and the scant
practice they got a result. Shooting one handed made hits less likely
than if they had known to use a modern two handed “Weaver” stance. In
a closed room the black powder smoke from the first shots would make
it even more difficult to identify and connect with their target. And
alcohol was often a major factor. Take for example Wyatt Earp's
brother Warren. In Willcox, Arizona in 1900 he got the worst of a
gunfight by drunkenly standing up to challenge someone.... before
realizing he’d forgotten his gun!
In a closed
room the black powder smoke from the first shots would make it even
more difficult to identify and connect with their target. And alcohol
was often a major factor. Take for example Wyatt Earp's brother
Warren. In Willcox, Arizona in 1900 he got the worst of a gunfight by
drunkenly standing up to challenge someone.... before realizing he’d
forgotten his gun!
rest of his memorable ilk, Wes Hardin was cast hot from a meteoric
iron mold. From this ancient crucible has poured not only a host of
villains, but also the likes of Beowulf and other Celtic heroes. The
intense and brilliant Sioux, Crazy Horse.... misunderstood even by his
own people. Conscientious war resistor Alvin York, who went on to
single handedly capture hundreds of German soldiers during the hottest
days of World War I. “Braveheart’s” courageous and betrayed Sir
Wallace. To the degree it’s found in Western movies and TV, it lives
not so much in the sanitary goodness of Johnny Mack or Tom Mix as in
the solitary determination of The Brave Cowboy, the righteousness of
Billy Jack, the all consuming fire in Thelma and her incorrigible
probably no authentic Western character more proficient with their
chosen handguns nor more willing to put them to deadly use than John
Wesley Hardin. His lightning draw and unerring marksmanship was oft
witnessed and judicially documented, and many an addition to local
graveyards had Wes to thank for that last bumpy ride. While only
eleven kills in eighteen fights can be independently verified, his
probable tally of upwards to thirty or forty victims killed in
face-to-face gunfights likely exceeds that of all other known
shootists.... though certainly not all other killers.
contemporary of Hardin's likely murdered more than forty men in his
lifetime– but almost always with a rifle, from a place of ambush.
James P. “Deacon” Miller passed judgment again and again until finally
getting his neck stretched by an intolerant lynch mob in Oklahoma in
April, 1909.... and may have been the gun-for-hire that put a bullet
through Billy the Kid's killer Pat Garrett. And for perspective, it
helps to remember that Generals and politicians oversee the deaths of
millions more young boys than Hardin or any other self-inflating
Western desperado could ever claim credit for.... sometimes for
justifiable reasons, sometimes for reasons not so good. If you think
about it, more people have have lost their lives as a result of
contractors’ indifference to the risks of asbestos. Thousands are
killed in a single modern terrorist strike, and few individuals have
more “notches on their guns” than the sexually deranged serial killers
of the modern urban age.
Historically there have always been chance or unintentional deaths by
firearms, acts of resistance and retribution, self advancement as well
as self defense, incidents involving rape, the heavy handed brutality
or blundering of drunks, the deadly results of deception and
betrayal. Hardin stands tall in meeting most of his adversaries head
on, as well as never losing a fight. I’m sure that he never hurt a
single woman or child and was kind to beggars, horses and kids. While
he made rash moves and occasional mistakes, he was host to few
regrets. He might have wished he hadn’t killed a man for snoring on a
certain nightmare filled evening, but he never drew blood for anything
so crass as personal financial gain. He lived not for the grail of
the Knight, errant though he may have been.... lived not to fit in,
but to distinguish himself. For the dictates of instinct and heart,
not some sense of obligation or duty. Not for dollars or gold, but
for the shining rewards of his own self defined mission.
could be relaxed and laughing one minute, tense or solemn the next–
quoting Old Testament lines about Hell and brimstone to a “treed”
audience, between bouts of intemperate opinion and shots of unholy
rotgut whiskey. He was obviously prejudiced against Indians, Mexicans
and blacks, and encouraged– if not instigated– the majority of the
upwards to twenty-seven battles he engaged in.
like all of us, a product of both his time and circumstance. If he
combined strict religiosity and moralism with a mean streak and a
periodic disregard for life, it must have in part been due to the
pressures of being the son of a blistering Southern preacher. Named
after the founder of the Methodist Church, he inherited high
expectations and a heavy mantle. Like adolescents in any age, he was
no doubt torn between his love and loyalty to his family and the need
to break away from the familial tether, to establish his personal
identity, and demonstrate to the world his increasing significance and
to fall victim to Hardin's smoking guns was a beefy ex-slave named
Major (“Mage”) Holzhausen. Getting his pride hurt in a wrestling
match with fifteen year old “Johnny” Hardin and another boy, Mage
sought reparation with burning determination and a stout wood club.
When the muscular freedman grabbed the reins of Hardin's horse some
days later, it took five revolver rounds to shoot him loose.
Demonstrating at least a degree of ambivalence if not remnant empathy
and compassion, the fledgling badman then rode eight miles to get help
for the wounded man. Within a week Mage was dead from his wounds, and
Hardin went into hiding, a killer baptized in blood.
Much of the
gunman’s fame and popularity in Texas was thanks to his frequent
battles with despised Federal troops and the State Police. Not long
after becoming a fugitive, Hardin got the “drop” on four mounted
soldiers his brother Joe believed were out hunting him.... and
together his shotgun and revolver raised the teenager’s total to five.
lifetime string of shootouts were face-up, as they say, but hardly
“fair” in the noble or Hollywood sense. Hardin did everything he could
to get the upper hand– including ritually practicing his fast draw and
unerring aim, constantly and consciously anticipating the moods of the
people around him, having his gun already in hand when expecting
trouble, and often being the first to initiate a draw when a poker
game or conversation unexpectedly heated up. Nor was he averse to
pulling a gun on unarmed antagonists, as he proved with the shooting
of Mage, and later when making a threatening gambler named Ben Hinds
back down (“As he made for me,” John Wesley writes, “I covered him
with my pistol and told him I was a little ‘on the scrap’ myself, the
only difference between him and I being that I used lead.”)
and the object of most dyed-in-the-wool shootists, was to “get the
drop” on his opponent no matter what it took– meaning to be the first
person in the room able to cock and point their weapon. And if that
wasn’t perceived to be enough, he needed to be the first one to fire a
disabling shot. Note that I said “disabling,” meaning the rounds
actually connected with flesh, hit the right person or persons (not
always easy in crowded saloons), and did sufficient damage to prevent
them from being able to return fire. Whereas an assassin’s purpose is
to take life, at the moment of conflict a gunfighter's intent is not
to kill per se but to prevent himself getting shot, and end the fight
to his personal advantage. The best way to do that, however is bullet
placement: a quickly disabling shot. This most practically means
penetration of the head, spine or heart.... and such wounds are
generally (if only consequentially) fatal.
Hardin's stories can be collaborated with police, newspaper and court
records, but at least one of the tales in his autobiography cast a
shadow on the veracity of the rest. Supposedly at the end of a trail
ride to Abilene, Kansas the then eighteen year old John Wesley also
got the drop on the famed gunslinging marshal Wild Bill Hickock– by
appearing to surrender his revolvers butt first, but then quickly
twirling them into firing position in what is (since the movie
“Tombstone,” at least!) called the “Curly Bill Spin.” I find this
unlikely for a couple of reasons. First, Bill would have likely had
his own revolver out, ready to hit Hardin on the head if not shoot him
down. If the marshal’s weapons were holstered, he would have been
poised for a draw, and could have easily grabbed steel and fired
before J. W. could have executed the spin.
Additionally, the maneuver was a widely known stage trick, and it
wasn’t at all unusual to see cowboys showing off with a demonstration
when entertaining the boys around a fire. Hickock would have likely
both known about the move and anticipated it, given the cocky young
Texan he faced. And finally, had it happened the way described, the
loss of face would have demanded timely retribution, not Bill
supposedly saying “Let us compromise this matter and I will be your
friend.” A frontier gunman’s chances of surviving the week depended
as much as anything else on their perceived invulnerability, and no
lawman would be able to keep peace after being seen publicly backing
likewise unclear if the Abilene resident Hardin drilled with four
holes one drunken night, was really someone out to kill him as he
claimed. He may or may not have fired those rounds through a wooden
partition in the room in order to awaken and thus silence the snoring
of a fellow boarder. If so, he was likely embarrassed and ashamed to
find he had inadvertently killed a man in his sleep.... and thus
concocted the version recounted in his book. At any rate, if Hickock
had no other reason to tend to the brash cowboy prior to this, he
certainly did now. Hardin prudently slipped out across the porch
roof, dressed in nothing but his underwear and his hat. It would be
hard to call his rapid retreat from the scene cowardly. Nobody in
their right mind wanted to go up against another gunman that they
believed to be their equal, if there was any way to avoid it. The
results could be both men dead, or suffering a lifetime of pain due to
smashed organs or lingering infection.
City, Texas in August 1872, John Wesley was shot by Phil Sublett– a
shotgun wielding drunk intent on winning his poker stakes back. While
he managed to put a round through Sublett’s shoulder, the two buckshot
that ripped through Hardin's kidney made it look for awhile as if he’d
die. State policemen long on his trail began closing in, and he
arranged for a sickbed surrender to a Sheriff he trusted, Dick
Reagon. He apparently felt well enough by the time they moved him to
Gonzales in October to cut his way out of jail with a smuggled saw,
likely with the deliberate disregard or outright assistance of
Wanted as a
fugitive by the Texas Rangers, Hardin remained visible and active. He
took time out of his busy schedule to involve himself in what came to
be known as the Taylor-Sutton feud, in 1873: the year Colt introduced
its soon to be famous .45 revolver, and Winchester released the lever
action that “won the West.” While it’s understandable that John
Wesley would lean towards the Taylors, his participation at such a
sensitive time reminds me of the old Irish joke in which a lad, coming
upon a barroom brawl, asks “Is this a private fight, or can anyone
returned the favor by joining in pumping bullets into Sheriff Charlie
Webb during a gunfight in 1874. Hardin claims the officer drew on
him, before he pulled his own ivory stocked Smith & Wesson First Model
Russian from underneath his vest.
hunt by the Rangers was on in earnest, and he found himself once again
hiding outside in the thickets and holing up in the barns of the few
distant relatives not already under active surveillance. Whether he
goaded Webb into drawing or merely fired in self defense, he now found
the crucial support of the local populous fading away. Earlier he’d
received kudos and applause for killing DeWitt County Sheriff Jack
Helm, but Jack was a hated Union loyalist known to be hard on
ex-Confederates, whereas Webb was generally liked by everyone who knew
him. This fateful and unfortunate incident, more than any before it,
would prove to be John Wesley's undoing.
It was in
large part Wes's love for fine horses, and his passion for racing them
that allowed him to outdistance pursuing Rangers again and again. But
their consistent inability to catch up with him only heightened the
passions of what soon became a large civilian mob.... and when they
couldn’t wreak their vengeance on Wesley they opted instead to lynch
his brother Joe instead. All told as many as eight of his friends and
family were killed after the Webb incident, all innocent if informed
scapegoats for a frustrated and seething mob.
Wesley, whose sense of Southern manliness decreed he must always hide
beneath a steely countenance any doubt or grief, was no doubt haunted
forever by the spectre of those who gave their lives in his place. In
one of the most melancholy passages of his prideful book, he grieves
that his otherwise self-justified acts had “drove my father to an
early grave.... almost distracted my mother.... killed my brother Joe
and my cousins Tom and William.... left my brother’s widow with two
helpless babes.... to say nothing of the grief of countless others.”
But for all he and they had suffered, he still never admitted having
had any choice, or to ever done anything but right– at least to no one
but himself, in the dark nights of existential loneliness and
could he depend on an environment of indifferent officials and
community assistance and support. Posses and Rangers seemed to be
everywhere this time, and after dispatching a few of his seeming
limitless pursuers Hardin wisely decided to move with his family to
Florida. There he assumed the last name of his friend the city
marshal of Brenham, and thus became to his new friends and associates
one “J. W. Swain.” Unenviably, he was the subject of the biggest
manhunt and the largest reward the state of Texas had ever posted for
a single man: four thousand dollars, “Dead or Alive.”
of 1877 a drunken friend Brown Bowen exposed John Wesley after getting
pummeled in a row with William Chipley, the butt-kicking manager of
the Pensacola Railroad. Swain was actually the notorious outlaw
Hardin, Bowen blustered, and would no doubt show up to exact revenge
for the beating his comrade had taken. That and the knowledge of such
an unprecedented reward was enough to inspire the piqued authorities
to promptly set a trap– minus the legal formality of an arrest
warrant, but armed with hardware appropriate to their time and task.
Bill Chipley, Florida Sheriff William Hutchinson and some twenty other
deputies made the arrest as he boarded a train on August 23rd, 1877.
Hardin was viscously pistol whipped as he struggled to pull a hidden
Colt .44 that he’d secured all too well underneath his leather
Had he been
able to draw before being clubbed unconscious, he’d most likely have
been killed. By nature a free and self reliant man, he was thoroughly
terrorized by the thought of incarceration.... and even more so by the
possibility of being seized by a mob like his brother Joe was,
shackled and unable to react in his own defense. “I had the glad
consciousness, however,” John Wesley writes, “of knowing that I had
done all that courage and strength could do, and that I had kept my
oath never to surrender at the point of a pistol.” Extradited back to
Comanche to stand trial for the killing of Webb, Hardin was on his way
to what would prove to be a lengthy stint in the Texas Penitentiary in
Huntsville. He was subsequently sentenced to twenty-five years at
hard labor, at only twenty-four years and three months of age.
say the individualistic Hardin didn’t adjust very well to confinement,
as evidenced by his repeated escape attempts in spite of the severe
floggings and solitary confinement that inevitably followed. After
being punished numerous times for “attempted escape, mutinous
behavior, conspiracy, insubordination” and numerous lesser offenses,
John Wesley settled down sufficiently to study law and actually pass
his bar examination. His letters to his wife became sporadic and
often emotionally distant, though he insisted she was never far from
think that it would be impossible for me to forget you ,” he asks her
in a letter from prison, “one who you well know I love and adore above
all others....?” He closed with “I remain your true and devoted
husband. Until death.”
served a total of sixteen years, from 1878 until February of 1894.
While he paced in the prison yard or read law books in his cell,
America witnessed the introduction of smokeless powder cartridges,
Browning’s improved Winchesters, and a general end to the Indian
Wars.... plus electric street lights and motors, the subway, the Kodak
camera, cross country skis, the pneumatic tire and bingo. Dvorak and
Tchaikovsky experienced heady competition from Gilbert & Sullivan, and
Henry Ford built his first car.
set loose with a new suit and a state issued check for just under
fifteen dollars. His mother that had always loved and protected him
had died during his imprisonment, in 1885, and his son in early 1893.
His wife Jane, faithful and supportive throughout her impoverished
separation, died at age thirty-six.... only one year and fours months
before John Wesley's release.
but hopeful, in early 1895 attorney Hardin chose El Paso to hang out
his shingle– less than two hundred uninhabited miles Southeast of the
cabin where I write this, and a short ride the other side of the Texas
/ New Mexico state line. Whatever hopes he might have had for a
profitable and legitimate career were soon crushed like kitchen bugs
beneath the hard-soled boots of reality. Finding that few outside of
the impoverished Latino community would trust an ex-convict with their
legal work, Hardin increasingly turned to the solace of caramel tinged
whiskey– and the more lucrative gaming tables in the back of nearly
every dimly lit saloon.
doubt little different today, with disheartened prisoners released
back into society owning little more than a demolished reputation, the
government issued clothes on their back and the out-of-style shoes on
their feet. Few bosses are likely to hire an ex-con for anything but
the most menial and underpaid jobs, and soon desperation couples with
resentment in propelling over eighty percent of exoffenders back into
the “joint.” That is, if they don’t do something that gets them blown
out of their saddles first.
help Hardin's chances any that El Paso authorities anticipated his
arrival with both concern and trepidation. Most lawmen feared him, a
few envied his nerve, skill and reputation.... and all expected that
sooner or later there would be trouble. The respected Chief of Police
Jeff Milton secreted a number of Burgess folding shotguns in strategic
location around town, and sometime deputies John Selman and George
Scarborough were probably already making plans for how to deal with
him if the time ever came. And John Wesley didn’t help ease the
authorities’ apprehension by showing off his gun handling abilities
and impressive marksmanship almost from the day of his arrival.
always game to tweak the noses of the powers-that-be, but his having
spent close to half his life in the penitentiary had taught him a
degree of judgment and temperance, if not reserve. In August of ‘95
he prudently acquiesced to an outraged Milton, when confronted with
accusations he’d supposedly made. Hardin was “so much faster,” the
courageous officer admitted, “that if he had gone for a gun, I
wouldn’t have had a chance.” And the previous July he made no
objections when asked to come in and appear on charges of gambling,
carrying a firearm, and robbery.
felt cheated or merely pissed off at being called a “jail rat,” on May
2nd J.W. an inebriated J.W. pointed a pearl handled Colt .41 caliber
double action revolver at the offending party and retook the $95 he’d
just lost at craps.... all the while humming a happy tune. Then to
the newspapers that had questioned the necessity and severity of his
response, he wrote a number of lines of explanation and defense
including: “I admire pluck, virtue and push wherever found. Yet I
contempt and despise a coward and assassin of character, whether he be
a reporter, a journalist, or a gambler.”
time he was kid he loved to stalk “among the big pines and oaks with a
gun,” but soon enough his primary use for a firearm was armed combat
rather than boyhood fun. While he may have killed one hapless fellow
in 1876 with a Winchester rifle, he preferred the kinds of up close
confrontations in which purpose shotguns and handguns so excel. He
dropped his first man with what was likely a Colt Dragoon .44, and
used Colt and Remington percussion revolvers for most of his other
We can be
sure that by 1874 he’d converted from carrying percussion models to
the latest in American made cartridge revolvers– as it was on Hardin's
birthday in May of that year that he used an ivory handled “Russian”
model Smith & Wesson .44 (serial number #25274) to take Sheriff
Charley Webb’s life. And Colt Single Action .45’s may have been the
instruments of destruction for pursuing Pinkerton agents in 1876, and
possible two Mobile, Alabama police.
release he seems to have preferred the rapidity of fire offered by
double action revolvers. As most readers are aware, single-action
designs require that the hammer be cocked with the thumb for every
shot, whereas with so called double-action arms the shooter not only
spins the cylinder but cocks and releases the hammer with a single
long pull of the trigger. The SA is nearly as fast for the first
shot, but subsequent aimed fire is considerably improved in the double
mode. Besides the .41 Colt 1877 used to dominate the crowd at the
Gem, he also owned at least one ‘77 “Lightning” in .38 LC (Serial
number #84304– gifted by friend Jim Miller), and the larger framed
double-action Colt 1878 in .44 WCF (serial number #352) removed from
his body at the time of his death.
without saying that the drop-loop “quick draw” or “buscadero” holster
featured in movies through 1970’s never existed in the historic West,
nor would it have been desirable to have a gun positioned so low
whether planting fence posts or snaking through the crowds of a smoke
filled saloon. Most common were the tight fitting “Slim Jim,” skirted
designs, and surplus military models with their protective rain flaps
removed. None of these had tie-downs, requiring the wearer to grab
them with one hand while drawing their weapon with the other– hence
the expression “slapping leather.” It’s suggested that at least
towards the end, Hardin preferred to carry his arms in shoulder
holsters or tucked conveniently into his waistband.
they were housed, his proficiency in getting them out and hitting what
he was aiming at was nothing less than amazing– a skill that he
demonstrated first through a growing body count, and later by blasting
poker cards held up by his admirers. Unlike many gunmen and
shootists, Hardin really was fast on the go. Sometime after his
capture he put on a display of quick draw, border shifts and rolls for
the entertainment of his guards. Ranger Jim Gillette described his
“slight of hand” gun handling as having been executed with nothing
less than “magical precision.”
A fast gun
and heart full of “pluck and push,” however, could guarantee neither
freedom nor life. And now he was finding out the hard way: that a
willingness to stand up to insult and injury was no longer considered
a manly virtue by civilizing residents. Millions of dollars were
being made by bankers and speculators through systemic manipulation
and deception– while the woman and men who candidly spoke their mind,
who leveraged power face to face and gladly met each test.... often
found themselves pariahs in the rapidly urbanizing West. It’s hard to
imagine their alienation, their grieving over lost values and lost
ways, or the existential loneliness that must have haunted their
sleepless nights. The damage, and the despair.
gambling increased proportionally, and he was seen making more and
more flamboyant bets whenever in the presence of an audience. Winning
gave him the feelings of mastery and brilliance, of risk taking and
excitement that his post-prison existence otherwise lacked. It was,
like the carry and use of weapons, an effort to exercise some degree
of control over his life in an environment of bitter disempowerment
and rapid transition.
afternoon of August 18, 1895, John Wesley Hardin was in the midst of
rolling dice at the Acme saloon bar– standing uncharacteristically
with his back exposed to anyone stepping through its louvered swinging
doors. An agitated Constable Selman had barely entered the room
before blasting the preeminent shootist of all time in the back of the
head. He then pumped two more rounds into his target’s chest and arm,
as he lay motionless on his back in a spreading puddle of blood and
It could be
said that Hardin was weary, but that’s not the same as either
indifferent nor oblivious. Our man was well aware of the many dangers
he faced, and had only a short time before had a major row with Old
Man Selman and his son John Jr. It was something more than alcohol
induced laxness that predetermined his attitude and posture on that
month goes by that we don’t read in some newspaper or hear on the
radio about another case of what is now called “suicide by cop:”
someone at the end of their emotional rope ignoring the repeated calls
by the police to drop their weapon, orchestrating the situation so
that the police have no option but to shoot. They no doubt prefer
this to putting a gun to their own head– but there may also be the
added satisfaction of being killed while facing a real or imaginary
oppressor, with an enabling gun in hand.
But as much
as he must have suffered at that point, Hardin's death was no form of
suicide, nor was it Hardin's wish to die. More than anything else he
was gambling that fateful afternoon– with not only his money, but with
his life. He was upping the ante, increasing the severity of the
test, and calling the opposition’s bluff! He was ready to rake in the
winner’s chips, to break the bank with the next throw of dice.... as
well as to pay what has always been the highest price. The last
sounds he likely heard were the shuffling of the constable’s feet some
six or eight feet behind where he stood, and the rattle of dancing
ivories on the bar’s polished wood.
not hard to see why the wizened Selman carried out his ignoble plan
with such stealth and haste. A split second before the two-hundred
and fifty grain slug roared in his direction, Hardin began
instinctively reaching for the gun long at home at his waist.
even as his world was collapsing around him, firearms were something
he felt he could count on– and thus he never went anywhere without
them. They were more than a means for defense, more than a strategy
for the attainment of deference and respect. Guns became the buddies
that would never let him down, the girlfriend that would never leave,
the wife that would never be taken away from him by disaster or
disease. They came to represent for the aging shootist the
possibility of a love, of a code, a way of being, thinking and acting
that might never die. At home not so much beneath the oil or gas
lamps of a raucous saloon as on the open range.... making the passage
from birth to death beneath an unfenced Western sky.
© Jesse L. "Wolf" Hardin,