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John Wesley HARDIN

 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 
 
 
Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: American outlaw, gunfighter, and controversial folk hero of the Old West. Known as Texas’ most deadly gunman
Number of victims: 27 - 42
Date of murders: 1867-77 / 1894-95
Date of arrest: August 24, 1877
Date of birth: May 26, 1853
Victims profile: Men
Method of murder: Shooting
Location: Texas/Kansas/Florida, USA
Status: Sentenced to 25 years in prison on September 28, 1878. Released from prison on February 17, 1894, after serving 17 years. Shot and killed on August 19, 1895 by John Henry Selman in El Paso’s Acme Saloon
 
 
 
 
 
 

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John Wesley (Wes) Hardin (1853-1895) – Known as Texas’ most deadly gunman, Hardin killed over thirty people.  Captured by Texas Rangers John Armstrong and John Riley Duncan in 1877, he was released in 1894 after eighteen years in prison. 

Just one year later, Hardin was shot and killed on August 19, 1895 by John Henry Selman.  Selman, an outlaw-turned-lawman had a grudge against Hardin and surprised him in El Paso’s Acme Saloon. John Selman was himself, gunned down just a year later. 

Hardin is buried at the Concordia Cemetery in El Paso, Texas.  Ironically, Hardin's killer – John Selman is buried just a few feet away.

 
 

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.

Early life

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 siblings attended.

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.

First killing

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 Mexican.

A Texas Historical Marker notes that in the 1870s, Hardin would hide out not just in Gonzales County, but in the Pilgrim area specifically.

First 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 celebrated gunfighter.

The 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 Abilene.

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 fight,"

During 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 several years.

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 would die.

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 prison window.

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 say."

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 encounters.

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 pistol.

Capture

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, 1892.

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.

Dead

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.

Burial

Hardin is buried in Concordia Cemetery, located in El Paso, Texas.

Cemetery controversy

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.

Known 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 tried

  • 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.

Unconfirmed claims

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's claims to have shot three Union soldiers of the US 4th Cavalry in 1868. In none of the military records is Hardin named as a suspect; nor do any facts agree with his claims.

  • 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 additional killings.

  • 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.

  • Hardin claimed that on July 1, 1874 he drove off 17 Texas Rangers that had been trailing him, killing one of them. There are no contemporary reports to confirm this.

  • 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.

Legacy

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 Times Museum.

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 series.

In film

Hardin has been portrayed on film by:

  • John Dehner in the 1951 film The Texas Rangers;

  • Rock Hudson in the 1953 film, The Lawless Breed;

  • Jack Elam in the 1970 film, Dirty Dingus Magee;

  • Max Perlich in the 1994 film, Maverick;

Hardin was mentioned in the John Wayne film, The Shootist.

In television

  • 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.

  • Randy Quaid played Hardin in the 1995 TV mini-series, Streets of Laredo.

  • In the (2011) episode of the History channel show Pawn Stars, one of Hardin's business cards was sold.

In music

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 Martin Murphey.

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.

Wikipedia.org

 
 

John Wesley Hardin & The Shootist Archetype

By Jesse Wolf Hardin

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.  

In a 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 of both.

Hardin was 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 gunfighter.

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.

A “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.” 

He seldom 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 taboos.

By this 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! 

Jesse James 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.

Clay 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 they stood.

Both Hardin 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. 

Truth is, 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!

Like the 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 cohort Louise.

There was 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.

A low-life 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.

Hardin 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.

Hardin was, 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 power.

The first 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.

His 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.”) 

His object, 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. 

Most of 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 down.

It is 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.

In Trinity 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 sympathetic guards.

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 join?”

Taylor 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.

Now the 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. 

John 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 unsettling uncertainty.

Nor more 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.”

In August 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 suspenders. 

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.

Needless to 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 his mind.

“Do you 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.”

Hardin 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. 

Hardin was 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.

Brooding 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.

It’s no 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.

It didn’t 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. 

Hardin was 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.

Whether he 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.”

From the 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 many kills. 

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. 

Upon his 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.

It goes 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. 

However 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. 

Hardin's 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.

On the 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 gore.

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 fateful day.

Hardly a 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.

And it’s 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. 

Indeed, 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, 2006

 

 

 
 
 
 
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