John Wesley Hardin – Gunslinger

Jul 9, 2012 - by Robert Walsh

John Wesley Hardin

John Wesley Hardin

John Wesley Hardin was one of the most violent and heartless gunslingers of the Old West. He was also a narcissistic braggart, a pathological liar, and an unrepentant racist. Most of all he was a coldblooded killer.

 by Robert Walsh

Texas. The Lone Star State. A state famous and notorious in equal measure for its outlaws. Bonnie and Clyde, Ray and Floyd Hamilton, ‘Tex’ Lucas and the notorious “Cowboy” gang that moved into Arizona and ruled Tombstone until the famed gunfight at the OK Corral all spring to mind. But before all of them there came an outlaw as feared, yet also as celebrated, as Texas has ever known and his name was John Wesley Hardin.

A sometime cattle drover, gambler and lawyer, Hardin is also remembered as one of the most violent gunslingers of the Wild West era. Estimates of just how many men fell victim to his razor-sharp knives and blazing six-shooters will always remain unclear, especially as Hardin liked to embellish both his body count and his violent, hair-trigger reputation to the best of his considerable ability.

Hardin was many things to many people. He was a heartless killer, an outlaw seemingly as much by choice as through circumstance, a narcissistic braggart, a pathological liar, an unrepentant racist, a reckless gambler and probably a sadistic psychopath. All in all, not the type of man many people would actually feel safe to be around because trouble invariably followed Hardin rather than Hardin having to look far for trouble.

Hardin himself claimed to have killed over 40 men; newspaper reports suggest at least 27 deaths can be accurately laid at his door.

Hardin himself would come to a violent end, albeit having outlasted many of his contemporaries until he was himself murdered.

Hardin was named, ironically given his life and reputation, after the founder of the Methodist faith, John Wesley, and was born in the town of Bonham, Texas on May 26, 1853 to John “Gip” Hardin, a Methodist circuit preacher, and Mary Elizabeth Dixson. Hardin was also a descendent of the Revolutionary War hero Colonel Joseph Hardin. The Hardin family finally settled in the town of Sumpter where John Hardin took up work as a schoolteacher, establishing a school that the young John Wesley Hardin attended and where his outlaw attitudes, violent tendencies and quick temper were first to get him into serious trouble.

Charles Sloter was a fellow student at John Hardin’s school and taunted the younger Hardin repeatedly, rarely missing a chance to take the rise out of him and score points at his expense. Sloter finally overstepped the mark when he accused Hardin of leaving some crude poetry on the schoolhouse wall that insulted a female student. In turn, Hardin vigorously denied writing the poetry and pointed the finger back at Sloter and things turned ugly very quickly. After a mutual exchange of accusations and then insults, Sloter rushed at Hardin with a knife. Hardin easily disarmed Sloter and, rather than allow the school authorities to deal with Sloter, instead stabbed him in the chest and neck inflicting injuries that were almost fatal. Hardin, despite his openly stabbing Sloter in front of a number of witnesses, not only escaped legal punishment but even managed to keep his place at his father’s school in spite of heavy lobbying for him to be permanently expelled as a danger to other students. Hardin’s life of violence had begun and was only to get worse from then onwards.

The Civil War ended in 1865 with the Confederate surrender at Appomattox and in 1868 Hardin, still aged only 15, challenged a former slave, Mage Holshausen (previously the property of Hardin’s uncle) to a wrestling match. Hardin is said to have won the match, albeit by means of gouging Holshausen’s eyes, and Holshausen swore revenge after the embarrassment of losing to a 15 year old.

In Hardin’s account Holshausen ambushed him, attacking him with a large stick as he rode along a path. Hardin said he drew a revolver and ordered his attacker to back away and Holshausen went for Hardin, threatening to kill him. It was Hardin, however, who would put his first notch on his gun when he shot the former slave five times. Holshausen died three days later. Hardin was now, at the tender age of 15, not only a wanted outlaw but also a killer.

It was James Hardin who intervened to protect his son from a trial and a possible hanging. Rather than provide his son with a good lawyer and trust in the Texas legal system, Hardin felt that no white man accused of killing a freed slave would get a fair trial. The South was still in the early stages of Reconstruction after the devastation of the Civil War and feelings were still running high on both sides of the slavery issue.

The belief that ‘The South will rise again’ was still prevalent in many people’s hearts and minds, while the Northern carpetbaggers roamed the former Confederate States at will, heavily protected by the occupying Northern troops who guarded them as they went about their business. The fact that the victim was a freed slave and that over one third of the newly-formed Texas State Police were also freed slaves no doubt counted heavily in James Hardin’s decision to send young John into hiding rather than risk a trial before a potentially hostile jury. After a brief period in hiding, Hardin’s location became known to the authorities and a patrol of three Union soldiers was sent to arrest Hardin at his hideout. According to Hardin’s own memoir:

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.

Hardin was now very much a wanted man. He had nearly killed a school classmate, mortally wounded a freed slave and killed three Union soldiers and he was still only 15 years old. After riding with outlaw Frank Polk and evading a detachment of troops who had been tracking Polk down, Hardin linked up with one of his cousins named Frank “Simp” Dixson.  Dixson was one of the early members of the notorious Ku Klux Klan, an ardent white supremacist and unapologetic racist group with an equal hatred for Union soldiers. Hardin and Dixson were riding together through Richland Bottom when they fought a short and brutal gunfight with a group of Union soldiers and managed to kill two of them.

By January of 1870, Hardin was in the town of Towash in Hill County, Texas, and managed to get into further trouble during a game of cards with a tough character named Benjamin Bradley. Bradley was losing heavily and was also drunk and, in the classic Wild West fashion, began to needle Hardin and eventually threatened to kill Hardin if he won another hand.

Threats and violence were nothing new to gamblers at the time and many of them, notably John “Doc” Holliday of Tombstone fame, were swift to employ violence or credible threats thereof to protect themselves and their reputations for honest play. At some point Bradley drew both a revolver and a knife and Hardin hurriedly made his excuses and left. Later that night Bradley went hunting for Hardin and fired at him, missing with his first shot. He didn’t get to fire another one. Hardin, by now heavily armed, made Bradley another notch on his gun when he shot Bradley fatally in both his head and chest in front of dozens of witnesses. Hardin left town and stayed away from Hill County for some time after the Bradley killing.

A month later Hardin had arrived in Limestone County, in the town of Horn Hill where he attended the circus. An unknown man picked a fight with him and Hardin added another victim to his growing tally. Within a week of this killing, Hardin was approached in the town of Kosse while he was escorting a saloon girl home from work. The man demanded money and Hardin was only too happy to throw a roll of dollars on the ground at his feet. Once the thug had bent over to pick up the money, Hardin shot him dead and left him lying in the street.

One of Hardin’s more notable victims was City Marshal Laban Hoffman of Waco, Texas, a killing that Hardin always denied. While being held in jail awaiting transfer back to Waco to face trial for capital murder, Hardin managed to obtain an overcoat from a fellow inmate. What his guards didn’t see was that Hardin had also managed to obtain a loaded revolver. His escorts. Captain Stakes and Constable Jim Smolly of the Texas State Police, were quick to discover their oversight when Captain Stakes was buying horse fodder and Constable Smolly began to taunt what he thought was an unarmed and heavily manacled Hardin. Hardin was to claim that Smolly had started to pistol whip him and abuse him while Stakes was away, that Hardin had simply drawn the revolver from under his overcoat, killed Smolly and escaped, later finding a blacksmith and forcing the smith at gunpoint to remove the shackles.

It was after the killing of Smolly that Hardin again sought refuge with relatives, this time the Clements family of Gonzales, Texas. At their suggestion, Hardin made a slight career change and went into the cattle business in Kansas. Not only was there a chance to make decent money, trips into and out of Kansas would make it a lot easier to evade the increasing dragnets looking for Hardin in various parts of Texas. The Clements family managed to get Hardin a promotion to work as a trail boss instead of a mere cowhand but, as usual, trouble found Hardin without his having to look for it. In February 1871 Hardin viciously beat a man for trying to steal a cow from a herd Hardin was protecting. In the same month, Hardin also managed to get into yet another fight over a game of cards, leaving three Mexicans severely wounded, though fortunately not dead.

Hardin was en route to Kansas driving another herd, during which he claimed another victim, a Mexican trail boss with whom Hardin had previously scuffled and exchanged blows. After Hardin killed the Mexican with a bullet between the eyes, the Mexican cattle drovers came looking for revenge. The fight that followed was short and vicious. Six Mexican vaqueros were killed and five of those are said to have been killed by Hardin personally.

One of the major cow towns of the Wild West era was Abilene, Kansas and, like most cow towns, mining towns, logging camps and so on, Abilene was a rowdy, violent and downright dangerous place to be. Killings were as regular as clockwork and shootings were seen as simply a part of day to day living there. Once Hardin arrived there everybody expected fireworks and it wasn’t long before they were satisfied.

Abilene enjoyed the rather dubious distinction of having ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok as its marshal and everybody expected Hardin and Hickok to fight each other sooner or later. In a rare departure from his usual routine, Hardin seems to have regarded Hickok with a certain respect and Hickok allowed Hardin to carry his guns within the town limits, a privilege not extended by Hickok to anyone else.

The two gunslingers drank together, caroused together, gambled together and exchanged tips and advice on their common trade, that of gunfighting. Unfortunately, Abilene was to be the scene of Hardin’s most notorious murder yet. Hardin was staying at the American House Hotel when he noticed that a guest in a neighboring room was snoring, and snoring loudly at that. Hardin’s response was typical of the man. He drew his pistols and started firing randomly through the connecting wall. Hardin’s claim is that he was firing at an armed intruder in his own room who was attempting to rob Hardin’s possessions and that the shooting was accidental. Either way, Hardin realized that Wild Bill would have neither patience nor mercy under the circumstances and that, if Hickok found him, Hardin firmly believed that his sometime drinking partner would kill him without a second’s hesitation if it would boost Hickok’s already lethal reputation.  

Hardin managed to escape the hotel and Abilene before stealing a horse and riding over to a cattle camp outside the town. That night, Hardin would return to Texas and would never see Abilene again. Hardin’s autobiography claims that he then ambushed a posse of three deputies sent to catch him and that Hardin was humane enough to let them live and return to Abilene, albeit stripped naked and without their horses and guns.

By October of 1871 Hardin was back in Texas and back in trouble. He killed a Texas State Police officer named Charles Paramore and wounded his partner John Lackey. Hardin is also alleged to have fought a posse and added three of its members to his list of victims and that he also fought two Mexicans, shooting one off his horse and causing the other to retreat. At the town of Willis in June of 1872, Hardin claims to have fought yet another posse. To use Hardin’s chilling description of events: “They tried to arrest me for carrying a pistol. They got the contents instead.”

Hardin fled back to South Texas again, uniting once again with the Clements family. The Clements family was allies of the Taylor family in the notoriously violent Sutton-Taylor feud in which bloodshed was commonplace. The Sutton and Taylor clans had been involved in a blood feud for several years when one of the Sutton group, one Mike Sublett, left Hardin nursing both severe shotgun wounds and an especially malevolent desire to see Sublett dead in return. Hardin nearly died from his wounds and claimed (perhaps honestly, for once) that he was tired of the outlaw life and wanted to settle down to a peaceful and lawful existence, but it wasn’t long before trouble and bloodshed, Hardin’s usual stock in trade, were to resurface.

Hardin surrendered to the law in Gonzales while recuperating from the Sublett shooting, handing his guns over to Sheriff Reagan and saying that he wanted to “clear the slate” as he put it. His change of heart lasted only as long as it took him to cut through the jail bars with a smuggled saw blade. He fought and killed J.B Morgan in 1873, and was implicated in a particularly vicious gunfight at Tomlinson Creek in which two members of the Sutton faction, Jake Christman and Jim Cox, were both killed. Hardin himself always refused to confirm or deny his part in either the gunfight or the two killings.

Corruption among Texan law enforcement, such as law enforcement was in the Wild West era, was common and DeWitt County was no exception. Sheriff Jack Helm had long been an ally of the Suttons against the Taylor faction and the Taylors eventually decided that enough was enough. It was May of 1873 when Hardin and Taylor summarily killed Sheriff Helm in broad daylight, Taylor using a revolver and Hardin his signature weapon, a double-barreled shotgun. Having slaughtered Helm with a shotgun blast to his arm and six bullets in his head and chest, Taylor and Hardin simply rode away without so much as a backward glance.

The next year would see even worse bloodshed. A truce had been arranged after the Helm murder and it lasted for almost a year before the range war erupted once again. The Taylor brothers (Jim and Bill) murdered Billy Sutton and his friend Gabriel Slaughter while they were awaiting a steamboat at Indianola to take upriver. It has been said that Billy Sutton was preparing to leave the area permanently, disillusioned as he was by the constant bloodshed, but Hardin and Taylor either wanted to put him out of action permanently or simply didn’t believe him when he said he was leaving. Hardin had no problem at all with admitting that both he and the Taylor brothers were the gunmen responsible for both Billy Sutton’s murder and that of Gabriel Slaughter.

Hardin now decamped to Florida, perhaps in an effort to live a quieter life or perhaps simply to evade the ever-increasing number of lawmen, bounty hunters, soldiers, other outlaws and others who had a vested interest in bringing him in dead or alive. It wasn’t long before he fled back to Texas after a serious disturbance in the Florida town of Gainesville, having claimed to have killed a freed slave and then been part of a mob that burned down the county jail. Not surprisingly, and even though there were few places in his native Texas where he wasn’t at risk of arrest or of violent death in one form or another, Hardin was in the Texas town of Comanche on May 26, 1874.

He was still only 21 years old that day.

During the celebrations, Hardin invited Deputy County Sheriff Charles Webb for a drink, having discreetly established that Webb wasn’t in town to arrest him. According to Hardin, Webb was behind him when he drew his revolver, one of Hardin’s friends shouted a warning and then Deputy Webb became the latest in Hardin’s increasingly long line of victims.

This time Hardin was in the most serious trouble in which he’d ever been. Deputy Webb was well-liked in Gonzales, while Hardin always had as many enemies as he did supporters. A lynch mob was formed and Hardin’s family had to be taken into protective custody for their own safety. It did them little good, as Hardin’s brother Joe and his two cousins were summarily broken out of the town jail and hanged by the lynch mob. Hardin now parted company with Jim Taylor, who had been a riding companion and fellow gunslinger for several years, and they would never see each other again.

Hardin’s infamy had by now reached an unacceptable level. In January of 1875 the Texas State Legislature allowed Governor Richard Hubbard to offer $4,000, a massive reward by the standards of the time, for the capture of John Wesley Hardin. However, offering a reward for catching Hardin was infinitely easier than actually catching the notorious killer and outlaw.

Hardin had by now assumed the name of James Swain and was in hiding on the Alabama/Florida border, a fact which only became known to the authorities when they intercepted a letter to Hardin from a cousin (and fellow outlaw) named Joshua Bowen.

Finally, Hardin was arrested in Florida while on a train bound for Pensacola by a mixed force of Texas rangers and local lawmen. Hardin, as expected, went for his guns but instead of the now customary hail of bullets, Hardin’s guns became caught in the braces holding up his trousers and he never got off a shot. Hardin was promptly knocked unconscious and arrested while one of his traveling companions was killed and two others arrested as well.

There is also an unconfirmed report that two slaves formerly the property of Hardin’s father had tried to capture Hardin in Gainesville just before he was finally arrested and that Hardin added to his tally by killing one and permanently blinding the other.

After a brief trial, Hardin drew a 25-year stretch for the murder of Deputy Webb and did well to avoid being executed, given his past history. He spent his first few years in jail plotting and repeatedly attempting to escape, attempts which were severely punished according to the brutal methods used in Texas jails at that time. However, after his first few years behind bars Hardin began to adapt to the rigid routine and discipline and started to make efforts to better himself. He spent much of his time studying religious literature; he became a superintendent of the prison Sunday school and also studied law when he was medically able to. He spent two years of his time in jail bedridden after the wounds inflicted by Sublett’s shotgun blast became infected in 1883 and ill-health would be a hallmark of his latter years.

Hardin eventually served nearly 16 years and was released from Huntsville Prison His wife was long dead and their three children wanted nothing to do with their notorious and lethal father. There is a story, hopefully apocryphal, that it was now that Hardin committed his last and without doubt most senseless murder when he is alleged to have shot dead a Mexican man who was out sunning himself, and to have killed the man solely because he was offered a five-dollar bet that he wouldn’t do it. This last murder is unconfirmed, but it would seem to typify Hardin’s wanton violence and callous disregard for human life.

Hardin’s law studies while in Huntsville soon paid off. In March of 1894 he was pardoned and then in July of that year he passed the Texas State Bar Examination, thus enabling him to practice law from the other side of the bench for a change. Quite how a man of Hardin’s fearsome and lethal reputation could be considered fit to practice law is, frankly, something of a mystery, but with the bar exam passed Hardin was now able to do exactly that. He also married for the second time, choosing a young girl named Carolyn Lewis as his second bride. The marriage folded fairly quickly, although Hardin was never one to discuss exactly why and it’s thought in some quarters that the broken marriage was a reason why Hardin made what would be a fatal decision to move to El Paso, Texas and start afresh.

One of Hardin’s friends in El Paso was a local widow named M’Rose, who was arrested by a local lawman, John Selman Junior, for allegedly brandishing a loaded gun in public. Hardin had serious verbal altercations with both John Selman and with Selman’s father, John Selman Senior, August 19, 1895. That night, Hardin appeared at one of his favourite haunts, the Acme Saloon, and began one of his regular nightly pastimes of playing dice. Just before midnight, as Hardin was eagerly engrossed in his dice game, John Selman Senior walked into the saloon. He shot John Wesley Hardin the back of the head which instantly killed Hardin. As Hardin lay prostrate on the saloon floor, Selman fired three more bullets into his prone body to make quite sure that the job was done.

Selman was arrested, tried for the murder and claimed self defence, resulting in a hung jury during the first trial. Selman Senior was never retried, as he himself was shot dead by U.S. Marshal George Scarborough in April, 1896 after a nasty dispute over a card game.

So ends the violent and surprisingly long life of John Wesley Hardin. He died a violent and sudden death, which surprised nobody at all, yet he surprised everybody by living as long as he did.

During the Wild West era, many young men, either through force of circumstance or by choice, became outlaws and shootists. Some, especially the younger ones, saw a perverse kind of glamour to be earned through being either a crooked gunslinger or a lawman, and some managed to work both sides of the criminal divide. The Earp brothers, for example, who somehow managed to combine being famous lawmen with pimping and gambling, yet are still remembered more for their law enforcement than their less savory businesses. The glamour of being either and outlaw or a lawman, or both at different times, can be summarily disposed of by one simple statistic, and it is this: The average life expectancy of a professional gunslinger was only 25 years old.

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