John Wesley Hardin: Outlaw

John Wesley Hardin was one of the Old West’s most notorious gunfighters; a self-righteous, bigoted, and possibly psychopatic, killer. He managed to find excuses to kill almost everywhere he went and often with little cause, yet he claimed his kills were justified. All this despite coming from a Methodist background, and being named for the Methodist Church’s founder, John Wesley.

John Wesley Hardin – born: May 26, 1853 Died: Aug. 19, 1895

His father, a Methodist Minister, named him for the founder of the Methodist Church. Growing up in a post-war Texas, under the control of the Union Army, Hardin developed a bigoted attitude to blacks, Mexicans and Yankees. In 1868, at the age of 15, killed an ex-slave named Mage who had bullied him. He ran to escape justice from Union soldiers and when they caught up with him, he killed them. At 17, working as trail boss for on a Texas cattle ranch, he had a heated arguement with Mexican cowboys who cut in front of him with their herd. He shot six of the Mexicans dead.

In 1869, in Towash, he killed Jim Bradley, himself a killer and town bully, when Bradley refused to handover Hardin’s poker winnings. In January 1870, he killed two men, one a circus performer who refused to accept Hardin’s apology for bumping him, and a con man who tried to rob him. He then joined his uncle and cousins on their farm near Brenham. In March he left for Evergreen after hearing that a patrol of state police were in pursuit. He still managed to pass his school examination and graduate along with his brother, Joe.

Hardin was arrested in Longview and taken to Waco. With the aid of a hidden pistol, he killed Jim Smolly. He rode back to his father at Mount Calm for a fresh horse, but was arrested again by three state policemen, Smith, Jones and Davis. They drank too much, and all three eventually fell asleep. Hardin killed them with their own guns. Back home he went, then headed back to Mexico via Gonzales where Harding had relatives, the Mannings. He was persuaded to join their cattle drive to Abilene. He managed to kill several Native American Indians, and around five Mexicans.

Hardin took little notice of laws and lawmen; that was until he came across Wild Bill Hickok.

The Life of John Wesley Hardin

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Wes Hardin and Wild Bill – 1871

Hardin encountered Marshall James Butler Hickok in Abilene. According to Hardin, the first time they met, Hickok reminded him that carrying firearms in town was forbidden, and said he would arrest him – Hardin handed over his guns and reversed them by a trick, pointing them at Hickok. Hardin cursed Hickok for being the kind of man to shoot a boy in the back – Hickok calmly refuted this and offered a drink and advice. After this Hardin went to a restaurant and managed to get into an argument and kill another man. He left for a nearby town where a Mexican had killed a man Hardin knew; Hardin trailed and killed him, then returned to Abilene.

Hardin was staying at the American House Hotel. His account has him shooting a would-be assassin in his room and fleeing the scene without his pants. Other accounts have him annoyed by the snoring of the man in the room next door, and firing two warning shots through the wall into the next room, both a little too low. Result: another dead man. Hardin realizes that Hickok would be after him very soon and climbs through a window to the hotel roof just as Hickok arrives. Hardin claimed that he ambushed lawman Tom Carson and two deputies and forced them to remove clothing so he could wear it.

August 1871 sees Hardin in a gunfight with Texas State Policemen Green Paramoor and John Lackey, and in September, an alleged gunfight with a black posse (three dead.)

The Real Story of John Wesley Hardin

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Marriage to Jane Bowen – 1872

Hardin married his sweetheart, Jane Bowen on February 29, 1872. Jane was well aware of Hardin’s nature, his life style and crimes.

Around April, Hardin claimed, he is ambushed by two Mexicans, and shoots both.

In June, according to Hardin, he shot men who tried to arrest him for carrying a pistol.

In July, a dispute with another State Policeman, Sonny Spites, over Spites’ treatment of a 10 year-old boy, results in a shoulder wound to Spites.

In August, Hardin is reunited with his Clements cousins. A poker game leads to a dispute that has Hardin badly wounded by a Phil Sublett with a shotgun on August 7, 1872; Hardin decided he wanted to turn himself in and surrendered to Sheriff Reagan, asking to be tried for his past crimes. Hardin changed his mind again and escaped from jail in October.

John Wesley Hardin: Dark Angel of Texas

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The Sutton-Taylor Feud – 1873-4

In 1873, in Cuero, Texas, a man named J.B. Morgan, harassed Hardin for a bottle of champagne; Hardin refused to buy it. Later, Morgan drew a pistol on Hardin; Hardin shot him dead.

There existed in Gonzales County, a vigilante committee headed by Jack Helms, a former captain in the Texas State Police who was the sheriff of DeWitt County, Texas, along with deputies Jim Cox, Joe Tumlinson and Bill Sutton. This gang killed members of a local family, the Taylors, who stood up to them. Around April 1, Hardin says, Jim Taylor shot Bill Sutton. Hardin and George Tennille went to talk to Jim Cox and Jack Helms, who asked Hardin to join them. Hardin refused, and reported back to Tennille and Manning Clements to warn them of possible trouble. On April 23, Helms and fifty men arrived at their homes only to find them absent on a cattle roundup. On May 15, 1873 Jim Cox and Jake Christman were killed by the Taylors.

On May 17, 1873, Hardin traveled to Albuquerque, Texas, along with Jim Taylor. Hardin went to get his horse shod when a shout alerted him. Helm was armed with a knife and stalking Taylor when Hardin shot at him. Taylor pumped Helms with his shotgun, killing him.

Word got back to Hardin and Taylor that Joe Tumlinson and fifty men were on their way for revenge Taylor and Hardin rounded up men and met them in Clinton, Texas. With the reluctant help of Sheriff Blair, a peace treaty was recorded on May 20, 1873.

On December 27,1873, Wiley Prigon, a Taylor supporter, was murdered in his store by Sutton men. Several times they turned their rivals’ cattle loose. In March, Jim and Bill Taylor killed Sutton and colleague Gabe Slaughter in a gunfight.

On May 26, 1874, Wes Hardin, cousin Bud Dixson, Jim Taylor, and others were celebrating Hardin’s 21st birthday in Comanche, Texas. Brown County, Texas, deputy sheriff Charles Webb appeared. Hardin asked Webb if he had come to arrest him, Webb denied this, so Hardin invited Webb in for a drink. Webb drew his gun, and on hearing a shouted warning, Hardin spun around, drawing his own guns, Webb wounded Hardin in the left side. Hardin shot Webb dead. Hardin learned later of Webb’s plan to shoot him and capture Jim Taylor. Despite shooting in self defence, it was thought unsafe for them to stay and surrender to the law, as Webb had too many followers and they might get lynched.

With a lynch mob on its way, Hardin’s parents, wife, brother and two cousins were put into protective custody, but Brown County men managed to hang Hardin’s brother Joe and his two cousins, Bud and Tom Dixson, and shot two friends. Hardin swore to get the men who killed them.

In July 1874, Hardin shot one of a group of men who had tailed him.

Jim Taylor was killed on December 27, 1875. Bill Taylor was found guilty of murder in the second degree in 1875 and sentenced to 10 years. A cyclone blew through the area of Indianola prison on September 17, 1875 and Bill Taylor escaped.

After the hanging in July 1874, Hardin and a companion, Mac Young, while passing through Bellville in Austin County Texas ,were reported as possible horse thieves and followed by a posse; Hardin pulled his pistol on Sheriff Gustave Langhammer of Austin County – but did not shoot him and rode away. Young was arrested and fined $100 for carrying a pistol.

The Sutton-Taylor Feud

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Trial and Prison – 1875 – 1894

On January 20, 1875 Governor Richard B. Hubbard offered a reward of $4,000 for the capture of John Wesley Hardin. Hardin moved to Jacksonville, Florida, bought a saloon, began horse trading and carried out a business butchering and shipping beef. He sold part of his business interests when he heard detectives were on his trail, and left Florida for Alabama.

In August 1876, Hardin was joined by his wife and children in Polland, Alabama, Hardin having decided to become a partner in a logging business along on the Stick River.

Hardin was eventually caught when a letter from Jane’s brother Brown was intercepted by a Texas Ranger who had insinuated himself into the family and was boarding with Jane’s father, Neal Bowen. The letter incautiously revealed that Hardin was hiding out on the Alabama and Florida border under the alias of James W. Swain. On August 24, 1877, Hardin was arrested by Texas Rangers after they ambushed him on a train in Pensacola, Florida. An innocent 19 year-old friend traveling with Hardin was shot down and killed by Texas Rangers as he tried to escape the fracas.

Tried for the killing of Deputy Charles Webb, Hardin was sentenced to 25 years in Huntsville Prison. At first, Hardin tried escaping; his attempts were thwarted over and over, betrayed by other prisoners, and beaten or whipped by prison guards. He was frequently pulled from his cell to be beaten for imaginary infractions by guards keen to show their power over such a notorious badman. Finally, Hardin was moved to the boot shop, and although the beatings continued, they became less savage as the years passed. Then the near-fatal wound he received years before had began to trouble him again, but he was denied a place in the prison hospital. He feared he would die, but eventally, after eight months, began to recover. Hardin became an avid reader, and in 1885, decided to study law. Then he received word of the death of his beloved wife Jane on November 6, 1892 – a particularly bitter blow.

John Wesley Hardin Arrested

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John Wesley Hardin, Attorney at Law – 1894-5

Hardin served 16 years of his sentence and was released on February 17, 1894. He returned to Gonzales, Texas On March 16, he was pardoned; on July 21 he passed the state’s bar examination to practice law.

The John Wesley Hardin who left Huntsville prison was now a curiosity and an anachronism. El Paso now had trolley cars and brick buildings. Five presidents had come to office. The Sutton-Taylor feud had been forgotten, the great cattle drives also. Wild Bill Hickok was dead, Cousin Manning Clements, a regular prison visitor, was also dead. Hardin’s children were married with their own families.

Hardin married again on January 9, 1895, to Carolyn “Callie” Lewis, but the marriage failed soon after. Hardin moved to El Paso and set up a law practice there, but when that failed, he went back to gambling.

Legends of the West: The Life and Legacy of John Wesley Hardin

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The Death of John Wesley Hardin

In El Paso, Hardin began to court a Mrs McRose, the widow of an outlaw, although he was still married to Callie. When Mrs McRose was arrested for carrying a pistol, Hardin acted as her lawyer. Hardin was becoming more angry, and, when drunk, argumentative and threatening, and he duly made threats against the arresting officer, outlaw turned peace officer, John Selman.

Several days later, Selman saw Hardin gambling in a saloon. Selman walked up behind Hardin and fired three shots at him; one in the back of the head killed him instantly, and another hit him in the chest, while a third went into his right arm. Hardin never even knew Selman was in the room. His guns were still in their holsters.

John Wesley Hardin was buried in Concordia Cemetery, El Paso, Texas. He was 42 years old.

John Selman was murdered in turn by deputy marshall and gunman George Scarborough on 6th April, 1896. Selman in his life may himself have killed up to 30 men.

John Wesley Hardin76521

John Wesley Hardin’s guns

Colt 1877 Lightning and Thunderer

Hardin in early years said he used a cap and ball pistol – probably a Civil War Army revolver. Later he carried both “Lightning” (.38) and “Thunderer” (.41) versions of the Colt 1877 revolver in later years. These were found on his body after he was murdered.

1877 Colt Lightning

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John Wesley Hardin’s Grave

Photo Courtesy
Paul Garland

Creative Commons Licence

Takedown: Taming John Wesley Hardin – from UK

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John Wesley Hardin on Amazon

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