John Wesley Hardin was one of the most violent figures of a violent age. Born in Bonham to a Methodist preacher in 1853, he quickly moved to a life of crime.
John Wesley Hardin was one of the most violent figures of a violent age. Born in Bonham to a Methodist preacher in 1853, he quickly moved to a life of crime. By the time he was 18, he killed perhaps eight people. This was only the beginning of a bloody career as a gunfighter.
He escaped Texas authorities in 1871 after killing the Waco town marshal and found work on a cattle drive. According to several sources, he engaged in several gunfights with would-be cattle thieves that left maybe five men dead before arriving in Kansas.
It was August 1871 that saw one of his most notorious killings. He was in Abilene, Kansas, then a notoriously riotous trailhead town. He had fallen into a drunken stupor after a night of gambling and retired to a hotel room for the night. A neighbor in the room next door started snoring loudly, the noise reverberating through the thin walls. Hardin started shouting at the man about his snoring, to no avail. Still drunk, Hardin pulled out his guns and started firing through the walls, shooting the snoring man in the head, killing him instantly. Hardin then jumped out of his second-story window to avoid arrest, stole a horse, and then rode back to Texas.
Two months later, he found himself in another gunfight with two Texas state policemen, killing one and wounding another. He claimed to have killed three members of a posse near Austin. After several more gunfights, he injured another state policeman near Hemphill in July 1872. In August, he was shot after an argument over a poker hand in Trinity. Once his identity was confirmed by local authorities, he was arrested but accidentally shot while in custody. After recovering from his injuries, he escaped the county jail and was on the run again.
In May 1874, he killed Deputy Sheriff Charles Webb in a saloon in the central Texas town of Comanche. The killing enraged townspeople, resulting in the lynching of Hardin’s own brother as he escaped from Brown County to Florida. Texas authorities set a large reward for his capture. Hardin was on the run for nearly three years before Texas Rangers captured him on a train in Pensacola in August 1877. Rangers knocked him unconscious and dragged him back to Texas for trial. This time, there would be no escape.
He was found guilty in June 1878 and sentenced to 25 years in prison, a surprisingly light sentence for the time. He served his time at the state prison in Huntsville, and tried and failed several times to escape. In spite of his crimes, he studied law and theology and eventually ran the prison Sunday School. In February 1894, he was released for good behavior, though he still had eight years left on his sentence.
After his release, he plotted his next career move and somehow decided that becoming an attorney was the best fit. He passed the bar exam and moved to Gonzales. He left shortly afterward when he shot a man on a $5 bet. His next move was to El Paso where he spent time scrambling for money in poker games and trying to find law clients.
In August 1895, his girlfriend was arrested in El Paso police officer John Selman, Jr., on a charge of possession of a firearm within the city limits. Hardin angrily confronted Selman and supposedly pistol-whipped him. The next day, Selman’s father, John Selman, Sr., had his own argument with Hardin over the incident. The elder Selman had his own problems with the law and had killed a number of men in his own gunfights. Hours later, finding out that Hardin was gambling at the local Acme Saloon, Selman walked in and shot Hardin in the back of the head. He was quietly buried in El Paso the next day.
In the end, the man who lived by the gun died by the gun. As for Selman, he escaped conviction but was killed in a gunfight with a U. S. Marshal the next year.
Since Hardin’s death, many studies have been done on his wild career. Hardin recounted his own life in a book that was published posthumously in 1895. As in life, so many details of his career were embellished or could never be verified. The 1956 film The Lawless Breed was loosely based on Hardin’s autobiography. He was also featured in Texas writer Larry McMurtry’s "The Streets of Laredo" in 1993. More than a century after Hardin’s death, he still draws fascination over a life as a gunman that left more than two dozen people dead.
Dr. Bridges is a Texas native, writer, and history professor. He can be reached at drkenbridges.com.