The American outlaw and gunfighter John Wesley Hardin (1853–1895) was one of the American frontier's most violent and notorious killers. He amassed a long record of gun homicides while he was still in his teens and met a tawdry end.
In the words of Leon C. Metz, writing in Wild West magazine, John Wesley Hardin “probably killed more men than any other gunman in the West.” As with so many of the legendary figures of America's western frontier, precise facts about Hardin's life are difficult to establish. The most detailed account comes from his autobiography, which contains some level of exaggeration and which may have been written by his girlfriend at the time. Although he claimed to have killed more than 40 men during his career, accounts able to be verified from other sources placed that number in the low 20s. It is notable that Hardin's killings did not involve bank robbery or other crimes, and for the most part, he avoided violent familial or political disputes. In his case, he had a tendency to settle major disagreement or escape capture by shooting his adversaries.
Named for John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist church, Hardin was born on May 26, 1853, near Bonham, Texas. He was the third of ten children and the second to survive; his mother doted on him and would support him steadfastly even when he was on the run from the law. Because Hardin's father, a Methodist minister, worked as a “circuit rider,” traveling from place to place to give sermons, he had a peripatetic childhood. He also gained an exposure to violence due to his father's support for the rebel Confederate States of America during the U.S. Civil War. He was taught to shoot a gun while aiming at a picture of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, and at age nine he expressed the desire to run away from home and join the Confederate Army. Like many Texans, Hardin would deeply resent the Reconstruction-era government imposed on his home state, and his autobiography The Life of John Wesley Hardin as Written by Himself expresses pro-Southern sentiments and recounts incidents in which he joined lynch mobs.
When Hardin was 14, he stabbed a classmate in the chest during a dispute over a girl. The next year, in November of 1868, he shot and killed a former slave who he claimed had threatened him after the two had engaged in a wrestling match. “To be tried at the time for the killing of a negro meant certain death at the hands of a court, backed by Northern bayonets; hence my father told me to keep in hiding until that good time when the Yankee bayonet should cease to govern,” he later revealed in his autobiography. After hiding out, Hardin fled, first to the house of his brother 25 miles away, and then beyond. Six weeks after the shooting, he killed several Northern soldiers who had been sent to arrest him, and his time as a fugitive on the run did much to strengthen his orientation toward violence.
By 1871, Hardin had made his way to Abilene, where he killed three Texas state policemen who had tried to apprehend him. After a drunken spree with a group of friends, he also killed a man who he thought was snoring too loudly. By this time, a legend around Hardin's activities was beginning to take shape. “They tell lots of lies about me,” he was quoted as once saying by Matthew Pizzolato on the Western Online website. “They say I killed six or seven men for snoring. Well, it ain't true. I only killed one man for snoring.”
From Abilene, Hardin realized a long dream to become a cowboy, riding the Chisholm Trail and avoiding established law enforcement in the process. Along the way, he killed at least three Mexican cowboys and perhaps a Native American, all as the result of disputes.
One of the most celebrated yet disputed incidents in Hardin's life was his 1871 encounter with James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok, a showman and a former gunfighter who now worked on the side of the law as the city of Abilene's second marshal. Hardin may have worked in Abilene for a time, guarding cattle trains. He disregarded the city's new ordinance forbidding the carrying of firearms within city limits, and Hickok attempted to arrest him. Hardin, according to his autobiography, moved as if to turn over his guns but then executed a so-called “road agent's spin,” reversing their direction so that Hickok found himself looking down their barrels. Impressed, the celebrated marshal relented, and he and Hardin apparently parted as friends.
Although there is no independent evidence confirming that the encounter with Hickok even occurred, much less what happened as it unfolded, there was little dispute over Hardin's gun technique, which was superb. Witnesses to his 1870 killing of Benjamin Bradley, which occurred after a poker-game dispute escalated to murder, described how he kept guns in holsters sewn into his vest so that he could cross his arms to draw them—he claimed that this was the fastest method, and he practiced it daily. Later, after he had been captured and was serving prison time, Hardin was allowed to perform shooting demonstrations with unloaded guns. As quoted by Pizzolato, contemporary observer and Texas Ranger James Gillett stated that he handled them “as a sleight-of-hand performer manipulates a coin.”
In his autobiography, Hardin matter-of-factly recounted how he had been arrested in 1871 for the murder of a lawman in Waco and had succeeded in shooting the guards assigned to transport him to his trial site. Escaping, Hardin made a brief but unsuccessful attempt to live a more settled life by marrying the fiery 14-year-old Jane Bowen, with whom he had a daughter, Mollie. He surrendered to the sheriff of Cherokee County in 1872 but escaped from jail and made his way to Gonzales County, Texas, where he became embroiled in the Sutton-Taylor feud. With roots in Civil War backgrounds, this feud divided law-enforcement families and eventually cost some 35 lives. Hardin joined the anti-Reconstruction Taylor faction and killed state police captain Jack Helm in an encounter outside a blacksmith's shop. In 1874 he killed another lawman, Brown County deputy sheriff Charles Webb, who was in a saloon celebrating his 21st birthday.
The killing of Webb put both legal and extralegal pressure on Hardin: the Texas state legislature now passed a measure providing a $4,000 reward to anyone able to help secure his capture. Hardin fled with his family to the Florida panhandle area, adopting the alias John Swain and carrying out at least one more killing while on the run. He and Jane had two more children, John Wesley Jr. and Jane (“Jennie”) before he was captured by Texas Rangers. Taken to Pensacola, he was convicted of the murder of Charles Webb and incarcerated in the Texas State Prison in Huntsville in 1878. While he was imprisoned, both his wife and his mother died.
Hardin tried his best to be a model prisoner, studying law during his 14 years behind bars. He also served as superintendent of the prison Sunday school and read religious books. He was released in 1894 and was ultimately pardoned; he had a reservoir of public sympathy because of his anti-Northern orientation. In addition, his gunfights were so violent that he could plausibly claim he was acting in self-defense in many of them. After passing the Texas bar exam, Hardin practiced law for a time in Gonzales, Texas.
After a visit to El Paso to attend a trial in 1895, Hardin decided to move to that city and took a room in a local boarding house. According to Metz, his new landlady, Annie Williams, recalled that he drank heavily: “He would bring whiskey to his room by the gallon, and I could hear him at all hours of the day and night stirring his toddy. But I never saw him staggering drunk. I could tell he was drunk only by his extreme politeness and the peculiar snake-like glitter of his eyes.” Hardin opened a law practice in El Paso but found little demand for his services in the still wide-open border town.
As destiny would have it, Hardin drifted back into trouble. He became romantically involved with Beulah M'Rose (also recorded as Morose or perhaps Mraz), the wife of a client named Martin M'Rose. Beulah soon became his secretary and wrote or transcribed much of his autobiography. Problems came when she was arrested for carrying two Colt six-shooters within the El Paso city limits by patrolman John Selman, Jr. Some accounts theorized that Selman may have been involved in a plot by Hardin to kill Beulah's husband but had not been paid. A local newspaper, as quoted by Metz, reported that during her arrest, Beulah screamed so loudly that “the paint scaled off the neighboring woodwork.” Hardin subsequently threatened Selman, who on August 19, 1895, responded by approaching Hardin from the rear as the gunman was playing a dice game at the Acme Saloon. Shot in the head, Hardin died instantly.
Hardin's notoriety morphed into fame after his death. His autobiography—for which Beulah M'Rose was to receive half the profits—was published in 1896 and firmly inserted him into the legend of the violent, freewheeling West. He is a character in several novels, including Larry McMurtry's The Streets of Laredo. The 1951 film The Texas Rangers was the first of several motion pictures based on his life; two years later, actor Rock Hudson would portray Hardin in The Lawless Breed. He was also memorialized in song by Johnny Cash in his 1965 single “Hardin Wouldn't Run,” included in the LP Ballad of the True West. Bob Dylan's 1967 album John Wesley Harding respelled or misspelled the outlaw's name.
Hardin, John Wesley, The Life of John Wesley Hardin, as Written by Himself, University of Oklahoma Press, 1961.
Parsons, Chuck, and Norman Wayne Brown, A Lawless Breed, University of North Texas Press, 2014.
Wild West, April 1998, Louis Hart and Patricia Cronin Marcello, “Did Gunfighters Hickok and Hardin Have a ‘Showdown’ in Abilene?,” p. 18; April 1999, Leon C. Metz, “John Wesley Hardin and His Women,” p. 36.
Famous Texans, http://www.famoustexans.com/johnwesleyhardin.htm (September 23, 2017), “John Wesley Hardin.”
History Channel online, http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/john-wesley-hardin-killed-in-texas (September 23, 2017), “August 19, 1895: John Wesley Hardin Killed in Texas.”
Western online, http://www.thewesternonline.com/johnwesleyhardin.html (September 23, 2017), Matthew Pizzolato, “John Wesley Hardin: Folk Hero or Murderer?”□