Published on Wednesday, September 24, 2014
John Wesley Hardin
Folk Hero or Murderer?
By Matthew Pizzolato
As with any historical figure, there are quite a few myths surrounding the life of John Wesley Hardin. Simply put, Hardin was a product of his time. He led a tumultuous and violent lifestyle, as did most men who carried a gun during the settling of this country. He lived by the gun and he died by it too.
John Wesley Hardin was probably the deadliest gunman of the Old West era. He was a killer and a very prolific one. He killed his first man at the age of fifteen and was reputed to have killed more than forty during his lifetime, but only about half of that number has been proven. Yet according to Hardin, he never killed a man who did not need killing and he only killed in self-defense. On the other hand, James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok was believed to have said that he'd never met a man who needed to defend himself as often as Hardin did.
Hardin was not an outlaw in the usual sense of the word. He didn't steal or rob banks. What he did was kill people and he was wanted for murder. Unlike other gunmen of the time who wore badges, Hardin didn't have the moral right of the law to justify the men he shot.
One of the myths about Hardin is his first meeting with Wild Bill Hickok that occurred in 1871. The two men were associated with each other for a short time in Abilene, Kansas after Hardin arrived with a trail herd of cattle from Texas and had killed several men along the way.
Hardin's version of running into Hickok as told in his autobiography is that upon the occasion of their first meeting, Hickok asked Hardin to surrender his pistols. Hardin complied, handing them over butt first but executed a road agents spin, reversing the guns. Apparently, Hickok was impressed and offered his friendship, allowing Hardin to keep his guns.
This story is certainly suspect because it has never been authenticated by historians. That an experienced gunfighter of Hickok's caliber would have allowed himself to be bamboozled in a fashion is highly doubtful. Yet at the time, Hardin was just seventeen years old. Could his youth have allowed Hickok to misjudge him?
Eventually the two men because uneasy friends and according to some reports, Hickok took on a mentoring role toward young Hardin, who was sixteen years his junior.
It was also in Abilene that Hardin committed one of the acts that he is best remembered for, killing a man for snoring.
"They tell lots of lies about me. They say I killed six or seven men for snoring," Hardin was quoted as saying. "Well, it ain't true. I only killed one man for snoring."
Hardin was staying at the American House Hotel and fired at least two shots into an adjoining room. One of the bullets struck the man with the offensive nasal passages and killed him. Hardin escaped in the middle of the night in order to avoid being arrested by Hickok.
Back in Texas, Hardin's killing ways didn't stop. He was involved in the Sutton-Taylor Feud, fighting on the Taylor side with whom he was related by marriage. After killing deputy sheriff Charles Webb and due to the $4000 bounty on his head, Texas became too hot for Hardin, who absconded to Florida with his family. It was there in Pensacola that the Texas Rangers finally caught up to him in 1877.
When it came to using a six-gun, Hardin was an absolute wizard. Not only was he deadly accurate, he was supremely fast. After he was finally captured, Hardin was given a pair of unloaded Colts and was allowed to put on a demonstration. According to Texas Ranger James Gillett, Hardin manipulated the guns "as a slight of hand performer manipulates a coin." As far as doing tricks, "the quick draw, the spins, the rolls, pinwheeling, border shift — he did them all with magical precision."
He was sentenced to twenty-five years in prison, but was released in 1894. While in prison, he studied law and theology, successfully passing the bar exam. Upon his release, he tried his hand as a lawyer but soon fell back into his drinking and gambling ways.
On the evening of August 19th, 1895 in the Acme Saloon in El Paso, Texas, John Selman Sr., shot John Wesley Hardin in the back of the head while the gunman was playing dice. The two men had been involved in a dispute.
Hardin left behind quite a few mementos. Most of the guns he used are in collections and there are several playing cards that he shot, signed and sold as souvenirs after his release from prison. There are the letters he wrote to his family while he was in prison. His autobiography is one of the few firsthand accounts left behind by an Old West gunslinger. It offers a fascinating insight into his mind and is a great read for anyone who loves the Old West.
- Hardin, John Wesley. The Life of John Wesley Hardin as Written by Himself. Ebook.
- "John Wesley Hardin arrives in Abilene." 2013. The History Channel website. Mar 22 2013, 1:10
- Osborn, Jim. "John Wesley Hardin: The Gunfighter." Suite 101. 19 Oct 2008. Web. 21 Mar 2013 Sprangenberger, Phil. "Hardin's Deadly Tools." True West Magazine. 13 Mar 2012. Web. 22 Mar 2013
- "John Wesley Hardin." Murderpedia. n.d. Web. 12 Mar 2013.
Matthew Pizzolato's short stories have been published online and in print. He writes Western fiction that can be found in his short story collection, The Wanted Man, and the novella, Outlaw. Matthew is the editor and webmaster of The Western Online, a magazine devoted to everything Western. He can be contacted via his personal website or on Twitter @mattpizzolato.