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John Wesley Hardin – Dark Angel of Texas
It has been claimed that John Wesley Hardin killed over 40 men in his time as a Texas badman. He was so quick tempered with a gun that it has been said that he once killed a man for snoring. This page represents an exploration of the life of one of the Old West’s most legendary and ill tempered gunfighters — John Wesley Hardin, dark angel of Texas.
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Books about John Wesley Hardin
John Wesley Hardin: Dark Angel of Texas
John Selman, Gunfighter
John Wesley Hardin: 40 Times A Killer
“I never killed anyone who didn’t need killing.” — J. W. Hardin
This quote does more than just explain the personal mindset of John Wesley Hardin, perhaps the “baddest” of the notorious badmen and gunslingers of Texas “Wild West” legend. It also represents the public attitude of the times in which he lived, an attitude that kept him free and even made him something of a folk hero despite killing forty men. It could also be said that it represents a kind of social code, the breaking of which led to the eventual downfall of the charismatic outlaw.
John Wesley Hardin was born in Bonham on May 26, 1853 into a well respected family. His father was a Methodist preacher, schoolteacher, and lawyer. His grandfather had served in the Congress of the Republic of Texas, other forebears had signed the Texas Declaration of Independence and fought in the Battle of San Jacinto. Hardin County in East Texas was named after yet another family member, a distinguished judge. When they named him after Methodist founder John Wesley, there was no reason for his parents to doubt that their young son would follow in the family footsteps and make a name for himself. Make a name he did, though the political and social turmoil of his upbringing years would help lead their son to a life radically different from anything they may have envisioned.
Coming of age during the defeat of Civil War and the hated rule of an occupation army, Hardin took quickly to violent solutions. His first incident began when, at age fourteen, he stabbed a schoolmate in the chest in a fight over a girl. The boy was only wounded and after looking into the matter, schoolmasters determined that young Hardin had been provoked. One year later John Wesley would kill his first man as a wrestling match with a former slave turned ugly and John gunned him down, he claimed, as the man came at him threatening to kill him.
Texas was under a military imposed government which had disbanded the Texas Rangers and placed law enforcement in the hands of a hated State Police. Lawlessness was rampant and no authority was trusted. Doubting any chance of a fair hearing, John fled. During that flight, he killed three Union soldiers sent to apprehend him. He hid out at his brother’s house and a year later killed another soldier as he attempted to arrest him. This period of distrust of government and lawlessness gave rise to the ‘Wild West’ tradition of Texas with its legends of outlaws and gunslingers and John Wesley Hardin was moving quickly to the head of the class.
Over the next few years, Hardin’s legend grew. He became involved in the Taylor-Sutton feud, aligning himself with the ant-Reconstructionist Taylors and killing former State Policeman and Sutton leader, Jack Helm. While driving cattle up the Chisholm trail he killed seven other men. After arriving in Abilene, Kansas he is said to have faced down famed Marshall Wild Bill Hickok. It was in Abilene that he shot a man for snoring too loudly in the next room. Hardin claimed he was just shooting into the wall to wake the man.
Hardin had an explanation for each of his killings and considered himself a political fugitive “from the injustice and misrule of the people who had subjugated the South”. The handsome and charming outlaw had now killed dozens of men yet was not considered an outlaw by the public and in fact had become something of a folk hero because he had “never killed anyone who didn’t need killing”. In Reconstruction Texas, that meant Federal soldiers and ‘scalawags’ cooperating with the occupation government. At the age of twenty-one, however, Hardin would make a mistake which would prove his undoing.
The Hardin family including John’s parents, his brother Joe and several others had moved to Comanche County where Joe practiced law and dabbled in real estate. John traveled to Comanche to celebrate his twenty first birthday with his family. After a successful and profitable day at the horse races, John, his brother, and several cousins gathered at the Jack Wright Saloon in Comanche to celebrate. Charles Webb, a deputy sheriff from neighboring Brown County entered the saloon and Hardin shot him dead in the doorway. His cousins pumped more bullets into the deputy. The mood of the crowd and the town instantly turned. Webb was no Union soldier or State Policeman. He was a well respected lawman and a former Texas Ranger. A mob quickly gathered, Hardin escaped but his brother and cousins were not so lucky and the angry vigilantes killed them. John Wesley Hardin fled the state with his wife, moved to Florida, and lived under an assumed name.
The removal of the Federal army meant an end to Reconstruction and a return to local control of the government. One of the first acts of the new government was to work to end the lawlessness that had been rampant across the state since the end of the war. The State Police were abolished and the Texas Rangers were re- established. In 1877 the Rangers caught up with Hardin on a train in Florida. He was returned to Comanche County and tried for the murder of Charles Webb. Hardin was found guilty of second degree murder and served sixteen years in the state prison in Huntsville, Texas.
After his release, John Wesley Hardin tried to go straight, moving to El Paso and practicing law. However, his reputation and penchant for finding trouble followed him. He fell back into drinking, gambling, and womanizing. On July 19, 1895, at around 11:00 p.m., Hardin was playing dice in El Paso’s Acme Saloon with grocer H.S. Brown. Suddenly a shadow darkened the doorway at Hardin’s back. The shadow belonged to Constable John Selman, himself a notorious mankiller with a dark past. The other patrons in the saloon quit talking. The only sounds came from the two men throwing dice, at 25cents a throw. Hardin had just thrown the dice and rolled up four sixes when Selman pointed his six-shooter at the back of Hardin’s head and pulled the trigger. Hardin spun around to face his killer, a hole showing at the corner of his left eye – the exit wound of the bullet that had passed through his brain. Witnesses said Hardin reached for his six-shooter as he fell to the floor. Selman kept shooting, even as Hardin lay prostrate, his life fluids rapidly forming a gooey lake on the barroom floor. Selman’s son, John, Jr., ran into the bar and took his father by the arm and pleaded: “Don’t shoot him anymore. He’s already dead.”
Selman was subsequently acquitted of the killing and the legend of John Wesley Hardin was laid to rest. Hardin’s death came as a huge sigh of relief to many El Pasoans. Journalists mined the event for its dark humor. Several citizens were quoted as saying that, aside from being dead, John Wesley Hardin had never looked better. The death of the Old West’s most notorious gunfighter was only one indication that an era had truly passed into history. When officials found a card on Hardin’s body with the name of his closest friend, nobody had to saddle up and ride out to deliver the sad news. They called him on the telephone.