Society of the Old West

From early westward expansion through the early 20th Century.

Outlaw and gunslinger John Wesley Hardin was born in Bonham, Texas, on May 26, 1853 He had a reputation for a vicious temper, which would get him into trouble time and again. John's father, James G. Hardin, was a Methodist preacher, lawyer, schoolteacher and circuit rider. His mother was Elizabeth Hardin. At age fourteen, John stabbed a schoolmate. In 1868, at the age of 15, he got into a wrestling match with an ex-slave named Mage, and Mage’s nose was blooded. Mage then declared that “no white man could draw his blood and live,” and the next day, when Mage approached him to challenge him to another fight, Hardin drew a pistol and killed him. Post Civil War Texas was then under Union Army occupation, and Hardin believed he would not receive a fair trial for killing a Negro, so he decided to run from the law. While fleeing from the law following that murder, he killed at least one, and possibly four, Union soldiers who were attempting to apprehend him. (editor note: At last recollection, dead Yankees don’t count agin ya.) Hardin’s relatives hid the bodies, so that no one would know that Hardin had killed them. He killed three more upon arriving in Abilene, Kansas. Back in Texas at age 17, he worked as trail boss for a Texas cattle ranch, and once got into an argument with Mexican cowboys when they tried to cut their herd in front of his. The argument soon got out of hand, and within minutes, he had killed six of the Mexicans. (editor note: see previous note) But he soon resumed his murder spree, killing 4 more times before surrendering to the Cherokee County sheriff in September 1872. He broke out of jail after a couple of weeks, however.

He tried to make a living out of poker but this resulted in him killing Jim Bradley in a gambling row.

While at Abilene, Kansas, he made friends with the local sheriff, “Wild Bill” Hickok. The friendship ended when Hardin randomly shot a hotel guest in the room next to him for snoring too loudly, thus waking him up. As Hickok came to arrest Hardin for murder, he stole a horse and escaped.

In 1871, he married his hometown sweetheart, Jane Bowen, a respectable girl whose father owned a general store in town. They would have two children. Jane remained true to her husband despite his past and his constant absences from home to avoid the law. After killing Deputy Sheriff Charles Webb (his 40th victim) in Comanche, Texas, Hardin decided to leave Texas with his wife. They hid out in Florida, under an alias of Mr. and Mrs. J. H. Swain, but after two years, Pinkerton Detectives found them, and they ran to Alabama, where in 1877, he was caught. For three years, Hardin was able to elude the Rangers. Moving between Florida and Alabama, he adopted an alias and kept a low profile. Nonetheless, the Rangers eventually unmasked his secret identity and dispatched John Armstrong to track him down in Florida. On Aug 23, 1877, Armstrong, acting on a tip, spotted Hardin in the smoking car of a train stopped at the Pensacola station. Armstrong stationed local deputies at both ends of the car, and the men burst in with guns drawn. Caught by surprise, Hardin nonetheless reacted quickly and reached for the gun holstered under his jacket. The pistol caught in Hardin's fancy suspenders, giving the lawmen the crucial few seconds they needed and probably saving Hardin's life. Instead of shooting him, Armstrong clubbed Hardin with his long-barreled .45 revolver.

Tried in Austin, Texas, for the death of Deputy Sheriff Charles Webb, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison. In 1894, after serving 15 years of his sentence, and shortly after his wife had died, Hardin was pardoned by Texas Governor Jim Hogg. It was while he was in prison that Hardin studied law and passed the bar exam, shortly after his release. His wife had died in the interim.

Having studied law in prison, the released Hardin opened up a law practice in El Paso, Texas. He began to court a Mrs. McRose, widow of another outlaw, and when she was arrested for illegally carrying a pistol, lawyer Hardin made threats against the arresting police officer, John Selman. Several days later, Selman saw Hardin shooting dice with local furniture dealer Henry Brown, at the Acme saloon in El Paso. Selman walked up behind Hardin and shot him in the back of the head, killing him. Hardin was 42 years old. Legend has it that his last words were, "Four sixes to beat, Henry." Thus ended the life and career of one of Texas deadliest gunslingers. Despite his killing of forty people, Hardin had a reputation as a gentleman among those who knew him, and he always claimed he never killed anyone who didn't need killing. The El Paso police found Hardin's unfinished autobiography in the house he rented in the town. This was handed over to his children and the book, Life of John Wesley Hardin as Written by Himself was published in 1896.

Armstrong used the $4000 reward to purchase more than 50,000 acres of cattle land in Wallace County, Tex., calling his spread the XIT ranch, one of the largest at that time. He maintained a large crew of cowhands and rigidly bossed their work, much as he had when operating as a Texas Ranger. One cowboy refused to take Armstrong's harsh order on Nov. 18, 1908, and shot his boss out of his saddle. (The cowboy was later sent to prison for attempted murder.) Armstrong survived this attack as he had so many others and died peacefully in his bed on his ranch, on May 1, 1913.…

Ref: Texas Monthly Characters Datebook; The New Handbook of Texas, Vol. 3; Find A Grave Memorial# 1346; JWH Dark Angel of Texas.

The eyes of a saint,,,,,,,,yup.

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