John Wesley Hardin: Ruthless Old West Killer

Last week I told you about modern-day killer Colin Ferguson. This week, we take a trip back to the old West to meet John Wesley Hardin. He’s not as famous as, say, Billy the Kid or Wyatt Earp (they had better publicists). But Hardin was a prolific killer. He claimed to have killed 42 men. Contemporary newspapers put the count at 27.

Ferrotype mirror image of John Wesley Hardin (Public Domain)
Ferrotype mirror image of John Wesley Hardin (Public Domain)

John Wesley Hardin — A Violent Boyhood

John Wesley Hardin entered the world near Bonham, Texas in 1853. His father, a Methodist preacher, named his son after the founder of the Methodist denomination. The Civil War broke out when Hardin was eight years old. The next year, when he was nine, he tried to run away with his cousin and join the Confederate army. His father dissuaded him with “a sound thrashing.”

John Wesley Hardin
John Wesley Hardin

When Hardin was 14, he got into a fight with classmate Charles Sloter, a boy Hardin described as a bully. Sloter wrote something on the chalkboard disparaging a girl at the school. History doesn’t record what the writing said, but Sloter then claimed Hardin had written it. Hardin denied it. According to Hardin, Sloter punched him and pulled a knife. Hardin had a knife of his own and stabbed Sloter in the chest and back, nearly killing him.

Hardin’s First Killing

In November 1868, Hardin and a cousin engaged in a wrestling match with a former slave named Major “Mage” Holshousen. During the match, Hardin and his cousin threw Holshousen to the ground, cutting his face. Hardin claimed that the next day, the former slave “ambushed” him as he rode past. Hardin then shot Holshousen five times with his Colt .44.

Union troops occupied Texas in the wake of the Civil War. More than a third of the state police were former slaves. Hardin’s father felt a fair trial for killing a black man would be impossible, so he urged Hardin to go into hiding. Some historians believe Hardin wouldn’t have had any problems with an all-white jury, but he left anyway.

John Wesley Hardin
John Wesley Hardin

According to Hardin, while he was on the run, authorities discovered where he was hiding. They sent three Union soldiers to arrest him. Hardin laid in wait for the soldiers and killed two of them with two blasts from a double-barreled shotgun. The third soldier ran, and Hardin pursued him. The soldier shot at Hardin, hitting him in the arm. Hardin shot the man dead with his pistol.

Outlaw on the Run

By now, John Wesley Hardin was a full-fledged outlaw. He roamed around Texas and, for a while, even taught school in the tiny town of Towash. The students had a reputation for being unruly and frightening off teachers. But Hardin earned their respect—and attention—by carrying a revolver to class.

On January 20, 1875 the Texas Legislature authorized Governor Richard B. Hubbard
to offer a $5,000 reward for the apprehension of John Wesley Hardin.
On January 20, 1875 the Texas Legislature authorized Governor Richard B. Hubbard
to offer a $5,000 reward for the apprehension of John Wesley Hardin.

Respectability wasn’t in Hardin’s future, though. On January 5, 1870 (some sources say Christmas Day, 1869), he got in a card game with Benjamin Bradley. He had a run of luck and Bradley threatened to “cut out his liver” if he won again. Hardin was not armed and left. Later, though, the two men found themselves facing each other in the street. The classic “walkdown” made famous by books and movies was, in fact, quite rare in the old West. They occasionally occurred, though, often among southern gunmen as a continuation of the idea of the “gentlemen’s dual.” Bradley fired and missed. Hardin shot Bradley in the head and chest, killing him.

John Wesley Hardin Kills a Man for Snoring

In the early 1870s, the fugitive John Wesley Hardin (using an alias) met James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok. Hardin admired the lawman-gambler and the two became friends. Hardin claimed that on one occasion, Hickok arranged for one of Hardin’s cousins to escape from jail.

In 1871, Hickok was the town marshal of Abilene, Kansas, a rough-and-tumble Cowtown. On August 6, Hardin checked into Abilene’s American House Hotel after a night of drinking and gambling. Sometime during the night, loud snoring coming from the adjacent room occupied by Charles Couger awakened him. After shouted demands to “roll over” had no effect, Hardin drunkenly fired several shots through the wall. Although he probably intended only to wake Couger, one bullet pierced his heart, killing him instantly.

James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok (Portrait taken in 1873 by George Gardner Rockwood at his New York studio three years before Hickok's death in Deadwood)
James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok (Portrait taken in 1873 by George Gardner Rockwood at his New York studio three years before Hickok’s death in Deadwood)

Hardin—half dressed and still drunk—saw Hickok coming with four policemen. He escaped out a second-floor window onto the hotel’s roof, then jumped to the street. He hid in a haystack all night. The next morning, he stole a horse and escaped. He never returned to Abilene.

The incident apparently embarrassed Hardin. He later complained about the press he received from it and omitted it entirely in his autobiography.

Prison and Afterwards

Hardin evaded the law for several years. But on August 24, 1877, Texas Rangers and local lawmen accosted him on a train near Pensacola, Florida. Hardin attempted to draw a Colt .44 cap-and-ball pistol, but it caught in his suspenders. The lawmen knocked Hardin unconscious and took him prisoner.

Hardin went on trial for killing Brown County, Texas Deputy Sheriff Charles Webb. On June 5, 1878, he was sentenced to 25 years in Huntsville Prison. He attempted to escape–unsuccessfully—several times. Eventually, though, he adapted to prison life. He read and studied law. He also penned an autobiography in which he wildly exaggerated and even fabricated incidents in his life.

Harden was released from Huntsville prison in February 1894. He was forty years old. Eventually pardoned, he passed the state bar examination and earned a license to practice law.

The Death of John Wesley Hardin

In El Paso, Texas, lawman John Selman, Jr. arrested an acquaintance of Hardin’s and the two men got into a verbal altercation. That night, Hardin was playing dice in the Acme Salon. Selman’s father, 58-year-old John Selman, Sr., entered the saloon, walked up behind Hardin, and shot him in the head, killing him instantly. As Hardin lay on the floor, Selman fired three more bullets into him. John Wesley Hardin was buried the next day.

John Henry Selman, Sr.
John Henry Selman, Sr.

Selman stood trial for murder. He claimed self defense and got a hung jury. Before his retrial, though, he himself was killed in an argument over a card game.

John Wesley Hardin's grave in Concordia Cemetery, El Paso, Texas.
John Wesley Hardin’s grave in Concordia Cemetery, El Paso, Texas.

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