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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The Texas Tower Sniper

In previous blogs, I discussed the San Ysidro McDonald’s massacre and the Killeen Luby’s massacre.  The murders by the Texas Tower Sniper predates both these. Like them, was the deadliest mass shooting at the time but it was also America’s first random mass shooting in a public place.

The Shootings

Charles Whitman was an engineering student and former Marine. On Monday, August 1, 1966, he took weapons, ammunition, and food to the main building of the University of Texas at Austin. He used a dolly to haul a footlocker and a duffel back filled with weapons, ammunition, and food to the observation level at the top of the building’s clock tower. After killing the receptionist and two tourists (and injuring two others), Whitman positioned himself on the observation deck. At 11:48 a.m., he opened fire on people walking around the campus and a section of nearby Guadalupe Street.

The University of Texas at Austin Tower, Austin, Texas.
The University of Texas at Austin Tower, Austin, Texas (© 1980 Larry D. Moore. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0)

For the next 93 minutes, rifle fire from the 231-foot high observation deck wreaked devastation on people below. Some people decided the gunshots were the sounds of a nail gun from a nearby construction site. Others thought the shots and falling people were part of bizarre anti-war protest (it was 1960s). Still others thought it was a theater group or psychology experiment. Soon, however, they realized what was happening and took cover as best they could.

The Police Respond

Four minutes after the first shot, a history professor placed the first call to police. Officer Billy Speed was one of the first to arrive. Despite taking cover behind a decorative concrete baluster, Whitman managed to shoot him; he died in the hospital.

Approaching the tower was difficult and dangerous. Officer Houston McCoy, along with a small group of police began to work their way toward the tower through underground maintenance tunnels. Meanwhile, both police and civilians began shooting back at the tower. Also, a police sniper approached in a small airplane, but Whitman’s rifle fire drove the plane back. It remained in the area, though, circling at a discrete distance. The airplane, coupled with the return fire from below, did not stop the shooting. But they did limit the Whitman’s ability to select targets freely.

As the shooting continued, officers Ramiro Martinez, McCoy, and Jerry Day, along with civilian Allen Crum, made their way to the 27th floor of the tower. The four then climbed the switchback stairs to the observation level. Martinez and McCoy rounded a corner and confronted the sniper. Martinez fired his service revolver at Whitman but missed. McCoy next hit Whitman with two shotgun blasts of .00 buckshot. Martinez then flung his empty pistol to the ground, grabbed McCoy’s shotgun, and shot Whitman once more at point-blank range. Fifteen people were dead, including the Texas Tower sniper himself.

The Sniper

Charles Joseph Whitman was an Eagle Scout and former Marine, married, and studying architectural engineering at the University of Texas.  He held several different jobs to support himself and his wife (she also worked).  Although outwardly appearing normal, he grappled with violent impulses and consulted several doctors, including a psychiatrist.  He documented his feelings and struggles in a journal he began keeping during his stint in the Marine Corps.  He even told friends that on two occasions he hit his wife, an act that left him disgusted with himself.

Charles Joseph Whitman, the Texas Tower Sniper.
Charles Joseph Whitman (Public Domain)

Investigators soon discovered that the night before he ascended the tower, Whitman had murdered his mother and his wife. He had stabbed them both through the heart as they slept.

An autopsy performed after Whitman’s death revealed he had a pecan-sized brain tumor. Neither the pathologist who performed the autopsy nor a commission formed by Texas governor John Connally were able to find concrete evidence that the tumor caused Whitman to commit the killings.

Charles Whitman
Charles Whitman


The University of Texas closed the tower observation deck after the shootings. It reopened two years later with the bullet damage repaired. But it closed again in 1975 after four suicides and remained closed for more than two decades. After installing several security measures, the University reopened the observation deck again in 1999 but only for guided tours by appointment.

South door to the observation deck of the University of Texas Tower
South door to the observation deck of the University of Texas Tower

In 2006, the City of Austin dedicated a memorial garden dedicated to the dead and otherwise affected victims. In 2016, on the fiftieth anniversary of the shootings, a memorial stone was added, and the tower clock was stopped for 24 hours.

Memorial to those killed by the Texas Tower sniper in Austin, Texas on August 1, 1966.
Memorial to those killed at the University of Texas Tower shooting in Austin, Texas on August 1, 1966. (© 2019 Larry D. Moore. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0)

Journalist William Helmer was a graduate student and an eyewitness and wrote about the Texas Tower sniper for Texas Monthly in 1986, twenty years after the event.

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