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Gambler, gunslinger, folk hero to some, cold-blooded murderer to others, John Wesley Hardin or Wes Hardin as he was known, was one of America’s first celebrity outlaws. During the late 1860s and early 1870s the teenage Texan waged a one-man war of revenge for the South, relishing opportunities to unleash his 45 Colts at any hint of enmity, while simultaneously herding cattle, running racehorses, managing saloons, winning big at monte, seven up and practically any game of chance he could get in on. His eventual capture and trial was big news. The handsome young Hardin was paraded across the nation in an open wagon by law enforcement like the trophy he was, gaining him legions of admirers.Hardin’s raw autobiography is a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a Reconstruction-era psychopath and offers a unique look at the fast-moving times from his singular perspective, which includes tense encounters with Wild Bill Hickok, colorful scenes in the Wild West boom town of Abilene and many close scrapes with Native Americans, Mexicans and, of course, the Texas Rangers and State Police.
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The Life of John Wesley Hardin
John Wesley Hardin
Published by American History Classics, 2017.
The Life of John Wesley Hardin by John Wesley Hardin. First published in 1896. This edition published 2017 by American History Classics.
Cover, interior design and editing © Copyright 2017 American History Classics. All rights reserved.
FIRST E-BOOK EDITION 2017.
The Life of John Wesley Hardin
The Death of Hardin
The Killing of Selman
Further Reading: Civil War Four Pack
I was born in Bonham, Fannin county, Texas, on the 26th of May, 1853. My father, J. G. Hardin, was a Methodist preacher and circuit rider. My mother, Elizabeth Hardin, was a blonde, highly cultured and charity predominated in her disposition. She made my father a model wife and helpmate. My father continued to travel his circuit as a preacher until 1869, when he moved and located near Moscow, in Polk county, on account of bad health. In the same year he moved again, this time to Sumpter, in Trinity county, where he taught school. He organized and established an academy, to which institution he sent my elder brother, Joe C. Hardin, and myself. In the meantime my father was studying law, and in 1861 was admitted to the bar. The war between the States had broken out at this time and while my father had voted against secession, yet, when his State seceded, he went with his State and immediately organized a company to fight and, if need be, to die for Southern rights. He was elected captain of this company, but resigned at the solicitation of the best citizens, Capt. Ballinger being elected to the command. So my father stayed at home because, as said the foremost men of the community, “You can be of more good use at home than off fighting Yankees.”
Although I was but 9 years old at this time I had already conceived the idea of running off and going with a cousin to fight Yankees. But my father got on to the little game and put an end to it all by giving me a sound thrashing. Still the principles of the Southern cause loomed up in my mind ever bigger, brighter and stronger as the months and years rolled on. I had seen Abraham Lincoln burned and shot to pieces in effigy so often that I looked upon him as a very demon incarnate, who was waging a relentless and cruel war on the South to rob her of her most sacred rights. So you can see that the justice of the Southern cause was taught to me in my youth and if I never relinquished these teachings in after years, surely I was but true to my early training. The way you bend a twig, that is the way it will grow, is an old saying, and a true one. So I grew up a rebel.
In 1862 my father moved to Livingston, in Polk county, where he taught school and practiced law. In 1865 we again moved back to Sumpter; my father still teaching and practicing law, my brother and I being regular scholars. Our parents had taught us from our infancy to be honest, truthful and brave, and we were taught that no brave boy would let another call him a liar with impunity. Consequently we had lots of battles with other boys at school. I was naturally active and strong and always came out best, though sometimes with a bleeding nose, scratched face or a black eye; but true to my early training, I would try, try, try again.
We continued in Sumpter at school for some time, and of course I received the biggest part of my education there. I always tried to excel in my studies, and generally stood at the head. Being playful by nature, I was generally first on the playground at recess and noon. Marbles, rolly hole, cat, bull pen and town ball were our principle games and I was considered by my schoolmates an expert. I knew how to knock the middle man, throw a hot ball and ply the bat. Of course we had examinations and school exhibitions, which were creditable to all concerned, but in 1867 an incident occurred which I think proper to relate. We were preparing for an examination when one of my schoolmates and myself had an almost fatal fight. His name was Charles Sloter, and as he wanted to be the boss among the boys, of course I stood in his way. In order to ‘down’ me he publicly accused me of writing some doggerel on the wall about one Sal, a girl scholar. It commenced, “I love Sal, and Sal loves mutton” and ended in some reflections upon Sal's personal attractions. I knew that he was the author of the poetry, and when he accused me of writing it I at once denied it and proved it up on him. He came over to my seat in the school room, struck me and drew his knife. I stabbed him twice almost fatally in the breast and back. A howl at once went up to expel me from the school, some even wanting to hang me. The trustees, however, heard the true facts in the case and instead of expelling me, completely exonerated me and the courts acquitted me.
I may mention here that poor Charley was long afterwards hung by a mob in an adjoining county.
Now, as I am about to leave the story of my boyish days and enter upon the description of a course of life which, when once entered on, few live to reach their majority, I deem it proper to say a few words more about the way my early days were spent before going on further with the history of my life. I was always a child of nature and her ways and moods were my study. My greatest pleasure was to be out in the open fields, the forests, and the swamps. To get out among the big pines and oaks with my gun and the dogs and kill deer, coons, possums or wild cats. If any of those Sumpter boys with whom I used to hunt ever see this history of my life, I ask them to say whether or not our sport in those old days was not splendid. John Norton, Bill Gordon, Shiles and Hiram Frazier and Sol Adams, all of Sumpter, can all bear witness to the good times we had then.
We were still living in Polk county when my father took up the idea that he would improve his headright, situated about three miles northwest of Livingstone, bordering on Lang King creek. Capt. T. L. Eperson of Livingstone conceived the same idea about his headright at the same time as my father, and I believe he made a success of his venture in farming. Not so, my father. He soon became disgusted with country life and actually gave his headright farm and improvements on it to his brother, Barnett Hardin and wife, whose name was Anne. I do not know the reason of this generosity, but believe it was in order that neither he, his wife or his children should ever be bothered with the plague of ticks that infested the place. Of all places I have ever been I believe that to have been the most accursedly "ticky."
I believe now my father to have been a most wise man in giving that place away. When we were improving it we had six or eight colored men clearing up, rail splitting, building houses, etc. It is needless to say that brother Joe and myself spent most of our time out there with the negroes, dogs, and, of course, the ticks. What a big time we had hunting and fishing with them! (The ticks, as well as the negroes and dogs, for the ticks went wherever we did.) I remember a hunt I got into by my lone self which is worth narrating before I leave my early days. We had a horse named Jack, which had strayed away and we finally heard of him at old Mr. Bob Sikes, about three miles and a half west of our place. I was told to go and get Jack, so next morning, after locating his whereabouts, I called my dogs, got my bridle and a rope and started out afoot after "Jack." I got to old Bob Sikes' place, found "Jack" there and of course the old man would have me stay to dinner. I eat heartily as the meal was gotten up in good country style. It was late when I started back to the Hardin camp with "Jack" and my dogs. It was drizzling rain and the skies looked black. We had about three and a half miles of dense wood to go through, and report had it that wild animals abounded there.
However, I had great confidence in Jack and my dogs and nothing but a ghost could scare me unless it was lightning. I started the dogs out and presently I heard old Watch bark and later on I heard the others all baying as if they had sure enough found something. I took the course and after going a mile, found Watch at the foot of a big white oak tree, looking up and gnawing at the base, while the other dogs were about twenty yards off looking up into the branches of the big oak. I looked up and finally made out four big coons up at the very top of the tree. Now I wanted those coons to take to camp as a trophy of my trip. I knew that Joe would laud me to the skies if I succeeded in getting them, and it meant a big stew for all hands that night. There were no limbs for me to reach, so I decided to ride "Jack" up close to the trunk, stand up on his back and throw the rope over the lowest limb. I did this, trusting to Jack to stand still and not run off. The next two limbs were away above me but with the use of the rope I got to the limb where the coons were. The coons, however, concluding the situation was getting decidedly hot, decided to charge me. They began to form in line, one behind the other, to growl and show fight. Meanwhile I had tied myself securely to the tree and had broken off a bough to defend myself with. Here came the coons and attacked me at once.
I struck right and left with my weapon, but it broke in pieces the first lick, so I had nothing left but my fists. I fought hard and long, and one by one I knocked those coons out of that tree top fifty feet high, and they no sooner hit the ground than the dogs made short work of them. I then untied myself from the tree and with the use of the rope I reached the ground a wiser, if not a braver boy. I was covered with blood from head to foot; my hands, face and breast were torn and lacerated, being badly bitten and scratched. I had to leave my rope up on the first limb, so when I dropped to the ground I piled the coons up and tied them together with my galluses. I then sat down and made a rope out of my breeches to lead the faithful ‘Jack.’ I was in a nice fix now; three miles from home, raining, a loose horse, four coons and three dogs, going through a swamp in my shirt tail and night coming on. To make matters worse, Jack rebelled against packing these coons. Of all the pitching, jumping and kicking you ever saw, Jack did it then. After considerable begging and coaxing I finally induced Jack to let me and the coons ride.
We all struck out for camp and got there after dark. On our arrival we had a regular jollification. They told me that they wondered why I was not lying a dead boy in that swamp after such an experience. I told them that it was pluck that both saved me and captured the coons. Here I wish to tell my readers that if there is any power to save a man, woman or child from harm, outside the power of the Living God, it is this thing called pluck. I never was afraid of anything except ghosts, and I have lived that down now and they have no terrors for me. Constant association with negroes in my young days had made me superstitious in this respect, and I was well versed in old folk lore about ghosts, spirits, dead men's shadows, grave yards, etc., and many a time then did I honestly believe I had seen them.
The first man I ever saw killed I will now tell you about. His name was Turner Evans and he was killed by old John Ruff in the town of Sumpter, Trinity county, Texas, in the year 1861. My father had just organized his company of soldiers to go to the seat of war at Richmond. I remember the day well. Ruff was a poor man and owed Turner Evans. Evans was overbearing and besides running an attachment on Ruff's property, annoyed him greatly in every way. Late in the evening Evans began to drink, and being rich and influential, had a crowd of hangers on around him. Fired by whisky he began late in the evening to go around town from store to store inquiring for Ruff, declaring that he would cane him wherever he found him. At last he found him in a small grocery store and at once commenced to curse and abuse him.
Ruff said: "Turner, you have ruined me financially and now come with your crowd to attack me personally. Go off."
Evans said: "I will, after I have caned you," and so saying he struck him over the head with his cane.
Ruff pulled a large Bowie knife and started for Evans. Evans' friends hit Ruff with chairs and tried to stop him, while Evans himself used his stick freely. Ruff, however, was by this time a determined and angry man, and cut at everybody that tried to stop him. He finally cut Evans down, and the sheriff appearing on the scene. Ruff was at once arrested. Evans' friends carried him off, but his wounds were fatal, the jugular vein being completely severed, he soon died and left a large family. Ruff, after lying in jail for several years, came clear. Reader, you see what drink and passion will do. If you wish to be successful in life, be temperate and control your passions; if you don't, ruin and death is the inevitable result.
In the fall of 1868, I went down to my uncle's (Barnett Hardin) in Polk county, about four miles north of Livingstone. I was in the habit of making these trips, though I was then but 15 years old. This time they were making sugar and I took the trip to see them, carrying my pistol of course. I met a negro named Mage close to Moscow who had belonged to Judge Holshousen, a brother to my Uncle Barnett Hardin's wife. I had a cousin named Barnett Jones who matched himself and me against this Moscow negro in a wrestling bout. The negro was a large, powerful man, and we were but two boys. Nevertheless we threw him down the first fall. He was not satisfied, so we threw him again, and this time scratched his face a little and made it bleed. Negro like, he got mad and said he could whip me and would do it. Barnett and others standing around stopped us from fighting. This seemed to make Mage all the more angry. He said he would kill me, and went after his gun. I went up to the house to get mine, too, but Uncle Barnett got on to the game and made me stay in the house, while that negro went around cursing and abusing me, saying "that he would kill me or die himself; that no white boy could draw his blood and live; that a bird never flew too high not to come to the ground."
Uncle Barnett then took a hand and ordered Mage off the plantation. The next morning I had to start home and go about seven or eight miles out of the way to deliver a message from my father to old Capt. Sam Rowes. About six miles from Capt. Rowes' place and eight from Judge Holshousen's, I overtook the negro Mage. He was walking and had a stout stick in his hand. A small creek ran to the east of the road, which made a sharp bend of about 100 yards, and from bend to bend ran a path. Just as I overtook Mage he took the path while I stayed in the main road. He had gone about fifteen steps before he turned and saw me. He recognized me at once and began to curse and abuse me, saying that I was a coward for not shooting it out last night. I told him that I was but playing with him when I scratched him and did not intend to hurt him. He answered by saying that if he could but get hold of me he would kill me and throw me in the creek; that he believed he could outrun old Paint (the horse I was riding, and a very poor one), and catch me anyway. I told him to go his way and let me go mine, and whipped old Paint into a trot. Mage, seeing this, ran along the path to where it again met the main road and cut me off. He cursed me again and threatened me with death.
I stopped in the road and he came at me with his big stick.
He struck me, and as he did it I pulled out a Colt's 44 six-shooter and told him to get back. By this time he had my horse by the bridle, but I shot him loose. He kept coming back and every time he would start I would shoot again and again until I shot him down. I went to Uncle Clabe Houlshousen and brought him and another man back to where Mage was lying. Mage still showed fight and called me a liar, if it had not been for uncle I would have shot him again. Uncle Houlshousen gave me a $20 gold piece and told me to go home and tell father all about the big fight; that Mage was bound to die, and for me to look out for the Yankee soldiers who were all over the country at that time.
Texas, like other States, was then overrun with carpet-baggers and bureau agents who had the United States army to back them up in their meanness. Mage shortly died in November, 1868. This was the first man I ever killed and it nearly distracted my father and mother when I told them. All the courts were then conducted by bureau agents and renegades, who were the inveterate enemies of the South and administered a code of justice to suit every case that came before them and which invariably ended in gross injustice to Southern people, especially to those who still openly held on to the principles of the South. To be tried at that time for the killing of a negro meant certain death at the hands of a court, backed by Northern bayonets; hence my father told me to keep in hiding until that good time when the Yankee bayonet should cease to govern. Thus, unwillingly I became a fugitive, not from justice be it known, but from the injustice and misrule of the people who had subjugated the South. I had an elder brother teaching school on Logallis Prairie, about twenty-five miles north of Sumpter, so I went up there intending in a few weeks to go to Navarro county where I had relatives.
So I stayed at old man Morgan's in an out of the way place and spent my time hunting wild cattle and game. In a little while the United States soldiers heard of my whereabouts and came after me. My brother, however, had heard of their coming and had told me. I soon was after them instead of they after me. We met in the bed of a deep creek and after a sharp fight two white soldiers lay dead, while a negro soldier was flying for his life. I ran up on him and demanded his surrender in the name of the Southern Confederacy. He answered me with a shot, when I brought him to the ground with a bullet from my Colt's 44. All this was kept very secret, and these soldiers were buried in the bed of the creek about 100 yards below where the fight took place. I knew they would cross the creek where they did so. I waylaid them, as I had no mercy on men whom I knew only wanted to get my body to torture, and kill. It was war to the knife with me and I brought it on by opening the fight with a double-barreled shotgun and ending it with a cap and ball six-shooter. Thus it was that by the fall of 1868 I had killed four men and was myself wounded in the arm. Parties in the neighborhood of the last fight took the soldiers' horses, and as we burned all their effects, everything was kept quiet.
In January, 1869, I went with my father to Navarro county and engaged in school teaching near Pisga. I had about twenty-five scholars, both girls and boys, from the age of 6 to 16 years. I taught school for three months at the old Word school house and when the term was out the school was offered to me again. I had, however, conceived the idea of becoming a cowboy, and as my cousins were in the business. I began to drive cattle to shipping points. Of course in this kind of a life I soon learned how to play poker, seven-up, and euchre, and it was but a short time until I would banter the best for a game. I liked fast horses and soon would bet on any kind of a horse race, a chicken fight, a dog fight, or anything down to throwing ‘crack-a-loo,’ or spitting at a mark.
In those times if there was anything that could rouse my passion it was seeing impudent negroes lately freed insult or abuse old, wounded Confederates who were decrepit, weak or old. There were lots of those kind in the country in the sixties, and these negroes bullied both them and even the weaker sex whenever they had the advantage. Frequently I involved myself in almost inextricable difficulties in this way. Once I learned that in one of the eastern counties there was a most insulting and bulldozing negro bully who made it a point to insult these decrepit old men, and who paid no respect to white ladies.
In short, he was a terror to the community. I thought over this until I determined to see what could be done to stop him and his wickedness. I went to that neighborhood and found out when he was in the habit of going to town. I dressed myself as an old man and met him in the road. Of course when we met I would not give him the road and he at once commenced his tirade of abuse. I told him that I was old and feeble and lived in a distant country, but that I was a Southerner and did not want a big burley negro to treat me the way he was doing. This enraged him. He stopped his steers, jumped down off his wagon and commenced to pop his whip at me, calling me vile names and low down white trash. He popped me at last and I could not stand it any longer. I pulled off my mask, drew my six-shooter and told him to say his prayers. I told him I was going to kill him for his cruelty to white folks, but did not want to send him before his Maker without a chance to repent. He certainly prayed a prayer. "Jesus have mercy on dis bad nigger, and have mercy on all de poor white men and keep dis young white man from killing dis bad nigger." About this time my pistol went off and his prayer abruptly ended. The ball did not strike the negro, but it had the desired effect, for it reformed him completely. That negro afterwards became one of the best citizens of that county; became civil and polite and was never known to insult a white person, male or female, after that.
While living near Pisga, in Navarro county, I had made the acquaintance of nearly everybody there at that time. I knew the notorious desperado Frank Polk, who was finally killed at Wortham in Limestone county while resisting arrest after having killed the mayor of that town.
I knew the Newmans, the Tramels, the Rushings; the Andersons and Dixons were cousins of mine. I may mention here that I met Jim Newman quite lately and in talking over old times near Pisga in 1869, he asked me if I remembered how some fellow jumped when I shot at him. I told him, "Yes, I remember it." "Well," said Jim Newman, "I bet you at that time that you could not shoot his eye out, and we had a bottle of whisky on it; come in, now; it is my treat." I suppose I won the bet but did not recollect it after so many years. This same Jim Newman is now sheriff of Nolan county; his post office is Sweetwater.
Frank Polk had killed a man named Tom Brady and a detachment of Yankees came out from Corsicana to capture Polk and myself. They, as usual, failed on me, but got Frank. They carried him to Corsicana, where, after a long confinement, he finally came clear. At that time I had a cousin named Sip Dixon, who belonged to the "Ku Kluck Klan" and was sworn, to kill Yankee soldiers as long as he lived. He had been raised in Northern Texas, but was forced to fly from there. His mother, brother and sister were tortured and killed by the United States soldiers because of their loyalty to the Southern cause. Simp, therefore, had good cause for hating the Yankees. There was a big reward for Simp and so, of course, I sympathized with him in every way and was generally with him. On one occasion in the Richland bottom a squad of soldiers ran up on us and a pitched battle immediately ensued. It was a free and fast fight. When the battle was over two soldiers lay dead. Simp killed one and I killed the other, while the rest escaped. Simp was afterwards killed by a squad of United States soldiers at Cotton Gin, in Limestone county. He was undoubtedly one of the most dangerous men in Texas. He was born in Fannin county in 1850 and was about 19 years old at the time of his death.
Late in the fall of 1869 my brother, Joe Hardin, came to see me and persuaded me to leave Navarro county, which I consented to do, and we went into Hill county, stopping a short time at Hillsboro with Aunt Anne Hardin and family and then going out some seven or eight miles into the county to Uncle Barnett Hardin's. We then went down the Brazos to some relatives of ours named Page, where I speculated in cotton and hides. I played poker and seven-up whenever I got a chance and once in a while would bet on a pony race. These races generally came off on the old Boles tracks near Towash. A man named John Collins had married a cousin of mine and I went into partnership with him. Things ran smoothly for some time and we were doing well until a tragedy occurred that forever dissolved our partnership.
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