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John Wesley Hardin was the only Wild West outlaw to write his autobiography. This new 2018 edition of his prison-penned memoirs includes an introduction and footnotes by author and translator Damian Stevenson (‘On the Shortness of Life’) which help shed light on this most enigmatic of Old West legends.
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The Life of John Wesley Hardin
John Wesley Hardin
Published by Enhanced Media, 2018.
The Life of John Wesley Hardin by John Wesley Hardin. First published in 1896.
2018 annotated edition with introduction by Damian Stevenson published by Enhanced Media. All rights reserved.
Introduction and annotations © Damian Stevenson, 2018.
First e-book edition 2018.
The Life of John Wesley Hardin
The Death of Hardin
Further Reading: Life Among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims
IT WAS CLOSE TO MIDNIGHT in El Paso, Texas on August 19, 1895. The tinny sound of an untuned piano and loud conversation echoed forth from the Acme Saloon. As if in sympathy for its sweltering carousers, a cool breeze rustled across the dusty town and whispered its way through the louvered swing-doors.
A solitary man was sitting at the bar nursing a drink, thumbing over images of President Cleveland, headlines about the Venezuelan Crisis and ads for farming equipment, cure-alls and the local theatre. He shut the gazette and flicked his empty eyes about the place.
He was in his early forties but looked much older. The glare of electricity hurt his eyes. He still wasn’t used to it.
Maybe it was the heat. Or maybe the man was lost in thought, pondering over the extraordinary turns his life had taken. There was a mirror behind the counter, so he should have seen the gun-man approaching. Perhaps those pesky incandescent bulbs blinded him. Whatever the reason, by the time the once deadliest marksman in the Lone Star State had turned to see why the piano had stopped playing and everything had gone quiet, it was too late.
His hand went limp as it pawed feebly for a Colt Lightning pistol tucked in his waistband. He slumped to the ground. The bullet had struck him in the head. As he lay in the sawdust, three more slugs were blasted into him for good measure.
John Wesley Hardin was dead.
NAMED FOR THE FOUNDER of the Methodist Faith (Englishman John Wesley, 1703-91), John Wesley ‘Wes’ Hardin was the son of preacher James ‘Gip’ Hardin and his wife, Mary Elizabeth Dixson. He was born in northeastern Texas’s Fannin County, in Bonham, one of the oldest cities in the state, named for a hero of the Alamo, and his ancestry traced back to a celebrated Revolutionary War hero, Col. Joseph Hardin from Carolina.
Wes Hardin’s upbringing was as serious as one might expect the son of a preacher’s to be. He had a studious older brother, Joseph, who later founded a school. The family was comfortably middle-class. Wes made efforts at earning an honest living, now and then. He taught at his brother’s school, and a cousin hired him to herd cattle along the Chisholm Trail, for $150 a month.
It was not a desire for lucre that drove Hardin’s criminality. Unique among the pantheon of Wild West legends, James Wesley Hardin was neither a thief nor a lawman.
He was a serial killer. A racist Reconstruction-era psychopath.
RECONSTRUCTION WAS a chaotic, violent time in Texas, a state which had been on the losing side of the War. Ku Klux Klan roamed the hills and everywhere anti-Reconstruction sentiment was rife. There was institutional prejudice in the courts, where tenured white justices could steer juries to biased outcomes. Political upheaval, which saw the elevation of African Americans to positions of authority, fueled the racist anger and resentment of the white populace. Hardin writes about Governor E. J. Davis’s dubious ‘coalition’ government and his bi-racial state police, ‘composed of carpet-baggers, scalawags from the North, with ignorant negroes frequently on the force.’
Cultural bias explains Hardin’s exonerations for the early slaughter of local ‘boogeymen’ – Unionists, ex-slaves and other minority groups. (It didn’t hurt that one of his ‘Uncles,’ the brother-in-law of a blood Uncle, was a judge eager to intervene on his behalf.)
In many ways, Hardin embodied the endemic white hatred from which he sprang. Because he killed ‘undesirables’ and got away with it, he was a folk-hero. In white’s eyes, Wes was a courageous vigilante, a (successful) one-man militia-machine still fighting the North.
But this ‘legitimized,’ unrestrained rage, combined with a penchant for saloon life, would cost the preacher’s son his freedom.
THE ANGER WAS EASILY triggered, whether by losses at the track or gaming tables or the mere sight of an ex-slave, especially an armed one. A homicidal impulse first revealed itself in Hardin’s mid-teens when he pulled a knife during a dispute with a classmate and plunged it through the boy’s chest, severely wounding him.
Where did the murderous wrath come from?
According to some accounts, Hardin may have been traumatized as a child during the War, when renegade Union soldiers attacked his maternal uncle’s brother’s family. The uncle’s wife and daughter were raped, murdered and their house burned down. It is unclear whether little Wes witnessed this brutal act or just knew of it. His psychotic explosive anger disorder could thus be partly attributable to post-traumatic stress.
But he surely wasn’t the only traumatized child to grow up to wear a six-shooter. No, it wasn’t his psychosis, nor was it his circumstances that made Wes different from every other angry gunslinger in the West. What set him apart was extraordinary marksmanship.
He had lightning-fast accuracy with a Colt .44, a percussion cap-fired instrument. This was years before the Colt Organization produced their revolutionary ‘Peacemaker’ .45 with its metal cartridges. The typical cowboy was not as proficient with firearms as popular culture would have us believe. Few distinguished themselves under pressure. Those who lived long enough to become legends were blessed with uncanny skills. They could shoot someone between the eyes from the back of a galloping horse. Riding skills were just as critical as accuracy. Hardin had a reputation for being an excellent horseman as well as a crack-shot.
His autobiography doesn’t tell us how he developed pinpoint accuracy but does reference long walks in the woods as a boy, stalking birds and coons with a Winchester. Hardin says he began carrying a pistol when he was eight.
IN HIS RUSTLING DAYS along the Chisholm Trail, Hardin claims to have killed eight men, all in self-defense, a mix of Mexican vaqueros, cattle-thieves and Indians. He was never charged with any of these alleged crimes.
The Chisolm Trail led to Abilene, Kansas, a hedonist’s paradise. In Hardin’s words:
“I have seen many fast towns, but I think Abilene beat them all. The town was filled with sporting men and women, gamblers, cowboys, desperadoes and the like. It was well supplied with bar-rooms, hotels, barber shops and gambling houses, and everything was open.”
- John Wesley Hardin, The Life of John Wesley Hardin.
IN ABILENE STEERS FROM Texas were fattened, slaughtered and shipped east in ice on the Kansas Pacific Rail. Hardin arrived in town at the end of his cattle-drive to find a new marshal had just been installed, fellow fast-draw Bill Heycox, known to history as James Butler ‘Wild Bill’ Hickock.
Hardin was accused of disturbing the peace after shooting up a saloon during a gambling binge. Summoned, Marshal Hickock confronted the young hot-head and was able to talk him (and a hostile crowd) down with some kind words, calling Wes ‘Little Arkansas’ and persuading him to go for a drink to get acquainted - and cool off.
BETWEEN MURDER CHARGES, Wes relied on a broad network of family, friends and supportive strangers to evade capture. This grid helped hide and feed him in the early days when he was the local folk-hero. The trouble for Wes began when he turned his .44 away from ex-slaves and Reconstructionists, and started blasting law officers. Murdering police – white police - meant there would be no racist judge (or jury) to protect him.
Hardin brought a lot of unwanted attention after his high-profile ‘execution,’ as he saw it, of Jack Helm, leader of the pro-Reconstruction Sutton faction of the longstanding Sutton-Taylor feud, which Hardin had joined (with the Taylors). When Helm made an aggressive move towards Jim Taylor, Hardin intervened and shot dead the man who had been a huge nuisance to Hardin and his racist friends for years. In his book, Hardin claims that he received many letters in prison from grateful widows of Helm’s victims.
His slaying of deputy sheriff Charles Webb in the town of Comanche on May 26, 1874, ironically in self-defense, was the last straw for the Texas legislature. Hardin’s capture was now the priority of a law enforcement body which nobody could evade: the Texas Rangers.
The storied state police unit was a roaming paramilitary group who did Pinkerton-style detective work and had famously foiled many high-profile plots. Their plan to catch Hardin was simple and effective: imprison or kill everyone in his network until the outlaw had nowhere left to turn.
A growing mob of anti-Hardin supporters joined the posse and hurried things along. The Rangers arrested Hardin’s brother Joe and his two cousins, Bud and Tom Dixson in July 1874. Then the mob broke into the jail and hanged all three of them.
On January 20, 1875, Governor Hubbard announced a bounty of $4,000 for the apprehension of John Wesley Hardin.
The brutal determination of the Rangers forced Wes out of Gonzales County, the state and beyond, sending him on the lam far beyond his comfort zone, all the way to Florida.
Eventually, a letter home from Hardin was intercepted by the Rangers who gleaned his whereabouts. Wes was apprehended on a train in Pensacola, Florida by Ranger John B. Armstrong, on August 24, 1877.
Perhaps the only mis-step the Marshals made was parading Hardin in an open carriage as they hauled him home. Already well-known, the charismatic outlaw was met by cheering crowds at every whistle-stop. Men lunged to shake his hand and women threw themselves at him.
The legend was born.
HARDIN WAS TRIED FOR the murder of Charles Webb and sentenced to Huntsville Prison for 25 years on June 5, 1878.
Founded in 1849, the Texas State penitentiary at Huntsville is the oldest Lone Star state prison still in operation today. During the Civil War, captured Union POW’s made items for Confederate forces at the prison factory.
Hardin’s early escape efforts may have been inspired by the earlier successful escape by prolific horse-thief James M. Riley, also known as ‘Doc’ Middleton, in 1874.
But Wes had no such luck. After several failed plots, he was made to wear heavy iron restraints at all times. He says he found relief from the shackles over the years by replacing a cuff bolt with a wooden peg, allowing him to slip a leg free now and then.
FOLLOWING IMAGE: HUNTSVILLE’S yard in the 1870s. This shot of chain-gang prisoners clad in horizontal-stripes and laboring in shackles supports Hardin’s description of life inside Huntsville.
DURING HIS PRISON TERM, Hardin missed 1881’s Gunfight at the OK Corral, the rise and fall of ‘Billy the Kid,’ the debut of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show and pretty much everything else that was happening in the rapidly vanishing Old West of which he was once so prominent a part.
Wes eventually gave up the fight for freedom and adapted to prison life. Using it as an opportunity to better himself, he hit the books; first theology, then the law. He really liked the law.
On February 17, 1894, Hardin was pardoned and released after serving sixteen years of his sentence. A few months later, he passed the Texas state bar exam and officially made the transition from outlaw to lawyer. John Hardin, attorney, was determined to remain on the right side of the law.
Ironically, it was as a lawyer that Hardin was summoned from his home in Gonzales to El Paso, in 1895. He went there to meet a potential client.
WHO WAS JOHN SELMAN, the man who murdered Hardin in El Paso’s Acme Saloon that hot dusty night on August 19th, 1895? Eyewitness and official (police, coroner) accounts differ on who Selman was and his motivation (see Appendix, ‘The Death of Hardin’) but there is consensus that Selman was a lawman who wanted to kill Hardin to gain fame or revenge and that Hardin wasn’t given the chance to defend himself.
Selman was tried for murder. It was a hung jury and Selman didn’t live long enough to be re-tried, dying at the hands of a gunslinger himself, just a year after he blasted Hardin.
In a final irony, Hardin and his killer are linked together not only in the history books, but also forever in eternity: Hardin is buried at the Concordia Cemetery in El Paso, Texas, and Selman is interred just a few feet away.
♣The Life of John Wesley Hardin by John Wesley Hardin, 1896.
♦Encyclopedia of the American West, Robert M. Utley, Gen. Ed. (Wings Books, 1997).
♥Encyclopedia of the American West, Ed. Charles Phillips, Alan Axelrod (Simon and Schuster, 1996).
♠The New Encyclopedia of the American West, Ed. Howard R. Lamar (Yale University Press, revised edition, 1998).
♣Dictionary of the American West, Winfred Blevins (Facts on File, 1993).
♦Six Years With the Texas Rangers: 1875-1881 by James B. Gillett, 1921.
♥A Texas Ranger by N. A. (Napoleon Augustus) Jennings, 1899.
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.
♣A circuit rider was a Methodist preacher in a rural community who attended to members of his church on horseback, conducting ad hoc prayer meetings and sermons.
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.”
♠Confederate statesman, Texan William Pitt Ballinger (1825-1888).
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.
♥‘Rolly hole’ was a popular team twist on marbles. The object was to roll marbles into a series of holes in the ground (freshly scooped out with a coin) while knocking rival balls out of the way.
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.♦
♦Hardin was indeed acquitted but there is no record of how Charles Sloter died.
THE FIRST MAN I EVER saw killed 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 clean. 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.
♣Texan Judge Joseph ‘Joe’ Holshousen, Sr. (1849-1915).
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 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.
♠ Colt was still five years away from producing the revolutionary .45, the ‘Gun that won the West,’ with its innovative metal cartridges.
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.
♦Pisga or ‘Pisgah,’ a small community founded in the 1840s, now a ghost-town.
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.♣
♣‘Seven-Up’ was a popular card game based on the English game High-Low-Jack. ‘Euchre’ was another rival to poker and is credited with introducing the joker to decks. ‘Crack-a-loo’ or ‘crack-loo’ is coin tossing. Whoever lands his coin closest to the crack in the ground wins both coins.
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.
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