John Wesley Hardin (May 26, 1853 – August 19, 1895) was an American outlaw, gunfighter, and controversial folk hero of the Old West.

Hardin found himself in trouble with the law at an early age, and spent the majority of his life being pursued by both local lawmen and federal troops of the Reconstruction era.

When he was finally captured and sent to prison in 1878, Hardin claimed to have already killed 42 men – but newspapers of the time had attributed only 27 killings to him, up to that point.

At the movies, Hardin featured as a minor character in the Mel Gibson comedy Western, “Maverick”.

Video is courtesy of YouTube:

Here’s what history has to tell us:

Hardin’s Early Life

Hardin was named after John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist denomination of the Christian church. He was the second surviving son of 10 children.

Hardin was a direct descendant of Revolutionary War hero, Col. Joseph Hardin, who was a legislator from North Carolina, the “lost” State of Franklin, and the Southwest Territory.

He was born in Bonham, Fannin County, Texas in 1853 to Methodist preacher and circuit rider, James “Gip” Hardin, and Mary Elizabeth Dixson.

Hardin’s father traveled over much of central Texas on his preaching circuit until, in 1859, he and his family settled in Sumpter, Trinity County, Texas. There, Gip Hardin taught, and established a learning institution that John Wesley and his siblings attended.

While attending his father’s school, Hardin was taunted by another student, Charles Sloter.

Sloter accused Hardin of being the author of graffiti on the schoolhouse wall that insulted a girl in his class. Hardin denied writing the poetry, claiming that Sloter was the author.

Sloter charged at Hardin with a knife but Hardin stabbed him, almost killing him. Hardin was nearly expelled over the incident.

His First Kill

At the age of 15, Hardin challenged his uncle Holshousen’s former slave, Mage, to a wrestling match which Hardin won.

According to Hardin, the following day, Mage hid by a path and attacked him as he rode past. Hardin drew his revolver and fired five shots into Mage.
Hardin claims he then rode to get help for the wounded ex-slave (who died three days later).

Because James Hardin did not believe his son would receive a fair hearing in the Union-occupied state of Texas (where more than a third of the state police were ex-slaves) he ordered his son into hiding.

Hardin claims that the authorities eventually discovered his location, and sent three Union soldiers to arrest him. Hardin said he chose to confront his pursuers – despite having been warned of their approach by older brother, Joseph.

In John Wesley Hardin’s own words:

“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 for me, and I brought it on by opening the fight with a double-barreled shotgun and ended it with a cap and ball six-shooter. Thus it was by the fall of 1868 I had killed four men and was myself wounded in the arm.”

Fugitive From Justice…

Hardin initially traveled with outlaw Frank Polk in the Pisgah, Navarro County, Texas area.

Polk had killed a man named Tom Brady. A detachment of soldiers sent from Corsicana, Texas pursued the duo.

Hardin escaped the troops, but Polk was captured.

At Pisgah, Hardin briefly taught at a local school.

…But Still Killing

On January 5, 1870, Hardin was playing cards with Benjamin Bradley in Towash, Hill County, Texas. Hardin was winning almost every hand, which angered Bradley.

Bradley threatened to “cut out his liver” if he won again. Bradley drew a knife and a six-shooter. Hardin (who was unarmed) excused himself and left.

Later that night, Bradley went looking for Hardin. Seeing him on Towash Street, Bradley allegedly fired a shot at Hardin, which missed. Hardin drew both his pistols and returned fire – one shot striking Bradley’s head, and the other his chest.

A month later, on February 20, 1870 in Horn Hill, Limestone County, Texas, Hardin reportedly killed a man in a gunfight after an argument at the circus.

Less than a week after this incident, in nearby Kosse, he was escorting a saloon girl home when they were accosted by a man demanding money. Hardin threw his money on the ground – then shot the would-be thief, when he bent to pick it up.

Arrest and Escape

Hardin was arrested in January 1871 for the murder of Waco, Texas City Marshal, Laban John Hoffman – which he denied having committed.

Unable to persuade a judge of his innocence, he was held temporarily in a log jail in the town of Marshall, awaiting transfer to Waco for trial.
While locked up, he bought a revolver from another prisoner.

Texas State Policemen, Captain Edward T. Stakes and officer Jim Smalley, were assigned to escort Hardin to Waco for trial. According to Hardin, they tied him on a horse with no saddle, for the trip.

While making camp along the way, Hardin escaped when Stakes went to get fodder for the horses.

According to Hardin, he was left alone with Smalley, who began to taunt and beat the then 17-year-old prisoner with the butt of a pistol. Hardin feigned crying and huddled against his pony’s flank. Hidden by the animal, he pulled out his gun, fatally shot Smalley and escaped on Stakes’ horse. He later forced a blacksmith to remove his shackles.

After this incident, he found refuge among his cousins, the Clements, who were then gathering at Gonzales, in south Texas. They suggested he could make money by getting into the cattle market, which was rapidly growing in Kansas – and which would allow him to get out of Texas long enough for his pursuers to lose interest. Hardin worked with his cousins, rustling cattle for Jake Johnson and Columbus Carol. Hardin was eventually made trail boss for the herd.

On July 4, 1871, a Texas trail Boss named William Cohron was killed on the Cottonwood Trail (40 miles south of Abilene) by an unnamed Mexican, who “fled south” and was subsequently killed by two cowboys in a Sumner City, Sumner County Kansas, restaurant on July 20, 1871. Hardin admitted to being involved in the shooting of the Mexican.

First Encounter with “Wild Bill” Hickok

The Bull’s Head Tavern, in Abilene, Kansas, had been established by gambler, Ben Thompson, along with businessman and gambler, Phil Coe. The two entrepreneurs had painted a picture of a bull with a large erect penis on the side of their establishment, as an advertisement. Citizens of the town complained to town marshal, “Wild Bill” Hickok.

When Thompson and Coe refused his request to remove the bull, Hickok altered it himself.

Infuriated, Thompson tried to incite a new acquaintance (John Wesley Hardin), by exclaiming to him: “He’s a damn Yankee. Picks on Rebels, especially Texans, to kill.”

Hardin, then under the assumed name, “Wesley Clemmons” (but better known to the townspeople by the alias, “Little Arkansas”), seemed to have had respect for Hickok.

Hardin / Clemmons replied, “If Wild Bill needs killin’, why don’t you kill him yourself?”

Later that night, Hardin was confronted by Hickok, who told him to hand over his guns – which he did.

Hickok had no knowledge of Hardin being a wanted man, and he advised Hardin to avoid problems while in Abilene.

Second Abilene Encounter with “Wild Bill”

Hardin again met up with Marshal Hickok, while on a cattle drive in August 1871.

This time, Hickok allowed Hardin to carry his pistols in Abilene – something he had never allowed others to do.

For his part, Hardin (still using his Clemmons alias), was fascinated by Wild Bill, and reveled at being seen on intimate terms with such a celebrated gunfighter.

The “Snoring” Man

Hardin and several of his fellow cow herders had put up for the night at the “American House Hotel”, in Abilene.

Sometime during the evening, Hardin, and at least one other cow hand, began firing bullets through the bedroom wall and ceiling, in an attempt to stop the snoring which was coming from the next room. A sleeping stranger, Charles Cougar, was killed.

Hardin realized he would be in trouble with Hickok for firing his gun within the city limits. Half-dressed, he and his men exited through a second story window and ran onto the roof of the hotel – just in time to see Hickok arriving with four policemen.

Hardin leaped from the roof into the street and hid in a haystack for the rest of the night.

He stole a horse and made his way back to the cow camp outside town.

The next day, he left for Texas, never to return to Abilene.

The Sutton-Taylor feud

In early 1872, Hardin was in south central Texas, in the area around Gonzales County. There, he reunited with some of his Clements cousins, who had become allied with the local Taylor family, which had been feuding with the rival Sutton family for several years.

Hardin was wounded by a shotgun blast in a Trinity, Texas gambling dispute on August 7, 1872. He was shot by Phil Sublett, after he had lost money to Hardin in a poker game. Two buckshot pellets injured Hardin’s kidney, and for a time it looked like he would die.

While recuperating from his wounds, Hardin decided he wanted to settle down. He made a sick-bed surrender to law authorities, handing over his guns to Sheriff Reagan of Cherokee County, Texas, and asking to be tried for his past crimes “to clear the slate.”

However, when Hardin learned of how many murders Reagan was going to charge him with, he changed his mind. A relative smuggled in a saw, and Hardin escaped after cutting through the bars of a prison window.

On May 15, 1873, Jim Cox and Jake Christman were killed by the Taylor faction at Tomlinson Creek. Hardin, having by then recovered from the injuries from Sublett’s attack, admitted that there were reports that he had led the fights in which these men were killed, but would neither confirm nor deny his involvement.

In Cuero, Texas in May 1873, Hardin killed Dewitt County Deputy Sheriff, J.B. Morgan, who served under County Sheriff, Jack Helms (a former captain in the Texas State Police). Both were Sutton family allies.

Hardin’s main claim to infamy in the Sutton-Taylor feud was his part in the assassination (on the afternoon of May 17, 1873, in Albuquerque, Texas) of Sheriff Helms.

The feud culminated with Jim and Bill Taylor gunning down Billy Sutton and Gabriel Slaughter as they waited on a steamboat platform, in Indianola, Texas on March 11, 1874, as the two were planning to leave the area for good. Hardin admitted in his biography that he and his brother Joseph had been involved along with both Taylors in Sutton’s killing.

Lynch Mob!

On May 26, 1874 in a Comanche saloon he met with his “gang” to celebrate his upcoming 21st birthday. Hardin spotted Brown County Deputy Sheriff, Charles Webb, entering the premises. Hardin asked Webb if he had come to arrest him. When Webb replied he had not, Hardin invited him into the hotel for a drink.

As he followed Hardin inside, Hardin claimed that Webb drew his gun, and one of Hardin’s men yelled a warning. However, it was reported at the time that Webb was shot as he was pulling out an arrest warrant for one of Hardin’s group. Either way, in the ensuing gunfight, Webb was shot dead. Two of Hardin’s accomplices in the shooting were a cousin, Bud Dixson, and Jim Taylor.

The death of the popular Webb resulted in the quick formation of a lynch mob.

Hardin’s parents and wife were taken into protective custody; and his brother Joe and two cousins, brothers Bud and Tom Dixson, were arrested on outstanding warrants.

A group of local men broke into the jail in July 1874 and hanged Joe, Bud and Tom. It is claimed that the hanging ropes were deliberately cut too long (in order to cause death through slow strangulation), as grass was found between the victims’ toes.

After this, Hardin and Jim Taylor parted ways for good.


On January 20, 1875 the Texas Legislature authorized Governor Richard B. Hubbard to offer a $4,000 reward for the apprehension of John Wesley Hardin.

The Texas Rangers finally caught up with Hardin when an undercover Ranger, Jack Duncan, intercepted a letter that was sent to Hardin’s father-in-law by his brother-in-law, the outlaw Joshua Robert “Brown” Bowen. The letter mentioned Hardin’s whereabouts as being on the Alabama / Florida border under the assumed name of “James W. Swain”.

On August 24, 1877, Hardin was arrested on a train in Pensacola, Florida, by the rangers and local authorities. When Hardin saw the lawmen boarding the train, he attempted to draw a gun, but got it caught in his suspenders. Hardin was knocked out, and two others arrested. During the event, Texas Ranger John B. Armstrong shot and killed one of Hardin’s companions, named Mann.

Trial and Incarceration

Hardin was tried for the killing of Deputy Charles Webb, and was sentenced to 25 years in Huntsville Prison.

Hardin made several attempts to escape, but he eventually adapted to prison life.

Using prison as an opportunity to better himself, he read theological books; became superintendent of the prison Sunday school; and studied law.

Hardin was plagued by recurring poor health in prison, especially when the wound he had received from Sublett became re-infected in 1883, causing Hardin to be bedridden for two years.

During Hardin’s stay in prison, his wife, Jane, died on November 6, 1892.

Life, and Law, After Prison

Hardin was released from prison on February 17, 1894, after serving seventeen years of his twenty-five year sentence.

He returned to Gonzales, Texas. Later that year, on March 16, Hardin was pardoned.

On July 21, he passed the Texas state’s bar examination, obtaining his license to practice law.

On January 9, 1895, Hardin married a 15-year-old girl named Callie Lewis.The marriage ended quickly, although it was never legally dissolved.

According to a newspaper article in 1900, shortly after being released from prison, Hardin committed negligent homicide when he made a $5 bet that he could “at the first shot” knock a Mexican man off the soap box on which he was “sunning” himself – winning the bet and leaving the man dead from the fall and not the gunshot!

Afterward, Hardin moved to El Paso.

The Death of John Wesley Hardin

An El Paso lawman, John Selman Jr., arrested Hardin’s friend and part-time prostitute, the “widow” M’Rose (or Mroz), for “brandishing a gun in public.” Hardin confronted Selman, and the two men argued.

Selman’s 56-year-old father, Constable John Selman, Sr., (himself a well-known gunman) approached Hardin on the afternoon of August 19, 1895, and the two men exchanged heated words.

That night, Hardin went to the Acme Saloon, where he began playing dice.

Shortly before midnight, Selman Sr. walked into the saloon. In the ensuing confrontation, he shot Hardin in the head, killing him instantly and before he could return fire. As Hardin lay on the floor, Selman fired three more shots into him.

Selman Sr. was arrested for murder and stood trial.

He claimed he had fired in self defense, and a hung jury resulted in his being released on bond, pending retrial. However, before the retrial could be organized, Selman was killed in a shootout with US Marshal George Scarborough (on April 6, 1896) following a dispute during a card game.

Hardin is buried in Concordia Cemetery, located in El Paso, Texas.

A violent end, to a violent life.

And an end, to this installment.

I hope you’ll join me, for the next one.

Till then.