Handsome and gentlemanly John Wesley Hardin, named for the founder of the Methodist Church, was the son of a Methodist minister and circuit rider. Perhaps his proper upbringing caused “Wes” to view himself as a pillar of society who claimed he never killed a man who didn’t need killing. The numbers of dead differ, as do the stories about his escapades, but John Wesley Hardin managed in his forty-two years to kill at least thirty men. Some accounts claim forty.
Born in Bonham, Texas, in 1853, Hardin at age fourteen stabbed a fellow student in a schoolyard fight. He might have been expelled for the incident except his father founded and ran the school. Like many young men too young to fight in the Civil War, Hardin became the product of the hatred generated by the war. The restrictive policies of the Reconstruction government fueled anger, which encouraged citizens, especially impressionable young men, to lash out at freed slaves and the Union army overseeing Reconstruction. A year after the stabbing, Hardin met a black man, got into an argument, and shot the man dead.
His father, sure Wes could not receive a fair trial from the Reconstruction government, encouraged his son to flee, which began a pattern of relatives and friends hiding Hardin from law officers. Hearing three Union soldiers were headed for his hideout at his brother’s house, Wes later wrote, “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.”
Some accounts say within a year he killed another soldier. All stories agree Wes Hardin served at age 17 as trail boss on a cattle drive up the Chisholm Trail. One account says he got into an argument with Mexican cowboys who tried cutting their herd in front of his. All the stories of the cattle drive agree John Wesley Hardin killed six or seven men on that trip to Abilene, Kansas.
Some say Hardin became friends with city marshal Wild Bill Hickok whom he admired. Others say he forced Hickok to stand down. Whatever really happened, Hardin left Abilene in a hurry. He wrote regarding the episode, “They tell lots of lies about me. They said I killed six or seven men for snoring. Well, it ain’t true, I only killed one man for snoring.” The gentleman to whom he refers was sleeping in the next hotel room and Hardin shot through the wall to stop the snoring.
Hardin returned to Central Texas, married Jane Bowen a beautiful cultured girl from a respectable family who had been his childhood sweetheart. He did not, however, settle down. Despite constant absences as ran from the law, Jane remained loyal. After being arrested, breaking out of jail, and taking sides in a major Central Texas feud, Hardin finally killed a deputy sheriff. Finding himself under constant pursuit, Hardin fled with Jane and their three children to Florida where they lived for two years under an alias. Some accounts claim he killed as many as six men while he was on the run.
Finally caught in 1877, Hardin stood trial in Austin, Texas, and was sentenced to twenty-five years in prison for killing the deputy. While in prison, he made repeated escape attempts, read theology, served as superintendent of the prison Sunday school, wrote his autobiography, and studied law. He received a pardon from the governor in 1894 and was admitted to the state bar.
After raising their three children, Jane died while Hardin served his prison term. Upon his release, he headed to El Paso where he opened a law practice, became involved with a client’s wife, and hired several law enforcement officers to assassinate the husband. One of the hires, Constable John Selman, possibly angry over not being paid for killing the husband, found Hardin in the Acme Saloon and shot him in the back of the head. Hardin died instantly. The career of one of Texas’ most notorious killers came to an end on August 19, 1895, but the legends and legacy continue to stir imaginations.