JOHN WESLEY HARDIN, KILLER

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.

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14 thoughts on “JOHN WESLEY HARDIN, KILLER

  1. Myra, this story brought back memories of my childhood reading about Hardin and other killers in the Wild West. His name was right up there with Jesse and Frank James, Billy the Kid, and other legendary figures. I suspect, too, that he was often mentioned in TV Westerns, which we watched a lot.
    Being named after John Wesley didn’t appear to do much to shape Hardin’s basic character. I wonder if Methodists of his day worried about the association with their founder.

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    • The problem may have been that the Methodists of his day separated from the Northern church in solidarity with the Confederacy, which may account for so much support he received as he ran from the law.

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  2. That famous Sutton-Taylor Feud is another fascinating part of TX history. One of my ancestors, Ancil McDonald Jackson was raised by Creed Taylor, who was the Taylor family patriarch, after his Father Solomon Jackson died. Another relative on my Mother’s side, Edward J. “Ed” Glover was one of the three original Taylor desperados, stealing cattle and shooting up the country-side.

    Ed Glover was the brother of my GG Grandmother, Mary Ann Glover Vandergrift. Ancil McDonald Jackson was my GG Grandfather. Apparently neither Ancil or Creed were actively involved in the feud. Chuck Parsons has a very good book on the feud with a picture of Ed Glover standing with James Taylor and Ed Harris from the early 1870s.

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    • I am delighted to hear of all your connections to the Taylor clan. You are fortunate your family kept all the records and passed down all this history.
      I’ve considered doing a blog on the feud, but it is so involved I’m not sure I can keep it a reasonable length. I mention it in my WIP Stein House, my historic fiction set in Indianola.
      Family illness is slowing down the last read through of Stein House.
      Thanks so much for your comments.

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  3. Told with precise, excitement. Well done!!! I couldn’t help thinking all through my reading that Hardin was a psycopath, killing without seeming remorse. How interesting that he went into law, and how fitting that he received the reward of his own injustice. HOOORAY.

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  4. MM— I always feel as though I am sitting down for a real, honest-to-goodness treat when I read your histories of Texas, and today’s story of Hardin does not disappoint. (In fact, I think it may be one of your best.)

    You have a great knack for playing out the pacing— which I think is especially hard to do with a story like Hardin’s, as it could easily go in the direction of high drama. Gorgeous, seamless work. Love that.

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