The Lessons Of John Wesley Hardin

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Situation: Born in a turbulent time and place, a young man becomes a murderer — and to some a hero — and will die as the most feared gunfighter of his time.

Lesson: Demonstrably advanced gun skills can defeat overwhelming odds, but get in a lot of gunfights and you’ll eventually be shot yourself. Make enough people fear you, and you’ll put a target on your back.

Of all the gunfighters of the Old West, John Wesley Hardin was the rare one who wrote his own autobiography, though it wouldn’t be published until after his death. Various biographers have attributed up to 42 killings, all by gunfire, to Hardin. It’s perhaps more significant the lowest number attributed to him by historians seems to be 27, while the general consensus of those who study such things seems to be 41 kills.

In his short life, Hardin crossed paths with many of the most famous gunslingers of the frontier, and some of the most infamous. Ben Thompson. Phil Coe. Wild Bill Hickok. Jeff Milton. George Scarborough. “Killin’ Jim” Miller. And, at the end, John Selman. One of Hardin’s foremost biographers was the late Dr. Richard Marohn, a professor of psychiatry who specialized in disordered behavior among adolescents. In The Last Gunfighter: John Wesley Hardin published in 1995 exactly a century after Hardin’s death, Dr. Marohn wrote he believed the gunman showed the classic signs of narcissistic personality disorder. Hardin’s flamboyant reputation as a killer seems to have defined his life, not just to historians but for himself as he lived it.

Early Years

Born in Texas in 1853, Hardin in his boyhood was surrounded by Confederate sympathizers, and he wanted to run away to fight for the South in the Civil War at the age of nine. In the same year, he wrote, he witnessed a murder for the first time.

Hardin’s first killing occurred in 1868 when he was 15. He and a young cousin had gotten into a wrestling match with a man named Major “Maje” Holshausen, and threw him. Hardin claimed the angry adult left, threatening him, so he armed himself with his uncle’s revolver. The next day, they encountered one another again. Hardin wrote later, “... 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 him again and again until I shot him down.”

This was young Hardin’s first step down a long and bloody trail. There isn’t enough space here to list each of the 40-plus alleged homicides laid at his doorstep, but we can hit some of the more controversial points.

Hickok/Hardin Showdown

A huge part of the Hardin legend comes from his supposed showdown with Wild Bill Hickok in Abilene, Kansas, in June of 1871. Here’s how Hardin told it: “(Hickok) pulled his pistol and said, ‘Take those pistols off. I arrest you.’ I said ‘all right’ and pulled them out of the scabbard, but while he was reaching for them, I reversed them and whirled them over on him with the muzzles in his face, springing back at the same time. I told him to put his pistols up, which he did .... Bill said, ‘You are the gamest and quickest boy I ever saw. Let us compromise this matter and I will be your friend. Let us go in here and take a drink, as I want to talk to you and give you some advice.’ At first I thought he might be trying to get the drop on me, but he finally convinced me of his good intentions, and we went in and took a drink. We went into a private room and I had a long talk with him and we came out friends.”

This is a matter of much dispute among Western historians. Hardin’s longtime friend Fred Duderstadt claimed he was present and confirmed Hardin’s account. So did a friend of Hickok’s, George Coulter, who added Hickok let Hardin live only because he saw Hardin hadn’t cocked his revolvers. Yet some historians are convinced it was Hickok who disarmed the then 18-year-old Hardin. And others are adamant the showdown never happened at all.

What is pretty much generally conceded is while Hardin was in Abilene, Hickok knowingly allowed the young gunman to go armed in what was a rigidly “gun-free zone.” Dr. Marohn theorizes young Wes hero-worshipped Hickok, and Hickok was respectful enough of Hardin, whom he called “Little Arkansaw,” not to make him start a gunfight on account of pride. Hardin himself would later write of Hickok, “He had a fine sense and was a splendid judge of human nature.”

Cop-Killer

Hardin once wrote, “I would not shoot a fleeing man, not even a policeman.” Only when he was in custody and treated well did he ever seem to have good words for lawmen. Unquestionably, Hardin killed multiple law enforcement officers. Exactly how many is a matter of conjecture, partly as to how many there actually were, and partly as to whether some of those people could correctly claim line of official duty status at the time of their death. Let’s go back to that first homicide when he was 15.

Believing he would be lynched for the killing, Hardin fled, and later killed three soldiers from a nearby post, according to his autobiography. Hardin 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.”

Were the cavalry troopers, perhaps the only authorities available, performing a law enforcement function? According to one historian, records show only one soldier murdered there around that time, and Hardin was not recorded as being a suspect in this particular death.

He killed several lawmen, including a Texas Ranger and two Pinkerton investigators, among others. His excuse was they were vigilantes intending to lynch him, and he rationalized it as self-defense. He was certainly not the last cop-killer to do so. Of one incident in which police came to arrest him for an assault with intent to murder charge, he wrote, “These policemen came on with their Winchesters in their hands. I crawled to the back door and threw my shotgun to my shoulder as quickly as possible and fired, first at one, then at the other. In the meantime I had received a shot in my thigh, but Dave Harrel brought me my horse and helped me on him .... I learned afterwards that a coroner’s inquest was held over one of the policemen and the verdict was ‘that he had met death at the hands of an unknown party, from gunshot wounds.’”

The cop-killing which sent Hardin to prison for close to half his life took place in 1874. Here is Hardin’s own account of it, more than a little self-serving.

Hardin wrote, “... as I turned around, I saw (Deputy) Charles Webb drawing his pistol. He was in the act of presenting it when I jumped to one side, drew my pistol, and fired. In the meantime, Webb had fired, hitting me in the left side, cutting the length of it, inflicting an ugly and painful wound. My aim was good and a bullet hole in the left cheek did the work. He fell against the wall, and as he fell he fired a second shot, which went into the air. In the meantime, my friends, Jim Taylor and Bud Dixon, seeing Webb had taken the drop on me and had shot me, pulled their pistols and fired on him as he was falling, not knowing I had killed him. Each shot hit him in the side and breast.”

The shooting occurred, says historian Marohn, on John Wesley Hardin’s 21st birthday. Deputy Webb appears to be the 22nd man to die in front of Hardin’s guns. There would be more. Much later, convicted of second degree murder in Webb’s death, Hardin would serve 17 years of a 25-year sentence. Ironically, he became a successful student of law while in the Huntsville prison, and took up the practice of law upon his release.

The Man In The Mirror

Leaving prison at age 40, Hardin moved to El Paso and became an increasingly degenerate gambler and alcoholic as his law practice slowly failed. One of his clients was Martin M’Rose, whose name is also spelled in various records as Mroz, McRose and Morose. M’Rose was known as a rustler and general thief, and it is generally believed Hardin betrayed him several times over. M’rose implied Hardin had overcharged and extorted him in fees; Hardin stole M’rose’s wife Beulah, and some believe the lawyer set the client up to be killed.

On June 29, 1895, M’rose was shot to death in a controversial encounter with two of Hardin’s acquaintances, El Paso Police Chief Jeff Milton and Deputy U.S. Marshal George Scarborough. Beulah and Wes were now openly “an item,” and when Beulah was arrested as drunk and disorderly one night by young Officer John Selman, Jr., Hardin was incensed. Some believe he also thought something was going on between the youthful officer and his paramour. In any case, the hard-drinking Hardin made it known he was out for Selman’s blood.

Word of this reached Constable John Selman, Sr., a man not to be trifled with himself. A year or so before, he had killed rogue former Texas Ranger Bass Outlaw in a gunfight leaving the older Selman on a cane for the rest of his life from hip and leg wounds. Fearing for his son’s life, Selman, Sr. entered the batwing doors of the Acme Saloon in El Paso, where Hardin stood at the bar playing dice with his back to him. Selman drew his Colt Single Action Army .45 (serial number 141805, with 51/2" barrel) and shot Hardin through the head. He fell, and Selman shot him twice more in the thorax and triggered a wild shot before his son rushed up to him and restrained him saying “Don’t shoot him anymore, he’s already dead.”

Witnesses said Selman shot him from the back; Selman maintained Hardin was facing him and drawing a gun when he fired. The death bullet had left a hole in the back of his head and another over one eye. Modern forensic autopsy would have determined which was the entrance wound and which the exit by beveling on the skull plates, but it remains a matter of debate to this day.

Selman’s attorney Albert Fall had what may be the most plausible explanation: From the door with Hardin facing a huge mirror, he would have been able to see Selman enter, perhaps with drawn gun, and in turn Selman would have been able to see Hardin’s face reflected in the mirror, the men’s eyes appearing to meet directly. Witnesses did say Hardin’s body was found with his hand on his concealed revolver.

Hardin’s Guns & Gunnery

We gun geeks question Hardin’s credibility as soon as we open his book, The Life of John Wesley Hardin As Written By Himself and get to where he describes using Colt .45’s to kill men in 1871. We know Colt didn’t produce a .45 caliber handgun until 1873. Dr. Marohn explains Hardin was clearly a man more obsessed with skill than with hardware, and probably conflated Colt percussion Dragoon and/or 1860 Army Model .44’s with .45’s. We do know experience taught him to appreciate functional hardware. In one of his gunfights, he was failed by a broken revolver. He appears to have preferred Colts and Smith & Wessons and was an early adopter of double-action revolvers for serious business.

Marohn found explicit records showing Hardin killed Deputy Webb with a “Smith & Wesson Model 3 Russian First Model ... .44 S&W caliber, nickel plated, with ... 8" barrel and two-piece ivory grips, serial #25274 that was shipped from the factory on September 7, 1873 to M.W. Robertson, a New York City distributor, in a shipment of 120 revolvers.”
Hardin was well known to favor the 1877 Model Colt Double Action. Official records of his estate show he had one in .38 Long Colt, serial number 84304, nickel plated with 21/2" barrel, a gift from “Killer Miller,” his law client and cousin by marriage. He owned two in .41 Colt caliber, a pearl-handled 51/2" engraved specimen SN 73728 and a plainer one, SN 68837. A Texas newspaper reported he was carrying a pair of double-action Colt .41’s when he was killed, and this has become close to gospel in cowboy-era history, but Marohn determined from court records the gun actually on his person when he was killed was a double-action Smith & Wesson .44. Specifically, it was a Frontier Model in .44-40 with 5" barrel, serial number 352.

Hardin was a dedicated “shootist.” In his last years he shot tiny groups into playing cards from 5 to 10 yards away, and sold the cards to admirers as souvenirs or gave them out along with his lawyer calling cards to prospective clients. His landlady claimed he practiced quick-draw and dry fire for as much as two hours daily. All who saw him demonstrate his skills — sometimes in demonstration, sometimes in action — swore he was so fast the guns seemed to flicker into his hands. And, yes, he practiced the “border spin” he claimed to have used on Hickok, and apparently did use to kill a policeman who was attempting to arrest him.

Lessons

Determination: There were multiple times when Hardin was shot, and he always kept fighting and generally either prevailed or escaped.

Skill: Hardin wasn’t only fast, he was accurate. He apparently had an extremely high hit ratio. Few of the men he shot survived, and many were instantly neutralized with head shots — not coup de grace executions, but precision hits delivered in the heat of gun battles.

Absence of Hesitation: Hardin usually made a point of being the first to fire, aided sometimes by his quick-draw skills, and sometimes by ruthless ambush. The great 20th century gun expert Bill Jordan once told me the first time you kill a man is the hardest, and after that it got easier ... and, he added, “For a certain kind of man it can get too easy.” This latter description seems to perfectly fit John Wesley Hardin.

A Negative Example: Hardin’s signature pistol-packing mode was reportedly a calfskin vest of his own design with twin butt-forward holster pockets, acting as twin semi-shoulder holsters. He was also known to wear conventional holsters, both straight draw and cross draw, to carry revolvers in a sash as Hickok did, and in conventional shoulder holsters, and sometimes just stuffed in waistband or pocket. He learned the hard way about protruding hammer spurs. When Texas Rangers arrested him on a train in Florida he went for his revolver, but it snagged on his suspenders and the Rangers pistol-whipped him into submission.

Hardin died in El Paso with his hand on his S&W, holsterless and partially out of his waistband. Some theorize he had seen Selman coming up behind him in the mirror and gone for it, but the hammer snagged on his clothing. If this was the case, his two-hour daily regimen of quick draw and dry fire availed him nothing at the end. Hardin died at 42, with his .44 still in his waistband.
An El Paso minister famously said at the time if Hardin was shot from the front, it was remarkably good marksmanship, and if he was shot from behind, it was remarkably good judgment.

Suggested reading: The Last Gunfighter: John Wesley Hardin, by Richard Marohn, MD, Creative Publishing Company, 1995. The Life of John Wesley Hardin as Written by Himself, 2014 reprint edition, Badgely Publishing.

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