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John Wesley Hardin & The Shootist Archetype

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By Jesse Wolf Hardin

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John Wesley HardinFor all his many confrontations, practiced enemies and capable adversaries, John Wesley Hardin never faced a greater opponent or more serious threat than his own formidable self. While claiming his every violent act was out of the "first law of nature: self preservation,” again and again he made choices more likely to jeopardize than secure his fiery mortal spark. And contemporary historians have even implicated him in his own fall and destruction. 

In a vintage 1924 article, John Hunter quotes John Wesley Hardin's midwife as predicting he would either turn out to be a "great hero” or a "monumental villain.” In truth he was wholly neither.... and a little of both.

Hardin was a prime example of that special breed of men known collectively as "gunfighters.” Given the proliferation of firearms in the Old West of the 1860’s, 70’s and 80’s, just the fact of packing a Colt wasn’t near enough to qualify someone as a true gunslinger. Nor did a single occasion of firing a gun in defense or anger make one an accomplished gunfighter.

We all know that the Western gunfight seldom if ever occurred the ways it’s been commonly portrayed by historically illiterate Hollywood writers and directors: the mannerly encounter at high noon, revolvers holstered until the very last second. Giving one’s opponent the chance for a fair draw. Guns shot out of hands, without a bloody shattering of fingers and palms.... or apologizing to a downed hombre in the Virginian’s dusty drawl. It is nonetheless a fact that there once was, and probably still exists a certain special breed of men whose violent encounters involve face to face action– men who hold that they’re right, who insist on looking their antagonists in the eye, and being the last thing they see on the day of their death.

A "shootist” was neither a bushwhacker, robber nor assassin per se– but rather, a highly effective and often volatile individual whose violent deeds usually arose spontaneously and out of reaction to a perceived insult or slight. He was more likely to be a loner than either a gang or posse member.... and when reprising the roles of Sheriff or outlaw, white hat or black, he usually filled the part well. Silent, pleasant or petulant– he fairly exuded both character and style. He felt safer and perhaps saner outside the general fraternity and shallow associations of civilized men– and likely trusted his own intuition, discernment, skill, instincts and responses above anyone and everything else. Slow to enter into alliances of purpose or convenience, the shootist adhered to the classic martial dictum that "offense is the best defense.” He seldom backed down– not because he was inhumanly fearless, but rather, because he knew how to use his fear as fuel for assertive and sometimes explosive action. Whether objectively right or wrong, the shootist acted out of a moral certainty.... adhering to his own personal code of honor even when breaking existing laws and cultural taboos.


Doc HollidayBy this measure Wyatt Earp was more entrepreneur and vigilante than archetypal shootist. On the other hand Doc Holliday qualifies, even though his willingness to inflict harm could be considered a far greater determining factor than his occasional acts of violence and few resulting victims. The gregarious Billy the Kid had four confirmed kills in fourteen fights, but for all his bravado we know he would have preferred a life of dancing at Mexican "fandangos,” and making love to warm Señoritas instead of fingering cold grey revolvers!


Jesse James was a thief even if a partially politically motivated one, he always worked with a sizable gang, and apparently got over any intrinsic compunctions about shooting from a "hide” or pumping bullets into turned and quivering backs.


Clay Allison, gunfighterClay Allison, however, was mostly an upfront shootist.... if also an unredeemable, homicidal maniac who once literally "shot himself in the foot.” And no one can doubt that lawman James "Wild Bill” Hickok was a prime example of the classic gunfighter. His total of eleven kills is impressive, averaging as he did one kill per fight. But then his record might have been a lot bloodier if not for his penchant for using the butt of his revolver to "brain” or "buffalo” those miscreants he aimed to arrest, instead of just shooting them where they stood.


Both Hardin and Hickok were ungodly accurate, as well as the prerequisite willing – willing not only to take someone’s life at the drop of a hat, but willing if necessary to die. Even the supposedly profficiant Ben Thompson had only four kills in over fourteen altercations. Seventy-five percent of the rounds fired at the famous The "Gunfight At The O.K. Corral” was actually the "Gunfight In The Alley Behind Fly’s Photography Studio, with the combatants firing some thirty-two rounds at distances of no further than twelve to fifteen feet.... and yet only twelve of those shots even connected.


Truth is, most gunmen on both sides of the law were notoriously poor shots, partly due to the scarcity and expense of ammunition and the scant practice they got a result. Shooting one handed made hits less likely than if they had known to use a modern two handed "Weaver” stance. In a closed room the black powder smoke from the first shots would make it even more difficult to identify and connect with their target. And alcohol was often a major factor. Take for example Wyatt Earp's brother Warren. In Willcox, Arizona in 1900 he got the worst of a gunfight by drunkenly standing up to challenge someone.... before realizing he’d forgotten his gun!





Wild Bill HickokIn a closed room the black powder smoke from the first shots would make it even more difficult to identify and connect with their target. And alcohol was often a major factor. Take for example Wyatt Earp's brother Warren. In Willcox, Arizona in 1900 he got the worst of a gunfight by drunkenly standing up to challenge someone.... before realizing he’d forgotten his gun!


Like the rest of his memorable ilk, Wes Hardin was cast hot from a meteoric iron mold. From this ancient crucible has poured not only a host of villains, but also the likes of Beowulf and other Celtic heroes. The intense and brilliant Sioux, Crazy Horse.... misunderstood even by his own people. Conscientious war resistor Alvin York, who went on to single handedly capture hundreds of German soldiers during the hottest days of World War I. "Braveheart’s” courageous and betrayed Sir Wallace. To the degree it’s found in Western movies and TV, it lives not so much in the sanitary goodness of Johnny Mack or Tom Mix as in the solitary determination of The Brave Cowboy, the righteousness of Billy Jack, the all consuming fire in Thelma and her incorrigible cohort Louise.


There was probably no authentic Western character more proficient with their chosen handguns nor more willing to put them to deadly use than John Wesley Hardin. His lightning draw and unerring marksmanship was oft witnessed and judicially documented, and many an addition to local graveyards had Wes to thank for that last bumpy ride. While only eleven kills in eighteen fights can be independently verified, his probable tally of upwards to thirty or forty victims killed in face-to-face gunfights likely exceeds that of all other known shootists.... though certainly not all other killers.

A low-life contemporary of Hardin's likely murdered more than forty men in his lifetime– but almost always with a rifle, from a place of ambush. James P. "Deacon” Miller passed judgment again and again until finally getting his neck stretched by an intolerant lynch mob in Oklahoma in April, 1909.... and may have been the gun-for-hire that put a bullet through Billy the Kid's killer Pat Garrett. And for perspective, it helps to remember that Generals and politicians oversee the deaths of millions more young boys than Hardin or any other self-inflating Western desperado could ever claim credit for.... sometimes for justifiable reasons, sometimes for reasons not so good.  If you think about it, more people have have lost their lives as a result of contractors’ indifference to the risks of asbestos. Thousands are killed in a single modern terrorist strike, and few individuals have more "notches on their guns” than the sexually deranged serial killers of the modern urban age.  

Historically there have always been chance or unintentional deaths by firearms, acts of resistance and retribution, self advancement as well as self defense, incidents involving rape, the heavy handed brutality or blundering of drunks, the deadly results of deception and betrayal. Hardin stands tall in meeting most of his adversaries head on, as well as never losing a fight. I’m sure that he never hurt a single woman or child and was kind to beggars, horses and kids. While he made rash moves and occasional mistakes, he was host to few regrets. He might have wished he hadn’t killed a man for snoring on a certain nightmare filled evening, but he never drew blood for anything so crass as personal financial gain. He lived not for the grail of the Knight, errant though he may have been.... lived not to fit in, but to distinguish himself. For the dictates of instinct and heart, not some sense of obligation or duty. Not for dollars or gold, but for the shining rewards of his own self defined mission.

John Wesley HardinHardin could be relaxed and laughing one minute, tense or solemn the next– quoting Old Testament lines about Hell and brimstone to a "treed” audience, between bouts of intemperate opinion and shots of unholy rotgut whiskey. He was obviously prejudiced against Indians, Mexicans and blacks, and encouraged– if not instigated– the majority of the upwards to twenty-seven battles he engaged in.

Hardin was, like all of us, a product of both his time and circumstance. If he combined strict religiosity and moralism with a mean streak and a periodic disregard for life, it must have in part been due to the pressures of being the son of a blistering Southern preacher. Named after the founder of the Methodist Church, he inherited high expectations and a heavy mantle. Like adolescents in any age, he was no doubt torn between his love and loyalty to his family and the need to break away from the familial tether, to establish his personal identity, and demonstrate to the world his increasing significance and power.

The first to fall victim to Hardin's smoking guns was a beefy ex-slave named Major ("Mage”) Holzhausen. Getting his pride hurt in a wrestling match with fifteen year old "Johnny” Hardin and another boy, Mage sought reparation with burning determination and a stout wood club. When the muscular freedman grabbed the reins of Hardin's horse some days later, it took five revolver rounds to shoot him loose. Demonstrating at least a degree of ambivalence if not remnant empathy and compassion, the fledgling badman then rode eight miles to get help for the wounded man. Within a week Mage was dead from his wounds, and Hardin went into hiding, a killer baptized in blood.


Much of the gunman’s fame and popularity in Texas was thanks to his frequent battles with despised Federal troops and the State Police. Not long after becoming a fugitive, Hardin got the "drop” on four mounted soldiers his brother Joe believed were out hunting him.... and together his shotgun and revolver raised the teenager’s total to five.


His lifetime string of shootouts were face-up, as they say, but hardly "fair” in the noble or Hollywood sense. Hardin did everything he could to get the upper hand– including ritually practicing his fast draw and unerring aim, constantly and consciously anticipating the moods of the people around him, having his gun already in hand when expecting trouble, and often being the first to initiate a draw when a poker game or conversation unexpectedly heated up. Nor was he averse to pulling a gun on unarmed antagonists, as he proved with the shooting of Mage, and later when making a threatening gambler named Ben Hinds back down ("As he made for me,” John Wesley writes, "I covered him with my pistol and told him I was a little ‘on the scrap’ myself, the only difference between him and I being that I used lead.”)


His object, and the object of most dyed-in-the-wool shootists, was to "get the drop” on his opponent no matter what it took– meaning to be the first person in the room able to cock and point their weapon. And if that wasn’t perceived to be enough, he needed to be the first one to fire a disabling shot. Note that I said "disabling,” meaning the rounds actually connected with flesh, hit the right person or persons (not always easy in crowded saloons), and did sufficient damage to prevent them from being able to return fire. Whereas an assassin’s purpose is to take life, at the moment of conflict a gunfighter's intent is not to kill per se but to prevent himself getting shot, and end the fight to his personal advantage. The best way to do that, however is bullet placement: a quickly disabling shot. This most practically means penetration of the head, spine or heart.... and such wounds are generally (if only consequentially) fatal.


Most of Hardin's stories can be collaborated with police, newspaper and court records, but at least one of the tales in his autobiography cast a shadow on the veracity of the rest. Supposedly at the end of a trail ride to Abilene, Kansas the then eighteen year old John Wesley also got the drop on the famed gunslinging marshal Wild Bill Hickock– by appearing to surrender his revolvers butt first, but then quickly twirling them into firing position in what is (since the movie "Tombstone,” at least!) called the "Curly Bill Spin.” I find this unlikely for a couple of reasons. First, Bill would have likely had his own revolver out, ready to hit Hardin on the head if not shoot him down. If the marshal’s weapons were holstered, he would have been poised for a draw, and could have easily grabbed steel and fired before J. W. could have executed the spin. Additionally, the maneuver was a widely known stage trick, and it wasn’t at all unusual to see cowboys showing off with a demonstration when entertaining the boys around a fire. Hickock would have likely both known about the move and anticipated it, given the cocky young Texan he faced. And finally, had it happened the way described, the loss of face would have demanded timely retribution, not Bill supposedly saying "Let us compromise this matter and I will be your friend.” A frontier gunman’s chances of surviving the week depended as much as anything else on their perceived invulnerability, and no lawman would be able to keep peace after being seen publicly backing down.



It is likewise unclear if the Abilene resident Hardin drilled with four holes one drunken night, was really someone out to kill him as he claimed. He may or may not have fired those rounds through a wooden partition in the room in order to awaken and thus silence the snoring of a fellow boarder. If so, he was likely embarrassed and ashamed to find he had inadvertently killed a man in his sleep.... and thus concocted the version recounted in his book. At any rate, if Hickock had no other reason to tend to the brash cowboy prior to this, he certainly did now. Hardin prudently slipped out across the porch roof, dressed in nothing but his underwear and his hat. It would be hard to call his rapid retreat from the scene cowardly. Nobody in their right mind wanted to go up against another gunman that they believed to be their equal, if there was any way to avoid it. The results could be both men dead, or suffering a lifetime of pain due to smashed organs or lingering infection.

In Trinity City, Texas in August 1872, John Wesley was shot by Phil Sublett -- a shotgun wielding drunk intent on winning his poker stakes back. While he managed to put a round through Sublett’s shoulder, the two buckshot that ripped through Hardin's kidney made it look for awhile as if he’d die. State policemen long on his trail began closing in, and he arranged for a sickbed surrender to a Sheriff he trusted, Dick Reagon. He apparently felt well enough by the time they moved him to Gonzales in October to cut his way out of jail with a smuggled saw, likely with the deliberate disregard or outright assistance of sympathetic guards.



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