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John Wesley Hardin - Page 2

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John Wesley Hardin

John Wesley Hardin



Let me howl at the moon until I lose my senses, I can’t look at hobbles,

and I can’t stand fences.

-- From the Classic Western hit, Don’t Fence Me In





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.

Hardin 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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