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John Wesley Hardin - Page 2

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Wanted as a fugitive by the Texas Rangers, Hardin remained visible and active. He took time out of his busy schedule to involve himself in what came to be known as the Taylor-Sutton feud, in 1873: the year Colt introduced its soon to be famous .45 revolver, and Winchester released the lever action that "won the West.” While it’s understandable that John Wesley would lean towards the Taylors, his participation at such a sensitive time reminds me of the old Irish joke in which a lad, coming upon a barroom brawl, asks "Is this a private fight, or can anyone join?”

 

Taylor returned the favor by joining in pumping bullets into Sheriff Charlie Webb during a gunfight in 1874. Hardin claims the officer drew on him, before he pulled his own ivory stocked Smith & Wesson First Model Russian from underneath his vest.

 

Texas Rangers

Texas Rangers. This image available for photographic prints and downloads HERE!

 

 

 

 

Now the hunt by the Rangers was on in earnest, and he found himself once again hiding outside in the thickets and holing up in the barns of the few distant relatives not already under active surveillance. Whether he goaded Webb into drawing or merely fired in self defense, he now found the crucial support of the local populous fading away. Earlier he’d received kudos and applause for killing DeWitt County Sheriff Jack Helm, but Jack was a hated Union loyalist known to be hard on ex-Confederates, whereas Webb was generally liked by everyone who knew him. This fateful and unfortunate incident, more than any before it, would prove to be John Wesley's undoing.

It was in large part Wes's love for fine horses, and his passion for racing them that allowed him to outdistance pursuing Rangers again and again. But their consistent inability to catch up with him only heightened the passions of what soon became a large civilian mob.... and when they couldn’t wreak their vengeance on Wesley they opted instead to lynch his brother Joe instead. All told as many as eight of his friends and family were killed after the Webb incident, all innocent if informed scapegoats for a frustrated and seething mob. John Wesley, whose sense of Southern manliness decreed he must always hide beneath a steely countenance any doubt or grief, was no doubt haunted forever by the spectre of those who gave their lives in his place. In one of the most melancholy passages of his prideful book, he grieves that his otherwise self-justified acts had "drove my father to an early grave.... almost distracted my mother.... killed my brother Joe and my cousins Tom and William.... left my brother’s widow with two helpless babes.... to say nothing of the grief of countless others.” But for all he and they had suffered, he still never admitted having had any choice, or to ever done anything but right– at least to no one but himself, in the dark nights of existential loneliness and unsettling uncertainty.

Nor more could he depend on an environment of indifferent officials and community assistance and support. Posses and Rangers seemed to be everywhere this time, and after dispatching a few of his seeming limitless pursuers Hardin wisely decided to move with his family to Florida. There he assumed the last name of his friend the city marshal of Brenham, and thus became to his new friends and associates one "J. W. Swain.” Unenviably, he was the subject of the biggest manhunt and the largest reward the state of Texas had ever posted for a single man: four thousand dollars, "Dead or Alive.”

 

In August of 1877 a drunken friend Brown Bowen exposed John Wesley after getting pummeled in a row with William Chipley, the butt-kicking manager of the Pensacola Railroad. Swain was actually the notorious outlaw Hardin, Bowen blustered, and would no doubt show up to exact revenge for the beating his comrade had taken. That and the knowledge of such an unprecedented reward was enough to inspire the piqued authorities to promptly set a trap– minus the legal formality of an arrest warrant, but armed with hardware appropriate to their time and task. Bill Chipley, Florida Sheriff William Hutchinson and some twenty other deputies made the arrest as he boarded a train on August 23rd, 1877. Hardin was viscously pistol whipped as he struggled to pull a hidden Colt .44 that he’d secured all too well underneath his leather suspenders.

 

Had he been able to draw before being clubbed unconscious, he’d most likely have been killed. By nature a free and self reliant man, he was thoroughly terrorized by the thought of incarceration.... and even more so by the possibility of being seized by a mob like his brother Joe was, shackled and unable to react in his own defense. "I had the glad consciousness, however,” John Wesley writes, "of knowing that I had done all that courage and strength could do, and that I had kept my oath never to surrender at the point of a pistol.” Extradited back to Comanche to stand trial for the killing of Webb, Hardin was on his way to what would prove to be a lengthy stint in the Texas Penitentiary in Huntsville. He was subsequently sentenced to twenty-five years at hard labor, at only twenty-four years and three months of age.

 

Needless to say the individualistic Hardin didn’t adjust very well to confinement, as evidenced by his repeated escape attempts in spite of the severe floggings and solitary confinement that inevitably followed. After being punished numerous times for "attempted escape, mutinous behavior, conspiracy, insubordination” and numerous lesser offenses, John Wesley settled down sufficiently to study law and actually pass his bar examination. His letters to his wife became sporadic and often emotionally distant, though he insisted she was never far from his mind.

"Do you think that it would be impossible for me to forget you ,” he asks her in a letter from prison, "one who you well know I love and adore above all others....?” He closed with "I remain your true and devoted husband. Until death.”

Hardin served a total of sixteen years, from 1878 until February of 1894. While he paced in the prison yard or read law books in his cell, America witnessed the introduction of smokeless powder cartridges, Browning’s improved Winchesters, and a general end to the Indian Wars.... plus electric street lights and motors, the subway, the Kodak camera, cross country skis, the pneumatic tire and bingo. Dvorak and Tchaikovsky experienced heady competition from Gilbert & Sullivan, and Henry Ford built his first car.

Hardin was set loose with a new suit and a state issued check for just under fifteen dollars. His mother that had always loved and protected him had died during his imprisonment, in 1885, and his son in early 1893. His wife Jane, faithful and supportive throughout her impoverished separation, died at age thirty-six.... only one year and fours months before John Wesley's release.

 

El Paso, Texas, 1888Brooding but hopeful, in early 1895 attorney Hardin chose El Paso to hang out his shingle– less than two hundred uninhabited miles Southeast of the cabin where I write this, and a short ride the other side of the Texas / New Mexico state line. Whatever hopes he might have had for a profitable and legitimate career were soon crushed like kitchen bugs beneath the hard-soled boots of reality. Finding that few outside of the impoverished Latino community would trust an ex-convict with their legal work, Hardin increasingly turned to the solace of caramel tinged whiskey -- and the more lucrative gaming tables in the back of nearly every dimly lit saloon.

It’s no doubt little different today, with disheartened prisoners released back into society owning little more than a demolished reputation, the government issued clothes on their back and the out-of-style shoes on their feet. Few bosses are likely to hire an ex-con for anything but the most menial and underpaid jobs, and soon desperation couples with resentment in propelling over eighty percent of ex-offenders back into the "joint.” That is, if they don’t do something that gets them blown out of their saddles first.

It didn’t help Hardin's chances any that El Paso authorities anticipated his arrival with both concern and trepidation. Most lawmen feared him, a few envied his nerve, skill and reputation.... and all expected that sooner or later there would be trouble. The respected Chief of Police Jeff Milton secreted a number of Burgess folding shotguns in strategic location around town, and sometime deputies John Selman and George Scarborough were probably already making plans for how to deal with him if the time ever came. And John Wesley didn’t help ease the authorities’ apprehension by showing off his gun handling abilities and impressive marksmanship almost from the day of his arrival.

Hardin was always game to tweak the noses of the powers-that-be, but his having spent close to half his life in the penitentiary had taught him a degree of judgment and temperance, if not reserve. In August of ‘95 he prudently acquiesced to an outraged Milton, when confronted with accusations he’d supposedly made. Hardin was "so much faster,” the courageous officer admitted, "that if he had gone for a gun, I wouldn’t have had a chance.” And the previous July he made no objections when asked to come in and appear on charges of gambling, carrying a firearm, and robbery.

Whether he felt cheated or merely pissed off at being called a "jail rat,” on May 2nd J.W. an inebriated J.W. pointed a pearl handled Colt .41 caliber double action revolver at the offending party and retook the $95 he’d just lost at craps.... all the while humming a happy tune. Then to the newspapers that had questioned the necessity and severity of his response, he wrote a number of lines of explanation and defense including: "I admire pluck, virtue and push wherever found. Yet I contempt and despise a coward and assassin of character, whether he be a reporter, a journalist, or a gambler.”

 

Colt Double Action RevolverFrom the time he was kid he loved to stalk "among the big pines and oaks with a gun,” but soon enough his primary use for a firearm was armed combat rather than boyhood fun. While he may have killed one hapless fellow in 1876 with a Winchester rifle, he preferred the kinds of up close confrontations in which purpose shotguns and handguns so excel. He dropped his first man with what was likely a Colt Dragoon .44, and used Colt and Remington percussion revolvers for most of his other many kills.

 

We can be sure that by 1874 he’d converted from carrying percussion models to the latest in American made cartridge revolvers– as it was on Hardin's birthday in May of that year that he used an ivory handled "Russian” model Smith & Wesson .44 (serial number #25274) to take Sheriff Charley Webb’s life. And Colt Single Action .45’s may have been the instruments of destruction for pursuing Pinkerton agents in 1876, and possible two Mobile, Alabama police.

Upon his release he seems to have preferred the rapidity of fire offered by double action revolvers. As most readers are aware, single-action designs require that the hammer be cocked with the thumb for every shot, whereas with so called double-action arms the shooter not only spins the cylinder but cocks and releases the hammer with a single long pull of the trigger. The SA is nearly as fast for the first shot, but subsequent aimed fire is considerably improved in the double mode. Besides the .41 Colt 1877 used to dominate the crowd at the Gem, he also owned at least one ‘77 "Lightning” in .38 LC (Serial number #84304– gifted by friend Jim Miller), and the larger framed double-action Colt 1878 in .44 WCF (serial number #352) removed from his body at the time of his death.

It goes without saying that the drop-loop "quick draw” or "buscadero” holster featured in movies through 1970’s never existed in the historic West, nor would it have been desirable to have a gun positioned so low whether planting fence posts or snaking through the crowds of a smoke filled saloon. Most common were the tight fitting "Slim Jim,” skirted designs, and surplus military models with their protective rain flaps removed. None of these had tie-downs, requiring the wearer to grab them with one hand while drawing their weapon with the other– hence the expression "slapping leather.” It’s suggested that at least towards the end, Hardin preferred to carry his arms in shoulder holsters or tucked conveniently into his waistband. However they were housed, his proficiency in getting them out and hitting what he was aiming at was nothing less than amazing– a skill that he demonstrated first through a growing body count, and later by blasting poker cards held up by his admirers. Unlike many gunmen and shootists, Hardin really was fast on the go. Sometime after his capture he put on a display of quick draw, border shifts and rolls for the entertainment of his guards. Ranger Jim Gillette described his "slight of hand” gun handling as having been executed with nothing less than "magical precision.”

A fast gun and heart full of "pluck and push,” however, could guarantee neither freedom nor life. And now he was finding out the hard way: that a willingness to stand up to insult and injury was no longer considered a manly virtue by civilizing residents.  Millions of dollars were being made by bankers and speculators through systemic manipulation and deception– while the woman and men who candidly spoke their mind, who leveraged power face to face and gladly met each test.... often found themselves pariahs in the rapidly urbanizing West. It’s hard to imagine their alienation, their grieving over lost values and lost ways, or the existential loneliness that must have haunted their sleepless nights. The damage, and the despair.

Hardin's gambling increased proportionally, and he was seen making more and more flamboyant bets whenever in the presence of an audience. Winning gave him the feelings of mastery and brilliance, of risk taking and excitement that his post-prison existence otherwise lacked. It was, like the carry and use of weapons, an effort to exercise some degree of control over his life in an environment of bitter disempowerment and rapid transition.

On the afternoon of August 19, 1895, John Wesley Hardin was in the midst of rolling dice at the Acme saloon bar – standing uncharacteristically with his back exposed to anyone stepping through its louvered swinging doors. An agitated Constable Selman had barely entered the room before blasting the preeminent shootist of all time in the back of the head. He then pumped two more rounds into his target’s chest and arm, as he lay motionless on his back in a spreading puddle of blood and gore.

It could be said that Hardin was weary, but that’s not the same as either indifferent nor oblivious. Our man was well aware of the many dangers he faced, and had only a short time before had a major row with Old Man Selman and his son John Jr. It was something more than alcohol induced laxness that predetermined his attitude and posture on that fateful day.

Hardly a month goes by that we don’t read in some newspaper or hear on the radio about another case of what is now called "suicide by cop:” someone at the end of their emotional rope ignoring the repeated calls by the police to drop their weapon, orchestrating the situation so that the police have no option but to shoot. They no doubt prefer this to putting a gun to their own head– but there may also be the added satisfaction of being killed while facing a real or imaginary oppressor, with an enabling gun in hand.

But as much as he must have suffered at that point, Hardin's death was no form of suicide, nor was it Hardin's wish to die. More than anything else he was gambling that fateful afternoon– with not only his money, but with his life. He was upping the ante, increasing the severity of the test, and calling the opposition’s bluff! He was ready to rake in the winner’s chips, to break the bank with the next throw of dice.... as well as to pay what has always been the highest price. The last sounds he likely heard were the shuffling of the constable’s feet some six or eight feet behind where he stood, and the rattle of dancing ivories on the bar’s polished wood.

John Wesley Hardin DeadAnd it’s not hard to see why the wizened Selman carried out his ignoble plan with such stealth and haste. A split second before the two-hundred and fifty grain slug roared in his direction, Hardin began instinctively reaching for the gun long at home at his waist.

 

Indeed, even as his world was collapsing around him, firearms were something he felt he could count on– and thus he never went anywhere without them. They were more than a means for defense, more than a strategy for the attainment of deference and respect. Guns became the buddies that would never let him down, the girlfriend that would never leave, the wife that would never be taken away from him by disaster or disease. They came to represent for the aging shootist the possibility of a love, of a code, a way of being, thinking and acting that might never die. At home not so much beneath the oil or gas lamps of a raucous saloon as on the open range.... making the passage from birth to death beneath an unfenced Western sky.

 

 

 

© Jesse L. "Wolf" Hardin, 2006

About the Author: "John Wesley Hardin; The Shootist Archetype” is adapted from Jesse L. "Wolf" Hardin's popular book Old Guns & Whispering Ghosts which includes a number of fascinating stories of the colorful characters and firearms of the wild West, as well as dozens of previously unpublished historical photos. Hardin is a lifelong student of Western history and antique firearms, as well as a prolific artist, entertaining Old West presenter and storyteller.  In addition to Old Guns & Whispering Ghosts , he has published four other books as well numerous articles which have appeared in more than 100 magazines. Hardin, who lives in an isolated canyon in the Gila Mountains of southwest New Mexico , also tends to a wildlife sanctuary. To learn more about Jesse Hardin and his newest book, visit his website: http://www.oldgunsbook.com
 

 

Also see more articles by Jesse Hardin:

Elfego Baca & The "Frisco War”

Ben Lilly: Bears, Blades & Contradictions

 

 

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