Hardin was born on May
25, 1853 in Bonham, Texas. His father was a circuit-riding preacher and
his mother was a gentile cultured woman. He grew up in Sumpter, where
he attended school in an establishment set up by his father. One day,
another student Charles Sloter, challenged him to a wrestling match. Hardin
had him pinned down, when Sloter pulled a knife on him. A friend tossed
him a knife and the fight turned bloody. Sloter's parents protested, but
dropped it when witnesses proved it was self-defense.
In 1862, the family moved to Polk County, where his father practiced law.
Three years later, they moved back to Sumpter. His father practiced law
and taught school where Hardin attended. By that time, Hardin was an accomplished
hunter and excellent shot.
In 1865, at twelve, Hardin killed his first man. He and cousin Barnett
Jones were arm wrestling a black man named Mage at his father's plantation
in Livingston, Texas. His ring scratched Mage's face and a fistfight broke
out. The next morning, while walking back home, Mage accosted Hardin and
tried to club him. Hardin shot him. Mage died soon after. His father worried
that "union-dominated" courts would treat his son harshly, so
he sent him to live with a friend at an isolated ranch. When a union patrol
came after him to arrest him, he ambushed the party and killed three men.
Next he joined two cousins, Manning Clements and Tom Dixon, herding longhorns.
They spent their free time in saloons and gambling halls, even though
they were still teenagers. Wes became very skilled with his Colt .44 and
an expert at poker, euchre, and seven-up. He also was a good judge of
He met up with his cousin Simp Dixon, whose mother, brother, and sister
had been killed by union troops. He had sworn vengeance against the Yankees
forever. Hardin and Dixon got cornered into a battle with union troops,
in which Hardin killed two men. After that, he had out on uncle Barnett
Hardin's plantation. In 1869, Governor Edmund J. Davis vowed to have Hardin
killed, jailed, or hung. Hardin was only sixteen, but known to be a deadly
gunfighter. But friends and family always warned him when the governor's
troops were close.
He drifted for a few months, killing two more men. At the urging of his
father, he enrolled at Professor Landrum's Academy in Round Rock. The
state police caught up to him so he had to continue his studies in a hideout.
He eventually took a test and got a diploma.
He next left for Shreveport, Louisiana. At the border he was mistakenly
arrested for another man. But when the police found out who he was, they
made arrangements to transport him back to Waco. Hardin brought a Colt
.45 from another prisoner, so was able to shoot his guard and escape.
Police caught up with him again. But one night the three troopers got
drunk, and Hardin shot them all and escaped.
He reached Gonzales where he and Manning Clements signed up to drive a
herd of steers to Abilene, Kansas. While at Gonzales he met Jane Bowen,
who he would later marry. He stayed on in Abilene for awhile hitting saloons
and gambling halls. He confronted Marshall Wild Bill Hickok, but nothing
came of it. A couple months later, he went back to Texas. He killed three
men in a posse that was after him. This sent fresh waves of government
troops after him. But he went back to Gonzales, confident everyone there
would protect him. In March 1873, he married Jane.
In July 1873, he was wounded for the first time. In an argument over a
bet, Phil Sublet shot him in the stomach with a shotgun. He got emergency
surgery in a nearby hotel. A few days later a posse caught up with him,
so Clements helped him escape. Troopers caught up with them and engaged
them in a gun battle. Wes shot two men and was also wounded again in the
thigh. But the two got away.
But his wounds were troubling him, so Hardin surrendered to the county
sheriff at Smiley. When he heard the state police were coming to take
over, he escaped to Gonzales. There he became involved in a family feud
between the Sutton and Taylor families. This got the governor back on
his trail. He fled to Comanche with his cousins, driving steer. Brown
County Sheriff Charles Webb swore he'd kill Hardin.
Webb rode to Comanche to the rack where Hardin was betting on horses.
Webb knew it would be foolhardy to go after Hardin among all his friends.
So he waited until later when Hardin was celebrating his 21st birthday
at Jack Wright's saloon. Several residents of Brown County backed him
up. He had just about had Hardin convinced he wasn't there to make trouble,
when he pulled his gun on him. Some instinct made Hardin turn around and
he killed Webb first. A free-for-all broke out. Hardin and Clements got
away, but brother Joe and the Dixon brothers were arrested. Brown County
residents stormed the jail and lynched the three men. Joe had never been
guilty of anything.
Hardin fled to Alabama, where he became a stockman and saloonkeeper. He
took the name of James W. Swain. His wife and three kids joined him at
Polland, Alabama. Meanwhile back in Comanche, a man named John Duncan,
had hired on with Jane's father as a ranch hand. He was actually a Texas
Ranger after Hardin. He saw a letter that led him to Alabama. The rangers
captured Hardin on a train coming to Alabama from Pensacola, Florida.
Hardin was quickly convicted and sentenced to 25 years hard labor at Huntsville
He served 19 years before being pardoned in 1894. During that time he
wrote many letters to his wife and mother. Some 300 of them are preserved
at the Southwest Texas State University at San Marcos. While there he
led several escape attempts, but none succeeded. He also studied law and
theology while in prison. In December 1878, his final appeal was denied.
In 1883, he was ill for several months probably from infection from one
of his gunshot wounds. He was troubled by illness again in 1890. His wife
died on November 6, 1892.
When he left prison, he had had enough schooling to become a lawyer. He
set up a law office in Gonzales in October 1894. He seems to have done
well. He avoided saloons and gambling halls. He began writing his autobiography.
He charmed Callie Lewis into marrying him, but they split soon afterwards.
He grew depressed over the split and began hanging out at saloons again.
He moved to El Paso and set up a new law practice. He was finally killed
there by Sheriff John Selman on August 19, 1895, for Hardins disparaging
remarks against his son.
-copyright 2005 by Beth