John Wesley Hardin - Outlaw

John Wesley Hardin 1853-1895

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 race horses.
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 Prison.
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 Gibson