His father, James G. Hardin was a Methodist preacher and circuit rider. His mother, Elizabeth, was described by him as being "a blonde, highly cultured, and charity predominated in her disposition." Hardin's father traveled over most of central Texas on his preaching circuit until 1869. He eventually settled in Sumpter, Texas, in Trinity County. Here he taught school and established an institution that John Wesley and his brother Joe G. Hardin attended. It was and still is often incorrectly assumed that John Wesley Hardin was an uneducated vagabond cowboy who would fire on anyone he pleased. However, a review of several more reliable sources gives a more robust view of his life.
In history of the West, John Wesley Hardin ranks as one of the most profligate killers of all. By the time he went to prison in 1878, he claimed to have slain 44 men--and his reckoning was probably not far off. Hardin was born in Bonham, Texas in 1853. His father, a Methodist minister, named him for the founder of the faith. He grew up to be an attractive lad-- blue- eyed ("mild blue," a contemporary recalled), handsome in a square-jawed way and rather slight of a build. But even in early adolescence, he revealed a capacity for stark, murderous fury. He was about 14 when a bigger boy taunted him as the author of some graffiti on the schoolhouse wall, a puppy-love paean to a girl in his class. John Wesley went for the boy with a knife; before they could separated, he stabbed his tormenter twice, obviously ready to kill him.
Life on the run
As a fugitive, Hardin traveled throughout Texas evading the law. He was arrested several times, but always managed to escape. After the last of his escapes, he found refuge among relatives, the Clements family. They informed him that by getting into the growing cattle market he could make money in Kansas. This would allow him to get out of Texas long enough for things to cool down. So Hardin took up work with the Clements, gathering cattle for Jake Johnson and Columbus Carol. He would then begin his trip to Kansas. On his way, Hardin fought Mexican vaqueros, Indians, and cattle rustlers. At the end of his trip in Kansas came one of the most famous confrontations between Hardin and the law.
The "Bull's Head Tavern", in Abilene, Kansas, was established by gambler/gunman Ben Thompson with businessman and gambler Phil Coe. These two gamblers painted a rather vulgar picture of a bull as an advertisement for their establishment. Then the "prudish", as described by Dee Brown, citizens of the town complained to Abilene's Marshal "Wild Bill" Hickok. When Thompson and Coe refused to take down the bull, Hickok altered it himself. Infuriated, Thompson exclaimed to Hardin, "He's a damn Yankee. Picks on Rebels, especially Texans, to kill." Hardin simply replied, "If Wild Bill needs killin', why don't you kill him yourself?".
Later that night, Hardin was confronted by Hickok, who told Hardin to hand over his guns, which Hardin did. Hickok did not arrest Hardin, for reasons unknown, and it was later claimed that Hickok had no knowledge that Hardin was wanted. Hickok did advise him to avoid problems while in Abilene. Phil Coe was later killed by Hickok during a street brawl, during which Hickok also accidentally killed his own deputy. Thompson did not confront Hickok over the Coe shooting, allegedly believing that Hickok had been justified in the event.
Within a year, Hardin did kill. Like Bill Longley, he was spurred by the hatred that seethed between newly freed blacks and defeated Southern whites. Visiting relatives near Moscow, Texas, in 1868, he was egged into a wrestling match with an ex-slave named Mage. In the rough-and-tumble bout, Mage's nose was bloodied. By Hardin's version, the black man then declared that "no white boy could draw his blood and live." The next day, Mage caught up with him as he was riding home and dared him to fight again. Hardin was armed. When Mage seized the bridle of his horse, he later recounted, "I shot him loose. He kept coming back and every time we would start, I would shoot him again and again until I shot him down."
Hardin's father, "distracted" by the killing, urged his son to go into hiding. The elder Hardin believed, in the son's words (and probably correctly), that to be tried "at the time for killing a Negro meant certain death at the hands of a court backed by Northern bayonets." The boy fled, and for the next 10 years he stayed on the run, eluding pursuers who sought to bring him for justice for one crime or another.
He seldom wandered far from his native ground. Central Texas abounded with John Wesley's kin-folk. All of them--and most of their neighbors-- were happy to shelter any fugitive from carpetbagger justice. At one point, while he was in hiding, he received word from his other brother Joseph that Union soldiers were looking for him. Knowing the byways through the back country, John Wesley bushwhacked three of the pursuing Yankees--two white and one black man--at a creek crossing. "Parties in the neighborhood took the soldiers' horses and as we burned all their effects everything was kept quiet," he noted in the remarkable autobiography that he composed in the last year of his life. "Thus by the fall of 1868 I had killed four men." He was only 15 years old.
By ironic chance, Hardin was arrested in 1870 for a murder in Waco that he had not committed. Unable to persuade a judge of his innocence, he was held temporarily in a log jail in the town of Marshall, awaiting transfer to Waco. In the privacy of this crude lockup, he bought two useful items from a fellow prisoner: an overcoat against the winter cold, and a Colt .45. Thus he was ready when a Captain Stokes of the state police and a guard named Jim Smolly came to convey him to Waco for trial. Hardin was wearing the overcoat when they arrived. Under it, tied to his shoulder with twine, was the Colt.
One night while the three men were camping en route, Stokes went to rustle up some fodder for the horses, and Hardin was left alone with Smolly, a loud, over-bearing man. Smolly began to revile his 17-year-old charge. Hardin, who had a canny sense of the uses to which callow youth could be put, burst into tears and huddled against his pony's flank while Smolly watched in amusement. Behind the pony, Hardin slipped his hand into his coat and untied the string that held his gun. He shot Smolly dead and ran.
A few days later, several of Hardin's relatives were gathering at Gonzales, in southern Texas, for a drive up the Chisholm Trail to Abilene, Kansas. They persuaded a rancher to hire John Wesley as a trail boss for his herd. Toward the end of the drive, a Mexican herd crowded in behind Hardin's and there was some trouble keeping apart. Hardin got into a verbal battle with the Mexican in charge of the other herd. Both men were on horseback. The Mexican fired, putting a hole through John Wesley's hat.
Swift to retaliate, Hardin found that his own weapon, a worn-out cap-and-ball pistol with a loose cylinder, would not fire; he dismounted, managed to discharge the gun by steadying the cylinder with one hand and pulling the trigger with the other, and hit the Mexican in the thigh. A truce was declared, but John Wesley was not content with merely winging his opponent. He borrowed a pistol from a friend, went after the Mexican again, and this time shot him through the head. A general fire fight between the rival camps ensued. The Mexicans suffered all the casualties. Six vaqueros died in the exchanges--five of them felled by the six-shooter in John Wesley Hardin's hand.
In Abilene, Hardin met Wild Bill Hickok, at the time the cattle town's reigning peace officer. Hickok took an indulgently paternal attitude toward the young killer. He drank with Hardin, whored with him and gave him advice, and at one point, when a gang of Hardin's Texas pals and relatives got into trouble, disarmed them but left Hardin his weapon, presumably to allow him to either protect his friends or to keep them in line.
For his part, Hardin was fascinated by Wild Bill and glowed at being seen on intimate terms with so celebrated gunfighter. But all the while, down deep, he realized that Wild Bill would kill him without qualm if circumstance suggested the need--perhaps not out of ill will, but certainly for self-protection.
The climax for association came with one of Hardin's most callous crimes, so ignoble that even he showed some sign of shame and attempted to pass off as the justifiable shooting of a man who was trying to steal his pants. Actually, he had less excuse than that. At the American House Hotel, where Hardin had put up for the night, he began firing bullets through a bedroom wall simply to stop the snoring of a stranger in the next room. The first bullet merely woke the man; the second killed him. In the silence Hardin realized that he was about to plunge into deep trouble with Wild Bill Hickok. Still in his undershirt, he exited through a window and ran onto the roof of the hotel portico--just in time to see Hickok arriving with four policemen, alerted by other guests. "I believe," Hardin said later, "that if Wild Bill found me in a defenseless condition, he would take no explanation, but would kill me to add to his reputation."
Not waiting to determine Hickok's disposition in the matter, Hardin leaped from the roof into the street and hid in a haystack for the rest of the night. Towards dawn he stole a horse and made his way back to the cow camp outside town. The next day he left for Texas, never to return to Abilene. Years later Hardin made a casual reference to the episode. "They tell lots of lies about me," he complained. "They say I killed six or seven men for snoring. Well, it ain't true, I only killed one man for snoring."
About this time Hardin turned up in southeastern Texas, in the area around Gonzales County, reuniting with his Clements cousins, who were allied with the local Taylor family, who had been feuding with the rival Sutton family for several years. Already notorious, Hardin was wounded by a shotgun blast in a Trinity City gambling dispute on August 7, 1872. After recovering, he resumed his depredations.
Hardin's main claim to fame in the Sutton-Taylor feud was the killing of Jack Helm, a former captain in the Texas State Police who was the sheriff of DeWitt County, Texas. For years, Helm had been allied with the Suttons and participated in killings with them. On the afternoon of May 17, 1873, Jack Helm was at a blacksmith's shop in the hamlet of Albuquerque, Texas when Hardin and Jim Taylor stumbled into him. Helm advanced on the two men with a knife, only to be cut down by a Hardin-administered shotgun blast. As Helm writhed on the ground, Taylor marched over with his pistol drawn and emptied it into his head (with each bullet he fired, Taylor called out the name of a relative who had met death at the hands of Helm and the Suttons.)
The next night, Hardin and other Taylor supporters surrounded the ranch house of Sutton ally Joe Tomlinson. A shouted truce was enacted and both sides signed a peace treaty in Clinton, Texas. Within the year, war once again broke out between the two sides, culminating when Jim and Bill Taylor gunned down Billy Sutton and Gabriel Slaugther as they waited on a steamboat platform in Indianola, Texas on March 11, 1874 (ironically, Sutton was set to leave the area forever at the time of his killing).
On May 26, 1874, Hardin, Jim Taylor, and others were cornered in Comanche, Texas by Brown County Texas Deputy sheriff Charles Webb. In the ensuing gunfight, Webb was shot dead by Hardin. A couple of weeks later, a lynch mob killed several of Hardin's friends, including his brother Joe. Shortly after this he and Jim Taylor parted ways for the final time. Jim Taylor was killed on December 27, 1875.
Capture, later life, and death
Eventually, Hardin was captured but entered prison with a pre-law degree he had earned along with his brother. He finished his law degree while incarcerated. After serving 17 years in prison Hardin was released, and he began practicing law as an attorney in El Paso, Texas. Despite his law practice, Hardin was frequently drunk and violent, often demanding his money back at gunpoint if he lost at cards. Rumor had it that he was haunted by past atrocities. In 1895 he began work on his autobiography.
On August 19, 1895, El Paso lawman John Selman arrested Hardin's prostitute girlfriend. Hardin confronted Selman, and the two men had a verbal dispute. Hardin then went to the Acme Saloon, where he began playing dice. Selman walked in shortly thereafter and shot Hardin three times from behind, killing him. Selman was arrested for the murder, stood trial, but a hung jury resulted in his being released on bond. Selman was also killed, in a shootout several months later, by US Marshal George Scarborough who had been close friends with another man Selman had killed. Scarborough was mortally wounded in a gunfight with two robbers and died on April 5, 1900, exactly four years after he shot John Selman.
Hardin in popular culture
An American folk song describes his activities with a folk hero patina. A version of the song was recorded by Bob Dylan as "John Wesley Harding" (with a g added to the name), the title song of one of his albums.
Johnny Cash wrote and recorded a song about Hardin entitled "Hardin Wouldn't Run". It relates some of the true events of Hardin's life, including his murder at the Acme Saloon. Most song and movie accounts, though, go beyond the truths into myths or outright untruths in order to glamorize him or the gunfighter who kills him. For example, his character, with many of the myths intact as well as having some new myths created for sensationalism, has appeared in popular works, including a prominent role in Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove sequel, Streets of Laredo. In the miniseries of the novel, Hardin was portrayed by actor Randy Quaid.
A 1959 episode of Maverick, "Duel at Sundown", has the character of Brett Maverick and his brother, Bart, posing as "John Wesley Hardin" vs. Maverick to stage a fake gunfight and shootout in order to avoid a real gunfight. As Brett and Bart ride out of town, they meet a stranger who wants directions to meet the "fake" John Wesley Hardin. The stranger is none other than the "real" John Wesley Hardin.
Rock Hudson starred in a 1953 very fictionalized version of John Wesley Hardin's life called "The Lawless Breed"; at the end he gets shot in a saloon in Texas. Unlike the real John Wesley Hardin, he survives.
Hardin was briefly portrayed in the movie Dirty Dingus Magee by actor Jack Elam.
Hardin was briefly portrayed in the movie Maverick by actor Max Perlich.
Many people came to know of Hardin through the TV ad for Time-Life Books "Old West" series. During the description of the book "The Gunfighters" the famous claim is made, "John Wesley Hardin...so mean he once shot a man just for snoring."
Hardin was among the outlaws mentioned in the song Rhymes of the Renegades, by Michael Martin Murphey.
Hardin and the law
Prior to his killing of Deputy Sheriff (and ex-Texas Ranger) Charles Webb in May 26, 1874 and his arrest in July 23, 1877, Hardin had at least three confirmed clashes with the law:
On January 9, 1871 he was arrested by Constable E.T. Stokes and twelve citizens in Harrison County, Texas on a charge of four murders and one horse theft (Texas State Police Arrest report for 1870–1871-he is listed as "Hardin, J.R."). The victims are not identified nor is it reported from whom the horse was stolen.
In September 1872 he surrendered to the Sheriff of Cherokee County, Texas; he escaped in October 1872.
In May 1873 he was involved in the killing of Sheriff Jack Helms and a J.B. Morgan of Cuero, Texas.
His 1st cousin 4 times removed was Colonel John Hardin of the American Revolution.
Hardin was nicknamed "The Forty-Something Killer", due to the supposed number of men he had killed.
Hardin primarialy used the Colt Thunderer and Lightning.
The Thunderer Serial #73728 he owned sold for $100,000 US in 2002.
A Lightning he was given by a ex Texas Ranger (later an outlaw) Jim Miller and the man who killed Pat Garrett sold at the same 2002 auction for $186,000 US. This gun serial #84304 was on him when he was killed.
A photograph of Hardin was appraised on Antiques Roadshow and was estimated to be worth up to $50,000 USD.
Hardin was not the only killer in his family:
A brother killed a Texas Deputy Sheriff 1898.
A cousin was married to killer Jim Miller (outlaw) who killed a law officer in 1906 and was a suspect in the death of former sheriff Pat Garrett in 1908.
A cousin was outlaw Mannie Clements.
Supposedly after his death there were two sayings about Hardin:
That he wasn't bad looking except for being dead;
That if he was shot in front it was good marksmanship and if he was shot in the back of the head it was good judgment.