John Wesley Hardin was the son of a preacher and schoolteacher, became a lawyer in prison, and once publicly bragged he, “Never killed anyone who didn’t need killin’.”
I guess that’s worth bragging about.
Born on May 26, 1853, near Bonham, Texas, John was the son of a Methodist preacher so devoted to the faith that he named his son after the founder of the Methodist Church, John Wesley. Unfortunately, young Johnny Hardin didn’t grow up to emulate his namesake. In fact, arguments could easily be made that he went in the complete opposite direction.
John ran away from home at age nine to join the Confederate Army but was turned away most likely for being only nine. He got his first taste of harming others at 14 years old when a student at school named Charles Sloter accused Hardin of writing something nasty about a girl on the outside of the schoolhouse. John claimed it was Charles who wrote the graffiti. Charles responded by pulling a knife. John took the knife and plunged it into Charles, almost killing the kid. John almost got expelled over the attempted murder but didn’t as his father ran the school.
A year later, John killed a man who he claimed to have bested him in a wrestling match. According to John, the man came up to him the next day none the happy that John had beaten him. One thing led to another, and John shot the man dead. John fled into the wilds of Texas to hide out but was soon discovered by a posse of U.S. Army soldiers. Of this encounter, John later explained, “I waylaid them, as I had no mercy on men whom I knew only wanted to get my body to torture and kill. It was war to the knife for me, and I brought it on by opening the fight with a double-barreled shotgun and ended it with a cap and ball six-shooter. Thus it was by the fall of 1868 I had killed four men and was myself wounded in the arm.”
The next few years saw John on the run.
And teaching school.
He taught school in Pisgah for a time until he shot a man’s eye out to win a bottle of booze in a bet. Because of this, he felt the need to hit the road again. While on the run – yet again – he allegedly killed a soldier he encountered then killed another man in Leon County. On January 5, 1870, in the town of Towash, John repeatedly beat Benjamin Bradley at cards. Benjamin got so upset at his losing streak that he threatened to cut out John’s liver if he won another hand. John did and Benjamin pulled a pistol. John said he was unarmed and left. The two ran into one another later that evening at which point Benjamin shot at and missed John. John drew two pistols (by this point John favored wearing his dual pistols on the vest with butts facing inward meaning he cross drawed) and shot Benjamin dead.
Less than a month later, John killed a man in Horn Hill following an argument at a circus.
So much for the circus being the happiest place on Earth!
A week after that John killed a pimp who had the audacity to insist John pay for time with his lady. In January 1871, John was arrested for killing Waco City Marshall Laban John Hoffman. John denied killing the man and eventually escaped by killing one of his two captors. John claimed he was then captured by three other men but escaped when he killed all of them as well. John moved to Gonzales to hideout with his cousins soon after and eventually followed them north to drive cattle to Kansas. But cattle driving didn’t keep John from murder and mayhem. During the drive he knocked a fellow cowboy unconscious with the butt of his pistol and wounded three Mexicans following a card game by pistol whipping one, shooting one in the arm, and the third in the lung. Later in the drive, John shot another Mexican in the leg following an argument. The man got away so John followed him to find him hiding out with five friends. John killed all of them but one. Once the drive hit Abilene, John shot a man in the mouth who was dumb enough to spout a bunch of anti-Texas sentiment in public. Later in Abilene, John was confronted by Marshall “Wild Bill” Hickock. The two hit it off and Wild Bill allowed John to legally carry his pistols in town.
No, background checks were nonexistent at this time.
On August 6, 1871, John shot a man named Charles Cougar through the wall of American House Hotel for snoring. John fled the scene and later said of the killing, “They tell lots of lies about me. They say I killed six or seven men for snoring. Well, it ain’t true. I only killed one man for snoring.”
While on the run from this and basically every other thing he’d done in his life, John was involved in at least six additional gunfights. For some reason, John decided to put this life of violence behind him and settled down. He married and had three children. John’s thoughts on moving away from violence didn’t last however and soon he was involved in shooting after shooting. Following a gunfight that saw him take two rounds of buckshot to the kidney, John went to turn himself in to the authorities only to take a .44 to the knee for his trouble. John was thrown in jail but upon realizing the law was going to charge him with most of his life he promptly escaped. A year later, while celebrating his 21st birthday, John ended up shooting and killing the Deputy Sheriff Charles Webb of Brown County, Texas. This incident proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back as Texas declared they had had enough of John Wesley Hardin and posted a $4,000 bounty on his head.
And sent the Texas Rangers out to hunt him down.
John was captured by Rangers on August 24, 1877. He was tried and convicted for killing Deputy Sheriff Webb and sentenced to 25 years in Huntsville, Prison. Although John made several attempts at escape, he eventually turned his life – somewhat – around in prison. He became the superintendent of the prison Sunday School, earned a law degree, wrote his autobiography, mourned the death of his wife, and suffered from all the injuries he had earned during his life of debauchery. He was released from prison after serving 17 years. He was 40 years old.
On March 16, 1894, John was pardoned for his crimes. He passed the bar on July 21. On January 9, 1895, he married a 15-year-old girl named Callie Lewis then moved to El Paso. John was shot and killed at the Acme Saloon on August 19, 1895, when a man he had earlier been playing dice with walked up behind him and shot John in the head.
He was 42 years old.