How John Wesley Hardin Became a Bloodthirsty Old West Outlaw

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John Wesley Hardin killed his first man when he was just 15 and killed as many as 44 as a marksman and outlaw in the Old West in the late 19th century.

US Stocks Archive / Getty ImagesJohn Wesley Hardin always maintained that he never killed anyone who didn’t need to be killed.

By his own admission, John Wesley Hardin was a man more often sinned against than a sinner himself.

A gentleman gambler who made most of his money betting on horses or selling cattle, Hardin left his mark on history as one of the most skilled gunmen in the Old West, killing at least 21 men in duels and ambushes between 1868 and 1877. Hardin himself, however, approximates this number to 44.

Of course, a man with that many kills will inevitably make enemies along the way, especially if he’s got a $4,000 bounty on his head, spends his days gambling and drinking, and takes someone else’s wife. man as lover.

This is the story of John Wesley Hardin, one of the western frontier’s most infamous outlaws.

The Youth and First Murder of John Wesley Hardin

Born May 26, 1853, to John Gibson Hardin and Mary Elizabeth Dixon, “Wes” Hardin was supposed to be a preacher. His parents named him John Wesley after the founder of the Methodist branch of Protestantism, but it seemed he was not meant for the clerical lifestyle.

According old westHardin witnessed his first murder when he was 8 years old. At age 9, all he wanted to do was join the Confederate Army, and on his own, he committed his first act of violence while still in school, stabbing a classmate after a fight for a girl.

In 1868, John Wesley Hardin was 15 years old and he killed his first man.

Hardin was wrestling with a former slave named Maje. The fight heated up and they were separated, but Hardin refused to leave with the score apparently unsettled.

Outlaw John Wesley Hardin

Public domainHardin wrote an autobiography of his life in which he confesses to more murders than he was officially convicted.

Saddling his horse, Old Paint, Hardin knocked Maje down the road and accused the man of being a coward. He picked up a stick and started beating Maje with it, and when Maje ran away, Hardin shot him, having no intention of killing the man. But when he caught up with Maje, the freedman was coughing up blood.

That’s how Hardin described the incident, at least. Another version of the event recorded by a Freedmen Bureau agent claimed that Hardin shot Maje simply because he defended himself. Whatever the truth, Hardin’s life of crime and violence had only just begun.

John Wesley Hardin’s Life as a Gambler and Gunman

Officially, Hardin made a living as a rancher and gamer, but for one reason or another he found himself at odds with quite a few people – and dozens were killed because of it.

After the incident with Maje, Hardin fled to his brother’s home 25 miles north in Sumpter, Texas, where, according to the Texas State Historical Associationhe claimed to have killed four Union soldiers who tried to arrest him.

Three years later, in 1871, he traveled to Abilene, Kansas, and killed seven other people along the way. He also managed to get the draw on the famous Marshal, Wild Bill Hickok – a feat many attribute to Hardin’s unique cross-draw method, keeping his guns in shoulder holsters rather than at his side.

Along the way, he married a young woman named Jane Bowen, and the couple had a son and two daughters. Unfortunately, a family wasn’t enough reason for Hardin to settle down.

He claimed in his autobiography that he never killed anyone who didn’t deserve it, but another story he told casts doubt on that claim.

One night while Hardin was staying at a hotel in Abilene, a man named Charles Couger snored loudly in the room next to his. Hardin banged on the wall, but the man didn’t wake up.

In an attempt to wake the man, Wes fired his gun and fired a bullet through the wall. When the snoring stopped and the man made no further sound, Hardin realized he had aimed too low – and shot the man.

John Wesley Hardin bounty

Public domainSadly, Hardin’s wife died while he was in prison, and his children wanted nothing to do with the reformed criminal.

However, the incident that solidified John Hardin’s place in history occurred in 1874, on his 21st birthday.

Celebrating a big horse racing victory, Hardin and a few companions got incredibly drunk and drew the ire of Comanche, Texas, Deputy Sheriff Charles Webb. The two engaged in a duel, and Hardin won.

The murder reportedly enraged the townspeople so much that they lynched Hardin’s brother and cousins, forcing him to flee and a $4,000 bounty to be placed on his head.

Wes Hardin’s years in prison changed him – but not enough

It took six years for the law to catch up with Hardin. By 1877 he was living under a new name, JH Swain, with his wife’s family in Pensacola, Florida.

A group of Texas Rangers led by John Armstrong had tracked him down and found him in a passenger train car with a few of his friends. Hardin immediately recognized Armstrong and went to draw his gun, but it got caught in his shoulder straps.

One of Hardin’s friends fired a shot at Armstrong, knocking his hat off his head. In response, Armstrong shot the man in his heart.

With nowhere to run and his gun still jammed, Armstrong and his men finally grabbed their man.

According Encyclopedia Britannica, they brought him back to Austin where he was tried for the murder of Charles Webb and sentenced to 25 years in prison in September 1877.

And although he made several escape attempts, Hardin also learned about theology and law and even became superintendent of the prison’s Sunday school.

In 1894, he was reformed as a law-abiding citizen – and pardoned for his crimes. After his pardon, Hardin was admitted to the state bar and left town for El Paso, intending to start a law firm.

Unfortunately, his efforts to lead a decent life did not quite come to fruition.

John Wesley Hardin in Death

Bettmann/Getty ImagesA photograph of John Wesley Hardin after his death.

In 1895, Hardin acted as defense attorney for Martin Mroz, a cattle rustler who had fled to Mexico. While working on Mroz’s case, Hardin became interested in his client’s wife, and soon enough the two became lovers.

Mroz discovered the affair and sought to return to El Paso from Mexico, bringing in attorney George Scarborough to cross over.

Unfortunately for Mroz, Scarborough overtook him and Mroz was shot dead by several lawmen at the border. Rumor had it that Hardin had hired the men to murder his client before he could get his revenge.

But on August 19, 1895, one of the lawmen involved in Mroz’s murder, John Selman, found Wes Hardin in the Acme Saloon in El Paso and shot him in the back of the neck.

Some have argued Selman’s murder was the result of him not being paid for killing Mroz, others say Selman and Hardin had been embroiled in a long and bitter feud.

Either way, John Wesley’s life at Hardin ended that day in the Acme Saloon, but his legacy lives on.


After reading about John Wesley Hardin’s life outside the law, check out another Wild West icon: Calamity Jane. Or, ask about nine outlaws which wreaked havoc across the border.

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