Hardin, John Wesley, 1853-1895

Alternative names
Dates:
Birth 1853-05-26
Death 1895-08-19

Biographical notes:

Texas gunfighter John Wesley Hardin killed his first victim at the age of 15 in 1868. After committing numerous additional murders, often related to drinking and gambling, he was convicted of murder in 1877 and served 15 years' time in Huntsville. In 1894, he was shot in the back of the head and killed in Acme Saloon in El Paso while throwing dice.

From the description of John Wesley Hardin Papers, 1874-1931. (Texas State University-San Marcos). WorldCat record id: 48971180

John Wesley Hardin was born on May 26, 1853 in Bonham, Fannin County, Texas, the second of James Gibson and Elizabeth Cartwright Dixon Hardin's eight children. Hardin's father was a circuit-riding Methodist preacher and named his son after the founder of the Methodist sect.

J. G. Hardin moved the family frequently during Hardin's childhood. They settled in Moscow, Polk County, in 1855, then moved in 1859 to Sumpter, Trinity County, where J. G. Hardin taught school. In 1861, J. G. Hardin passed the bar and moved the family to Livingston, Polk County, Texas where he taught school and practiced law.

After the war, in 1865, the family returned to Sumpter. In 1868, the 15 year old John Wesley Hardin killed his first victim, a former slave. Texas was ruled by the military according to congressional reconstruction policies and Hardin believed that he would not receive a fair trial. He fled and later claimed to have killed three soldiers who were sent to arrest him and that his relatives and neighbors helped him bury and hide the evidence. In 1869, his father sent him away from the area to teach school in Pisga, Navarro County, where other relatives lived. He left the school after one term to take up more lucrative pursuits. He developed his skills in gambling and became enamored of horse racing. By the end of 1869, Hardin by his own admission had killed a freedman and four soldiers. In December of that year he killed Jim Bradly in a fight after a card game. His life subsequently became a pattern of gambling, saloons, fights, and killing.

In 1871, Hardin visited his relatives, the Clements, in Gonzales County. J. G. Hardin's sister Martha Balch had married Emmanuel Clements and Hardin was close to his first cousins, Mannen (or Manning), Joe, and Gip. They convinced him to go with them on a cattle drive to Abilene, Kansas. Hardin used his gun often on the drive. Among his victims were an Indian who shot at him with an arrow and five Mexicans with whom he had argued for crowding his herd. In rough and ready Abilene, Hardin fraternized and sparred with Wild Bill Hickock and Ben Thompson. When his cousin Mannen Clements was jailed for the killing of two of Clements' cowboys, Hardin made arrangements with Hickock for Mannen to escape. Later Hardin killed a man at his hotel and fled Abilene fearing arrest by Hickock.

Hardin returned to Gonzales County, Texas, where he and the Clements piled up indictments (Marohn 44). Hardin married Jane Bowen on February 29, 1872. Jane was fully aware of Hardin's way of life and remained totally loyal to her husband through all the vicissitudes of their married life. Hardin was frequently apart from Jane, often to avoid the law. In August 1872, Hardin was wounded after being shot by Phil A. Sublett who had lost money to Hardin in a Trinity City Saloon. Hardin tried to hide out while he recovered but finally gave himself up when his whereabouts were discovered. Along with an indictment for assaulting Sublett, Hardin had several other indictments outstanding when he was arrested. He was sent to Gonzales County at the request of Sheriff W. E. Jones who held warrants against him (Marohn 56). He broke out of the Gonzales County jail with the help of Mannen Clements.

On February 6, 1873, Hardin's first child Mary Elizabeth (Mollie) was born. In April, he killed J. B. Morgan in a Cuero barroom, one of the two killings for which he would ultimately be convicted. The same year, he became embroiled in the Taylor-Sutton feud as a leader of the Taylor faction. Hardin was related by marriage to the Taylors and both Taylors and Suttons relied on the loyalty of kin. Hardin and Jim Taylor killed the powerful and ruthless Sutton supporter, Jack Helm. In March of 1874, Hardin and his older brother Joseph aided Billy and Jim Taylor in their assassination of the leader of the Sutton faction, Bill Sutton, as he boarded a boat in Indianola on his way to New Orleans. After Bill Sutton's murder, Hardin put together another cattle drive and journeyed to Comanche to say goodbye to his family. On May 26, he was celebrating his winnings from a horse race, drinking at the Comanche saloons, when he met up with deputy sheriff Charles Webb from neighboring Brown County. Webb was killed and the crowd turned against Hardin and his companions. Hardin escaped but his father, brother Joseph, and other kinsmen were arrested. Joseph Hardin and two cousins were taken from jail at night and lynched. Hardin, vowing to avenge his brother's death, fled Texas followed by his wife and daughter. Under the name of J. H. Swain he relocated in Florida among his wife's relatives. He later moved his family to other Bowen relatives in Pollard, Alabama across the Florida border. John Wesley Hardin, Jr. was born August 3, 1875. A daughter, Callie, (later renamed Jane Martina and called Jennie) was born July 15, 1877.

In 1873, Reconstruction had ended in Texas with the election of Richard Coke over radical Republican E. J. Davis. As soon as the former confederates were returned to power, the populace was eager to see an end to the violence and lawlessness which had been rampant since the end of the war. Coke re-established the Texas Rangers in 1874, in part to reinforce local law enforcement in their ineffectual fight against cattle thieves, gangs and feudists. He created a Special Force whose first duty was to end the Sutton-Taylor feud. In 1877, John B. Armstrong, a second Lieutenant in the Special Force, requested that he be commissioned to find and arrest the fugitive Hardin. A Dallas detective Jack Duncan was hired to live undercover among Jane Hardin's relatives in Gonzales County in order to learn where Hardin was. Jane's brother, Brown Bowen, also a fugitive hiding in Alabama, betrayed their whereabouts when he wrote his father and told him that his sister Jane sends her love. Armstrong and Duncan went to Pensacola Junction in Florida and made arrangements with the sheriff to arrest Hardin on the train as he was returning home to Alabama on August 23, 1877. They overpowered Hardin and transported him back to Texas where they lodged him in the Austin jail. Under heavy guard by the Texas Rangers, Hardin was taken to Comanche County and tried for the murder of Charles Webb in September of 1877. He was convicted to 25 years in the state prison but appealed the sentence on technical grounds. He was returned to Austin October 6, 1877 to await his hearing. Hardin's brother-in-law, Brown Bowen, was also in the Austin jail sentenced to die by hanging for the murder of Thomas Haldeman. The Bowens asked Hardin to take the blame for the Haldeman murder. Hardin refused maintaining his innocence. Jane Hardin stood by her husband, thereby estranging herself from her father. Brown Bowen was hung proclaiming Hardin was the guilty one to the very last.

In June 1878, Hardin's conviction was upheld. He entered prison in Huntsville on October 5, 1878. He made several unsuccessful attempts to escape and was harshly punished each time. Eventually he settled into prison life, joined the debating society, attended Sunday school and studied law. In January 1892, Hardin was sent to Cuero, Texas where he plea bargained a 2 year concurrent sentence for the 1873 murder of J. B. Morgan. He was released from prison February 17, 1894 after 15 years and 5 months with time off for good behavior. He rejoined his children in Gonzales County. His wife Jane had died November 6, 1892.

Hardin's attorney wrote Governor Hogg for a full pardon based on the fact that Hardin had completed his sentence and was "behaving in an orderly manner." (Marohn 180) The pardon was granted on March 16, 1894. Hardin then passed a law examination and set up practice in Gonzales. He became embroiled in a controversy with W. E. Jones in Jones' campaign for Gonzales County sheriff. Hardin supported Jones' opponent and charged that Jones had helped him escape from prison in 1872. When Jones won a close election, an embittered Hardin left Gonzales and moved to Junction where his brother Jeff was living. By December, he opened a law office there. In January he married the 15 year old Callie Lewis but she left him soon after.

A kinsman, Jim Miller, asked Hardin to come to Pecos in far West Texas to give legal assistance in his feud with the Pecos County Sheriff, Bud Frazer. Miller was suspected of several murders himself, and when Hardin consented to help him, he was walking straight back into his old way of life. The Miller case ended with a hung jury and Hardin drifted to El Paso. He set up a law office there but soon let his practice slide. He again frequented saloons, gambled, drank to excess and got into fights. On August 19, 1895, John Selman, with whom Hardin had been arguing, shot Hardin in the back of the head as he threw dice at the bar of the Acme Saloon.

From the guide to the John Wesley Hardin Collection Collection 088., 1874-1931 (Bulk: 1874-1895), (Southwestern Writers Collection, Special Collections, Alkek Library, Texas State University-San Marcos)

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Subjects:

  • Criminals--Texas
  • Frontier and pioneer life
  • Frontier and pioneer life--Texas
  • Criminals

Occupations:

not available for this record

Places:

  • Texas (as recorded)