Pale Horse Revelations #24: John Wesley Hardin
Hello readers and welcome back to Pale Horse Revelations. This week’s entry will continue the recently established trend of focusing on a significant person, place, or event in Old West history. While I make no promises, don't be surprised if some of these places, people, or events find their way into future Pale Rider adventures. This week's edition will feature one of my favorite characters from the Old West: John Wesley Hardin. I hope you will find him as interesting as I do.
John Wesley Hardin was born near Bonham, Texas in 1853. Ironically, his father was a Methodist preacher and Hardin was named after the founder of the Methodist Church. In 1859 Hardin's father decided to settle the family in Sumpter, Trinity County, Texas. There, Hardin's father took up the task of establishing a school and subsequently taught there as well.
It was at this school that John Wesley Hardin had his first brush with trouble. In 1867 Hardin became embroiled in a bitter argument with classmate Charles Stotter. Eventually Stotter escalated the situation by charging at Hardin with a knife. It was a near fatal mistake on Stotter's part. Hardin, who was also armed with a knife, stabbed Stotter, nearly killing him. This was just the first in what would become a long list of violent altercations involving Hardin.
A year later, at the age of 15, Hardin would kill his first man. The victim was former slave Maje Holshousen. Hardin challenged him to a wrestling match, which Hardin won. The next day Hardin claimed that Holshousen ambushed him brandishing a stick. Hardin shot him five times. Holshousen would die from his wounds three days later.
Fearful that Hardin would not be able to get a fair trial in the Union controlled state, Hardin's father sent him into hiding. Eventually the authorities discovered Hardin's whereabouts and three soldiers were sent to arrest him. Having been warned by his brother, Hardin chose fight over flight, ambushing and killing all three men.
Hardin would spend the next several years on the run. Violence would continue to be a way of life for the young man. Just how many men Hardin killed is hard to determine due to his tendency to exaggerate (and sometimes fabricate) his deeds. In 1877, at the age of 23, Hardin claimed to have already killed 42 men. Contemporary news accounts contributed a total of 27 killings to the young man.
At least one incident cannot be disputed as it was witnessed by dozens of people. On January 5, 1870, Hardin was involved in a gunfight with a man named Benjamin Bradley in Towash, Hill County, Texas. Like so many disputes during this era, this one originated over a card game. The two men were playing cards and Hardin was winning almost every hand. An enraged Bradley threatened Hardin, who claimed to be unarmed and left. Later that night Bradley sought out Hardin and fired on him. Bradley missed and Hardin responded by drawing both of his pistols and opening fire. Bradley was hit twice, once in the head and once in the chest. According to witnesses Hardin had his holsters sewn into his vest and wore his guns with the butts pointed inward across his chest. He crossed his arms to draw, claiming that this was the fastest method. Hardin was known to practice his draw daily.
Hardin also had a well-documented encounter with Wild Bill Hickock in Abilene Kansas. Hardin was going by the alias Wesley Clemmons at the time but was better known to the townsfolk as "Little Arkansaw." Ben Thompson, a well-known gunfighter in his own right, tried to goad Hardin into killing Hickock but Hardin refused. Later that night Hickock, who was the town marshal at the time, encountered Hardin in violation of the town ordinance against wearing firearms. Hickock demanded that Hardin, still going by his alias, turnover his weapons. Hardin offered his pistols, butt forward, but when Hickock reached for them, he rolled them over in his hands putting Hickock at the muzzle end of both weapons. This maneuver was known as the Road Agent Spin. It is the same maneuver that my protagonist uses in the opening sequence of his gunfight in Spanish Fort.
Fortunately, both Hickock and Hardin backed down and violence was avoided. Nonetheless, it would seem that Hardin succeeded in winning Hickock's respect. The next time the two men met Hickock did not ask for Hardin's guns. Hardin was the only man afforded such consideration.
Eventually Hardin's violent past would catch up with him. On August 24, 1877, Hardin was arrested in Pensacola, Florida by a contingent of Texas Rangers and local officers. They confronted Hardin and several companions aboard a train. Hardin attempted to draw his pistol, but the barrel got caught on his suspenders. One of the officers knocked Hardin unconscious.
Hardin was tried and convicted for the 1874 slaying of deputy Sheriff Charles Webb. Hardin was sentenced to 24 years in prison and served out his time in Huntsville prison. After several attempts to escape Hardin eventually settled down and adjusted to prison life. He studied theology and the law while serving out his time.
After his release he would eventually settle in El Paso, Texas. There his life would come to an abrupt end when he was shot and killed by Constable John Selman, Sr. on August 19, 1895. After a heated exchange earlier in the day Selman came upon Hardin playing dice in the Acme Saloon shortly before midnight. Without a word, Selman approached from behind and shot Hardin in the head. Selman put three additional rounds into Hardin as he lay on the floor, despite the man already being dead.
Selman was arrested and tried for Hardin's murder. He claimed self-defense, insisting that he saw Hardin going for his own gun. The trial resulted in a hung jury and Selman was released pending a retrial. That retrial would never happen as Selman was killed in a gunfight with US Marshal George Scarborough before it could be organized.
This brings us to the end of another edition of Pale Horse Revelations. I hope you found it to be both interesting and entertaining. As usual, I have tried to provide some interesting historical information while trying not to bog the casual reader down with too much detail. Hardin is such an interesting character that I could only scrape the surface within the parameters of this article. I strongly encourage anyone interested in learning more to dig in and do a little research of their own.
As a reminder, I would love to hear your suggestions for topics to focus on in future editions of Pale Horse Revelations. If there's a particular location, person, or event that you would like to know more about, please let me know. Just fill out the Contact form found near the bottom of my home page (www.bmiltonhyde.com) and indicate your desired topic in the message box at the bottom of the form. I look forward to hearing from you all.
Please be sure to check back next week for the next installment of Pale Horse Revelations and thank you for your continued interest and support.