John Wesley Hardin: Bad or Misunderstood?
John Wesley Hardin was born near Bonham, Texas on May 26, 1853 to parents James “Gip” Hardin and Mary Elizabeth Dixson. Hardin’s father was a Methodist preacher, and in those days, preachers often had huge territories to cover to save souls, so they were known as a “circuit rider.” He describes his mother as being “highly cultured.” In 1859 the family moved and settled into the town of Sumpter, in Trinity County, Texas. The couple had 10 children, John Wesley was the second, being three years younger than his brother, Joseph Gibson Hardin. His father became the local school teacher, in a school where John Wesley and his siblings attended. Even then, he was passionate in his beliefs; in 1862 when the Civil War raged, he tried to run away from home to join the Confederate Army but he was foiled in the endeavor.
Violence Was Common
Violence was a way of life in the west, and Hardin saw his first evidence of that when at the age of eight years old, he saw one man stab another to death. He later wrote this about the event: “Readers you see what drink and passion will do. If you wish to be successful in life, be temperate and control your passions. If you don’t, ruin and death is the result.”
Trouble At School
The fact that his father was the school teacher didn’t stop him from getting into trouble in school. One of his first episodes was with another student who accused him of writing an insulting remark about a girl on the schoolhouse wall. Hardin denied it and in turn accused his accuser of being the author. The student charged at him with a knife. Hardin pulled his own knife and stabbed the student, coming close to killing him. He was nearly expelled for this incident.
When he was 15 years old, he challenged his uncle’s former slave to a wrestling match and won. According to Hardin’s account, the following day the man ambushed him as he rode by. Hardin shot him five times and then rode to get help for the man, who died three days later. Since his father didn’t believe that he would get a fair trial in the Union occupied state, where over a third of the police were ex-slaves, he ordered him to hide. When his hiding place was discovered, three Union soldiers were sent to arrest him. Hardin confronted them and in his own words written later, “…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.”
Man On The Run
Hardin was now a fugitive, wanted by the law, teaming up once with outlaw Frank Polk. Polk was wanted for the murder of a man named Tom Brady, and a contingent of soldiers pursued the two men. Polk was eventually captured, but Hardin was not. The two events coming one after the other were the beginning of the legend of John Wesley Hardin, “The Dark Angel of Texas,” who claimed to have killed 42 men, only 27 of which have been substantiated.
“I never killed a man that
didn’t need killin’.”
~ John Wesley Hardin
Educated In Many Trades
Hardin educated himself in many trades, always curious to test his abilities. He was intelligent, studied law during his only incarceration and became a lawyer upon release. He wrote his own autobiography, still available in modern times to any who may be curious about this man thought to be so evil. Perhaps he was, but there was another side to him. He was married, had children, and relatives who loved him. However, whenever any wrong was done to him, his family, or his relatives, he was quick to settle the score with his gun. During the time after the Civil War when everyone was scrambling to find ways to make money, his innate ability to find work and to do it well was envied by some. He was an inveterate gambler, making money consistently from plying that trade. But he also was a cattle buyer and seller. Inevitably, when he tried to go about his business peaceably, someone would challenge him, after which battle and the inevitable result, a posse would pursue him. He was blamed for any death that occurred, some he didn’t do, and some for which he wasn’t in the area at the time. Conflicting stories about this man raise the question; was he bad to the bone, or was he a product of the times, just defending himself, family and friends?
Injustice was rampant in those days of the west. Because of their association with Hardin, his friends and relatives were in danger of losing their lives. His brother Joe Hardin and two of his uncles were hanged, without cause, simply because they were related to him. Several other men were murdered because they were known to be his friends. Breaking a law wasn’t necessary, all you had to do was know or be related to John Wesley Hardin. Yet because he was loyal to those he loved, they were loyal to him, even to the death. That says something about the quality of both him and his associates, because crooks will usually turn on each other. None of them ever did, and several lost their lives for it.
A Cowardly Shot From Behind
Hardin never lived to see his autobiography published. He was shot in the back of the head while playing dice, by a cowardly man he’d had a dispute with in the early part of the day. The man knew he had no chance while facing Hardin, so he took him out the coward’s way, by shooting him from behind. His shooter, an ex-policeman named John Selman, was acquitted of murder, because the sentiment was that Hardin “needed killin’.” Were the people who held that consensus any different than he was? The question remains, was the law corrupt and crooked in those days? There were many who said they were. Hardin was only one of them, and probably the most dangerous to them, because he was intelligent enough to plead his case and show the law’s corrupt underbelly.
“Dark Angel of Texas” Moniker
But in another viewpoint on John Wesley Hardin, a lawman called him “The Dark Angel of Texas.” The moniker stuck because it was dramatic and made for good storytelling. Rumored to be the most deadly outlaw in the west, it was said that he killed a man for snoring. Was it just a story of the day? Lawlessness and murders were common in the Reconstruction era after the Civil War. The first man Hardin killed was a negro man who he claimed ambushed him the day after losing a wrestling match to Hardin. That was enough for the law, and they began a pursuit in deadly earnest. In the years of running for his life, he felt forced to kill in order to remain free. He was finally arrested, served 16 years in prison, was pardoned, and became a lawyer. His life was brought to an abrupt end as the conclusion of a petty argument.
The End For John Wesley Hardin
On August 19, 1895, Lawyer John Wesley Hardin was shooting dice in a saloon. An off-duty policeman, named John Selman, with whom he had had words earlier in the day, walked up behind him and shot him in the head. Selman was later acquitted of the murder, and a statement from a newspaper of the time said, “If he was shot from the front, that was good shooting. If he was shot from the back, that was good judgement.” We now know that a man who has to shoot someone in the back is cowardly, yet Selman was lauded as being a hero for taking out this “dangerous” man, who was simply sitting at a table playing dice when he was shot in the back of the head.
So after reading all this, do you believe John Wesley Hardin was a bad man or just misunderstood? Do you believe he tried, after leaving prison, to make a better life for himself and his family? Do you believe that in the old west, there were lawmen who were as crooked or possibly more, as John Wesley Hardin?
AUTHOR’S NOTE: No, I’m not related, just curious because of his last name.
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