Hardin, John Wesley (1853–1895)

By: Leon C. Metz

Type: Biography

Published: 1976

Updated: March 22, 2022

John Wesley (Wes) Hardin, outlaw, son of James G. and Elizabeth Hardin, was born in Bonham, Texas, on May 26, 1853. His father was a Methodist preacher, circuit rider, schoolteacher, and lawyer. Hardin's violent career started in 1867 with a schoolyard squabble in which he stabbed another youth. At fifteen, in Polk County, he shot and killed a black man as a result of a chance meeting and an argument. With the Reconstruction government looking for him, he fled to his brother's house, twenty-five miles north of Sumpter, Texas, where in the fall of 1868 he claimed to have killed three Union soldiers who sought to arrest him. Within a year, he killed another soldier at Richard Bottom.

In 1871 Hardin went as a cowboy up the Chisholm Trail. He killed seven people en route and three in Abilene, Kansas. After allegedly backing down city marshall Wild Bill Hickok, who may have dubbed him "Little Arkansas," Hardin returned to Gonzales County, Texas, where he got into difficulty with Governor Edmund J. Davis's State Police. Hardin then settled down long enough to marry Jane Bowen. Out of that marriage came a son and two daughters.

Hardin added at least four names to his death list before surrendering to the sheriff of Cherokee County in September 1872. He broke jail in October and began stock raising but was drawn into the Sutton-Taylor Feud in 1873–74. He aligned himself with Jim Taylor of the anti-Reconstruction forces and killed the opposition leader, Jack Helm, a former State Police captain. In May 1874 he started two herds of cattle up the trail; while visiting in Comanche he killed Charles Webb, deputy sheriff of Brown County.

From that time, Hardin was constantly pursued in Texas. He went with his wife and children to Florida and Alabama, adding one certain and five possible names to his death list before the Texas Rangers captured him in Pensacola, Florida, on July 23, 1877. He was tried at Comanche for the murder of Charles Webb and sentenced, on September 28, 1878, to twenty-five years in prison. During his prison term he made repeated efforts to escape, read theological books, was superintendent of the prison Sunday school, and studied law. He was pardoned on March 16, 1894, and admitted to the bar.

In 1895 he went to El Paso to appear for the defense in a murder trial and to establish a law practice. Despite efforts to lead a decent life, he was soon in trouble. He took as his lover the wife of one of his clients, Martin Mroz, a cattle thief who had fled to Mexico. When Mroz found out about the affair, he crossed the border to confront Hardin under promise of safe passage by lawman George Scarborough, whereupon he was killed by a number of law officials. Hardin was rumored to have hired the officers to assassinate him. On August 19, 1895, Constable John Selman, one of the officers involved in Mroz's killing, shot Hardin in the Acme Saloon, possibly, some have argued, because he was not paid for the murder of Mroz. Hardin died instantly and was buried in Concordia Cemetery, El Paso.

His autobiography, completed to the beginning of his law studies in prison, was the subject of some litigation and was published in 1896. Hardin was an unusual type of killer, a handsome, gentlemanly man who considered himself a pillar of society, always maintaining that he never killed anyone who did not need killing and that he always shot to save his own life. Many people who knew him or his family regarded him as a man more sinned against than sinning. The fact that he had more than thirty notches on his gun, however, is evidence that no more dangerous gunman ever operated in Texas.

Robert K. DeArment, George Scarborough: The Life and Death of a Lawman on the Closing Frontier (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996). Mollie Moore Godbold, "Comanche and the Hardin Gang," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 67 (July, October 1963). John Wesley Hardin, The Life of John Wesley Hardin As Written by Himself (Seguin, Texas: Smith and Moore, 1896; new ed., Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1961). Leon C. Metz, John Selman (New York: Hastings House, 1966; 2d ed., Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980). Chuck Parsons, The Capture of John Wesley Hardin (College Station, Texas: Creative Publishing, 1978). C. L. Sonnichsen, The Grave of John Wesley Hardin: Three Essays on Grassroots History (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1979).

  • Law, Law Enforcement, and Outlaws
  • Outlaws, Criminals, Prostitutes, Gamblers, and Rebels
Time Periods:
  • Reconstruction
  • Late Nineteenth-Century Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Leon C. Metz, “Hardin, John Wesley,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 10, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/hardin-john-wesley.

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March 22, 2022