Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series about gunslinger John Hardin.
The violence of the western frontier has alternately fascinated and repelled readers for generations. Gunfights between the law, outlaws and even in-laws have since become tales retold for decades. Notorious gunman John Wesley Hardin was one of the bloodiest of all. In his short 42 years, Hardin killed more than two dozen people across Texas.
John Wesley Hardin was the second son of 10 children born to a Methodist preacher and his wife. Hardin was born in the North Texas community of Bonham in May 1853. His father, Rev. James Hardin, was a circuit rider preacher, having to ride from one church to the next to deliver services on successive Sundays. It was a difficult life for a man of faith as well as difficult on the family because of the long distances and sometimes long absences, but the family always had all the necessities.
By 1859, the elder Hardin had settled in Sumter in East Texas to establish a school and finally enjoy a quiet life, something that the younger Hardin would make extraordinarily complicated. All of his children would eventually attend this school.
However, from a young age, Hardin was always in trouble of some kind. At the age of nine in 1862, he attempted to run away from home to join the Confederate Army. At the age of 14 in 1867, he got into a knife fight at his father’s school, nearly killing a fellow student. His father had no choice but to expel him. The next year, at age 15, he killed for the first time when he shot and killed a former slave named Maje Holshousen following a fight.
Following the death of Holshousen, Hardin hid out at his older brother’s house some 30 miles to the north, supposedly at his father’s behest. He later claimed to have shot and killed three Union troops on their way to arrest him as they approached the home. However, no military records exist of the incident.
Other records at the time suggest that a murder may have occurred in the area around that time. Because of poor records, conflicting accounts and Hardin’s own tall tales and exaggerations, his exact record is shrouded in mystery. He denied some deaths for which there was considerable evidence but bragged about the deaths of others for which no evidence existed.
Regardless, Hardin was on the run again, scrambling from place to place and picking up a variety of jobs for money. At one point, he taught school in Navarro County. He also traveled with another wanted man briefly before his capture.
As he grew older, a mixture of alcohol, a quick temper and a surly disposition landed him in a series of knife fights and gun fights that left a trail of bodies across Texas. He turned to gambling, which only deepened his problems with the law. He allegedly shot out the eye of a man to win a bet at the age of 16. In January 1870, he got into another gun fight with a man named Ben Bradley who had accused him of cheating at cards at a local saloon. He killed Bradley in the streets of Towash in Hill County; and Bradley’s associate, a man known only as Judge Moore, disappeared shortly afterward. Hardin later claimed to have killed Moore. Several other fistfights and gunfights followed.
In January 1871, he was arrested in Harrison County on four charges of murder and one charge of horse theft. One of the charges was allegedly for the murder of Waco Town Marshal L. J. Hoffman. As he was being brought from East Texas to Waco for the trial, Hardin escaped, killing a state policeman in the process. He was arrested in Bell County some weeks later and killed three more men, escaping once again. Before he even turned 18, Hardin had killed at least eight men and possibly more.
He found work as a hand on a cattle drive on the Chisolm Trail shortly afterward. While Hardin managed to escape authorities in Texas for the time being, he still found himself in gunfights on the way to Kansas. Hardin’s deadly career was just starting.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.