Stephen F. Austin State University

Wes Hardin's downfall was bullets and bars (October 2013)

Wes Hardin's downfall was bullets and bars
By Van Craddock

John Wesley Hardin, the Wild West's most deadly shootist, had the annoying habit of justifying each of his 20-plus killings.

But when this hot-tempered East Texas son of a Methodist preacher was charged with murder in January 1871 in Longview, the gunslinger vehemently denied the deed.

Wes Hardin was one tough hombre. Legend is that he once shot a gentleman because the fellow's snoring was keeping Hardin awake in a Kansas hotel.

Born in 1853 in Fannin County, Hardin's family moved to Polk County in deep East Texas. Young Wes soon became known for his quick temper and ability with a six-shooter.

Hardin was only 17 when arrested in the new burg of Longview, a railroad town that had been incorporated less than a year earlier. The local marshal charged Hardin with murder and horse theft. Hardin was in possession of the stolen horse but declared himself innocent of the murder.

Hardin was placed in Longview's crude log jail to await state police to arrive and transport the teenager to Waco to stand trial. This was during Reconstruction when Texas was under military rule. Gov. Edmund Davis (a Union officer during the Civil War) controlled the unpopular state police, who ruled with a heavy hand.

Hardin had no intention of staying in the Longview jail. One of his cellmates apparently had smuggled a pistol into the jail. Hardin bartered for the gun, giving up his heavy winter coat.

In mid-January 1871, two state police officers arrived in Longview to take Hardin to Central Texas. After almost a week on the trail, Hardin got his opportunity to act. When one of the officers left camp to seek food for the horses, Hardin pulled his pistol and killed the second officer. (In his autobiography, Hardin claimed the officer had drawn a gun on him. Another version of the tale is that Hardin drilled the officer in the back.)

Hardin mounted his horse and hightailed it away. Most Western historians will tell you the state police officer was the young desperado's sixth, or maybe eighth, victim.

Twelve to 15 killings later, in 1877, Hardin finally was captured by Texas Rangers, who had to travel to Florida to nab him. When Hardin tried to draw his gun, Ranger John Armstrong conked him on the noggin and brought him back to the Lone Star State.

Hardin was sentenced to 25 years in prison. Despite a couple of escape attempts, he was pardoned in 1894 after serving 16 years. (By the way, he was pardoned by Gov. James Stephen Hogg, a one-time Longview resident who had founded the Longview News.)

Hardin began studying law while in prison. After his release he earned his lawyer's shingle and settled in El Paso. However, he spent most of his time in local saloons.

In August 1895, Hardin was rolling dice in the Acme Saloon when John Selman, a part-time constable with a checkered past, strolled in and shot John Wesley Hardin in the back of the head. The Old West's most prolific gunfighter died instantly.

Selman was tried for Hardin's killing. A jury determined he'd acted in "self-defense" and acquitted him.