Today In Western History: John Wesley Hardin Is Born

May 26, 1853


One of the west’s most prolific and sociopathic kills is born today in Bonham, Texas.  Named for a famed minister, John Wesley Hardin is likely a real sociopath and cold-blooded killer. 

John Wesley Hardin a real sociopathic killer
John Wesley Hardin, a real sociopathic killer

Between his 15th and 25th birthday, he will kill at least 20 men.  John Wesley Hardin (May 26, 1853 – August 19, 1895) was an Old West outlaw,  gunfighter,  and controversial folk icon. From an early age, Hardin was usually on the wrong side of the law for one reason or another. and he was pursued by lawmen for most of his life.   He frequently hid at the homes of family and friends, and this led to the death of his brother-in-law.  After being arrested on a train in Pensacola, Florida for the murder of a Texas deputy sheriff,  he was finally sentenced to 25 years in prison for murder in 1877.  When he was sentenced, Hardin claimed to have killed 42 men but newspapers of the day attributed only 27 murders to him.  While in prison, Hardin wrote a highly slanted  autobiography and even studied law and most surprisingly, after his release in 1894, he was admitted to the Texas bar.   Alcohol and depression quickly took over and in August 1895, Hardin was shot to death by Constable John Selman, Sr. in an El Paso saloon. 

John Selman Jr., a notorious gunman and former outlaw in his own right, town constable and killer of John Wesley Hardin.
John Selman Jr., notorious gunman and former outlaw in his own right, town constable and killer of John Wesley Hardin.

While serving his time in prison, Hardin penned his autobiography which is the source for many stories about him, but he was known to tailor the facts to fit his perceptions, and even making up such facts as he needed to support his perceptions.  In many of his “life stories” he described his participation in events that cannot be substantiated. 

In November 1868, when he was 15, Hardin challenged his uncle Holshousen’s former slave, Major “Maje” Holshousen, to a wrestling match, which Hardin won.  According to Hardin, the following day, Maje “ambushed” him as he rode past. Hardin drew his revolver and shot Maje five times. In his auto-biography Hardin claimed he rode to get help for the wounded man, but he died three days later, but given his Southern sympathies and beliefs, this is very unlikely.  He also claimed his father did not believe he would receive a fair hearing in the Union-occupied state so his father ordered him into hiding.  Hardin claimed the authorities eventually discovered his location and sent three Union soldiers to arrest him, at which time he “chose to confront his pursuers” despite having been warned of their approach by older brother Joseph:

…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.

Soon afterwards on August 6, 1871, Hardin, his cousin Gip Clements, and a rancher friend named Charles Couger put up for the night at the American House Hotel after an evening of gambling. All three had been drinking heavily. Sometime during the evening, Hardin was awakened by loud snoring coming from Couger’s room. He first shouted several times for the man to “roll over” and then, irritated by the lack of response, drunkenly fired several bullets through the shared wall in an apparent effort to awaken him. Couger was hit in the head by the second bullet as he lay in bed, and was killed instantly. Although Hardin may not have intended to kill Cougar, he had violated an ordinance prohibiting firing a gun within the city limits. Half-dressed and still drunk, he and Clements exited through a second-story window onto the roof of the hotel. He saw Hickok arrive with four policemen. “Now, I believed,” Hardin wrote later, “that if Wild Bill found me in a defenseless condition he would take no explanation, but would kill me to add to his reputation.   The incident earned Hardin a repu-tation as a man “so mean, he once shot a man for snoring”.  Years later, Hardin made a casual reference to the episode: “They tell lots of lies about me,” he complained. “They say I killed six or seven men for snoring. Well, it ain’t true. I only killed one man for snoring.  

His intense hatred of Northerner carpet-baggers in general and former slaves in particular led him to caused him to become repeatedly involved in political battles between pro- and anti-Reconstruction forces (naturally Hardin was pro-southern) in 1873 and he killed a former State Police officer who led the local pro-Reconstruction forces. In 1874 he murdered a sheriff’s deputy in Brown County, Texas, leading to him fleeing with his family to Florida. However, he was captured by Texas Rangers on a train in Pensacola in 1877 (during his stay in Florida, he was suspected of killing at least one and probably five more people). He was tried for the Brown County deputy’s murder in 1878 and sentenced to 25 years in prison, but only served 16 years before being pardoned in 1894.
In 1895 Hardin testified as a defense witness in a murder trial in El Paso, and after the trial was over, he decided to stay in that city and open up a law practice. Soon afterwards he began an affair with a married female client. When her husband found out, Hardin reportedly hired several off-duty lawmen to murder the man. An El Paso lawman, John Selman, Jr., arrested Hardin’s acquaintance and part-time prostitute, the “widow” M’Rose (or Mroz), for “brandishing a gun in public”. Hardin confronted Selman and the two men argued, some reports alleging Hardin had pistol-whipped the younger man. Selman’s 56-year-old father, Constable John Selman, Sr. (a notorious gunman and former outlaw in his own right), approached Hardin on the afternoon of August 19, 1895, and the two men exchanged heated words. That night, Hardin went to the Acme Saloon, where he began playing dice. Shortly before midnight, Selman Sr. entered the saloon, walked up to Hardin from behind, and shot him in the head, killing him instantly. As Hardin lay on the floor, Selman fired three more shots into him. Selman was arrested for murder and stood trial, where he claimed self-defense.  His story that he witnessed Hardin attempting to draw his pistol upon seeing him enter the saloon, and Hardin reputation as a mean drunk, resulted in a hung jury and his being released on bond, pending retrial. However, before the retrial could be organized, Selman himself was killed in a shootout following a card game by the US Marshal George Scarborough on April 6, 1896 during an argument.  Hardin was buried the following day in Concordia Cemetery, in El Paso.

US Marshal George Scarborough, former outlaw and the killer of John Selman, Sr, the killer of John Wesley Hardin
US Marshal George Scarborough, former outlaw and the killer of John Selman, Sr, the killer of John Wesley Hardin