While substitute teaching at the middle school in Johnson City, I was taking attendance one morning and came across the name of “John W. Hardin.” I asked the student who responded to the name if the “W” happened to stand for “Wesley.” He said that it did. I then asked him if he knew anything about the original John Wesley Hardin. He replied that he thought he was some sort of gunfighter.
Having lived in El Paso, I knew a few things about John Wesley Hardin. I proceeded to tell the class some stories about the notorious and legendary outlaw whose namesake occupied a seat in that very classroom.
John Wesley Hardin was born on May 26, 1853, in Bonham, Texas, to the wife of a Methodist preacher. His father was a Revolutionary War hero who became a legislator for the State of North Carolina. At the ripe old age of fifteen, John Wesley killed his first man—a freed slave. Three Union soldiers were sent in pursuit of the young Hardin who insisted the killing was in self defense.
“I waylaid them, as I had no mercy on men whom I knew only wanted to get my body to torture and kill…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 1866 I had killed four men and was myself wounded in the arm.”
Life on the run was not easy for Hardin. He killed more men, was arrested and escaped and arrested again. He had two encounters with “Wild Bill” Hickock, and was wounded multiple times. He fought Mexican vaqueros, Indians and cattle rustlers. His holsters were sewn into his vest with the gun butts pointed inward across his chest. He crossed his arms to draw. Hardin claimed this was the fastest way to draw, and he practiced every day.
In 1875 the governor of Texas offered a reward of $4,000 for Hardin’s apprehension. Texas Rangers went in pursuit and encountered him aboard a train in Pensacola, Florida. When Hardin realized what was happening, he attempted to draw his gun but it got tangled in his suspenders. Ranger John B. Armstrong shot and killed one of Hardin’s friends, knocked out Hardin and arrested two others.
Hardin was sentenced to 25 years in prison for killing a deputy sheriff. He acknowledged by that time to have killed 43 men, one just for snoring too loud. He took advantage of his time in prison to study theology and law. He was released, on February 17, 1894, after serving almost 16 years. He eventually made his way to El Paso where on August 19, 1895, he made the mistake of playing dice in the Acme Saloon with his back to the door. Constable John Selman entered the saloon just before midnight and saw Hardin with his back to him. He walked up behind Hardin and shot him in the back of the head. As Hardin lay on the floor, he put three more shots into him.
No doubt about it, John Wesley Hardin was a bad man. Respectable folks had little use for him while he lived. So, let’s fast forward to 1995—the hundredth anniversary of his murder. A delegation of citizens from Bonham, Texas, made the pilgrimage to El Paso to lay claim to the remains of the famous outlaw. After all, having such a celebrity in the cemetery of the town where he was born would surely attract tourists.
El Paso objected to losing such a fine upstanding citizen and, just to make sure nobody stole the body away by night, dumped a cement truck load of concrete over his grave. The courts took up the matter and the case was finally resolved in favor of El Paso. John Wesley Hardin’s remains may still be found today in the Concordia Cemetery just off Interstate 10 in El Paso.
In 2002, a model 1877 Colt “Lightning” revolver with mother-of-pearl grips that was used by Hardin sold at auction for $168,000. Another gun, a Colt “Thunderer” that Hardin used to rob the Gem Saloon, sold at the same auction for $100,000. The bullet that killed him sold for a mere $80,000. He has been remembered in films, on television, in song, prose and poetry. Several books have been written about him including his own autobiography that was published posthumously in 1925.
As time passed, his legend grew larger and larger and robberies and shootings were attributed to him in places where he never set foot. It reminds me of the ballad that was sung about Wyatt Earp in the old television series by that name: “Long live his fame and long live his glory and long may his story be told.”
I suppose that as long as babies are named for him—there are at least two individuals presently living in Blanco who carry the name—he will not be soon forgotten. Most of us don’t expect to be remembered by great throngs of people. And those who do remember us, we can only hope they remember us for a few good deeds or acts of kindness we might have done during our sojourn. We certainly can’t expect our guns to sell for big bucks just because they once belonged to us or our biographies to be published beyond our family circles.
But that’s alright. I believe, in the long run, that time will be even kinder to the good guys than it is to the bad guys. Proverbs 10:28 says, “The hope of the righteous shall be gladness.” So be it.