THE WILD WESTS FASTEST GUNFIGHTER

John Wesley Hardin. 1853 - 1895 aged 42

John Wesley Hardin was born May 26th 1853, in Bonham, Fannin County, Texas.

His father James Hardin was a Lawyer, School teacher and Methodist preacher, named his son after John Wesley, the founder of Methodism.  John, however was not destined to grow up being a minister of the faith or anything near it...his destiny was to take him in a completely different direction.

John Wesley Hardin is historically acknowledged as being the fastest and most lethal gunfighter in the west if not America as a whole. He was a total expert with a handgun and most people he killed were shot right between the eyes.

Hardin was an extremely dangerous man and never thought twice about shooting anyone who stood in his way, regardless of the reason.  Hardin would not get into a verbal argument, he always let his pistols, shotgun or Winchester rifle do the arguing!

John Wesley Hardin was not a man you would have wanted to have a gunfight with, he was as fast as he was lethal.

Hardin was not a mentally unstable psychopath on the contrary, like the best gunfighters of the day, he was calm, cool and collected. Hardin was also well educated, intelligent, quite literate and also reportedly quite a gentleman.

But it was him with his guns that guaranteed that his opponent would be playing his harp by the heavenly gates.  He was a ruthless killer and fast on the draw.

Hardin had developed an unusual cross-draw method of pulling his guns out.  With one sweeping movement he crossed his arms, yanked out the two revolvers in a lightning fast arch, aimed them with pinpoint accuracy and fired.

This he did in one complete motion, a motion that he practiced and honed to perfection for hours a day, this was much faster than the traditional belt holster draw. It was considered to be the fastest draw in the west. It was consequently known as Hardin's Draw.

He was so fast that he could shoot a man dead who already held a gun on him, and that's frighteningly fast!

Hardin was also exceedingly accurate  and seldom missed his target, he was a man who was feared as he always faced a gunfight, he would never walk away from one.  Only afterwards did he walk away...leaving dead men lying in the dust.

Hardin said he once fired several .45 caliber bullets into a man who crept into his room  at the American House Hotel to steal his clothes, claiming that he had a knife at the time.  This man that Hardin shot may have been the one mentioned in the paragraph below and Hardin just changed the story above to suit him better.

The story goes that Hardin shot a man in an adjacent hotel room for snoring.  This is apparently true but not strictly how it happened.  The man was indeed snoring and it was indeed disturbing Hardin, so Hardin shot a bullet (ball) through the wall at a height so the bullet would go over the man lying in his bed and smack into the other wall.

Hardin then fired another shot at the same height but unbeknown to him, the man in the adjacent room had sat up in bed.  The ball shot hit him and killed him!

Famous frontiersman and lawman Wild Bill Hickok was the sheriff of the town where this happened and he sought to arrest Hardin for the murder but  Hardin managed to escape by stealing a horse and bolted from the town to lay low in another district.

Above is a Photo of John Wesley Hardin's actual Colt .45 he also carried a .36 Colt Navy 1851, usually these guns were carried in pairs by him. And contrary to popular belief, gunfighters did not put notches on the handles of their guns for every kill, this is just a fanciful myth.

Of course Hardin also used other revolvers during his" career" like the 1858 Remington and 1860 Colt Army.

John Wesley Hardin showed his killer instincts at a young age, at the age of 13 he had an argument with a classmate at school.  The bigger boy teased him saying Hardin had written some graffiti on the schoolhouse wall, Hardin's answer was to pull a knife and stab him several times.

The boy survived and Hardin was cleared of any wrong doing when he pleaded self defence to the local lawman, saying that the boy, Charles  Sloter, had a knife in his hand at the time.  Charles Sloter met his fate many years later when he was hung by a Union lynch mob  during the civil war.

Hardin got his start as a real gunfighter and killer at the tender age of 15.  It started in Polk County, Texas, with a brawl with a big built man, a former slave named Mage.  Hardin had roughed the man up pretty good and the following day Mage waylaid him with a large wooden club, and tried to bash Hardin's skull as he rode past on his horse "Old paint" but Hardin quickly pulled out a .44 cap and ball 1860 Colt Army revolver and immediately shot Mage in the chest with a single shot.  Mage staggered back and Hardin then shot him four more times.

Mage collapsed down incapacitated gripping his chest and going into semi-coma, he succumbed to his wounds and died three days later.  It was a case for self defence but Hardin fled before a hearing could be conducted.

As Hardin later explained in his memoirs:

"...To be tried at that time for the killing of a Negro meant certain death at the hands of a court backed by Northern bayonets... thus, unwillingly, I became a fugitive not from justice, be it known, but from the injustice and misrule of the people who had subjugated the South."

The authorities discovered where Hardin was hiding and dispatched three Union soldiers to arrest him, but Hardin got a tip off.  Instead of running he chose to stay and take them on.  Hardin made a record of the incident in his memoirs...

"...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 barrelled 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."

A short time later in Kosse, Texas, Hardin went home with a woman he met in a saloon.  As they went up the stairs to her room there was a loud banging on the front door, to which the woman replied it was her sweetheart.  Hardin then went down the stairs and opened the door, the man saw Hardin and demanded $100 or he would kill him then and there...

 ...as he described later in his memoirs:

"...I told him that I only had about $50 or $60 in my pocket but if he would go with me to the stable I would give him more, as I had the money in my saddle pocket ... He said, he would go but "Give me what you have first." I told him all right, and in so doing, dropped some of it on the floor. He stooped down to pick it up and as he was straightening up I pulled my pistol and fired. The ball struck him between the eyes and he fell over, a dead robber."

Unfortunately, the robber could not have picked a worse target to rob...the fastest most lethal gun in the west, so he paid the ultimate price.

Through the killing of Mage and the Union soldiers, Hardin knew that he was a wanted man and kept himself constantly on the move, travelling throughout Texas.  He was actually recognised and arrested by the local sheriff on a few occasions but always managed to make good his escape.

Three Union Soldiers once asked Hardin to surrender his pistols after they caught up with him outside a small town.  Hardin responded by shooting them all dead...or in his own words " I didn't give them my pistols, instead I gave them the contents thereof  "

Whilst Hardin was staying in Towash, Hill County, Texas he pursued his favorite past time of gambling.  It was when he was gambling with a man by the name of Jim Bradley that he was accused of cheating by Bradley who then looked Hardin in the eye and threatened " I'll kill ya  "

Hardin simply got up and backed away from the table, presumably there was not enough  room in the saloon to draw his  guns, and went outside.  Bradley got up and followed him outside where he fired at Hardin but missed...

...Hardin instantly drew a Remington .45 and fired two shots.  Both bullets connected with Bradley, one slammed into his chest the other whistled clean through his head.  The gunfight was witnessed by several towns folk who later mentioned how Hardin had turned, drawn his pistol and fired in a fraction of a second in one whole movement like the workings of a finely oiled Swiss watch.

Only a month after this incident Hardin was in trouble again when a man in Horn Hill, Limestone County, Texas threatened to kill Hardin over an accident with some twigs in a camp fire that he knocked over as he rushed past.  The man said he would smash his nose, Hardin replied " Smash away and be damned and I'm a bit of a smasher too " Hardin said the man reached for his gun, so Hardin drew his revolver and shot him square through the forehead killing him instantly.

Below is a photo of one of Hardin's actual guns  Its a .36 caliber Colt Navy 1851 cap and ball revolver.  Hardin gave this gun and holster to his cousin, Joseph Clements. Collection of Ryan McNellis and El Paso Saddlery.  Business card and autographed Ace of Diamonds playing card, signed a few months before his death. Collection of Phil Spangenberger

On the card Hardin had written  5 paces  indicating that's how far he was from the card when he shot it!

Hardin was also involved with a few cattle drives in Kansas and stated that he had shot 3 Mexican bandits dead, several Indians and several men who were trying to steal cattle.

A big brutal man by the name of J.B Morgan  once started a row with Hardin in a bar and challenged him to a duel, Morgan made a foolish gesture to draw his revolver, it was the last thing he did...Hardin shot him just between the eyes with lightening fast reflexes before the mans fingers even touched his gun.

The man was stone dead before his body crumpled to the floor of the bar, with a bullet hole above his left eyebrow.  He would not have known what killed him it was so fast.  Hardin had killed up to forty men, mostly in the same fashion, before his twenty first birthday.

Hardin went to Abilene, Texas in 1871 and met famous lawman James Butler "Wild Bill " Hickok who was a Marshal in the city. Hickok had a big reputation as a cool, calm and collected gun fighter who had killed several men in shootouts himself.

When Hickok saw him, he demanded that Hardin surrender his revolvers.  Hardin offered his guns to Hickok butt first and as Hickok reached out to take them, Hardin span the guns round in his hand and cocked them at the same time, the revolvers were now pointing at Hickok's head.

This gun trick was known as The road agents spin, a trick that Hardin was very adept at and had used it many times to kill those who tried to take his guns.  Hickok was both shocked and impressed and offered Hardin his friendship and a drink in a private room in the Apple Jack saloon.  Hardin was suspicious but accepted.

Just to note here that Hickok made a mistake by asking for Hardin's guns, the safest way to disarm a gunfighter would have been to get them to undo their belt buckle and let the guns in their holster fall to the floor, then tell them to back away.

The short Youtube videos below illustrate (although not very well) " The roads agents spin " or " Border roll"

(These videos are also duplicated on my Wild Bill Hickok  web page)

The first video shows the road agents spin or border roll being carried out with gun butt facing up

 

The 2nd video shows the trick being carried out with the gun butt facing down.

 

Hardin and Hickok remained friends until Hardin shot and killed a man in the American House Hotel and had to flee Abilene and Hickok's wrath.

Hardin heard later that Hickok stated that if he ever goes back to Abilene that he would kill Hardin.  Hardin laughed, saddled a horse and road straight into Abilene to confront Hickok.  When they met, Hickok was all smiles, admiring Hardin's bravery and let him off.

Below is a photo of Hardin, taken in June 1871, possibly in Abilene.  The revolvers are not evident in this photo, maybe he took them off for the photo shoot which would be a sign of great modesty and prose as all gunfighters liked to be photographed brandishing their guns.

It was also during 1871 that Hardin settled down and married his long time girlfriend, Jane Bowen, a quiet, modest and respectable girl who lived and grew up in her fathers general store in town.  Hardin and his wife had two children, Jane was a devoutly loyal wife who stood by her husband despite his sometimes long absences from home when he was on the run after he killed someone in town

On May 26, 1874 he killed Charlie Webb, a deputy sheriff.  Ironically, for possibly the only time Hardin ever acted in true self defence, Webb allegedly reached for his gun as Hardin turned toward the bar of a saloon in Comanche, Texas.  Someone yelled a warning, Hardin turned and instinctively fired as he did so.

Webb got a shot off that hit Hardin in the side, Hardin's shot however went clean through Webb's left cheek.  Hardin's acquaintances then pumped further bullets into Webb as he was falling.  Hardin had trained himself to always go for the headshot if he could, as this was always resulted in a guaranteed kill.

The Youtube video below depicts a slightly different version, my version however, has been heavily researched and cross referenced.  So I am happy that it is the most accurate, but do have a look anyway...

 

After the killing of Webb, Hardin wisely decided to leave Texas and this time to take his wife along with him. They fled to Florida under an alias of Mr. and Mrs. J. H. Swain.  There was a price of $4,000 on Hardin's head and Pinkertons Detective Agency along with several bounty hunters were hot on Hardin's trail.  Two Pinkertons men were killed outright in a gunfight with Hardin, even well trained pistol shooters were no match for him.

  To shoot first and ask questions later is a good cliché for Hardin except that he didn't even ask questions.

HARDIN GETS CAPTURED

It was a band of Texas Rangers led by a Captain John Armstrong that finally caught  up with Hardin on 23rd July 1877.  The Texas Rangers cornered him in the smoking compartment of a train stopped at Pensacola, Florida.  He was rushed by the Rangers from all sides who soon had him pinned to the ground and Hardin was arrested without firing a shot.

Below a motley crew of Texas Rangers, photo apparently taken around 1880, so who knows, this may the same group that captured Hardin !

He was sentenced in a courtroom in Austin County, Texas to a twenty five year stretch in the state penitentiary in Huntsville, Texas for the murder of Deputy Sheriff Charles Webb.  This time he didn't escape, as he was guarded too well.

A large crowd assembled when he was being lead out of the courthouse and Hardin was asked for his autograph and the press wanted to take pictures. The whole atmosphere was one of a carnival as celebrity status was now surrounding him.

While in prison he saw the error of his ways and planned to rehabilitate by studying law, theology and mathematics. He also turned to God and with his new strength in Christianity he became the superintendent of the prison Sunday School. He was released on the 17th February 1894 after serving seventeen years, being granted a full pardon by the Governor of Texas, Mr. Jim Hogg.

After Hardin had been released he got reunited with his family in Gonzales County, Texas. Jane, his wife had unfortunately died three years earlier in 1892.  Hardin could not settle in Gonzales County so he went to Karnes County where he met and married a woman by the name of Callie Lewis.  The marriage was not a success so Hardin moved on yet again, leaving his troubles behind.

Hardin's final move was to El Paso, still in the year of 1895 where he practiced law and also started writing his autobiography.

THE DEATH OF HARDIN

Hardin got into an argument with a local lawman by the name of John Selman who had arrested Hardin's girlfriend about illegally carrying a pistol.  Hardin, in his quiet and deadly way apparently threatened to kill him.  Selman's father knew Hardin's reputation as a fast and lethal gunfighter having killed over 40 men, especially those who wore a badge.  So John Selman Senior who feared for his sons life, decided to take the law into his own hands and permanently stop Hardin from carrying out his threat.

So it was on August 19th 1895 at around 11 p.m that Hardin was in the Acme Saloon, in El Passo, Texas, rolling dice on the bar just by the front door with another gambler, a Mr. Henry S. Brown the local grocer.

John Selman Senior walked in and ordered a drink and sat down at a table with it,  Hardin glanced at him but kept on rolling dice.  Selman finished his drink and walked out, it is now believed that he was weighing up the scene.

Several minutes later Selman walked back in and strode four paces to within a few feet of Hardin who had his back to him, he then shot John Wesley Hardin " The fastest gun in the west "  dead.  He shot Hardin a total four times at close range hitting him in the head, arm, chest and hand. 

42 year old John Wesley Hardin dropped down, he was dead before hitting the floor.  His last words to Henry Brown were  "...You have four sixes to beat "

Below is a photo of the dead Hardin taken at the mortuary in Concordia, Texas.  The bullet wound can be seen just below his right nipple, also the top of his right arm shows a wound and also by the left eye.

Hardin was apparently shot in the back of the head, the bullet entering 3¼ inches behind the right ear with the bullet exiting out of the corner of his left eye.  As he lay dead on the floor he was then shot in chest by the right nipple area, shot in the right arm and also a shot took the tip off Hardin's little finger of the right hand, sloppy shooting to say the least !

Selman actually claimed that Hardin turned from the bar and reached for a gun, but Selman shot him in the face before he could fire it, which would explain the neat entry hole in Hardin's eye.  Bullet exit wounds are generally bigger than an entry wound which is normally the same size as the bullet, specially a .45 caliber which is what Selman used. But all the witnesses claimed the first shot hit Hardin in the back of the head, so that's what we will have to believe.

Either way, Hardin fell dead from a headshot and that was how the deadliest gunfighter in American history came to his end, shot whilst his back was turned without the slightest chance to defend himself.  Selman was brought to trial but taking into consideration Hardin's reputation as a killer the court showed leniency and  Selman was acquitted and set free.  Selman however, only lived another eight months before being gunned down himself...

...on the night of April 5th 1896,  57 year old Selman and a US Marshal by the name of George Scarborough had been playing cards and got in a drunken argument, probably the time old gamblers argument over someone suspected of cheating. They decided to settle it via a shoot out and both men went out into the alley adjacent to the saloon, after a short time and a single gunshot, Scarborough returned alone.

Below: photo of John Selman Snr taken shortly before he assassinated John Wesley Hardin.

John Selman Snr 1839 - 1896

THE EL PASSO CHAIN OF DEATH...

...Charles Webb killed by Hardin--Hardin killed by Selman--Selman killed by Scarborough--Scarborough killed by Will Carver--Will Carver killed by Elijah Briant

Hardin is buried in the Concordia cemetery in El Paso, Texas and ironically Selman is buried in the same cemetery only a few yards away.

The El Paso police found Hardin's unfinished autobiography in the house he rented in the town.  This was eventually handed over to his children and the book, Life of John Wesley Hardin as Written by Himself  and after much legal wrangling, was published in 1896.

The revolver that Hardin was carrying at the time of his death was a .38  double action Colt Lightning, Model 1877. It was a gun that was given to him by 'Killin Jim' Miller for acting as his defence lawyer.  The actual revolver is pictured below.

Hardin always claimed "  I never killed anyone who didn't need killing!  " always claiming self defence...

...and Wild Bill Hickok stated "   I have never met anyone who needed to defend himself so much !  "

SYNOPSIS OF HARDIN

Do I believe that John Wesley Hardin was a psychotic killer? Well no I don't.  I believe that he was very self aware, maybe slightly paranoid with a strong sense of self survival.  A sense of survival that was probably a virtue in the days of the old lawless and wild west.  Gunfights were every day occurrences and it paid to be both fast and determined, taking no chances at all.

I don't believe that Hardin ever shot anyone in the back, they were always armed and facing him, menacingly. With our creature comfort, soft and domesticated lives its hard for us to understand how they lived in those days but try we must if we are to understand men like Hardin.

I don't advocate all the killing that Hardin did, or condone it in any way. In an era such as the old wild west however, where the majority of the populace, were armed, it may have been wise to shoot first and ask questions later.  Especially when confronted with an angry man with a loaded gun.

Most if not all of the top gunfighters who met their deaths were killed by being shot in the back or in the back of the head as was James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok.   The reason for this is that gun fighters were excellent shots and were very fast on the draw.  Even over a distance they were dangerous men to upset.  These back-shooters were normally friends or relatives of a man who had been killed by a gunfighter.  Gunfighters were always making enemies, it was a dangerous occupation indeed.

There was always someone who thought that they were faster than the best and would challenge the likes of Hardin, and they would inevitably end up getting killed trying to prove it, but prove it many tried to do. The reputation of killing the fastest gun sometimes seemed worth it especially after drinking a gallon of beer.

Rest In Peace John Wesley Hardin, the fastest gun in the west.

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Page created July 22nd 2009.  Updated December 19th 2012