The Wild Story Of John Wesley Hardin, Perhaps The Most Ruthless Outlaw Of The Old West

Published November 14, 2022

John Wesley Hardin killed his first man when he was just 15, and went on to kill as many as 44 as a gunfighter and outlaw in the Wild West during the late 19th century.

John Wesley Hardin

American Stock Archive/Getty ImagesJohn Wesley Hardin always maintained that he never killed anyone who didn’t need killing.

By his own account, John Wesley Hardin was a man more often sinned against than a sinner himself.

A gentlemanly gambler who made most of his money betting on horses or dealing in cattle, Hardin left his mark on history as one of the Wild West’s most skilled gunmen, killing at least 21 men in duels and ambushes between 1868 and 1877. Hardin himself, however, put that number closer to 44.

Of course, a man with that many kills is bound to make some enemies along the way — especially if he’s got a $4,000 bounty on his head, spends his days gambling and drinking, and takes another man’s wife as his lover.

This is the story of John Wesley Hardin, one of the most infamous outlaws of the Western frontier.

John Wesley Hardin’s Early Life And First Kill

Born on May 26, 1853, to John Gibson Hardin and Mary Elizabeth Dixon, “Wes” Hardin was supposed to be a preacher. His parents named him John Wesley after the founder of the Methodist branch of Protestantism, but it seemed that he wasn’t meant for the clerical lifestyle.

According to Old West, Hardin witnessed his first murder at the age of 8. By 9, all he wanted to do was join the Confederate Army, and by his own account, he committed his first act of violence while he was still in school, stabbing a classmate after a fight over a girl.

In 1868, John Wesley Hardin was 15 years old, and he killed his first man.

Hardin was wrestling with a former enslaved man who went by the name of Maje. The fight got heated, and they were separated, but Hardin refused to leave with the score, apparently, unsettled.

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Public DomainHardin wrote an autobiography of his life in which he confesses to more murders than he was officially found guilty of.

Saddling up his horse, Old Paint, Hardin overran Maje on the road and accused the man of being a coward. He picked up a stick and began beating Maje with it, and when Maje ran off, Hardin shot him, not intending to kill the man. But when he caught up to Maje, the freedman was coughing up blood.

That’s how Hardin described the incident, at least. Another version of the event recorded by a Freedmen Bureau Agent claimed that Hardin shot Maje simply because he stood up for himself. Whatever the truth may be, Hardin’s life of crime and violence was only beginning.

John Wesley Hardin’s Life As A Gambler And A Gunman

Officially, Hardin earned a living as a cattleman and a gambler, but for one reason or another, he found himself at odds with a fair number of people — and dozens wound up dead because of it.

After the incident with Maje, Hardin fled to his brother’s house 25 miles north in Sumpter, Texas, where, according to the Texas State Historical Association, he claimed to have killed four Union soldiers who were attempting to arrest him.

Three years later, in 1871, he traveled to Abilene, Kansas, and killed seven more people along the way. He also managed to get the draw on the famous marshal, Wild Bill Hickok — a feat many attribute to Hardin’s unique cross-draw method, keeping his guns in shoulder holsters rather than at his side.

Along the way, he married a young woman named Jane Bowen, and the couple had a son and two daughters. Unfortunately, a family wasn’t enough cause for Hardin to settle down.

He claimed in his autobiography that he never killed anyone who didn’t deserve it, but another story he recounted casts some doubt on that claim.

One night, while Hardin was staying at a hotel in Abilene, a man named Charles Couger was snoring loudly in the room next door to his. Hardin pounded on the wall, but the man didn’t wake up.

To try and wake the man, Wes fired his gun and shot a bullet through the wall. When the snoring stopped and the man made no other sound, Hardin realized he had aimed too low — and shot the man dead.

John Wesley Hardin Bounty

Public DomainUnfortunately, Hardin’s wife died while he was in prison, and his children wanted nothing to do with the reformed criminal.

However, the incident that solidified John Hardin’s place in history came in 1874, on his 21st birthday.

Celebrating a big win at the horse races, Hardin and a few companions got incredibly drunk and drew the ire of Comanche, Texas, deputy sheriff Charles Webb. The two got into a duel, and Hardin won.

The murder reportedly enraged the townsfolk so much that they lynched Hardin’s brother and cousins, forcing him to go on the run and a $4,000 bounty to be placed on his head.

Wes Hardin’s Years In Prison Changed Him — But Not Enough

It took six years for the law to catch up to Hardin. By 1877, he was living under a new name, J.H. Swain, with his wife’s family in Pensacola, Florida.

A group of Texas Rangers led by John Armstrong had managed to track him down and found him on a passenger train car with a few of his friends. Hardin recognized Armstrong immediately and went to draw his gun — but it got caught in his suspenders.

One of Hardin’s friends fired a shot at Armstrong, blasting his hat right off his head. In response, Armstrong shot the man through his heart.

With nowhere to run and his gun still stuck, Armstrong and his men finally caught their man.

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, they took him back to Austin where he was tried for the murder of Charles Webb and sentenced to 25 years in prison in September 1877.

And although he made multiple escape attempts, Hardin also read up on theology and law and even became superintendent of the prison’s Sunday School.

By 1894, he was reformed into a law-abiding citizen — and pardoned for his crimes. Following his pardon, Hardin was admitted to the state bar and left town for El Paso, intending to set up a law practice.

Unfortunately, his efforts to lead a decent life didn’t quite pan out.

John Wesley Hardin In Death

Bettmann/Getty ImagesA photograph of John Wesley Hardin after he died.

In 1895, Hardin was acting as a defense attorney for Martin Mroz, a cattle thief who had fled to Mexico. While working Mroz’s case, Hardin took an interest in his client’s wife, and soon enough, the two became lovers.

Mroz found out about the affair and sought to return to El Paso from Mexico, enlisting the help of lawman George Scarborough to get across.

Unfortunately for Mroz, Scarborough double-crossed him, and Mroz was gunned down by several lawmen at the border. It was rumored that Hardin hired the men to assassinate his client before he could get revenge.

But on Aug. 19, 1895, one of the lawmen involved in Mroz’s murder, John Selman, found Wes Hardin in the Acme Saloon in El Paso — and shot him in the back of the head.

Some have argued Selman’s murder was a result of not being paid for killing Mroz, others say that Selman and Hardin had been involved in a long and bitter feud.

In either case, John Wesley’s Hardin life ended that day in the Acme Saloon, but his legacy has lived on.

After reading about John Wesley Hardin’s life outside the law, read about another Wild West icon: Calamity Jane. Or, learn about nine outlaws who wreaked havoc all across the frontier.

Austin Harvey
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Austin Harvey has also had work published with Discover Magazine, Giddy, and Lucid covering topics on mental health, sexual health, history, and sociology. He holds a Bachelor's degree from Point Park University.
Erik Hawkins
Erik Hawkins studied English and film at Keene State College in NH and has taught English as a Second Language stateside and in South America. He has done award-winning work as a reporter and editor on crime, local government, and national politics for almost 10 years, and most recently produced true crime content for NBC's Oxygen network.
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Harvey, Austin. "The Wild Story Of John Wesley Hardin, Perhaps The Most Ruthless Outlaw Of The Old West.", November 14, 2022, Accessed June 16, 2024.