John Westly Hardin cerently did not resembel the man he was named after. Hardin’s father, the Rev. J. G. Hardin, named him in honor of the founder of Methodism. Wes was born May 26, 1853, in Boham, Texas. Hardin quit school at the age of fivteen, as was the custom in those days.
If John Westly Hardin was not the greatest gunfighter , he was one of the most prolific. and most certanly the most dangerious man to ever trod the streets of El Paso. The community of El Paso had known such shooters as Dallad Strouenmire, Pat Garret, Wyatt Earp, John Selman, George Scrborough, Jeff Milton, Mannen Clements and Jim Miller (many of these we still have to meet).
John started his killings ny shooting Reconstruction soldiers and Negroes. Any carpetbagger was fair game in the mind of most Texans at that time.
By his own account the killings started in November of 1868 when a ex-slave refused to give Harding the right of way on a road. Placing three .44 slugs in the mans body settled the issue. Harding claimed most white folk’s thought I had did a good thing.
As stated carpetbaggers ran Texas in those days and the law was enforced by soldiers, and they picked up John’s trail near the seltment of Sumpter. It was their bad luck that Harding saw them first and ambushed them. He shot the first two with a shotgun and killed the third with his revolver. The bodies were hidden by sympathetic civilans while Harding fled the vicinity.
Over the next five years hardings career was simply one killing after another, all in self defense he claimed.
Near Kosse , Texas he fell under the charm of a young lady who lured him into a barn, where her boyfriend waited with a shotgun. The Idiot demanded John’s money which he pulled out of his pocket and threw at the fool’s feet. In his greed he stooped to retrive the money and Harding grabed the shot gun and shot him. Retriving his money he fled town in the usual maner, in a hury.
Fleeing toward the Lousisina line he was captured near Marshal, Texas. This was Hardings first time to be arrested. On the return trip toward the interior of the state, Wes killed one of the guards and excaped.
He juroned only a short distance when he was apprehended by three state policemen. As they camped that night, the guard dozed off. Harding got hold of his shotgun and the guard never woke up.
It was Hardin’s intention to hide in Mexico, but some relatives named Clements presuaded him to join them on a trail drive across Indian territory. While crossing the territory he killed two Indians who tried to tax the herd ten cents a head. A little further on near the Arkansas river trouble brewed when a following Mexican herd started to overtake their herd. When this occours the cattle intermingles and have to be seperated causing much more work. After heated words it was agreed the matter would be settled by a gun battle. A space was cleared between the herd’s and Wes and Jim Clement’s charged six of the Mexican’s on horse back. When the melee was over the six Mexican’s were all laying dead. Clements claimed one and said Wes had killed the other five.
Harding claimed to have tangled with Bill Hickok in Abiline, Kansas, where Hickok was just reaching the height og his powers. Supposedly Hickok approached Harding, who was wearing his guns in public against city ordanance’s. Demanding Wes surrender his pistols, which he offered to Bill butt first. then spinning them around in the “Road Agent’s Spin” got the drop on Hickok. Only Hardings memories recall this insident, and most historians doubt that a man with Hickok’s experence would fall for such a ploy.
Acourding to Hardin’s story he did not linger in Abiline. While there he killed a man in a card game and shot a prowler he caught rifllin his pockets one night. Also I believe it was here that he supposedly shot a man through the wall of his hotel room, because his snoring was keeping him awake.
Returning to Texas he married Jane Bowen, and over the years had three children two daughters and a son. He promised to settle down and become a horse traider.
Peacefull life did not last long for Wes . In 1872 , after a aurgment over ten pins with a fellow gambler he was shot with a shotgun. Some of the Clements managed to whish Harding away ahead of the police. the law was relentless and tracked him through a series of hideouts. Finally pinned down in a shed, Hardin agreed to surrender to a Sheriff Dick Regan, of Cherokee County. Nervious with Harding’s reputation, they entered the shed when Harding tossed his guns aside one of the deputy’s gun discharged and struch John in the leg near his knee.
Hardin recurpeated in jail and when he was able to walk a friend slipped him a saw. Cutting his way out ,he fled To DeWitt County in east Texas where a bitter, bloddy feud between the Sutton and Taylor was in progerss. Chosing the the Taylor side Harding became involved. In the process he killed J.B. Morgan a deputy sheriff and a few days later added the sheriff to his list on tthe pretext that the sheriff supported the Suttons.
By now Harding had a list of over thirty dead men + or–. On his twentyfirst birthday he added another notch, which was his own undoing. And It might have been one of his really justified killings in his own self defense.
Charlie Webb, a Broen County deputy sheriff left his own jurisdiction to visit Comanchee Hardin claimed Webb had came to kill him (maybe so maybe not). Anyway the two met in a batr and shook hands and shared a drink. As Harding turned to go Webb supposedly reached for his gun. Someone screamed a warrning and Harding turned and drew. Webb shot Wes in the side but Hardin shot him in the forehead. As Webb slid down the wall several of the Clements pumped more lead into Webb.
Harding fled to the east coast hiding out in Florida. A angry mob linched His older brother Joe, a sort of early confidence man, who never harmed anyone except in their pocketbook.
The state posted a $4,000 reward on hardings head, this drew the attention of the Texas Rangers, in paticulat one Lt. John B. Armingstrong.
Hiding in Florida, Georgia and Alabama using the name of J. H. Swan, Harding felt safe. Learning of Wes’s wherebouts, Armstrong tracked and trapped harding on a train in Pensacola, Florida. A companion of Harding’s drew a gun and was killed instantly. Harding meanwhile was trying to draw his gun but it became tangled in his supenders. One of the rangers cracked him beside the head eanding his struggles.
Found guilty of killing Webb, he was sentenced to twentyfive years in the state pen. In prision Harding read voraciously, especially the Bible and law. He became supertendent of the prision’s Sunday School class.
For awhile he entertained the idea of becoming a minister, but decited on law. He planned to move his family to a small town and become a lawyer. His dreams unraveled when his wife died at the age of thirtysix.
After fivteen years the govonor granted him a full pardon and released him from prison. He attempted to pratice law for awhile. He became involved n a messy divorce and entangled with the woman. He had the man killed and and attacts of remorse struck him for the first time in his life. He began to drink and gambel , let his law pratice languish. Finally out of fear that his loose toungh would implicate hin in the killings . One of the shooters a old lawman named John Selman, shot Harding from behind once in the head, once in the chest and once in the arm.
Harding lay on the wooden floor for over two hours as the whole town paraided by to see his body. The undertaker later claimed after cleanning the body up “except for being dead Harding appears to be in good shape.
Maybe this is the way he would have prefered to die. Life had already taken his vigor and glory from him. Maybe he died falling to the floor thinking this was just one more momumental hangover.