Texas-born John Wesley Hardin possessed two noteworthy traits, which—in combination—made him one of the deadliest men of his day. The first was an uncanny ability with firearms, and the second, total disregard for the lives of his fellow man. In his own self-penned and heavily slanted apologia, The Life of John Wesley Hardin as Written by Himself, he boasts of slaying 42 men before his 26th birthday. Although the number is almost certainly an exaggeration, he was unquestionably a killing machine. He killed without hesitation, and without remorse. Some of his victims fell in stand-up fights, while others died from choosing the wrong side in a clan feud, because of their skin color, or simply because Hardin was feeling “orn’ry.” One persistent story has Hardin slaying a man for snoring. The tale may well be apocryphal, but it points to his quixotic, deadly personality.

While other iconic outlaws such Butch Cassidy, Henry Starr, and the James-Younger Gang used their weapons as necessary adjuncts to their respective trades—stock theft, bank and train robbery—Hardin was, first and foremost, a man-killer. By his own admission, he began his career in 1868, when, at 15, he shot down a black man who Hardin claimed had attacked him with a stick. The official Record of Criminal Offenses Committed in the State of Texas for that year, however, states that Hardin—“a mere lad”—had killed the man “without cause as the latter did not like the abuse of Hardin.” 

Over the next 10 years, Hardin cut a bloody swath across Texas, occasionally leaving bodies in other states as well. Finally, in May 1874, Hardin went too far, even for those who sought to excuse or glorify his killings. He shot a deputy sheriff dead, and in so doing, brought down the full wrath of the law. A murder indictment was found against Hardin almost immediately, and outraged citizens of Comanche County petitioned the governor to bring in the newly-formed Company A of the Frontier Battalion of Texas Rangers to clean up a region “infested with a band of murderers and thieves headed by the notorious John Wesley Hardin.” The governor obliged and summoned the Rangers.

This was the same year the Texas legislature, with the approval of the federal government, authorized the formation of six Ranger companies, each consisting of a captain, two lieutenants, and 75 men. Each enlistee was provided by the state with food, lodging, ammunition, and a breech-loading rifle, but was responsible for his own horse, clothing, accoutrements, camp gear, and “one suitable six-shooting army-size pistol.” Company A was officially mustered in, under the immediate command of Capt. John B. Waller, just two days before Hardin killed Sheriff Webb. Only one week later, Waller reported to his commander, Maj. John B. Jones, that his company had engaged in a running gunfight with Hardin and his associates, but were outdistanced by the outlaws’ fast horses.

With the Texas Rangers on his trail, it was clearly time for Hardin to leave Texas. Taking his wife and baby daughter, and traveling under the alias John H. Swain, he moved to the Florida Panhandle, killing two detectives along the way. There, he ran saloons, worked in the cattle business, gambled and drank as a matter of habit, and fathered a son. Meanwhile, a Brown County, Texas, posse—frustrated at their failure to find Hardin—lynched his unoffending younger brother and two close friends. 

Within two months of their formation, Waller reported that his Rangers had eradicated the outlaw bands from Comanche County, by killing, arresting, or driving them out. John Wesley Hardin, however, was still at large. In January, 1875, the State of Texas placed a $4,000 bounty on his head, for delivery to the jail in Austin. In late 1876, pursued now by bounty hunters and the Pinkerton Detective Agency as well as the Rangers, Hardin moved to Alabama. Ranger Lt. John B. Armstrong hired Jack Duncan, a skilled police detective, to find the gunman. Working undercover, Duncan managed to discover Hardin’s address on an envelope, and tracked him to Alabama, and from there, to Pensacola, Fla., where Hardin had gone to purchase supplies. He immediately wired Armstrong. 

Armstrong—who was awaiting arrest warrants in Texas—hurried east without the papers to join Duncan. Without revealing the true identity of their quarry, the two brought local county sheriff W.H. Hutchinson in on the plan to seize Hardin after he boarded a train bound back to Alabama. From one end, Armstrong entered the car where Hardin sat with three friends, while Duncan, Hutchinson, and a deputy entered from the other. Armstrong drew his pistol, whereupon Hardin, with a cry of “Texas, by God!” attempted to draw his own .44 Colt—which snagged on his suspender strap. One of Hardin’s companions ran for the window, and was shot dead. Hutchinson leapt upon the fiercely struggling Hardin, as Armstrong brought his pistol barrel down hard on the outlaw’s head, stunning him into submission. 

In his autobiography, Hardin has Armstrong actually preventing an officer from striking Hardin over the head with a revolver: “Men, we have him now; don’t hurt him; he is too brave to kill and the first man that shoots him I’ll kill him.” This is patent nonsense, and typical of the self-aggrandizing tone of Hardin’s “memoir.” 

By seizing the outlaw outside of Texas, and without the proper papers, Armstrong was inviting a raft of legal troubles. Technically, it was an illegal arrest, made without warrant or requisition. Indeed, Sheriff Hutchinson would later be indicted and then pardoned for kidnapping the gunman. But when the dust settled, they had Hardin.

The sheriff returned to his duties, while Armstrong and Duncan took their manacled prisoner as far as Alabama to await the papers legalizing the arrest. The warrants had still not arrived, and Hardin had hired a lawyer to secure his immediate release on a writ of habeas corpus. At the hearing, Hardin’s wife Jane reportedly tongue-lashed Ranger Armstrong, grabbing him by his goatee, and swearing that she would raise her baby son to kill him. With the help of a sympathetic Alabama judge, all legal rulings were delayed long enough for the Texas lawmen to receive the necessary papers, and on August 28, 1877, Hardin was delivered to the jailhouse door at Austin.

Responding to rumors that the killer’s friends were planning to break him from jail, Rangers of the Frontier Battalion maintained order at the trial at Comanche. When the jury came in, the notorious John Wesley Hardin, the scourge of the southwest, was sentenced to 25 years in Huntsville Penitentiary. Reportedly, $500 of the $4,000 reward went to Sheriff Hutchinson; the rest was divided between Duncan and Armstrong. They had earned it.

illustration by Joe Wilson

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