The Last Gunfighter by Richard Marohn
Creative Publishing, $29.95 hard
John Wesley Hardin, Texas' most notorious gunfighter, had star quality. While still a teenager, he earned the respect of noted gunslingers like Bill Longley, Ben Thompson, Jeff Milton, and Wild Bill Hickok. When he was finally captured and brought back to Texas in chains, common folks flocked to meet his train. Women swooned, and his legend grew. Hardin was the son of a Methodist preacher and was, in fact, named after the founder of the Methodist church. But instead of saving souls, John Wesley Hardin sent them on to meet their Maker, via bullet train express. By his own account, Hardin killed more than 40 men.
On August 19, 100 years ago, Hardin was murdered in the Acme Saloon in El Paso, Texas. His life, death, and legend have meant different things to different people over the years. For me, Hardin's saga is the fantastic, fascinating tale of a terrible man who did terrible things, a mixed-up kid who yearned to be understood, but would always remain a mystery, even to himself.
Crossing over the Trinity River on a beautiful Saturday morning last June, deep in the heart of Hardin's old stomping grounds in East Texas, I wondered what kind of Dantesque visions swirled in his nightmares, what posse of personal demons breathed down his back on the trails he spattered with blood. Hardin's career as a killer and folk hero began in these piney woods in 1868, when he was 15 years old.
Hardin's first victim was a former slave and sometime playmate of Hardin's named Mage. It seems that Mage, who was older and physically intimidating, was sore about losing a wrestling match with Hardin and his cousin. According to Hardin, Mage swore revenge and later attacked him as he was riding through the woods. After warning Mage to leave him alone, Hardin shot Mage until the man fell, mortally wounded. Hardin rode home to tell his father what he had done.
This was the Reconstruction era. The economy was devastated. The presence of a federal army of occupation - not to mention some 180,000 formerly enslaved African Americans - made many Texans nervous and resentful. Acts of terrorism by white vigilance committees accelerated the cycle of repression and rebelliousness. Against this bleak, chaotic backdrop, Reverend James Hardin saw little chance of a fair hearing for his son. He told John Wesley to go into hiding until things blew over.
During those fugitive years, Hardin went on to kill more blacks, federal soldiers, and state police (many of whom were also African Americans). And he became a hero in the eyes of many like-minded Texans. Over the long haul, though, the majority of Hardin's victims were whites and Mexicans, and he killed them neither for political reasons nor to escape being captured but to solve personal disagreements - on the cattle trails, in blood feuds, in the gambling halls and, at least once, at a circus! Almost everywhere Hardin went, he found a reason to kill someone. So what was John Wesley Hardin? A product of his times or a cold-blooded killer?
According to Richard Marohn, the author of a new biography of Hardin called The Last Gunfighter, the answer lies somewhere in between. Marohn, a professor of psychiatry at Northwestern University Medical School, says that Texas' most notorious gunfighter suffered from a narcissistic behavior disorder. His violent deeds were the actions of an exhibitionist who had extreme difficulty regulating his self-esteem.
Marohn's insights into the root causes of Hardin's violence make The Last Gunfighter truly unique in the field of western biography. The book does have its shortcomings - the footnotes are a mess, some of the excerpted material should have been better qualified, and once in awhile, Marohn's usually journeyman prose strays into corny melodrama. But it is an essential addition to any western history collection. John Wesley Hardin left a trail of words as well as blood, and according to Marohn, that trail tells us an awful lot about what made him tick. Letters Hardin wrote while imprisoned in Huntsville (from 1878 to 1894) and his autobiography, written after his release, provide a gold mine of insight, information, and strangeness. Above and beyond the psycho-biographical aspect, The Last Gunfighter is the most complete and clear-headed biography of Hardin ever written. Despite the problematic footnotes, bibliographic references provide information for any researcher. Last but not least, the book is enlivened with over 100 photos (some never before published), maps, illustrations, and diagrams of many of Hardin's gunfights.
There are only a handful of titles in the field of western outlaw autobiographies, and The Life of John Wesley Hardin, as Written by Himself (published posthumously, in 1896) is as unique as its author. Here's a sample: I looked around and saw Jack Helms advancing on Jim Taylor with a large knife in his hands. Some one hollered, `Shoot the d-d scoundrel.' It appeared to me that Helms was the scoundrel, so I grabbed my shotgun and fired at Capt. Jack Helms as he was closing with Jim Taylor. I then threw my gun on the Helms crowd and told them not to draw a gun, and made one fellow put up his pistol. In the meantime, Jim Taylor had shot Helms repeatedly in the head, so thus did the leader of the vigilant committee, the sheriff of DeWitt, the terror of the country, whose name was a horror to all law-abiding citizens, meet his death.
In Hardin's mind, all his actions took on political overtones. "Thus unwillingly, I became a fugitive," writes Hardin, "not from justice be it known, but from the injustice and misrule of the people who had subjugated the South." Sure, things were tough for people like Hardin and his family during the Reconstruction years. But, as Marohn points out, the majority of Texans found ways to cope instead of kill. Hardin was one of the exceptions. The way he tells it, there was a good explanation for every one of his fortysomething killings. Marohn tells us that Hardin's autobiography was, in essence, an extension of the many times he rode back home to explain his latest murder to his parents.
Read Hardin's autobiography and his letters and things start to add up: the Biblical references, his terrible fear of being attacked by mobs, the incredible naïveté of his doting mother, and the mysterious synchronicity of the death of his younger brother (which occurred shortly before Hardin's first murder). While Hardin was being torn apart from the inside by personal demons, the peculiar chaos of the frontier became the stage on which he acted out his inner conflicts.
According to Marohn, Hardin's many episodes of violence were the result of his efforts to "put himself back together and to regulate his self-esteem," as were his habits of drinking and gambling, which also frequently set the stage for violence. So where does this gunfighter myth come from, you may ask, and what prompted Hardin's tragic downfall? In our interview, Marohn put it this way:
"Early in Hardin's life, there was cultural support for this kind of behavior. It was still the Wild West. There were still sides to be taken around the Union-Confederate issue, in black-white issues, and in family feuds. As culture and society changed in post-Civil War America and increasingly people became `civilized,' and violence became frowned upon, things became more and more difficult for Hardin."
It was in Comanche, Texas, on May 26, 1874, that things really blew up in Hardin's face. Hardin was celebrating his 21st birthday when he ran into a deputy sheriff named Charley Webb and shot him dead. Hardin's cousins pumped more bullets into Webb's body as it slumped against a wall. An angry mob swelled on the street, clamoring for Hardin's blood. Shots were fired. Somebody said something about a rope. Hardin escaped, but some of his friends and relatives weren't so lucky. All told, five men were killed by vigilante violence.
Three years and at least a half dozen killings later, the Texas Rangers caught up with Hardin aboard a train in Florida. In a highly publicized and controversial trial, Hardin was found guilty of second degree murder in the killing in Comanche. He served 16 years at Huntsville before being paroled and released. In early 1896, he received a full pardon from Governor Jim Hogg.
Hardin briefly tried going straight, practicing law and shunning drink. He moved to wild and woolly El Paso. Bad idea. Toward the end of the 19th century, as the rest of the state began to mellow and become more civilized, El Paso just got wilder. It was no place for an aging gunfighter to go straight.
Hardin took up drinking again. He got involved in local intrigues, had an affair with a notorious prostitute, and held up several saloons after complaining that their games were fixed. He paced back and forth in his room, practicing his fast-draw in front of a mirror. He handed out autographed playing cards he'd shot holes through. He beat up his girlfriend. He broke down and cried in front of his landlady. He bragged in public that he'd hired a local lawman to kill someone, then had a retraction printed in the paper, saying he'd been drunk at the time. Somehow, he also found the time to finish his autobiography.
Much has been written about this period of Hardin's life, as a lot of wild things were going on in El Paso besides the sordid flameout of a haunted gunman. Consequently, there are many different theories about the events that led up to his death.
Witnesses say the actual shooting went down like this: Around 11pm the evening of August 19, 1895, John Wesley Hardin was playing dice with grocer H.S. Brown in the Acme Saloon in El Paso. A shadow darkened the doorway at Hardin's back. The shadow belonged to Constable John Selman, himself a notorious mankiller with a dark past. The other patrons in the saloon quit talking. The only sounds came from the two men throwing dice, at 25cents a throw.
"Hoss piss on you," said Hardin.
"Shake again," said the grocer.
Selman pointed his six-shooter at the back of Hardin's head. Four cubes danced across the felt and came to rest.
"You have four sixes to beat," Hardin said to the grocer.
Selman pulled the trigger. Hardin spun around to face his killer, a hole showing at the corner of his left eye - the exit wound of the bullet that had passed through his brain. Witnesses said Hardin reached for his six-shooter as he fell to the floor. Selman kept shooting, even as Hardin lay prostrate, his life fluids rapidly forming a gooey lake on the barroom floor. Selman's son, John, Jr., ran into the bar and took his father by the arm and pleaded: "Don't shoot him anymore. He's already dead."
Hardin's death came as a huge sigh of relief to many El Pasoans. Journalists mined the event for its dark humor. Several citizens were quoted as saying that, aside from being dead, John Wesley Hardin had never looked better. The death of Texas' most notorious gunfighter was only one indication that an era had truly passed into history. When officials found a card on the body with the name of Hardin's closest friend, nobody had to saddle up and ride out to deliver the sad news. They called him on the telephone. n The Last Gunfighter is available from The Early West, PO Box 9292, College Station, TX 77842; or by calling 800/245-5841.