The Austin Chronicle

The Wrong Cause

September 18, 1998, Books

by Jesse Sublett

John Wesley Hardin was an asshole. That's just my opinion. To some people he is a hero. Indeed, clouds of ambiguity, ambivalence, and controversy swirl about the legend of Texas' premier gunfighter like the clouds of gunsmoke that fatally enveloped the 40-odd men he killed. With a body count like that, you'd think Hardin would be even more celebrated. But Hardin never was and never will be a household word, and he'd never make it as a pop culture figure like Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, or Wild Bill Hickok. Those guys were mankillers, too, and they may have even been assholes, but the stuff their legends are made of is more palatable and more fun than Hardin's. In the end, Hardin's legend is just too dark, too depressing, to be a whole lot of fun.

Why do we admire people like, for example, Billy the Kid, aside from the fact that they cut dashing figures on horseback, chasing the wind across the wild frontier of our imaginations? We all know that the Kid was shot down in a dark room by Sheriff Pat Garrett. Dying in a cool way is important for a legendary kind of guy. It also helps when there's a sense of betrayal or cowardice on the part of one's killer, as in the case of the Kid. The Kid's heroic stature isn't entirely bogus, either. Most of the killings he actually did commit occurred when he took part in a violent feud between rival merchant and cattle interests known as the Lincoln County War. And the Kid was on the side of the more-or-less good guys, so not a lot of sympathy is wasted on his victims. (For simplicity's sake, we'll forget about the couple or so dead bodies he left behind on the trail to Lincoln County.) And ambiguity has never hurt the Kid's status as a folk hero. As the issues, as well as the details of the incidents themselves, have grown foggy over the years, the Kid's legend becomes an easy thing to attenuate and adapt as cultural and political climates change. Legends are like Play-Doh, you can't just leave them in the can. You've gotta keep playing with them.

Hundreds and hundreds of books, fiction and nonfiction, have been written about Billy the Kid. His story has been told in film versions by everyone from Gore Vidal to Sam Peckinpah, starring actors as diverse as Robert Taylor, Paul Newman, Kris Kristofferson, and Emilio Estevez. Joe Ely has a song about him. Artist/author Bob Boze Bell published a fabulous pop culture book, The Life and Times of Billy the Kid, that is hip, historically accurate, and visually exciting, and has a serendipitous blast exploring the links between the Kid, the Roswell aliens, and the Los Alamos project. Then there's Michael (The English Patient) Ondaatje's incredible The Complete Works of Billy the Kid -- my favorite book of poetry; one of my favorite books, period.

And what has Wes Hardin done for us lately? Probably the single most memorable thing is the myth that he was "so mean he once shot a man for snoring." Remember that line from the Time-Life Old West series commercials? This apocryphal story dates back over a hundred years. Hardin even joked about it when he was incarcerated in Austin awaiting trial. "It isn't true that I shot a man for snoring," he told one reporter. "I shot three or four of them."

Contrasted with the bevy of Billy films, Hardin has only one. Titled The Lawless Breed, it stars Rock Hudson as Hardin, and has about as much to do with Hardin's real story as I have with Newt Gingrich. The best thing that can be said of this corn-nut-chomper is that it's kind of campy. Books: Some lousy novels, none worth mentioning here. A book of very bad poetry. Several good biographies, including The Capture of John Wesley Hardin, by Chuck Parsons, and two excellent ones: The Last Gunfighter, by Richard Marohn, and John Wesley Hardin: Dark Angel of Texas, by Leon Metz. And then there are works like Ed Bartholomew's Kill or Be Killed, books that politicize Hardin's legend, trying to make him out to be the Robin Hood of the Reconstruction era. There are a lot of these.

Ironically, as distasteful as the retrograde works about Hardin are, they're interesting in their own right because they help illuminate the attitudes of the time, attitudes that in some cases still persist today. For example, some people see Hardin as a martyr of the oppression inflicted on white ex-Confederates in post-Civil War Texas by a punitive-minded federal government. This school of Hardin aficionados will maintain that during Reconstruction things were so bad for white Texans that poor Wes Hardin was forced to become a fugitive at the age of 15 after he killed one of his playmates, a former slave named Mage. Hardin claimed self-defense, saying Mage had attacked him while he was riding home on his horse. Hardin said he was forced to repeatedly shoot Mage, who was afoot. When Mage died of his wounds, Hardin's father, a Methodist preacher, believed that no jury would give a white man a fair trial in the murder of a black man. He told his son he'd better run far away and not come back until the world became sane again.

Hardin ran, but he didn't run without his gun. He kept on killing -- blacks, whites, and Mexicans. Gamblers who cheated him, lawmen who may or may not have wanted to arrest him, people on the wrong side of the family feud he insinuated himself into, and in general, people who pissed him off.

Thus evolved the twisted view that Hardin must have been not only a product of his violent, chaotic, topsy-turvy world, but a victim of its oppression turned courageous avenger. But the shoulders of Hardin's legend just aren't broad enough to hold up under the strain of that line of logic. As Marohn so succinctly points out in The Last Gunfighter: Yes, things were tough for Texans after the Civil War, but the majority of Texans found ways to deal with it that didn't involve shooting somebody once a week.

You can still hear the pathetic whine of the oppressed veterans of the Lost Cause (or as I like to call it, the Wrong Cause) when the subject of the state police force is discussed. All too often, people are still willing to accept the idea that this organization, created by the oft-unfairly maligned Reconstruction Governor Edmund J. Davis, was uniformly corrupt, and that its sole function was to oppress and intimidate white Texans. A large percentage of state policemen were African-American. Would you be surprised that in 1871 Hardin walked into a store in Smiley, Texas and shot down two black state policemen while they were eating cheese and crackers? Would you be surprised that between 1865 and 1871 white Texans murdered thousands of African-Americans -- crimes that went unsolved and unpunished? Might we suspect that one of the main objections white Texans had to the state police force was that it gave guns and badges to former slaves?

Makes sense to me.

In June of 1995, I was in Trinity, Texas, to see a play called The Life of John Wesley Hardin. The play was to be the entertainment program for a high school reunion. (Ironically, the play had to be totally rewritten when no suitable candidates were found to play the title role.) There was an awful lot of weirdness going on that day. The luncheon entrée was spaghetti with chili sauce. The name of the high school football team was the Tigers. I stood out in my leopard print shirt, and I was treated as a celebrity. They'd heard I was a writer/producer of television documentaries. And it didn't hurt that Trinity is where Wes Hardin got into a shooting affray with a man named Phil Sublett in 1872. Make that great-great-uncle Phil Sublett.

There were several speakers before the play began. One of them, an unabashed Hardin fan, began her speech by unleashing an ear-piercing Minnie Pearl-style "Howww-DEE!" and then declared, "John Wesley Hardin never killed a man that didn't deserve killin'." Later on, during intermission, I spoke with her briefly, and asked her a question: With all the politicizing of Hardin's legend and other aspects of history, do you sometimes feel that for some people, the Civil War is still going on? Her answer: "Hell yes it is!!" And she went on, and on, and on. I stopped listening after a while, and became very sorry I'd asked. The play wasn't half as bad. It wasn't very good, either, and there were the inevitable parts that demonstrated racial attitudes that were disgusting a century ago. These parts made me cringe. They made me ashamed to be white. The few African-Americans in the audience maintained an incredibly passive, stoic front throughout the entire performance.

A couple of months later, the Hardin bio by psychologist Richard Marohn came out. I read it and liked it a lot. Not only did Marohn deliver the most credible, best-researched documentation of Hardin's life to date, he gave a very credible explanation for Hardin's extremely violent career: The gunfighter suffered from what is known as a narcissistic behavior disorder. Torn apart by inner conflicts and paranoia, Hardin acted out his delusions of grandeur on the green felt stages of gambling tables, at race tracks, and other suitable forums offered by a frontier world in flux. After spinning apart, he'd put himself back together by guzzling whiskey and blasting holes in other human beings. It made Hardin more interesting. In my book, the psychotic gunfighter angle beats the hell out of that martyr/hero gunfighter hokum, any day of the week.

So what's fun about John Wesley Hardin? Well, if for no other reason, Hardin is recognized as one of the rarest of Western gunfighters because, in the year before he died he completed his autobiography, The Life of John Wesley Hardin. It's an exciting read, full of serpentine, florid lines like these: "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." In this tantalizingly strange book, Hardin not only details a great many of his murders, but provides explanations that fully justified his actions. In his mind, that is.

Unfortunately, there exist only spare snippets of letters and interviews of other legends like Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp, and their kind. Similarly, there are lots of photographs of Hardin, too. But there's only that one scratchy, funky tintype of Billy the Kid. Could it be that the more of a cipher a folk antihero is, the more we are able to project our imaginations and agendas on his or her life? Maybe the problem with Hardin is that he felt compelled to explain himself, to give excuses for his deplorable actions and 42 years of wasted life, to justify himself to the wife and kids he constantly left at home to fend for themselves while he rode dusty trails to infamy. Asshole that he was.

In contrast to Hardin's asshole manifesto, we have a few letters by Billy the Kid, mostly from correspondence with Governor Lew Wallace, in which the Kid implores Wallace to live up to his end of their surrender agreement: amnesty in exchange for the Kid's testimony in court. The notes are oddly plaintive, yet bristling with attitude. Over the course of their relationship, Wallace grows distracted. He's too busy writing his novel, Ben Hur. Billy suddenly decides "Fuck it," and goes on his merry way, stealing horses and cattle, visiting girlfriends, and other typical 19th-century slacker pursuits.

Hardin's life had at least one notable thing in common with the Kid's: a semi-tragic end. After serving 16 years in Huntsville for the only murder he was convicted of, Hardin made an effort to go straight, to quit drinking and killing people, to be a lawyer (he studied in prison) instead of an outlaw. But the born-again Hardin soon devolved into the straight-to-hell Hardin. He dangled toward rough and ready end-of-the-century El Paso, where he took up drinking and gambling, twirling his guns in public, hanging out with other notorious killers -- some wore badges, some did not. One of them was Constable John Selman (coincidentally, one of the very bad guys in the Lincoln County War). Hardin was soon entangled with a notorious whore and a complicated, dark plot involving a large sum of money and some of the aforementioned killers. Hardin ended up with the hooker and, apparently, too much of the money; the husband ended up dead; the co-conspirators ended up pissed off and with no money. One of those co-conspirators was John Selman. On the afternoon of August 19, 1895, Hardin and Selman argued. Before they parted, Hardin told Selman he'd be wearing a gun the next time they met, and that he'd make Selman "shit like a wolf around the block." That night Selman -- who was half blind in one eye and couldn't see out of the other -- took no chances. He went down to the Acme Saloon, walked up behind Hardin and put a bullet through the back of his head.

But was Hardin's death tragic or just pathetic? He died while breaking one of the cardinal rules for gunfighters. Just hours after threatening a dangerous gunman, he'd bellied up to the bar and started sucking down booze and playing dice -- with his back to the door. After all the pretensions to greatness and delusions of grandeur, John Wesley Hardin died like an asshole. A dumb one at that.

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