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Men of Action: Gunfighter/Gambler John Wesley Hardin

by Bob Pajich |  Published: Jan 22, 2014

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John Wesley HardinJohn Wesley Hardin was the second son born to a Methodist preacher near Bonham, Texas, who named him after the godfather of the Methodist church. Two things remained constant in Hardin’s short life, violence and poker.

A road gambling, bon-a-fide outlaw, Hardin was a man with a short fuse and an itchy trigger finger. Listen to him, and he’d tell you he was almost always the victim, that self-preservation is a holy virtue, but be wise. Don’t be fooled by sentimentality. Hardin was cold-blooded.

As if the dozens of men he killed isn’t proof enough, his time spent at the poker tables help give a glimpse into the man behind the gun.

First Trouble at a Poker Game

It was Christmas Day, 1869, and Hardin wrote he went to the races near a town called Towash in Texas. Hardin said “everybody in the ‘60s carried pistols” and he did the same. Later that evening, he ended up in a draw poker game with three other folks. There would be trouble, he wrote in his autobiography, The Life of John Wesley Hardin.

“One thing, however, I did know, and that was how to protect myself pretty well from such fellows in a game of draw poker. I placed about $350 in gold in front of me and about $10 in silver.”

That’s almost $7,000 in today’s dollars.

The other four players had less than $100 total in front of them. By midnight, with another Christmas gone, Hardin had all the money on the table, but he made a mistake judging the characters he had fleeced. He wasn’t wearing boots.

“I had won all the money on the blanket, as I said before, and all the players owed me. I had pulled off my boots and thrown them in the corner to my left next to (an especially cancerous player named Jim) Bradly, not suspecting that robbery was the intention of the game.”

It wasn’t robbery, it was the fact that this boy had just taken the men for all they had. When Hardin demanded the $10 Bradly owed him, the older man balked, pulled “a big knife” and went after the teenager. Hardin bounded out of the ramshackle cabin “barefooted on the frosty ground and ran out to our horses.”

Hardin was not going to let this stand. He said he didn’t want to face his father in the shape the men put him in, so he borrowed a gun and prepared himself for a showdown. Then it happened.

“Bradly saw me and tried to cut me off, getting in front of me with a pistol in one hand and a Bowie knife in the other. He commenced firing on me, firing once, then snapping and then firing again. By this time we were within five of six feet of each other and I fired with a Remington 45 at his heart and right after that his head. As he staggered and fell he said ‘O Lordy, don’t shoot me anymore.’ I could not stop.”

What were you doing at 16? Hardin was officially on the run. Bradly wasn’t even his first victim. That was a boy, a childhood acquaintance that he said he killed in self-defense. Soon after, he said he killed four soldiers who were trying to capture him.

It was the beginning of a pattern that would repeat itself until that one bullet destined for his soul would find him later in an El Paso saloon, government pardons be damned.

Hardin’s autobiography, written while he was serving a 27-year sentence after he was finally caught in 1875, should not be taken as Gospel.

According to Leon Metz’s biography John Wesley Hardin: Dark Angel of Texas, the year this violence took place was 1870. And it wasn’t “Jim Bradly” who had his head blown off (although that’s who Hardin knew him as). It was Benjamin Bradley.

Wesley’s autobiography was certainly written as an attempt to gain public sympathy for his dastardly deeds. Studying law and passing the Texas bar while jailed also helped his case. He was released from prison in 1894 after serving 15 years and five months. Soon after he was pardoned by the Texas governor named “Big” Jim Hogg. Incidentally, the Governor’s daughter was named Ima. Ima Hogg.

The Agitator

One night, a paranoid and edged Hardin, on the run from the law as always, found himself in a poker game with one of the more ruthless murderers in Texas at the time, “Wild” Bill Longley. The nation was in shreds after the Civil War. Violence was the order of the day. Longley and Hardin were as much a product of the war as the soldiers who fought it. They were murdering thieves, teenagers with no concept of the future, and they spent a ridiculous amount of time playing poker.

According to Hardin, Longley’s reputation preceded him. Hardin’s machismo often overruled everything else.

“If your name is Bill Longley,” Hardin said, “I want you to understand that you can’t bulldoze or scare me.”

They started playing poker when this hand came up. According to Hardin:

“We got into the game. Directly, it came my turn to deal. I had three jacks to go on and raised $5. All stayed in and in the draw Bill drew three cards, while the other two players drew one apiece. I drew two and caught the other jack. Bill filled on aces. One of the other players made a flush and the other filled on queens.”

What a hand! The betting exploded. It got back to Hardin.

“I studied a while and said: ‘You can’t run me out of my own deal, so I go $10 better.’ Bill Longley said: “Well, stranger, you have your foot in it now; I go you $50 better.”

The man with the queens full stays and it comes back to Hardin. Hardin wrote:

“I said: ‘What are you betting, wind or money?”
He said: ‘Money’
‘Put it up,’ said I.

He went down in his pocket and pulled out four $20 gold pieces and took out a $5 gold piece.

I said, ‘All right, here is your $50 and I go you $250 better.’”

Longley tries to get Hardin to accept his call on credit, which Hardin refuses. Longley pulls out his last $220 in gold and calls. Hardin continues:

‘I recon you have me beat.’
He said: ‘I reckon so. I have got an ace full.’
I said: ‘Hold on, I have two pair.’
He said: ‘They are not worth a damn.’
I said: ‘I reckon two pair of jacks are,’ so the eventful game ended. I was ahead about $300.’”

Mercifully, and somewhat miraculously, there was no violence that night. But what kind of man slow rolls another man who has not one bit of problem stopping the hearts of men? Welcome to the Reconstruction Era in Texas.

1870s, Capture and Death

Hardin was 5’9”, 160 pounds of pure anger and no regret. The Bradley killing started a decade of shootings and confrontations. He was a fugitive and was determined not to be captured. It didn’t matter to him how many men he’d have to kill to remain free. All this while, he made his way through the south and south east hustling cards.

In the mid-1870s, he often went from Mobile, Ala., to Pascagoula, Miss., with a friend named Kenedy playing cards and cheating people.

From_ A Lawless Breed: John Wesley Hardin, Texas Reconstruction, and violence in the Wild West_:

“…and thanks to their ability to gamble, or more likely due to marked cards, they won $3,500.”

But later that year, he was caught and despite early repeated attempts at escape, would remain imprisoned until 1894. His escape attempts always lead to being lashed.

Hardin claimed he killed 42 men. The newspapers of that era put that number closer to 27.

Another interested poker tidbit comes from his autobiography. He said he played in a “freeze out” and won $5. It quite possibly is one of the first times that phrase was used in print. His autobiography was published in 1896.

Hardin had to have the inclination that his death would be violent, and it would most likely come in the back of, the front of, or near a saloon.

The Body of John Wesley HardinOn Aug. 19, 1985, an El Paso constable named John Selman walked up to Hardin, who was playing dice in the Acme Saloon, and put a bullet in the back of his head.

The two had argued earlier in the day. Selman said nothing as he fired three more shots into Hardin’s dead body. Selman was acquitted by a hung jury, but before he was retried, he was killed in a shootout.

Hardin was 42. A hundred years after his death, his great-grandchildren sued the city of El Paso to have his body moved and be buried next to his wife in Nixon, Tex. There was almost a real fist fight at his grave.

Somewhere, Hardin was smiling.