An Overview, Part 3
Today, we get to the meat of the story. Just how did John Wesley Hardin become a killer?
To understand young boys like John Wesley Hardin and others who grew up during the Civil War and Reconstruction, you have to be able to comprehend the times in which they found themselves… something that I don’t know that any of us today can really do because I don’t think any of us can even imagine a political position that could possibly be important enough to make us pick up our guns and begin shooting at each other.
Can you just imagine the years and years of hatred that had to have built up in this country to make fathers fight against sons and sons against brothers? See, it’s impossible for us to comprehend this mentality today.
Another thing that we are going to have to do if we actually want to understand any of this piece of history is to accept the fact that… horrible as it sounds to us today…there was a time in this country when southerners were taught that the white race was superior to the negro race…and that, in fact, the negro race’s sole purpose on this earth was to serve the white race.
It’s a horrible concept…but you have to remember that it wasn’t taught in the back alleys of the country…no, it was a concept preached in the pulpits across the south for generations with ministers using scripture such as “slaves obey thy master” as their guide.
And yet, believe it or not, JWH’s father actually voted against succession when it came to a vote; however, when Texas seceeded from the union, Mr. Hardin, like most other Texas men, made the decision to support his state and, of course, that is something else that we of the 21st century don’t really understand…the pride and the loyalty that these people felt toward their state.
But if you will stop and remember, even Robert E. Lee, revered by so many and such a lover of the Union, resigned his federal army commission to go home to Virginia and fight for the South. Lee agonized over this decision, but in the end, he could not support his country over his beloved state.
And it was in these perilous times that Wes Hardin found himself growing up. And, just like the talk that our children heard from adults in the initial days after September 11, 2001, JWH heard the same talk about the Yankees…only much worse because the Yankees weren’t in far away NYC, no…they were on southern soil, and planning to stay there!
By the time he was nine years old, JWH was unbelievably accurate with a pistol…….how did he get so good? Practicing. What did he shoot during his target practice? The same thing that little boys all across the south in the 1860s shot at…..imaginary Yankees…because you see, that’s what little boys used for target practice during the Civil War…those hated Yankees.
Not really much different than Comanche County boys shooting at imaginary Indians when you think about it, is it?
Apparently from all accounts, JWH was what we today would call an excellent athlete. He excelled at the usual boyhood games of the time and was also an excellent wrestler. He was also a very fortunate boy because, since both sides of the family understood the importance of education, he was given the opportunity to go to school.
Of course, after four long years, the South lost the war and then southerners realized that they had not even started to know what hard times were until the North’s idea of “reconstruction” was put upon them. By the time the war had been over for a few years, southerners and most especially those hard-nosed Texans who had always thought themselves perfectly capable of existing on their own, hated the Union…its soldiers….and its new dreaded state police more than ever.
And it was during these years that JWH became a teenager in a day when parents thought nothing of allowing their young sons to strap a gun on their hip.
In 1868, Johnny Hardin was fifteen years old, and he went to visit Judge Barnett Hardin, an uncle on his father’s side who lived in Polk County, Texas. Remember, these families produced huge numbers of sons so, of course, Judge Hardin had a son Johnny’s age, and the two boys decided it would be fun to put together a wrestling match…pitting the two of them against a very large ex-slave named Mage who still lived on Judge Hardin’s place.
As will happen, when the men in the area heard about the match, they turned out to watch and I’m sure make a wager or two on who would be the winner.
Well, the boys eventually were able to take Mage down and in the process, the ex-slave’s face was cut. When the man realized that he was bleeding, he became enraged, shouting that no white boy was going to spill his blood and threatening to kill JWH. Luckily there were men there to restrain the man until Judge Hardin could get to the scene and order Mage off of the property.
At this point, young Hardin apparently decided that his visit was over, and he packed and headed out for home.
Of course anyone could have predicted what would happen next and sure enough, about eight miles from his uncle’s home, Mage was waiting for Hardin. Supposedly he stepped up into the road, grabbed the horse’s bridle, and claimed that now he would kill the young man. JWH shot his first man that day. He was fifteen years old.
Hardin left Mage lying in the road and turned around and fled back to his uncle, telling him what had transpired.
Judge Hardin’s heart had to have hit the floor when his nephew told him what he had done. He as much as anyone, had to have realized that no white man who harmed a black man for any reason could get a fair trial in Union dominated Texas during Reconstruction. The two of them went back to where the shooting had happened, and sure enough, there was Mage, not dead…but dying.
There was nothing to do but send JWH packing for home.
Well, of course, the Rev. Hardin and Mrs. Hardin were sick when they heard their son’s story…not only because of what had happened but because they were both perfectly aware that their son had no chance of a fair trial so they did what would eventually become a pattern for them. They sent Johnny packing to big brother Jo’s who was teaching school in a place called Nogales Prairie; the fifteen year old gone to stay with big brother for protection…big brother who was only seventeen himself.
Sure enough, it was only a few days until brother Jo heard that the Yankees were looking for Johnny, and he sent him out into a wooded area to hide. Almost immediately the young killer saw three Union soldiers and he charged them, killing the first two who happened to be white men. The third, a black soldier, tried to flee; however, Wes chased him down and killed him as well.
The neighbors in the area heard the shots and came running. Now, you have to understand that these men were staunch Confederates…so they burned all of the soldiers’ personal effects, buried the bodies, and sent JWH back to his parents. Four men dead, and a life of running had begun. JWH was still fifteen years old.
Mr. Hardin didn’t know anything to do but to send Johnny to his wife’s family in Navarro County. Remember the names? The Andersons, the Barekmans, and the Dixsons. So, in January of 1869, the minister took his son and left him with the family. By now, young Wes Hardin was sixteen, and when he arrived in Navarro County he found that the school needed a teacher to finish out the term. The young man took on the job, and then when the term ended, he hired on to a cattle drive.
Now when JWH arrived in Navarro County, he found himself in somewhat of a strange situation. Instead of being regarded as a punk kid…or as a murderer who had to hang is head in shame…he found that the stories about him had been whispered in wider and wider circles and that, in fact, he had become a hero to the people of Navarro County…a gutsy kid not afraid of the big bad Yankees.
A kid who had in fact wiped out four of the “enemy” before his sixteenth birthday.
It was in this environment while in Navarro County that JWH also began to learn a lifestyle that his minister father would never have allowed. For you see people in Navarro County, Texas hated Yankees, and they exalted anyone brave enough to stand up to them. Yes, the sixteen year old was soon living the high life because you see, it was also in Navarro County that JWH found men twice his age ready to slap him on the back, wanting to hear his stories…stories which got bigger every time someone retold them.
It was also here that Wes Hardin learned that he was an excellent gambler, a sixteen-year-old gambler that men didn’t seem to mind losing to…not if he would tell them about killing the soldiers.
Wes Hardin also spent lots of time with his cousins who were teaching him how to be a “cowboy.” Cousins who at this point still seemed to be fairly good young men and who were certainly from respectable families.
Then, in 1869 it happened again. Hardin spied Union soldiers in the area, and he didn’t wait to find out if they were looking for him. He charged them and killed two of them before the others fled. When his parents heard about these latest killings, they decided that they had no choice but to resign their positions in their congregation and move to Navarro County to try to help their son. Until they could do this, they did what they always did. They sent brother Jo…himself now eighteen years old…with instructions to go take care of Johnny.
When Jo arrived in Navarro County, he did the only thing he could think of to keep his little brother out of trouble. Actually, it was a fairly popular thing to do in the South anyway, and that was to take an extended trip to visit various family members.
This worked very well until Jo and Johnny landed in a little place called Towash, Texas, and JWH discovered that he loved Towash because it was here that he found horse racing. He could bet on the horses, and he loved it.
It was also in Towash that Hardin found himself a bigger hero than he’d ever been anywhere else before, and it was in Towash that young Johnny Hardin found that he also had a taste for whiskey. Poor eighteen-year-old Jo left Towash and his brother behind, returned to Navarro County, and contacted his parents, telling them that there was nothing more he could do.
It was also at this time that we see what might have been a bit of jealousy on Jo’s part when he told his parents that the only thing wrong with Johnny was that everyone liked him so much, and that there was no way he could expect him to do right when there were so many men willing to help him do wrong.
Men double and triple his age were just waiting to have a drink with the kid who had no fear, and no one seemed to mind losing his money to the boy gambler. That is, not if he would tell his stories of how he killed the hated Yankees. More and more this sixteen-year-old kid began to realize that in Texas, at least, he was a hero…something no kid should be, not if he’s going to keep his head on straight anyway.
In 1869, what Texans called “radical republicans” (remember, not one Texan vote for Lincoln!) nominated unionist Edmund J. Davis for the Governor of Texas. His platform? To punish anyone who had supported the Confederate army…by any means he deemed necessary. Records indicate that in 1869 there were over 100 companies of what southerners still called Union soldiers in Texas, and it is extremely important to remember that that the western half of the state was still frontier, meaning that these soldiers were concentrated mostly from the central line to the eastern half of the state.
Although it was widely known from Texas to Washington that Governor Davis was put into power by election fraud, Washington signed off on the results, and the year 1870 began the most brutal political era that Texas had seen since becoming a state.
Governor Davis was king, and his hated state police was given the authority to travel anywhere across the state and use any force necessary to put down an “uprising.” Of course, most anything and any action could be deemed the beginning of an uprising, and many Texas men lost their lives at the hands of the police who had no rules.
About 40% of the police were negro. Of course, this meant that for the most part they were ex-slaves who were unfamiliar with firearms as well as with being in charge of anything. It would be very naïve to believe that either the negro or the white man was ready for this situation, and to be honest, there were many from both sides ready to kill each other if given the chance.
Back in Towash, JWH, without brother Jo watching over him, continued betting on the horses and playing poker. When his parents received Jo’s letter about his brother’s behavior, Mr. Hardin headed for Towash to see if he could get control of his son. The senior Hardin arrived in Towash at Christmas time, and he gave Johnny a good lecture on his behavior and told him that the family was now living in Navarro County and that they wanted him to come home.
While Mr. Hardin was visiting with relatives, his son slipped off to the racetrack, where he had the misfortune of winning some money by racing his father’s horse. The money won from the track lured the teen into a poker game with three men twice his age, only this time, these men weren’t interested in a teen hero, and they played to win. They didn’t look kindly upon the punk kid who hit the jackpot with their money.
Arkansas outlaw, Jim Bradley, was one of the poker players with whom JWH had played poker earlier in the week, and eventually he and his partners did what someone older and wiser in the ways of the world would have expected…they pulled their weapons and demanded JWH’s gun as well as the money he had won from them. Hardin, who didn’t even have his boots on at the time, dove out of a window and ran.
From this point on, the story varies according to who is doing the telling; however most everyone pretty much agrees that Hardin found himself outside without his boots, his pistol, or his money. Family stories indicate that a friend grabbed the boots, loaned Johnny a gun, and that they were walking toward their horses when Bradley, who had stepped out into the night without their knowing it, fired. Hardin shot and killed the man and then shot him several more times.
Others believe that after Hardin dove out the window he went to get another gun, returned, and killed Bradley in cold blood, or I suppose hot rage would be a better way of putting it. Anyway, JWH spent the night in hiding and then returned to Navarro County with his father. However it played out, the young teen had killed yet another man.
Now, while Mr. Hardin and his son, Johnny, are riding from Towash back to Navarro County, I want to flash you back a few years to JWH’s Navarro County family. You will remember that I told you in Part 2 that you have to keep four names in mind: Dixson, Anderson, Barekman, and Hardin.
Not long after arriving in Texas, Doctor Dixson’s daughter, Susannah, married Doctor William Anderson. It was Dr. Anderson who met the people from the Mercer Colony at the Red River and brought them to Navarro County.
From this point on, it seemed that Dr. Anderson’s work was never done as he tried to juggle his many roles. He was appointed Postmaster of Richland Crossing in Navarro County. He was the overseer of the road connecting Corsicana to Limestone County, and it was in Limestone County that he put a grist and sawmill. However, his largest role by far was that of peacekeeper as he struggled to keep the peace between the old Texians and the Mercer Colony people.
Receiving death threats was fairly common for the doctor as well as for the people he had led into the county. A man by the name of William Love was an opponent of Dr. Anderson from the time Anderson led the colony people into the county.
In 1847, Susannah and Dr. Anderson had their first child, William Nicks Anderson, Jr. It was a busy time for Susannah Dixson Anderson who used the plantation to teach both school and Sunday School to her own family as well as neighboring children.
As the years passed, William Love’s animosity toward Dr. Dixson just seemed to grow. On February 9, 1855, Anderson, who had built up a large medical practice in addition to everything else, was on his way home when he was shot in the back. He managed to stay on his horse, arriving home before dying.
Dr. Anderson identified his assassin as William Love…his wife, Susannah, was carrying his son, Jim Anderson. (You will soon see that Jim Anderson is a very important piece of the puzzle for some Comanche County people.)
After the doctor’s death, Susannah seemed crazed. She was heard many times to claim that the son she was carrying would someday avenge his father’s death. Apparently Susannah worsened, seeming to lose more and more of her mind with each passing year, constantly telling her sons that they must avenge the death of their father. Her family tried to talk her out of poisoning the minds of the children, but to no avail.
You have to remember that this was a very closely-knit family and the Anderson and Dixson boys practically lived together. And, of course, the orphaned Barekman boys lived back and forth with the Andersons and the Dixsons.
By this time, Dr. William Dixson, Jr. was a well-respected doctor in Navarro County. He was also the Justice of the Peace in that county and a good friend of Texas hero, Buck Barry, sheriff of Navarro County.
It was Barry who arrested Love; however, Justice of the Peace Dixson couldn’t be considered neutral on the case so the trial was moved out of Corsicana. It has been reported that there were fifty armed Texians at Love’s trial (Whether this is true or not, I do not know.), and he was acquitted for “lack of evidence.” Of course, this verdict did nothing to improve the state of Susannah’s mind, and the boys, Anderson, Dixson, Barekman, and eventually Hardin began to learn to hate.
Back in Navarro County with his Johnny in tow, Mr. Hardin used as a church building the schoolhouse where his son once taught. One Sunday morning while his father was preaching, Johnny was out riding nearby (see anything wrong with this picture?), when he noticed three soldiers following him.
Thinking quickly, he doubled back and entered the church building and told his father what was happening. Mr. Hardin grabbed Johnny’s hat and gun, took off the long robe that he himself was wearing and put it on his son, and then, sat down in the middle of the congregation. JWH stepped into the pulpit, grabbed his father’s Bible, and was delivering a hell and brimstone sermon at the top of his lungs when the soldiers stepped inside.
They looked around and then left. Of course, no one in Navarro county would have sold the teen out to the unionists for anything!
After this close call, the Hardins decided that their son should go to Brenham to stay with an uncle. JWH’s cousin, Alec Barekman, traveled with him for part of the way, and things went well until the young men arrived in Grosbeck, where there was a circus in town and no rooms to be had. According to Barekman, the two joined a group of men who were standing around a campfire. These men turned out to be part of the circus.
Also according to Barekman, Johnny bumped into one of the men as they stood around the fire; the man turned, bloodied JWH’s nose, and pulled his pistol, which was the last thing he ever did on this earth. It was during this confrontation that Alec Barekman saw first hand how fast JWH was with a gun…and he was still sixteen years old.
It was also after this confrontation that the Methodist minister, James G. Hardin, finally understood that his son was a killer…maybe not in the traditional sense…most people would have had nothing to fear from JWH. However, call it circumstances, call it the deplorable life offered Texans during the years that followed the war, call it the result of being a hero in a bad crowd, call it being a spoiled brat with bad parenting, call it anything you want to, the bottom line was that sixteen-year-old Johnny Hardin was a marked man walking toward what was already a certain fate, and from here on out, it was apparently going to be kill or be killed.
He had the reputation as the fastest gun around, and in all honesty, he probably was that (unlike many of the other outlaws who made claim to the title), and when you’re the best at anything, there will always be those ready to risk all to prove that they can beat you.
While living in Brenham, JWH worked in the fields with his uncle and cousins and for the most part, stayed out of trouble. His aunt held his pay, but even so, he did find a game of 7-up every now and then. Of course, Little 7-up would be a nickname by which many eventually knew him, including the infamous Wild Bill Hickok…the law, questionable though it was, in Abilene, Kansas.
By late summer or early fall, Hardin was ready to return to his parents in Navarro County. Not knowing that they had moved again, JWH returned to the county only to find that they were gone.
(And here I have to stop a moment to insert that I know communication was not what it is today. However, letters did get mailed and received every day during this time…and they didn’t tell their son that they were moving? I also admit that I’ve never had a sixteen-year-old who was out of control, but it does seem to me that the Hardin’s expected everyone other than themselves to raise their son. And, yes, I realize that at this point the kid had to stay in hiding, but there were places all over the western part of this country or in Mexico where that could have been accomplished…and his parents could have gone with him.
Had they done this when he killed Mage, they might have avoided lifetime of horror. Of course, I’m doing exactly what I tell you not to do. I’m judging the actions of those from a long ago day by my 21st century mentality! However, in a day when it was considered proper to paddle little behinds, a little bit of discipline at age nine, when the problems that come with a violent temper began to be seen, might have gone a long way toward avoiding the problems at sixteen.)
Anyway, when sixteen-year-old JWH returned to Navarro County, he learned that his parents had moved again, this time settling in Mount Calm, Texas, where Mr. Hardin taught school. JWH’s elder brother Jo lived in Round Rock, Texas at the time, and he urged Johnny to move to Round Rock. There, JWH could take a test to see if he might receive his diploma. This was, of course, a crazy idea, considering how close Round Rock was to the home base of the hated state police. It also has to make one wonder if the boys still didn’t quite understand that sixteen or no, JWH was a wanted man.
JWH apparently didn’t think the idea crazy at all, and he did just what his brother suggested. Both boys took the test, and both received diplomas. However, JWH did not stay in Round Rock long after learning that he was at the top of the hated state police’s most wanted list.
Wes Hardin’s next murder was committed in January of 1871. He was actually arrested by the state police, who ironically mistakenly believed him to be someone else. As they were transporting him to Waco, Hardin killed one of the “Union soldiers” and escaped. Of course, other than the members of the state police, no one in Texas really cared that JWH had rid the state of another Union man.
Most Texans still believed that these men needed killing, and Hardin seemed to be the only one with the nerves to do it. He was seventeen years old.
I suppose at this point there was nothing for Mr. Hardin to do. He gave his son a good horse and told him to go to Mexico.
Obviously, it would take more time than we have here to cover everything that JWH did between the year 1871 and 1874, the year that he came to Comanche. However, as we said, by 1871, he had become one of the state police’s most feared men. But, crazy as it sounds, he was also still greatly admired by southerners who had opposed Yankee rule. In fact, no matter where he went in Texas, people hailed him a hero for all of the wrong reasons…at least according to the standards by which most of us live today.
Of course, the issue of race had not even begun to be resolved in 1871. In fact, I don’t know that it is really possible for anyone living in the 21st century to actually understand how things were in the Texas of 1871. All I can tell you is that it was a pretty terrible place to be for those who had supported the Confederacy. With governor E. J. Davis in the pocket of the state police, it was pretty much unstoppable. Many a man was beaten or lost his life in the name of “police business.”
Davis’ platform was to punish all ex-confederates in Texas. He had about 100 companies of federal soldiers in the state, and they were determined to take over Texas. Obviously, these officers hated even the name of JWH because most of his killings had involved their people. Plus, he had outwitted them many times, and they weren’t going to take being humiliated time and time again by some kid…and so, naturally, every last one of them wanted to be the man who killed Wes Hardin.
As to the rest of the Hardins, it was also in 1871 that JWH’s elder brother Jo moved to the town of Comanche, which was still considered a frontier town and still arguably fairly lawless. Most of the danger from Indian depredations was over by ’71; however, there were still problems between the settlers and the Indians to be resolved.
In 1871, Jo Hardin was twenty-one, and in no time he had carved out a place for himself in the little town of Comanche, Texas. He established his law practice, joined the Masons, became a member of the friends of temperance society, and became a real estate agent. It wasn’t long until Jo was writing his parents, asking them to move to Comanche.