Sympathy For The Devil
The Last Days Of John Wesley Hardin
Have you ever tried to tell a story that just wouldn’t end because if you left out even one detail, your listeners might not get it? That is exactly the way I have felt as I’ve chronicled the life of John Wesley Hardin, the man no historian has captured completely as of today.
In my opinion, historian Drew Gomber (whom many of you have seen on the History Channel) comes closer than anyone else in capturing the mercurial personality of the young man who was a killer and yet a gentleman, the most wanted man in Texas and yet never an outlaw. Gomber also has done more studying than I have on Hardin’s final years, and he has graciously allowed me to conclude our series by using his work.
Unless I state differently, I will be paraphrasing (for length) and quoting directly from the words of historian Drew Gomber.
Gomber begins this chapter by reminding readers that John Wesley Hardin was actually probably the only gunman of what we call the Old West who really deserved his reputation with a gun. While men like Doc Holliday and Billy the Kid actually killed very few, Charlie Webb made the 40th man killed by Hardin.
“And it was for that killing that Hardin was finally tried and sentenced to 25 years in prison at Huntsville. The irony was that it was clearly a case of self-defense, but Webb had been a deputy sheriff.*
“After repeated escape attempts for which he was flogged, Hardin finally accepted his fate and settled down and began to read, voraciously, as it turned out. He became captain of the prison debating team…
“For a time, it looked as though he would follow in his father’s footsteps and become a Methodist minister, but ultimately Hardin settled on the law.”
Gomber goes on here to discuss the fact that when Hardin was imprisoned, his wife, Jane, was left with three children and no money to support them. Her struggle and hard work finally led to her death in 1892…she was not yet forty years old. It was only two years later that Hardin was released from prison, pending a pardon. His hopes and dreams, his plans for the future had all included his wife, and she was gone, and he was never the same…
“Upon his release, JWH boarded the train and headed for Gonzales. There, he was met by his old friend Fred Duderstadt, with whom Hardin’s children had been staying since the death of their mother. The reunion was somewhat awkward as the children had never really known their father. The next day, he took the children and they visited Jane’s grave.
“Hardin was treated by many as a returning hero. He was often seen riding with his son, Johnny, and Fred Duderstadt’s boy, Tom, the two youths basking in the reflected glory of the legendary gunman.”
To paraphrase Gomber as well as my own research, things didn’t go well for Hardin and his children, who really didn’t need him. After all, they had done without their father for most of their lives. Hardin did receive his pardon, and he opened a law office there in Gonzales; however, the “respectable” people did not bring their business to him. This did not do a lot to help the wounds created by the realization that his children really did not want to be with him.
“It was as though Hardin’s worst nightmares were coming true. Without his beloved Jane to guide him, he was adrift in a world that had changed drastically from the one he had left in 1877. Ultimately, John Jr. also returned to the Duderstadt farm, which had been, after all, the children’s true home.”
Possibly to take his mind off of his personal problems, JWH became involved in the local politics of the day, supporting his old friend, Robert Coleman, in the sheriff’s race. Coleman’s opponent was W.E. Jones whom Hardin claimed had helped him escape from the jail there in Gonzales in 1872. How the events of this election played out are worth your research if you have an interest, but all I will say here is that it was a very, very heated contest, and Hardin decided to leave Gonzales because of it.
“Another of JWH’s goals was to vindicate and restore himself in the eyes of his deceased father. The stress of seeing his son become Texas’ premier killer had been too much for the old Minister and he had passed away while Hardin was incarcerated. John Wesley intended to vindicate himself by writing his own, essentially self-serving, autobiography…”
At about this same time, brother Jeff (remember Jeff drove the wagon on that fateful day in Comanche) suggested that JWH attend a Christmas party. It was there that he met the young Callie Lewis. A few days later, he received a note from her inviting him to spend New Years with her. Callie Lewis had yet to turn sixteen.
On January 9, 1895, Callie Lewis wed John Wesley Hardin. Apparently as the couple left the church, Jeff Hardin made a teasing remark about his big brother robbing the cradle. That was all it took. Callie dissolved into tears, never to be consoled.
“Hardin gave up. Perhaps he finally realized that she was simply too young. His Jane had been almost as young when he had married her, but Callie was no Jane.”
And then Hardin was asked to come to El Paso to prosecute Sheriff Bud Frazer for killer and deputy Jim Miller. How many times have the men who wore the badge been as guilty as those they hunt?
“In the end Frazer and Miller would settle their differences in an extremely terminal fashion. One night as Frazer sat playing cards in a Toyah, Texas saloon, Jim Miller leaned his shotgun across the batwing doors and literally blew his enemy’s head off.
“The city of El Paso (pop. 15,000) was one of the last truly wild towns of the West…It was even referred to as the ‘Monte Carlo of the West.’ It was probably the last place in the world that Hardin, in his efforts to go straight, should have gone…
“When El Paso Chief of Police, the tough former Texas Ranger, Jeff Milton, heard of Hardin’s coming, he kept in mind the fact that he had stashed shotguns around town in a number of handy locations.
“Upon Hardin’s arrival, Milton confronted him, Jim Miller, and the others who were with Hardin. He informed them that they would not be allowed to carry weapons in El Paso, and Hardin blandly agreed. While some saw this as evidence that Hardin had lost his nerve, it was more likely that he was still doing his best to go straight. Eventually he and Milton became allies although they certainly had their disagreements.
“In El Paso, Hardin encountered a foe he had never faced before, at least to this extent: snobbery. Despite his best efforts, none of the ‘better element’ wanted to hire such a notorious personality. He spent less and less time in his offices in the Wells Fargo Building on El Paso Street. Just as in the old days, Hardin found himself, more and more, frequenting the saloons and gambling emporiums, and that was where he began to make his REAL living…as a gambler.”
And I’ll stop here once again to insert that while JWH was in prison, he had no real way to understand that the world was changing. More and more people were looking forward toward the 20th century with fewer hanging on to the old days and the old ways. JWH was no longer the cool guy. And when you’ve been the cool guy all of your life, I’m not sure the change is easy to comprehend.
“El Paso tended to live up to its reputation. Within a block of Hardin’s rooms at the Herndon House were Tillie Howard’s and Etta Clark’s, among others, bordellos. The Gem Saloon was right down the street and the Acme Saloon right around the corner near the Wigwam Saloon. If John Wesley Hardin had PLANNED to fall back into his old bad habits, he couldn’t have done a better job. And, just to compound things, SHE showed up…”
The SHE to whom Gomber refers was Mrs. Martin M’Rose, the beautiful Beulah. Without going into a lot of detail, Martin found himself in a Mexican jail, and his wife was sent to find an American lawyer. You guessed it. The lawyer Beulah found was JWH, and the two found themselves completely enamored with each other as they immediately began a relationship on her husband’s money.
Beulah’s husband was in jail with two of his friends, Vic Queen and Tom Finnessey, and the trio fumed as day after day passed. Finally, Queen and Finnessey were released, and they began posting a series of threatening letters to JWH, who finally had his fill of them. Hardin rounded up Chief of Police Jeff Milton and another friend and headed across the river to Juarez.
“They found both Finnessey and Queen, with a couple of friends, in a little cantina. Milton realized a little later that Hardin was trying to provoke a gunfight, but sending threatening letters to JWH and confronting him face to face were two very different things, so neither Queen or Finnessey took the bait. Despite the fact that Hardin slapped Queen in the face, no one went for their guns except Hardin, who pulled it, but did not fire. He did, however, badly shake up Jeff Milton.”
Milton was later heard to say that Hardin was “dangerous beyond anything I realized. Hardin is the quickest man I ever saw in my life with a gun. When…Hardin leaned across the table and slapped Queen in the face, and before I could get my hand on my gun to do anything, Hardin had pulled his and stuck it in Queen’s belly. There is nobody that is a match for him so far as that is concerned…the only difference is that if we ever have to have any trouble with him, whoever does will probably be sober and he will be drinking…because there is nobody in his class for getting a gun out.”
And this was after having spent over 15 years with no practice…
If you’ve read any of my writings, you know that I’ve often stated that those men Texans love to idolize, those we call Texas Rangers, were often as bad as the men they sought. It is my belief that Texas Ranger Frank McMahon as well as Chief of Police Milton arranged to have Martin M’Rose lured across the border and then killed him as soon as he stepped onto U.S. soil. Milton did claim that the man was given a chance to surrender, however.
“It is difficult not to feel a twinge of sympathy for Hardin. He really did want to go straight and make it as a lawyer, but it just wasn’t in the cards. The so-called ‘better element’ of El Paso wanted nothing to do with him. He was an anachronism. A relic of another, more violent time that most people wanted to forget. Today, of course, it is known as the ‘Wild West’ and most folks are actually proud to be related to some desperado from that period. But in those days, it was an embarrassment. Even his own children, especially his two daughters, were not exactly proud of their father, desperately as he seems to have wanted them to be…
“But he was still John Wesley Hardin. His very name, even after so many years, struck fear into the hearts of many although it was no longer his wish that should be the case. Hardin wanted very much to be a contributing member of society-a family man, an entrepreneur- ANYTHING but a desperado, which was still how people perceived him. In short, he could not escape his own reputation.”
Then entered John Selman onto the scene. I don’t have enough space or time here so suffice it to say that Selman quite simply was not one of the good guys even though he did at times hide behind the badge. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that Selman was, in fact, a horrible, horrible creature. I also find it interesting that the man was once jailed in the little town of Comanche, Texas, the place where JWH killed Charlie Webb.
By the 1890s, both John Selman and his son were constables in the town of El Paso. One day while JWH was out of town, the junior Selman arrested Beulah for her drunken behavior.
“It really wasn’t a big deal, but when Hardin returned and heard the story (God only knows how much Beulah embellished it), he hit the ceiling and went looking for the younger Selman. Hardin was unable to find John Jr., but the elder Selman crossed his path, fatefully, as it turned out.
“Now, the only source for what happened next is John Selman and there is no doubt that he wanted very much to vindicate himself for his later actions when he told it. According to Selman, Hardin told him that he (Hardin) would run both Selman and his son out of El Paso [with some extremely choice words].
“Personally, I have always doubted the authenticity of this story as it is simply too convenient for Selman’s later defense. Nor was Hardin the sort to threaten. Most people who he had wanted to kill died on the spot, without benefit of a Hollywood-style confrontation…”
And then it was August 19, 1895. Nothing had worked, no matter how hard the man had tried…and he truly had tried. Because I’m an eternal optimist, I wish he’d gone elsewhere, wish he’d tried harder, but the bottom line is that JWH, the golden boy (to many, many people) of a lawless Texas and a country turned upside down, didn’t do those things, and he gave up. While no longer a killer, he drank too much and he cavorted with the only people interested in keeping his company, the lower element of El Paso, Texas.
“Nevertheless, most ‘regular folks’ seemed to like Hardin. One young man who ran errands for him commented…’I had received only kindnesses from him.’ Most people seemed to feel the same way about the legendary gunman: He was a friendly man who drank too much…and we’ve all known someone like that.
“At about 11 p.m. on the night of August 19, 1895, Hardin was standing at the bar of the Acme Saloon in El Paso. He was rolling dice with a local grocer friend named Henry Brown. Hardin had just rolled the dice and he turned to the grocer.
“Brown,” he said, “you’ve got four sixes to beat.”
You know the rest of the story. It was at that moment that the senior John Selman entered the saloon, gun drawn. Possibly as Hardin looked into the mirror there above the bar, he saw the shot that hit him in the back of the head before the bullet exited through his left eye.
The fastest gun in the West was dead.
I suppose Selman was scared. He rushed toward the fallen Hardin and continued firing, hitting JWH two more times. (The photo of Hardin’s dead body can be viewed in the Comanche County Historical Museum.)
“First, Selman tried to claim that Hardin had a fair chance to see him in the mirror behind the bar. When that didn’t hold water, he claimed that Hardin had actually turned and seen him, going for his gun at the same time. This was a little better, as it was true that something quite amazing was discovered when they examined the body. Hardin’s hand had been on his pistol when he died. That is attributable to his extraordinary reflexes, which obviously served him, even at the moment of his death.
“Selman’s ultimate defense was that the exit wound through Hardin’s eye was actually the entrance wound and the hole in the back of his head was the exit wound, instead of the other way around.
“Everyone knew that if John Wesley Hardin had a chance to defend himself, it would have been Selman lying on the floor of the Acme. One member of the coroner’s jury voiced the general opinion when he commented that, ‘If he shot him in the eye, it was excellent marksmanship, and if he shot him in the back of the head, it was excellent judgment.’
“In the end, it mad no difference. The following April, Selman himself was killed in an alley quite close to the Acme, by Hardin associate, George Scarborough.”
I’ve always said that had JWH come of age during the 1950s as opposed to during Reconstruction, he would have been a millionaire instead of a killer. Am I correct? Who knows? It’s simply my conjecture after years and years of study. However, as we close, I want to go back to Gomber who tells us what others thought of JWH. Of course, as always, had they stepped up and handed the man a rose before he was actually dead, it might have made all the difference…mightn’t it?
According to his landlady in El Paso, “He was a wonderful man.”
According to the young men who ran his errands, he showed them nothing but kindness.
Gomber makes a great point when he says that it is obvious that JWH was a changed man…or a man who was desperately trying to change. Over and over he stood and took (or walked away from) slurs that would once have left a dead body behind. That never happened after the man left prison.
“He loved children, especially after his own had forsaken him, and he was known for his kindness to the youth of El Paso. He had been a desperado, but never a bandit. His manners were so good that the Texas Rangers actually referred to him as the Gentleman Killer. Had he lived in another time and place…
“But he had not lived in another time and place. He had lived in the crucible known as the American West, and when push came to shove, he had proven himself to be the deadliest gunfighter who ever lived. Many thought him to be a bad man. Others thought him to be a good man. In the end, he was just like the rest of us- a man doing the best he could under the circumstances. He was certainly no saint. Nor was he the devil. He was one of a kind- and the last of the real gunfighters…”
And I will close here by saying that many times over the course of a lot of years, I’ve been accused of being very soft on a killer. In actuality, that has never been the case. People just don’t kill people. HOWEVER, children do make mistakes; they always have and they always will. JWH was a fifteen-year-old kid when what my studies indicate was an accident happened, leaving a man dead in a world of which you and I have no real comprehension.
When a young teen finds himself a marked “man,” the political pawn (and believe me, it WAS political) of adults gone crazy, he has no real chance at life. Hunted like an animal and with parents who either couldn’t or wouldn’t take charge of the situation or of removing their child from the situation, the end was guaranteed for JWH at the age of 15. The only thing in question was the when.
As to the adult JWH, the man released from prison into a world he no longer knew, of course, I feel sympathy. He was a man trying to be anything but what he had been in a world that wasn’t willing to let him do that. Beyond that, however, I believe I’ll let God do the judging.
Next week, I will add a small post script, and call our series on this family made up of doctors, lawyers, merchants, and chiefs…who lost it all in one generation….complete.
*It is true that Webb was a Brown County deputy; however, it is also true that there was no authority in Texas except the Texas Rangers who had the jurisdiction to cross county lines. Today, his marker claims that Webb was killed in the line of duty. That is quite simply not the case.