“John Wesley Harding
Was a friend to the poor,
He trav’led with a gun in ev’ry hand.
All along this countryside,
He opened a many a door,
But he was never known
To hurt an honest man…”
— Bob Dylan, “John Wesley Harding,” 1967
I’m not sure who Bob Dylan was writing about in his song “John Wesley Harding” on a 1967 album of the same name. But it apparently wasn’t John Wesley Hardin (note spelling of the last name), a notorious gunslinger called the “meanest man in Texas.”
The real John Wesley Hardin — who met his unlamented demise in El Paso, the first Texas stop on our eastward bicycle journey across the United States — was no “friend to the poor,” or to anybody else, it seems. He is said to have killed dozens of men men during his psychopathic career and even shot a man in Abilene, Kan., for snoring.
Judging from what my wife tells me about my nocturnal noises, I wouldn’t last a night in a thin-walled motel with Mr. Hardin.
“They tell lots of lies about me,” Hardin complained in later life. “They say I killed six or seven men for snoring. Well, it ain’t true, I only killed one man for snoring.”
John Wesley Hardin was born May 26, 1853, in Bonham, Texas. His father, James G. Hardin, was a circuit-riding Methodist preacher and his mother, Elizabeth, was described by him as being “blonde” and “highly cultured.” He said “charity predominated in her disposition.”
That trait apparently wasn’t passed on to the son. Hardin first ran afoul of the law at age 15, when he killed an ex-slave of his uncle after a wrestling match. The estimate of Hardin’s body count during his lifetime ranges between 30 and 40. Hardin himself claimed to have killed a total of 44 men.
Hardin met his own violent end in El Paso on Aug. 19, 1895, in the Acme Saloon, where he was shooting dice with local shopkeeper Henry Brown. Local legend has it that Hardin had just said, “Four sixes to beat, Henry,” when Constable John Selman, with whom he had argued earlier, walked up behind him and shot him in the back of the head. Selman fired a couple more shots into Hardin’s corpse to make certain he was well and truly dead.
Hardin is said to have claimed that he never killed anyone who didn’t need killing, but some might have been reluctant to argue the point when he was alive. After his corpse was displayed for a photographer, several El Paso residents were quoted as saying that, aside from being dead, John Wesley Hardin had never looked better.
A plaque on a building where the Acme Saloon once stood says that a witness testified at Selman’s trial: “If Hardin was shot in the eye it was excellent marksmanship. If he was shot in the back it was excellent judgment.”