THE LAST GUNFIGHTER: JOHN WESLEY HARDIN
JOHN WESLEY HARDIN: DARK ANGEL OF TEXAS
JOHN WESLEY Hardin had lain amoldering in his grave for a century until the 100th anniversary of his death neared onAugust 19, 1995. The centennial sparked renewed interest in the most notorious and deadly desperado of the Old West–aswell as in his remains–and resulted in two outstanding books. Richard C. Marohn’s The Last Gunfighter: John WesleyHardin (Creative Publishing Company, College Station, Texas, 1995, $29.95) was released on the anniversary of the shootingof Hardin and must be considered the definitive work on the subject. The second and most recent book, John WesleyHardin: Dark Angel of Texas, by noted Western writer Leon C. Metz (Mangan Books, El Paso, Texas, 1996, $29.95), wasreleased this August, one year later than originally planned. The inadvertent delay enabled Metz to include an afterword aboutthe “great grave robbing caper” in El Paso that was planned and attempted by a contingent of men from Nixon, Texas, whosought to disinter Hardin’s remains the night of the anniversary and rebury them next to his first wife’s grave in Nixon.
Marohn, a psychiatrist who died in 1995, became interested in Hardin after delivering a paper in 1985 before the AmericanSociety for Adolescent Psychiatry that dealt with Hardin’s adolescence. Marohn’s goal was to present “a complete chronicle,one that is adequately referenced, and one that can make some sense out of his [Hardin’s] behavior without shuddering atviolence or wallowing in adulation.” It can be safely concluded that he succeeded, and, in effect, may have told more than mostpeople would care to know about Hardin. Metz, the author of 12 previous books on Southwest history, was equallysuccessful, achieving his goal of proving that there was “more to the man” than the fact that Hardin “was the most prolific, themost feared and fearless of all the Old West’s killers.” According to Metz: “Hardin was a rampantly insecure man. He killedpeople to prove his manhood” and “could be niggardly, nasty and vicious, a man capable of extreme cruelty.”
Both authors used letters, reports, documents, interviews and newspapers, and relied extensively on Hardin’s ownautobiography in compiling their material. In The Last Gunfighter, Marohn’s detailed portrait of a gunfighter allows the reader”to see Hardin as he was.” Metz, who has lived much of his adult life in El Paso, also provides extra insight into “the most highlycomplex, homicidal desperado ever to prowl the back roads and cattle trails of Texas.” Each book portrays Hardin assomeone who hated Abraham Lincoln and the North as a boy, relied greatly on his family, used alcohol to sustain his courage,gambled, drove herds and rustled to earn a living, demonstrated deadliness with a pistol, and feared being taken by a mob andlynched.
Trouble seemed to follow Hardin wherever he went, although he always claimed he killed men only in self-defense. Theunlucky first victim was Mage, a freed slave who attacked Hardin with a club only to receive a response from a Colt .44.From there, the killings progressed at a rapid pace, as documented in Hardin’s autobiography, totaling 42 men over a span ofeight years and including lawmen, soldiers, bandits and gamblers. Marohn goes along with that total; Metz documents 32victims while dismissing the number as insignificant because Hardin “killed many men, perhaps as few as twenty or as many asfifty. Nobody knows the exact figure, but had he not killed, John Wesley Hardin would be just a name among a legion ofnames of Old West drifters and ne’er-do-wells. But he killed…and you have to wonder about a man who killed so massively,so methodically and so remorselessly.”
The youthful Hardin gained the sobriquet of “Little Arkansas,” given to him by Marshal Wild Bill Hickok in Abilene afterHardin shot five Mexican cattlemen whose trail herd was crowding Hardin’s during a drive near the Arkansas River crossing.He also faced down Hickok in Abilene using the “border roll,” confronted and killed Deputy Sheriff Charles Webb inComanche, Texas, in a face-to-face shootout, caused Texas officials to offer a reward for his capture, fled to Florida and livedwith his wife, Jane, under the assumed name of “John H. Swain,” and operated a logging business until being captured inPensacola by law enforcement officials from Texas. He was returned to the Lone Star State, convicted of second-degreemurder and sentenced to 25 years hard labor in the Huntsville State Penitentiary. His wife had died by the time he wasreleased into a changed society 15 years later. The short remainder of his life was consumed with a brief unsuccessful marriageto 15-year-old Callie Lewis, a floundering law practice, a stormy relationship with his companion and lover Helen BeulahMroz, the writing of his autobiography, assorted gambling and alcoholic binges, and mounting debts.
Marohn’s book is heavily documented with 1,425 chapter endnotes and features more than 160 photographs, illustrations andmaps. Of particular help in following the Hardin-Webb confrontation, for example, are the seven diagrams that depictindividual movements of participants and bystanders during a 33-minute period on May 26, 1874, when Hardin and Webbfaced off against each other. Other detailed layouts explain the Hardin?Phil Sublett gunfight, on August 7, 1872, in Trinity,Texas, and the shooting of Hardin at the Acme Saloon in El Paso, Texas, on August 19, 1895. Marohn includes photographsof virtually everyone associated with Hardin, but neither Marohn nor Metz was able to locate a photo of Webb.
Marohn claims Hardin’s autobiography is “substantially accurate” and says it “is the only extensive account by a gunfighter and Western killer of his exploits, and no gunfighter’s record matched Hardin’s.” Metz concurs, noting that Hardin “told much that would not otherwise be known, and his first person account is an extraordinary contribution to Western history.” Readers may take issue with Marohn’s and Metz’s conclusions regarding the events associated with and analysis of Hardin, but they cannot dispute the facts.
Metz’s book is the more readable because it isn’t overly weighted with extraneous detailed information, while Marohn’s bookcontains an extraordinary amount of material, some of which is unnecessary except to the most devoted student of JohnWesley Hardin. In contrast to Marohn’s book, Metz cites only 453 endnotes, but also provides an extensive bibliography ofprimary and secondary sources. Metz also includes more than 80 illustrations, maps, select diagrams and photographs.Unfortunately, neither author thought to include a genealogical table of Hardin’s family members whose names are interspersedabundantly throughout both books. Marohn’s book does have two valuable chapters called “A Gunfighter’s Estate” and “Gunsof a Gunfighter” that provide considerable information about subjects rarely examined in depth.
When John Selman put a bullet in the back of Hardin’s head while Hardin was rolling dice in the Acme Saloon, reaction wasmixed. Some felt, according to Marohn, that “Hardin’s killing was not justified.” Others, fearing the unpredictable man, wereglad he was gone. “The only fact everyone agrees upon regarding the death of John Wesley Hardin is that John Selman killedhim,” writes Metz. “In spite of a dozen or more patrons drinking, talking and gambling, the why and how, and thecircumstances of Hardin’s murder are as murky and as controversial today as they were over a century ago.”
The events leading up to Selman’s action may have been an outgrowth of an August 1 on-street encounter between OfficerJohn Selman, Jr., and Beulah Mroz, who was arrested by him for being drunk and disorderly. Hardin, thinking the fine leviedagainst Mroz was excessive, threatened to kill Selman, Jr., and his father, Constable John Selman. Given Hardin’s knowngun-handling ability, the elder Selman took no chances; nearly three weeks later, he shot Hardin from behind and then pumpedtwo more shots into his fallen body. Metz believes there is more to it, and the Hardin-Selman dispute may have evolved fromthe killing less than two months earlier of Beulah’s husband, outlaw Martin Mroz. There remain unanswered questions aboutthe distribution of reward money to participating officers and about what happened to the $3,700 that Mroz had been carrying.Hardin allegedly lifted the later amount instead of splitting it with others involved in the killing of Mroz, one of whom may havebeen Selman.
Whatever the theories and circumstances, and there are plenty, Metz concludes that “Hardin’s era had passed silently duringthe dark night of his prison years. At a little over 42 years of age, Hardin had outlived his era. John Selman not only killed JohnWesley Hardin; more importantly, he did him a favor.” Marohn contends that as Hardin was completing his autobiography andbecoming increasingly unstable, he was recognizing that he “had not received adequate satisfaction from his life. He hadbecome depressed and suicidal and may have provoked his own death.”
Readers seeking a solid understanding of Hardin in a fast-paced writing style that is both informative and enlightening will wantto avail themselves of John Wesley Hardin: Dark Angel of Texas, by Metz. Others, who seek a more in-depth analysis thatborders on a sociological examination of the motives and movements of the Wild West’s most notorious gunman, should readThe Last Gunfighter: John Wesley Hardin, by Morohn. Actually, it won’t hurt at all to read both.
STAN ‘TEX’ BANASH