Following in the footsteps of John Wesley Hardin, the famous and unbalanced Texas gunfighter, wouldn’t be an easy task for anyone. It certainly wasn’t for Hardin’s younger brother J.D. But in his own right, J.D. Hardin had plenty of nerve and was quite handy with a gun or knife. And by the time of his untimely death by gunfire in 1901, J.D. had managed to make his own bloody mark in the history of the Old West.
Jefferson Davis Hardin was born on September 7, 1861, in Polk County, Texas, the fourth son of the Rev. James Hardin and his wife, Mary Elizabeth Dixon Hardin. J.D. was eight years younger than John Wesley. As a youth growing up in Reconstruction-era Texas, J.D. reportedly idolized his big brother. But as the years passed and circumstances changed, his admiration waned and there was less and less contact between them.
On May 26, 1874, John Wesley, a wanted outlaw, was visiting in Commerce, Texas, not far from their father’s home. Following his birthday celebration, John Wesley won a pocketful of money on a horse race. He got drunk and went on a wild spending spree, swaggering from saloon to saloon, tossing $20 gold pieces on the bars and ordering countless drinks. Thirteen-year-old J.D. was also in Commerce that day, tagging along after his older brother. But when J.D. saw John Wesley was about to tree the town, he rented a buggy and took off for home. A short time later, John Wesley shot and killed Deputy Sheriff Charlie Webb.
By June 1874, John Wesley was planning to flee Texas, but he was short on cash. He did have some interest in a herd of cattle that was at the stockyards in Kansas, waiting to be sold. In desperation, he sent 13-year-old J.D. to Kansas to get his part of the money. His faithful younger brother soon returned with $500, the funds used by John Wesley to buy his way to Florida and Alabama, where he lived as “J.H. Swain.”
In August 1877, 16-year-old J.D. must have been shocked when he learned that his fugitive brother, John Wesley, had been tracked down and captured in Pensacola, Fla., by Texas Ranger John Armstrong. And when the famous gunfighter was tried for murder and sentenced to 25 years in the tough Texas penitentiary, J.D. must have been even more distraught.
With John Wesley behind bars, J.D. got on with his own life. Once he had thought it a great honor to be John’s brother, but now the connection often proved to be more of an albatross around his neck. Whether they said it or not, most folks expected him to be tough like John Wesley. But his big brother’s shoes were mighty hard to fill. And maybe at heart, J.D. was actually more of a lover than a fighter.
Records show J.D. married Ida May Croussore in Lipscomb, Texas, on October 24, 1887. The couple’s first child, John Wesley Hardin, was born in Gainesville, Texas, on February 8, 1889; their second, Mattie Belle, was born on February 9, 1891, in Walsenburg, Colo., where J.D. ran a saloon.
Bob Ford, the infamous slayer of Jesse James, was also hanging out in Walsenburg that same year. Ford loved to frequent J.D.’s saloon, probably because it belonged to John Wesley Hardin’s younger brother. Hardin and Ford often gambled together, but quarreled. When it looked like serious trouble was eminent, J.D. borrowed a good six-shooter. It was the same weapon that had been used by a local character, Pete Foley, to gun down another shootist, Jack Edwards, just a few months before. The make and caliber is unknown. Bob Ford was already considered well heeled because he reportedly carried the same revolver with which he had shot Jesse James on April 3, 1882.
On Wednesday night, January 21, 1891, Hardin and Ford argued while shooting craps. They went to the bar to have a drink and cool off, but soon both men reached for their six-shooters and began blasting away. The two adversaries were firing at almost pointblank range, and during the exchange, each one tried to knock the other’s weapon to the side. Consequently, hot lead flew in every direction, causing bystanders to crawl under the tables.
When Hardin’s and Ford’s guns were empty and the blue-gray gunsmoke cleared away, the two adversaries were still alive. J.D. had been shot in the shoulder and through the hand. Ford took a bullet in the foot, and his face was blackened by powder burns. Both men were arrested and jailed. Subsequently, the courts must have been easy on them because neither served any prison time.
From bullet-bitten Walsenburg, Hardin moved to Duncan, Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma), where he reportedly operated another saloon. J.D. and Ida May’s third child, Della Lillian, was born in Duncan on December 14, 1893. From Walsenburg, Ford drifted north to silver-rich Creede, Colo., where another rival, Ed O’Kelley, killed him on June 8, 1892.
By the mid-1890s, J.D. and Ida May’s marriage was breaking up. Tired of her husband’s drinking and dangerous lifestyle, she took the children and left him. No longer wanting her children to be known as Hardins, she changed their names to Davis and for many years afterward never discussed her tumultuous life with J.D.
J.D. Hardin left Indian Territory and returned to the Lone Star State. By that time big brother John Wesley had gained an early release from prison and been admitted to the Texas bar. Just before Christmas 1894, John Wesley was in San Angelo, Texas, where he briefly opened an office to practice law. Perhaps John Wesley and J.D. crossed paths at San Angelo during this time, but there is no evidence that they did. By May John Wesley had moved to El Paso, where he was shot to death by John Selman on August 19, 1895.
In the meantime, J.D. found employment with the Judson Brothers Company of San Marcus, Texas, where he worked at an artesian well. On April 7, 1895, there was an affray on the job site and Hardin stabbed a fellow employee, Ike Schrader. The wounded man was taken home, and Hardin was put in jail. The Houston Daily Post of April 9, 1895, said, “Schrader was sent home last night, but advice this morning is that he is not doing well.” No further coverage of the bloody affair could be found. Hardin must have somehow beaten the rap.
Records indicate J.D. married Jane Taylor, the daughter of famous Texas feudist Creed Taylor, in Junction, Texas, on October 25, 1896. By this time, the younger Hardin was going more by the name “Jeff.” The Houston Daily Post of April 19, 1899, published a short news article, datelined Kerrville, Texas, that stated, “Jeff Hardin was awarded $900 damages against the San Antonio and Arkansas Pass Railroad for personal injuries.” Little else is known.
The federal census of 1900 for Kent County, Texas, Precinct 5, shows “Jeff D. Hardin,” age 37, living there, his occupation listed as a “horse raiser.” His wife (listed in the census as “Mary J.”) was 22 years old, and they had two children—Joe, born in 1897, and Cleburne, born in 1899.
In May 1901, J.D. was riding north of Snyder, Texas, when he got into an argument with a man named Stephenson from Abilene, Texas. J.D. pulled his gun and fired a bullet that entered Stephenson’s face and came out behind his ear. Then, like a good Samaritan, Hardin took the gravely wounded man to a nearby ranch house and left him. Next, J.D. rode into Synder and surrendered to the sheriff. Subsequently, he was released on bond. It remains unclear whether Stephenson recovered from his wound or died.
Later that year, Hardin was operating a saloon in Clairemont, Texas. About 10 p.m. on October 8, 1901, he argued with a local man named John Snowden over an account. “Angry words passed between them,” wrote the Dallas Morning News of October 12, 1901, “but other parties [came] into the room [and] the matter was dropped.” As the hour grew late, Snowden and the rest of Hardin’s customers left. But J.D. stepped to the door and beckoned Snowden back inside. Moments later, three shots were heard coming from within the saloon. Hardin was found on the floor, at the end of the bar. He had been shot three times, and was dying. J.D.’s revolver was behind the bar, apparently unfired.
Thirty minutes after the shooting, Snowden surrendered to the sheriff. He claimed self-defense and was released on a hefty $5,000 bond. One of Snowden’s slugs had passed through Hardin’s heart, exiting over the shoulder blade, and Hardin was also shot through both legs. There were no eyewitnesses to the fatal shooting, and J.D. never spoke after he fell. Consequently, the prosecution had no witnesses and Snowden was never brought to trial.
In the end, J.D. did follow in John Wesley’s footsteps, all the way to the cemetery. Both of them were gunned down in a saloon—John Wesley shot through the head, J.D. though the heart. Both of the Hardin brothers were armed at the time of their deaths, but neither of them was able to get off a shot. And both passed into eternity lying on a filthy barroom floor, without saying a word.
Originally published in the February 2006 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.