Badman from Bonham Became an Old West Icon


John Wesley Hardin

One of Texas' most notorious gunslingers -- originally from Bonham, Texas, but he unleashed his killing ways from east to west -- finally met his demise on August 19, 1895, when he was gunned down by Constable John Selman at the Acme Saloon in El Paso. 

The legendary badman John Wesley Hardin has since been the subject of folk tales and ballads. Songs about or mentioning Hardin were recorded by Johnny Cash, Jimmie Skinner and Michael Martin Murphey. [Bob Dylan's immensely influential album John Wesley Harding obviously changed the spelling and the lyrics were only nominally related to the real Hardin's life.] Murphey contributed to the legend with the lyrics in the title song of his 1993 album Cowboy Songs III: Rhymes of the Renegades:

"...Out in El Paso the thunder cloud rolls
Like John Wesley Hardin's guns long ago;
And the west still loves to hate him
For his legend will not fade
From the rhymes of the renegades"

Hardin became an Old West icon, even though many of the stories were exaggerated. Born in Bonham in 1853, he was said to have had a violent personality even as a child. He stabbed another youth at age 14 and fatally shot and killed a man during an argument when he was 15. 

According to history, he killed as many as 17 people (probably more) while traveling throughout the southwest, including Union soldiers and cowboys traveling on the Chisholm Trail. 

The Texas Rangers captured him in 1877 in Florida. He was tried, convicted of murder and sentenced to 25 years in prison. There, he studied law. Once pardoned in 1894, he was admitted to the bar and practiced law in Gonzales County and then in El Paso. 

His mixture of law and criminal intent finally caught up with him. He had an affair with the wife of one of his clients. When the husband found out, Hardin hired some crooked law officials to kill him. Selman was one of those hired killers, and it's thought that he turned on Hardin instead because Hardin had not paid him.

[The Texas State Historical Association archives were used in preparation of this article.]

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