John Wesley Hardin, one of the deadliest men in the history of the Old West, arrives in Abilene, Kansas, where he briefly becomes friends with Marshal Wild Bill Hickok.
Hardin revealed a tendency toward violent rages at an early age. When he was 14, he nearly killed another boy in a fight over a girl, stabbing his victim twice with a knife. A year later, he shot a black man to death after the two tangled in a wrestling match. By the time he finally went to prison in 1878, Hardin claimed to have killed 44 men. The outlaw may have been exaggerating, though historians have positively confirmed about half that number.
In 1871, when Hardin was 18 years old, a Texas rancher hired the young gunman as trail boss for a cattle drive up the Chisholm Trail to Abilene, Texas. Hardin was eager to get out of Texas—a few days earlier, he had murdered a Texas state police guard who was transferring him to Waco for a trial. Hardin needed to lay low, but he proved incapable of keeping his hot temper under control for long. During the cattle drive, a Mexican herd crowded Hardin’s animals from behind. Hardin complained to the Mexican in charge of the other herd, and when the exchange grew heated, shot him through the heart.
When Hardin and his herd arrived at Abilene, Kansas, on this day in 1871, the town marshal, Wild Bill Hickok, was apparently unconcerned with prosecuting a murder that had taken place outside of his jurisdiction. To the contrary, he took an almost paternalistic interest in the young gunslinger–Hardin was 16 years his junior–and the two men struck up an uneasy friendship. Like many of the early western lawmen, Wild Bill Hickok had won a formidable reputation by committing several killings of his own. He may have seen something of himself in Hardin, believing he was a hot-tempered young man who would eventually grow up to be a reasonably useful and law-abiding citizen. For his part, Hardin was simply proud to be associated with the celebrated gunfighter.
For several weeks, Hickok and Hardin drank and womanized together, but the marshal’s faith in the basic decency of his young friend was ultimately undermined. During his stay in Abilene, Hardin rented a room at the American House Hotel. One night, a stranger in the next room began to snore loudly. Hardin became so annoyed that he began firing bullets through the wall to quiet him. The first bullet was high, and it merely woke the man. The second bullet silenced the unsuspecting stranger permanently.
Hardin realized that his friendship with Hickok would not save him. “I believed,” Hardin later said, “that if Wild Bill found me in a defenseless condition, he would take no explanation, but would kill me to add to his reputation.” Wearing only his undershirt, Hardin escaped through the hotel window and jumped down to the street. He spent the night hiding in a haystack, stole a horse at dawn, and returned to the cow camp. The next day he left for Texas, never to set foot in Abilene again.
Years later, after he had become a notorious outlaw, Hardin recalled that the Abilene murder had given rise to an exaggeration. “They tell lots of lies about me,” he complained. “They say I killed six or seven men for snoring. Well, it ain’t true, I only killed one man for snoring.”
Hardin eventually served 15 years in the Huntsville, Texas, state penitentiary. He was pardoned in 1892 and made an unsuccessful attempt to go straight. In August 1895, he died after being shot in the back by an El Paso policeman who was looking to embellish his reputation as a gunman. Hardin was 42 years old.
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