This Day In History: January 5

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Angered over a card game dispute, 16-year-old John Wesley Hardin shoots Benjamin Bradley dead in the street.

Although less famous than Billy the Kid, Jesse James, or Wyatt Earp, John Wesley Hardin is believed to hold the gunslinger’s record for killing the most men in the shortest period. From the time he first killed in 1868 until he shot his last victim ten years later, Hardin is known to have murdered more than 20 men.

Hardin grew up the son of a pro-Confederate Methodist preacher in southeastern Texas. He learned to handle guns by hunting and practicing his marksmanship with a target resembling the despised Abraham Lincoln. Hardin’s violent nature surfaced early, when he stabbed a boy in the chest with a knife during a quarrel over a girl; Hardin was only 14 years old.

The next year, the rabidly racist Hardin killed a former slave for threatening him with a stick. When three soldiers tried to arrest him for the murder, Hardin shot them and fled to Navarro County, where he found a job as a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse. His students had a reputation as bullies who scared off a succession of teachers, but the 16-year-old Hardin found that carrying a revolver to class won the respect and attention of even the most rebellious of scholars.

Despite his gainful employment, Hardin was incapable of staying out of trouble. On Christmas Day in 1869, he went to the tiny town of Towash, Texas, seeking some companionship and a good game of cards. Hardin apparently argued with a man named James Bradley over a card hand. The confrontation escalated, and the men agreed to settle the dispute in a classic street face-off. Though such showdowns—or walkdowns, as they were sometimes called—were far less common than western books and movies suggest, they did occasionally occur, particularly among southern gunmen who continued to embrace the ideal of the gentlemen’s duel. Late in the day, the two men faced each other in a deserted Towash street. Bradley shot at Hardin but missed. Hardin killed Bradley with bullets to the head and chest.

Hardin was imprisoned for murder in 1878 and served 14 years. During his years of incarceration, his beloved wife died.When Hardin finally emerged from prison in 1892, he was a changed man. He abandoned the violent ways of his youth and tried to live a peaceful life raising his three children in Gonzales, Texas. Hardin’s past caught up with him three years later when a gunslinger shot him in the back in an El Paso bar. The killer was apparently trying to enhance his own fame as a gunman by killing the deadliest man in Texas.