The Last Days of John Wesley Hardin

Reconstructing the fateful night at the Acme Saloon in El Paso, Texas!

The disharmony of a hundred voices swirled around the room, mingling with the billows of thick cigar smoke choking out the air. Up against the far wall, a dog-tired piano player hammered out the honky-tonk melody from some old Southern drinking song—it was just another night at the Acme Saloon in El Paso, Texas. At the end of the bar, closest to the saloon doors, an aging John Wesley Hardin, feeling all of his 42 hard-lived years, stood playing a friendly dice game of “Ship, Captain, and Crew” with local grocer Henry S. Brown. The cubes rolled down the polished countertop and came up in Hardin’s favor. He turned to Henry and said with his usual candor, “Brown, you’ve got four sixes to beat.” These were to be the last words Hardin would ever speak. Before the first shot rang out, no one had taken notice of the man who’d walked into the saloon; in another second, John Wesley Hardin would be shot in the back of the head, the bullet exiting just above his left eye. Hardin reacted instinctually, trying to grab the double-action revolver tucked into his pants waist, but he was already dead before he hit the barroom floor. The second and third rounds that tore into his body were less accurate, fired more in the rage of the moment than in fear of Hardin’s reprisal. Though folks were clearly shaken, few in the saloon were surprised. Just about everybody expected Hardin would be killed in El Paso some day, and likely shot in the back, as no one had the grit to face him, but few expected his murderer would be the city constable, John Selman, Sr.

HARDIN & HICKOK:
As a shootist, Wild Bill Hickok favored only a few guns in his life, and had spent most of it relying on Colt 1851 Navy percussion revolvers, even when more modern cartridge-firing arms like the Colt Peacemaker were readily available. John Wesley Hardin, on the other hand, owned a lot of guns, each intended for various means of carry and often the latest models available, including Colt and Smith & Wesson double-action revolvers. Despite the differences in their choices of firearms, numerous parallels can be drawn between Hickok and Hardin, especially in the last weeks of their lives. Both were keenly aware that they had lost their edge and were certain someone would try to kill them, if for nothing else than the reputation. In his autobiography, Hardin wrote of his earlier abilities with guns, “In those days I was a crack shot.” In Deadwood, Hickok had told his close friend Charlie Utter, “Charlie, I feel this is going to be my last camp, and I won’t leave it alive.”

Hickok was a lawman with a weakness for gambling, Hardin a notorious outlaw who shared Wild Bill’s fervor for games of chance, and both would be shot in the back of the head while gambling in a saloon. The two had even known each other when Hickok was marshal of Abilene, Kansas, in 1871. Back then, Hardin was a young cowboy driving cattle to market, though he had already killed a dozen men and had a price on his head in Texas. Oddly, he became cordial with Hickok and the two never faced off, though there is one story that may or may not be true.

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  • Slobodan Ilic

    I think the gun pictured isn’t S&W, Russian First Model, but S&W, New Model No 3

    • Michael Malone

      you are correct, sir.

  • r.Newlin

    Hello, Dennis. The colt revolver pictured is not of the Colt model 1877 pistol with “mother of pearl” .41 cal. “Engraved” nickel finished pistol of the Newlin estate collection?! To bad the wrong pistol is pictured. Maybe you can correct it with the actual pistol used in your wonderful magazine article. Thank you. R.L. Newlin.

  • Danny Lawrence

    I am a big fan of the American old west,especially favoring the lufe and times of Wild Bill Hickock,I have read Joseph Derosa,s book ,they called him Wild Bill,he tells the story of Hickock meeting John Wesley in Abeline,where Harndin was supposed to get the drop on Hickock, most historians dispute Harndins claim ,and Wild Bill had been dead for a ling time,I am the proud owner of a 1851 navy colt,mine is in .44 caliber however,Hickocks was in .36 caliber

  • Mike Gaglio

    Great! really enjoying these stories!