John Wesley Hardin vs "Wild Bill" Hickok -- The Gunfight That Never Happened
Writers have stretched the truth forever. They like sensationalizing people and events to where even those who they write about can't believe what they're reading. And frankly, some so-called "Historians" out there are no real help in ferreting out the truth of what really took place.
Many simply regurgitate what others have written, and never really question the validity of the story they are presenting to the public. My favorite example of this is the whole fraud regarding John Wesley Hardin's claim that he outdrew Wild Bill Hickok and lived to brag about it.
The first time that I had questions about that ever taking place was back in the early 1980s when I was in college studying for a degree in law enforcement. Since then, I've read a number of accounts of this. I've looked for any and all evidence, and I've found there isn't any credible evidence to prove it ever happened. Zero evidence.
The reason there is no credible evidence is because there were no witnesses, not ever a word by Hickok that such a thing ever happened, no mention in a local paper, or evidence at all that it ever took place.
That is, no mention anywhere other than the word of psychopath Hardin who wrote the tall tale in his memoirs while in prison. Yes, no evidence other than the word of a killer, a liar, a braggart, a fabricator of stories, a man who was without morals of any sort.
So really, as a teacher once asked our class which was studying evidence gathering, why should anyone believe any statement or statements coming from Hardin knowing he was a psychopathic killer? Why since he was not exactly a credible source if one is looking for the truth?
But It's In Hardin's Autobiography Some Will Say.
In his autobiography, John Wesley Hardin claimed that on arrival in Abilene Kansas, that he became friends with City Marshal James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok even after he supposedly outdrew Wild Bill. (Hardin Autobiography p.46)
Folks have written to ask if I believe John Wesley Hardin really did in fact draw down on Wild Bill Hickok? I've been asked if Hardin really beat him to the draw while being disarmed by the famous Marshal Hickok? I've been asked why Hickok didn't kill him? I've been asked why Hickok would allow such a known killer who was on the run to walk free? I've been asked why Hickok didn't arrest him for the huge bounty on his head?
Friends, let me just state up front that while I've heard the tale, I don't believe that the supposed yet legendary meeting between John Wesley Hardin and Wild Bill Hickok ever took place.
And yes, I've read Hardin's Fairy Tale which he called an autobiography. Frankly, none of the "legend" sounds credible. So now, allow me to answer your questions. First off, why would Hickok allow some unknown young pup by the name of Wesley Clements to draw on him and let him live? Why not kill him?
Who is Wesley Clements you ask?
"Wesley Clements" was the alias that John Wesley Hardin was using while there at the time. The name Wesley Clements is the first thing that makes me think the whole thing about Hardin supposedly drawing down on Wild Bill Hickok is nothing but a myth that Hardin created while writing his "memoirs" in prison.
Because of my background with dealing with inmates in the correctional system, I can't help but wonder if Hardin just fabricated the whole story while in prison to add spice to his book. It is very possible that he created the lie to look tougher to the other convicts.
Allow me to go on for a moment or two and explain. In the summer of 1870, John Wesley Hardin is a wanted man with a huge reward on his head. He is a fugitive on the run heading to Mexico. He is on the run for killing two Texas policemen. On his way, he stops off at the home of his Aunt Martha Hardin Clements.
His cousins told him that he'll need traveling money and can have a share of what they get for driving a herd of cows up to Abilene, Kansas. His cousins were James, Mannen, Joseph, and Gip Clements. With the name of John Wesley Hardin becoming very infamous very fast, they come up with the alias "Wesley Clements" for their cousin to use.
For months, John Wesley Hardin had disappeared. Using the alias "Wesley Clements", Hardin joined the rest of the Clements crew to herd cattle. It was an alias that he used often afterwards. And yes, it was during his travel up along the Arkansas River that he picked up the nickname Little Arkansas on the way to Abilene to unload their beef.
Criminals use aliases to hide their identity, or to impersonate other persons, or entities in order to commit fraud. Aliases may also be used for purely personal reasons when an individual feels the context and content of the exchange offer no reason, legal or otherwise, to provide their legal or given name. That’s all legalese meaning that someone using an alias doesn’t want to found.
The reason John Wesley Hardin and other criminal types use aliases is so they would blend in and not stick out. Since that's the case, Hardin wouldn't have wanted to put a spotlight on himself by letting anyone know who he was.
Why would Hardin even bother using the alias “Clements” if he wanted everyone, including the famous Wild Bill Hickok, to know who he was? That’s my point, people use aliases to hide their real identity. So he wouldn’t.
The date was June 1st, 1871, Wesley Clements and the Clements herd arrives in Abilene, Kansas. He and his cousins are going to be in town until August. At the young age of 18 years old, John Wesley Hardin was already one of the deadliest men in the history of the Old West. He was a known killer. He was wanted by the authorities in Texas who would go to the ends of the earth to bring him in.
Don’t think so? Remember, when Hardin finally gets caught and goes to prison, it’s after the Texas Rangers track him down all the way in Florida. And remember, it was only after he killed the two Texas policeman that he started using an alias of any sort.
It is apparent that he was making every effort to stay out of sight of the law. This is the number one reason that I don’t think that the supposed meeting between him and Marshal Hickok ever took place:
No one knew he was there because he had never been there and no one knew what he looked like. No one other than his cousins knew who he was, and he was definitely trying to lay low and out of sight to avoid arrest -- or worse, being shot dead.
According to his own autobiography, records and newspaper accounts, John Wesley Hardin was already a killer with a bounty on his head, dead or alive, especially in Texas. And yes, later when Hickok was told that Hardin said that he outdrew him and got the drop on him, Hickok himself said that he had never met Hardin.
So there's where I have trouble with the whole story about his meeting Abilene City Marshal James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok, and drawing down on Hickok after Hickok supposedly orders John Wesley Hardin to turn over his guns.
No one knew the man known in town as Wesley Clements was in fact the notorious killer John Wesley Hardin. And frankly, since no one had ever heard of some “nobody” by the name of Wesley Clements, why would the famous Hickok give him some sort of special treatment if he wasn’t a known gunman? Fact is, Hickok wouldn't.
It was well known, if someone was carrying a gun, Hickok would club him, buffalo him, on the head and throw him in jail, have him pay a fine, and give the guy's guns back later. He was also known to have confiscated guns and kept them so to be sold at auction later if he felt like it.
Whatever I think of Hickok’s character, fact is he was a no none-sense lawmen who didn't take crap off anyone. That's one reason the town had very little trouble. Hickok's reputation was alone enough to keep things quiet.
If Hardin, as Wesley Clements, wanted to stay out of sight and lay low and avoid arrest -- then why would he have drawn down on an infamous gunfighter like Wild Bill Hickok? It's said John Wesley Hardin met Hickok and used some sort of "Border Roll" or "Road Agent's Spin" fast draw to get the upper hand on Hickok. All Wild Bill was supposedly had done was take it in stride. That doesn't sound like Hickok. Not one bit.
The "Road Agent's Spin," also known as the "Curly Bill spin" after Curly Bill Brocius, or the "Border Roll" which supposedly was a fancy gunfighting maneuver first identified in the days of the Old West. Supposedly, it was utilized as a ruse when forced to surrender a side arm to an unfriendly party.
Surrendering a loaded pistol calls for it to be handed over butt-first. And no, not upside down as some want to make-belief is true. Turning guns over to the law does not mean up-side down. It simply means surrendering your weapon butt first. Turning a weapon over to another person hasn't changed since the first man surrendered his weapon to someone else.
Surrendering your gun or any other weapon, such as a knife over to someone has always been done in only one manner -- butt or handle or hilt first. Even today, someone asks you for a knife to carve the Thanksgiving turkey, you hand it over by the handle and not by the knife edge. It’s a matter of safety and common courtesy to do it that way -- and that's the way it's always been done.
Of course if you're one of those folks who really believe that criminals all handle their firearms with stupendous skill, then you probably believe everything about how great gun handlers the criminals were in the Old West.
You see, besides every other miraculous feat that Old West criminals were supposed to have done, it is supposed that a "well-trained gunfighter" could hold a single action pistol upside-down “by the trigger guard with the index finger next to the trigger”, and not be questioned about it by another also “well-trained gunfighter” which most law enforcement officers were in those days. Further, using the index finger and extend it toward the person he is surrendering it to in a false sign of compliance -- he miraculously flips it upright to shoot the person he is supposedly turning over to.
You see, someone wants us to believe the myth that Hardin pulled off this miraculous maneuver while not getting shot in the process. And remember, this is all just guessing because no one had ever come forward to say they witnessed it. Of course there are those who want us to believe that Wild Bill Hickok reached for a pistol with his presumably dominant hand, his gun hand, and some “nobody” by the name of "Wesley Clements" is supposed to have made a sharp motion of the wrist and quickly flipped the gun forward and back into firing position, catching Hickok off guard and supposedly "unable to react."
This all had supposedly taken place while Wild Bill Hickok just stood there -- open mouthed and supposedly dumbfounded. Give me a break!
Hickok was a killer. He would have never just stood by and allowed anyone, especially a “nobody” by the name of Wesley Clements, to do such a thing. I might have a poor opinion of Hickok's legend or how it came about, but I can't deny that Hickok would have never just stood there open-mouthed and dumbfounded while someone got the drop on him.
Hickok was a killer and wouldn't hesitate twice to take a live, or at least club someone, if he thought his life was in danger -- especially when he was in his prime. The night that that incident supposedly took place, Hardin wrote in his autobiography that he was confronted by Hickok who told him to hand over his guns - which he did "after showing Hickok that he was a faster draw." And supposedly, some historians actually say that Hickok just stood there impressed.
I don't think so. I believe Hickok would have killed him. As I said before, if John Wesley Hardin was in town at the same time Hickok was Marshal there - then Hickok had no knowledge that the man using the alias “Wesley Clements” was in fact John Wesley Hardin who was wanted for numerous killings in Texas.
For anyone to think that a man like Hickok to simply tell some stranger to "avoid problems while in Abilene" after being supposed drawn down on, they obviously aren't taking the temperament and capabilities of Hickok into account. In other words, they don't know what they are talking about.
Can you just imagine this scene for a moment? Hickok supposedly gets drawn on by some “nobody”, but then only shines it off and says "have a good night." I don't think so!
Besides, there is another point here, it's all about reputation. We have to remember that Hickok and others of his kind in the Old West lived and died by the gun. But more importantly, they relied on being able to intimidate others with their deadly reputations of not taking crap off anyone.
Friends, their reputations kept them alive. That is one reason that so many Old West gunfighters inflated their reputations and the numbers of men they had killed. They knew their reputations alone steered a lot a problems in another direction and away from them.
Doc Holiday, Killer Jim Miller, Billy the Kid, and all the rest intentionally built themselves up to have killed the number of men they did. They did it for self-preservation. Yes, no different than some convict would to try to keep from getting beaten or molested in prison -- the same as what takes place today.
Also remember this, gunfighters in the Old West, men with reputations, especially men like Hickok with huge reputations, always knew that there might be some young gunsel wanting to make a name for himself. Knowing that, if it did happen, why would Hickok have taken that from a “nobody” and risk becoming a laughing stock in town?
Fact is, he wouldn't because he knew that if he did then he'd become a laughing stock in town -- then he’d either lose his job or every “nobody” with a six gun would show up to try to make a name for themselves. Hickok couldn't afford to get drawn on by anyone and not kill them. He would have to just so that he'd still be the bull that keeps peace in his town. Without a reputation to help him along, he'd be tested time and time again - which in reality he wasn’t.
Frankly, I don't believe that Hickok would have taken that from anyone. That's why I don't believe it happened in the first place, and that's why I believe it was just a creation of Hardin's imagination while writing his autobiography in prison.
Did Ben Thompson Know Who John Wesley Hardin Was When Hardin Was There Using An Alias? And If So, How?
Of course this is all supposedly taking place when Ben Thompson and Phil Coe, who owned The Bull's Head Tavern, in Abilene, had their scrape with Hickok. Supposedly Ben Thompson tried to incite his new acquaintance, John Wesley Hardin, by exclaiming to him: "He's a damn Yankee. Picks on Rebels, especially Texans, to kill."
But since Hardin was there under the alias "Wesley Clements," how would Ben Thompson have had even known who he was -- especially since they had never met before? Again, this sounds like more Hardin fiction writing in his autobiography.
According to Hardin, who seemed to have had read some of the dime novels about Hickok, he supposedly told Thompson, "If Wild Bill needs killin', why don't you kill him yourself?"
Remember, the entire story about meeting up and outdrawing Hickok came from Hardin and no one else. And remember, no one witnessed what supposedly took place, and no newspaper published the account of Hickok being outdrawn. And please don't try to kid yourself friends, if that took place, that would have been headline making news at the time. If it did happen, Wesley Clements would have become instantly famous since the Dime Novelists and newspapers at the time would have jumped all over such a thing.
According to Hardin, when Hardin and his crew arrived in Abilene, Kansas, Wild Bill Hickok was apparently unconcerned with prosecuting him for his a string of murders, including those of two Texas State Policemen which the younger Hardin was on the run and wanted for.
According to some historians, Wild Bill didn't do anything because he saw it as being outside of his jurisdiction -- and that Hickok supposedly took a "paternal interest" in the young gunslinger. That's such a load of crap! Hickok looked after Hickok, and his whole life shows that. Besides, there was a bounty on Hardin's head and Hickok would have wanted that had he known Hardin was there.
According to Hardin's autobiography, he was 16 years Hickok's junior and the two men struck up a heck of a friendship. That's right, it's all "according to Hardin," and his fans. Remember everything about this lie is “according to Hardin” himself and his fan club today who have promoted this lie.
There were no witnesses to what he said took place. And no, it wasn't in the papers. Nowhere was there an article about someone drawing down on Hickok or Hickok not doing anything about being drawn on. And let's be frank here, if it indeed took place and Hickok did nothing about it -- that would have been big news, and definitely all over the newspapers.
Hickok was a living legend who papers wrote about all the time. Why leave such a legend shattering event out of the papers? That would have been huge if it actually took place.
Hardin was a psychopathic killer, so what makes anyone think he was not a pathological liar as well?
According to Hardin, Hickok had a formidable reputation by committing several killings of his own and he saw something of himself in Hardin. According to Hardin, Hickok supposedly believed that Hardin would grow out of his extremely violent explosive temper -- supposedly believing that Hardin would one day grow up to be a reasonably useful and law-abiding citizen. According to Hardin, Hickok's faith in the basic decency of his young friend was ultimately undermined. Of course, that's all wishful thinking on Hardin's part.
Again, what sounds like “Hero worship” is all “according to Hardin.” According to Hardin, Hickok was simply proud to be associated with the celebrated dime novel gunfighter as himself. And supposedly, for several weeks, Hickok and Hardin drank and womanized together. This is all according to Hardin. And yes, that's called wishful thinking on the part of a very young psychopath -- one John Wesley Hardin.
Where Does Some Of The Story Come From?
We do know that the Clements crew, including cousin "Wesley," put up for the night at the American House Hotel and there was a problem there. Sometime during the evening, Hardin (as Clements) and at least one other cowhand began firing bullets through the bedroom wall and ceiling in an attempt to stop the snoring which was coming from the next room. A sleeping stranger, a man by the name of Charles Cougar, was killed.
According to his own autobiography, Hardin claimed he was shooting at a man who was in his room to rob or kill him, and that he did not realize they had accidentally killed a man in the other room until much later. Of course, if we believe that, than we'd probably believe anything.
Remember, the words of law breakers and murderers are never to be trusted. All inmates are innocent, and all ended up in prison because of someone else and not their own doing. Hardin's autobiography says the same thing. Nothing was ever his fault.
According to Hardin, supposedly to show how he realized he would be in trouble with Hickok for firing his gun within the city limits, half-dressed, he and a few others sneaked out through a second story window and ran onto the roof of the hotel -- just in time to see Hickok arriving with four policemen.
"I believe," Hardin wrote later, "that if Wild Bill found me in a defenseless condition, he would take no explanation, but would kill me to add to his reputation".
And of there is another part of this story when it comes to Hickok, he was no fool. Why would he have let a kid like Hardin, someone with a reputation of a crazed killer, live and not be shot on sight? If for any reason, as Hardin stated, "to add to his reputation"? And if Hardin already had a confrontation that resulted in the whole beating Hickok to the draw, why should Hardin now concern himself with being arrested? Especially when he was already wanted for murder?
Hardin's story doesn't make sense. Hardin said he leaped from the roof into the street and hid in a haystack for the rest of the night. He stole a horse and made his way back to the cow camp outside town. The next day, he left for Texas.
Here is the truth on the killing of the man in the hotel. On August 6, 1871, in Abilene, Dickinson County, Kansas, Charles Cougar was killed in the American House Hotel. The county court records list a man by the name of “Wesley Clements”, and not John Wesley Hardin, as being found guilty by a coroner's jury of the "accidental" killing. After being released, he left town and never returned to Abilene after that.
Years later, Hardin made a casual reference to the episode: "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."
Don’t forget, besides being a killer, Hardin was also a notorious liar!
Hardin once said that and a companion named Pain were involved in a gunfight with a anti-Texan, the result was that Pain was shot in his one arm while Hardin shot the anti-Texan in the mouth with the bullet exiting under his left ear. There is no report verifying this.
Then he supposedly ambushed three lawmen, Tom Carson and two other deputies at a cow camp 35 miles outside of Abilene. Supposedly he did not kill them, but instead only forced them to remove all their clothing and walk back to Abilene.
Remember that this is all from John Wesley Hardin and no one else. Hardin gave different versions of the events of his life at different times. The guy was a psychopath, a killer, a cold-blooded murderer, and I'm sure he wasn't above telling huge lies to make himself look good to other criminal types.
It sounds to fanciful to be real. I find his facing down Wild Bill Hickok, drawing down on him, and remaining alive just too hard to accept. It sounds like something that was all only in Hardin's imagination while in prison. The imagination of a jailbird wanting to build up his reputation.
So now, what if Wild Bill Hickok did know that Wesley Clements was indeed the killer John Wesley Hardin just using an alias?
Well, there is a scene from the Clint Eastwood movie Unforgiven where City Marshal Little Bill has to confront a known gunman by the name of English Bob. Little Bill has his deputies stationed outside at the ready when English Bob steps onto the boardwalk. All of the deputies have their guns drawn on English Bob. English Bob tells his companion not to make any sudden moves because it will be his last.
My belief is that the scene which I have described would have been closer to what would have taken place if Wild Bill Hickok did in fact know that he was about to confront the notorious killer John Wesley Hardin to take his guns and arrest him for multiple murders.
From my own research, whether back then or today, law enforcement wouldn't simply approach a "known" murderer, a known psychopathic killer, a man known to have killed multiple law enforcement officers without compunction, without first taking some safety precautions like bringing backup.
Safety precautions enable law enforcement to stay alive -- especially when a suspect is not cooperative. Frankly, all of the evidence says the supposed incident never took place.