the largest city between San
Antonio and Los Angeles, El
Paso was no hick town in the 1890s. It had transcontinental
rail service, a telephone exchange, vigorously competing daily newspapers,
an opera, a public library, a major Army post, a baseball team,
churches of all denominations and most other urban amenities.
Still, it's hard to imagine that very many El Pasoans had any familiarity
with the published works of English novelist and short story writer
Arthur Conan Doyle or his soon to be world famous fictional private
investigator, one Sherlock Holmes.
"There is nothing like first-hand evidence," the British sleuth
observed in Doyle's 1887 debut mystery novel, "A Study in Scarlet."
Indeed, Holmes and sidekick Dr. John Watson frequently employed
state-of-the-art crime scene forensics in solving a case. Along
with deductive logic, of course. For the brilliant Holmes, thanks
in part to his reliance on science, it was all "elementary, my dear
Big as El Paso
was, in the late Victorian era the border city remained culturally
closer to its Wild West roots than many other communities, especially
those farther east or in Europe. Though he had read the law in prison,
the notorious if supposedly reformed outlaw John Wesley Hardin probably
didn't know anything about Sherlock Holmes. Credited by some with
having slain as many as 44 men, what he obviously did know was how
to handle a gun.
enjoyed his final drink and last toss of the dice in El
Paso's Acme Saloon on the night of Aug. 19, 1895 shortly before
Constable John Selman, Sr. put a bullet through the back of his
head. Though police and sheriff's deputies hurried to the scene,
the forensic details of the gambling gunman's death were of far
less interest to law enforcement and the general public than the
happy fact that Hardin lay deader than three discards in five-card
Sure, Sheriff F.B. Simmons drew a crime scene map, a couple of doctors
examined the bullet holes in Hardin's mustachioed corpse, and a
coroner's jury was duly convened to weigh the circumstances of the
shooting and return a verdict as to cause of death. Someone even
took a posthumous photograph of the 42-year-old killer.
But when the bartender at the Acme stooped down to pick up a spent
pistol slug from the wooden floor that night, he viewed it as a
nice souvenir, not an important piece of evidence. Law enforcement
officers, as they automatically would today, did not seize it.
The barkeep soon placed the bullet in a small, clear glass bottle
stuffed with cotton, whittled down a cork to fit the opening and
kept it on display as a relic of El
Paso's bad ole days. In time, the Acme went out of business,
but the bullet and other artifacts of lawlessness at the Pass of
the North stayed on display at the Coney Island Saloon until the
1930s, when the objects were sold off to collectors.
No one, it is believed, ever opened the bottle containing the Hardin
death bullet to take a closer, scientific look. Until recently.
Oct. 14, Dr. James Bailey, a retired law enforcement professor and
forensic scientist who also is a former special agent with the North
Carolina State Bureau of Investigation along with Texas gun collector
and Hardin expert Kurt House -- both members of the Wild West History
Association -- examined the small hunk of lead for the first time
in 122 years.
They did so in a movie-like setting, the replica Wild West town
of billionaire William Koch, one of the four quite well known Koch
brothers. William Koch owns a world-class collection of Western
artifacts, including the bottle containing the Hardin death bullet.
Koch has about a million Old West items, from the washstand that
stood in the room when Billy
the Kid was shot (and has a bullet hole in it) to a good luck
piece given by his wife to George Armstrong Custer. Along with the
rest of his wide-ranging collection, the bottle with the bullet
is on display in the sheriff's office in Koch's invitation-only
town in the mountains of western Colorado.
"So far as is known, the Hardin slug is the only surviving death
bullet of the gunfighter era," House said. "Its historical significance
is huge, and we can learn much from it."
Earlier this fall, with Koch's blessing, Bailey and House carefully
removed the Hardin bullet from the bottle, examined it under a high-powered
microscope, measured it, weighed it, photographed it and used a
specialized COPAN Floq swab to recover possible biological material
for DNA analysis. Bailey also removed for analysis part of a strand
of fiber that had been imbedded in the slug.
will be months before Bailey gets the DNA test results back, but
based on their examination of the bullet, he and House did reach
some preliminary conclusions:
* The diameter of the bullet and its weight are consistent with
it being a .45 caliber slug. That's important because Selman was
armed with a .45 Colt revolver at the time of the shooting.
* The projectile is flattened and somewhat deformed. The bullet
exhibits two deep impact groves, indicating it impacted two surfaces.
The first would have been Hardin's skull and the second, the frame
of the mirror that had been hanging in front of him. (That mirror
is now in House's private collection.)
* The clear glass bottle containing the bullet shows molding marks
and bubbles, a strong indication that it does date to the latter
Joining Bailey and House in the research are Santina Casticiano,
Alice Squassina, Dr. Maher Noureddine and Erwin Vermeij. Both Casticiano
and Squassina are with the COPAN Group in Brescia, Italy. Casticiano
will coordinate the DNA testing and Squassina will analyze the swabs
for DNA. Dr. Noureddine, a private DNA consultant, will interpret
the results. Erwin Vermeij is a micro trace specialist with the
Netherlands Forensic Institute (NFI) in Den Haag, a laboratory similar
to the FBI crime laboratory. Vermeij will use a scanning electron
microscope to examine the fibers for contaminates.
The conclusions all these experts come up with will be published
in the Wild West History Association's quarterly journal.
is an elected member of the Texas Institute of Cultures and the
author of more than 30 non-fiction books. He lives in Wimberley
in the Texas Hill Country.
"Texas Tales" November
10, 2017 column