Western Union office received the telegram at 1 p.m. that Aug. 19,
1895, it took young Lewis Hubbard an hour to find its recipient.
Even at 11, Hubbard knew the reputation of the man he now hunted
– a hard-drinking, hard-hearted shootist said to have slain 42 men
before spending 17 years in prison at Huntsville
for killing a sheriff’s deputy in Comanche County in 1874. While
behind bars, with nothing but time on his hands, John Wesley Hardin
read the law. Soon after his release in 1894, he passed the bar
For a time, Hardin represented clients in Gonzales.
He also married a 15-year-old girl and tried to stay off booze.
But the bloom soon faded from the rose of romance.
Seeking a fresh start, Hardin took the train from San
Antonio to mountain-flanked El
Paso. With plenty of cross-country railroad traffic, the border
town enjoyed a robust economy. Beyond that, the City
at the Pass had no shortage of thriving saloons, gambling houses
and brothels. In other words, it was a target-rich environment for
a man like Hardin, a fellow equally comfortable standing before
the bar of justice or leaning again the other type of bar.
Hubbard found Hardin inside the Acme Saloon on El
Paso’s once notorious San Antonio Street about 2 p.m. that summer
day. Hardin had just raised a glass to his lips when he saw the
boy approaching with a telegram in his hand.
“He put the glass down when I came up to him,” Hubbard recalled
years later. “Evidently he drank all afternoon that day.”
Hardin may have been in his cups, but he comported himself like
a Southern gentleman. After the boy handed him the sealed envelope
containing the message, the 42-year-old killer reached into his
pocket and gave Hubbard a dime. He also offered the kid a little
“Son, don’t ever do this.”
By “this” Hardin
presumably meant hanging out in saloons, getting drunk and shooting
craps. It could be inferred that his admonition also extended to
Hubbard thanked Hardin and went back to work. In turn, Hardin went
back to drinking. The next time the messenger boy saw Hardin, he
lay in a coffin on public display.
That night, bad blood between Hardin and El Paso Constable John
Selman, Sr. ended with the spilling of Hardin’s blood. Before the
semi-reformed outlaw could get off a shot, Selman put a bullet through
his head. Just for good measure, the constable shot him three more
times as he lay on the saloon floor.
Some contended Selman had back-shot Hardin as he threw a set of
dice and pronounced, “Four sixes to beat.” Others said it looked
like Hardin had been going for his six-shooter and that Selman shot
him in the face in self defense.
As published by the El Paso Times, here’s part of what Selman said:
“About 11 o’clock,
I came into the Acme Saloon to take a drink with Mr. Shackelford.
Shackelford said…not to go to getting drunk. I told him I would
not get drunk for I expected trouble. That Hardin had said he would
make me…[having to do with a natural bodily process on the part
of a startled coyote] and if he tried it he’d have to fight. Immediately
after Shackelford and me took a drink Hardin threw his hand on his
gun and I grabbed mine and went to shooting….”
The bartender offered this version:
“Hardin was standing…with Henry Brown shaking dice and Mr. Selman
walked in the door and shot him. E.L. Shackelford was also in the
saloon at the time…. Hardin was standing with his back to Mr. Selman.
I did not see him face around before he fell, or make any motion.
All I saw was that Mr. Selman came in the door, said something and
shot, and Hardin fell. Don’t think Hardin ever spoke."
No matter the circumstances, one of the West’s most feared gunman
was dead. Outside of family members, his girlfriend and a few cronies,
the prevailing sentiment could be summed up in two words: good riddance.
Even in death, however, Hardin got in one last lick. As the local
“Undertaker Tom Powell had [Hardin’s] body on his table cleaning
it when a contraction of the muscles caused Hardin’s arm to swing
around, landing his fist in Powell’s back as he was leaning over
the body. Tom jumped around and wanted to know who had struck him.
And Tom don’t deny that he felt a little shaky….”
stand trial for killing Hardin, but the jury could not reach a verdict.
Before his next court date, while out on bond, he got into another
gunfight. This time it was with a U.S. marshal and Selman lost,
his case permanently adjudicated.
The boy who delivered Hardin’s last telegram followed the killer’s
kindly advice. After graduating from high school in El
Paso, in 1899 Hubbard enrolled at the University of Texas in
Austin and went on to
a long career as an educator. In 1926, he became president of what
is now Texas Women’s University in Denton.
Hubbard spent his last days at a nursing home in Georgetown,
his life ending at 91 on July 13, 1973. Unlike Hardin and Selman,
he died of natural causes.
© Mike Cox
- November 27, 2013 column, Published March 16, 2014
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