Lawless Breed: John Wesley Hardin, Texas Reconstruction, and Violence in the Wild West by Chuck Parsons, Norman W. Brown
This is another notable contribution to western history from prolific historian Chuck Parsons, this time writing with Norman Wayne Brown, a retired military officer and published author. Parsons and Brown focus on the notorious John Wesley Hardin (1853–95), the most feared gunman of his day who also happened to be remarkably literate. Hardin was responsible for as many as forty killings—no one really knows the exact number—and one autobiography. Hardin has always fascinated western historians. To date he has been the subject of two or three full biographies [End Page 86] plus countless articles and anthology chapters. Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, Parsons and Brown have been able to locate sources that earlier biographers did not find. That said, it is also true that Hardin is a popular subject for biographers because he wrote a 165-page autobiographical manuscript, which makes him practically unique among western gunmen. The authors show that Hardin’s story of his life was less than true on numerous points.
As a biography of Hardin “and associates” (xvii), including his brother, Jefferson Davis Hardin, and William Baker Teagarden, this is really more of a “life and times” chronicle than a strict biography. There is no denying that Hardin makes a great subject. He started his bloody rampage through life as an eight-year-old schoolboy pulling a bowie knife and stabbing a classmate. That was just a warm-up for what the authors call his first “serious act” (19), when he killed “Mage,” a freedman, in 1868. This killing alone takes up four pages. For the next several years, Hardin seemed to take particular delight in killing blacks and state police.
In his letters and autobiography, “Wes” as the authors call him, comes across as a decent, principled man forced into a life of violence, ultimately warning his young relatives not to follow the same path. How many killers have likewise argued they were forced into a life of crime? The truth is, Hardin was a sociopath and a drunk who could, when it suited him, be quite charming. He admitted he never felt “guilt or remorse” (37) for his killings. In many ways, Hardin was typical of Reconstruction-era outlaws in Texas; he drove cattle, gambled, tried his hand at school teaching, and hated all blacks and lawmen. And like today’s punks, Hardin demanded “respect” (45). The authors seem to conclude that Hardin was at heart a good man living in hard times—so he had to become hardened himself. Readers might disagree with this take on the subject, but they cannot disagree with the quality of the work. The extensive notes and illustrations are a joy. And many of the photographs have, to this reviewer’s knowledge, never been published before.
Criticisms of the book are slight. At 512 pages there is the problem of overkill for all but the most devoted aficionados. The story bogs down occasionally in an overly detailed analysis of an episode, biographical detail on a person whom Hardin encountered, or a digression into historiography. The authors are also a little sketchy on dates, such as at the end of chapter two, the killing of Laban Hoffman in Waco around 1870. Perhaps Hardin himself was a little vague in his autobiography? Finally, the average reader interested in John Wesley Hardin will probably skip the final chapters on Jefferson Davis Hardin and William B. Teagarden. I enjoyed most of this book, however, as I am sure most readers will. [End Page 87]