John Wesley Hardin’s Character and Fitness for the Practice of Law

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Every state requires would-be lawyers to prove that they possess the requisite character and fitness to practice law. Usually, this has to be established before a student can take the state bar examination (or, in Wisconsin, be admitted pursuant to the diploma privilege).

While denial of bar admission on this basis alone is a fairly infrequent occurrence, it does happen. In a widely reported incident in January 2011, the Ohio Supreme Court denied a graduate of Ohio State University Law School the right to take the Ohio bar examination because he had accumulated too much student debt and had made no effort to figure out a plan for repaying what he owed.

Perhaps the most remarkable example of someone’s managing to pass the character and fitness portion of the bar admission process in American history came in 1895 when the notorious Texas gunman John Wesley Hardin (b. 1853) was certified as meeting the requirement. The certification was made by a Texas circuit court judge slightly more than four months after Hardin had been released from prison. From 1878 to 1894, Hardin served 17 years of a 25-year prison in Texas’ notorious Huntsville Prison.

The son of a Methodist minister who was named for the founder of his father’s denomination, John Wesley Hardin compiled an impressive record of carnage and mayhem in his early years. He stabbed a fellow classmate in elementary school (apparently in self-defense) in a dispute over the authorship of schoolhouse graffiti that insulted the purity of a female classmate, and at age 15 (in 1868), he killed an adult ex-slave who had sought revenge against Hardin after losing a wrestling match to him. The killing occurred in Texas during the Congressional phase of Reconstruction, and the pro-Union authorities dispatched three United States soldiers to arrest the former Confederate sympathizer. (Although John Wesley Hardin was not quite 12 when the Civil War ended, the senior Hardin had been a slave-owning minister who loyally supported the Confederacy during the war.)

Rather than submit to arrest, Hardin managed to shoot dead all three soldiers. After this incident, he became a fugitive, travelling throughout the southwest and frequently working in the cattle industry, as either a rustler or a trail boss.

By the time he was finally arrested in 1877 by Texas Rangers, Hardin claimed to have killed 42 men. (Others claimed that Hardin was prone to exaggeration and that the actual number was closer to 27.) Despite his reputation as the “most dangerous man in Texas,” Hardin insisted that he had never killed anyone without provocation. As the Texas Court of Appeals noted in 1997 (see below), Hardin frequently stated that “he had never killed anyone who didn’t deserve to be killed.”

Hardin was finally convicted by a jury of second murder in the killing a Deputy Sheriff named Charles Webb, and in 1878, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

After several unsuccessful efforts to escape from prison, Hardin embraced a more contemplative life style. He began to study, first theology, and later law, on his own. His interest in theology he clearly got from his father, and his interest in law may have stemmed from his many run-ins with the authorities as well as his own case, John W. Hardin v. State (1878), in which he unsuccessfully tried to have his second-degree murder conviction overturned on appeal.

While behind bars, Hardin appeared to repent of his past sins and eventually became the superintendent of the Huntsville Prison Sunday School. He also suffered from poor health while in prison, and in 1892, his long-suffering wife passed away with her husband still incarcerated.

Growing sympathy for the apparently reformed Hardin, who had become an important part of Texas folklore while in prison, led to his early release in February, 1894, and to his receiving a full pardon from Texas’ progressive governor, Jim Hogg (the father of Ima Hogg), the following month.

As a free man, Hardin decided to embark on a career in law. In July 1894, he was certified as eligible to practice law—presumably because of his repentance of his past ways while in prison. Although he had accidentally killed a Mexican shortly after his release from prison, the man’s death was attributed to a practical joke gone wrong and the unfortunate incident was apparently not deemed sufficient to raise doubts about Hardin’s fitness to practice law. He passed the oral Texas bar examination (which was famously easy) and began the practice of law, initially in his home town of Gonzales, Texas.

Unfortunately, Hardin’s career as a lawyer lasted only a little more than a year. While there is little surviving evidence of his actual law practice, he appears to have concentrated, not surprisingly, on criminal defense work.

Shortly after his admission to the bar, he did manage to marry a 15-year old girl named Callie Lewis, but that relationship apparently did not work out, and a few months later Hardin relocated his law practice to El Paso with his new bride remaining behind in Gonzales. (Callie was actually one year older than Hardin’s first wife Jane Bowen was when he married her in 1872.)

In the summer of 1895, Hardin got into a dispute with an El Paso constable who had arrested one of Hardin’s female friends for brandishing a pistol in public. Hardin apparently humiliated the lawman, and on August 19, 1895, while playing dice in a saloon, Hardin was fatally shot in the head by the arresting officer’s 56-year-old father, John Selman, Sr., a lawman and a notorious gunfighter in his own right.

(As with many of the facts of Hardin’s life, there are conflicting accounts. An alternative version of the story of his death has it that Hardin fell in love with the wife of one of his clients and hired Selman, Sr. to murder the client. When he did, but then was not paid for the act by Hardin, he extracted his revenge by murdering his employer in the saloon. Typical of the history of the Wild West, only the Great Cowboy in the Sky knows for certain what really happened.)

Selman was tried for Hardin’s murder, but the jury was unable to reach a verdict. He was scheduled for a second trial, but before that happened Selman, Sr. was killed by U.S. Marshall George Scarborough, almost exactly a year to the day after Hardin’s death.

Hardin’s autobiography was published posthumously in 1896, which portrayed its subject as a good man, willing to stand up against those who sought to do harm to him and his friends. A century after his death, Hardin was back in court, as a group of his descendants (through his first wife) sought to have his body disinterred from his El Paso grave so that it could be taken back to Gonzalez County, Texas, where he had lived much of his life. They were opposed by a group of historically-minded El Pasoans who sought to keep the grave, which had become something of a tourist attraction, in the famous west Texas town. See Billings v. Concordia Heritage Ass’n (1997). To date, Hardin still rests in El Paso.

Bob Dylan’s iconic song, “John Wesley Harding” is based on the life of the gunfighter-turned lawyer John Wesley Hardin. In the song, Dylan accepts Hardin’s own account of himself as a good citizen who was more sinned against than a sinner: As Dylan sings, “He was never known to hurt an honest man.” Why Dylan, famous for dropping “g”s left and right in his songs, decided to add a “g” to Hardin is one of the many mysteries in the work of the troubadour from Hibbing. The song also makes no mention of the fact that Hardin ended up as a lawyer.

The legal profession is sometimes surprisingly forgiving of the past indiscretions of would-be lawyers, especially if they are candidly willing to admit to past wrong-doing. However, it is safe to say that even in the more relaxed climate of today a record of 42 prior homicides—by someone not wearing a military uniform– would almost certainly be viewed as disqualifying, no matter how much the aspiring barrister may have cast aside his or her old ways.

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2 Responses to “John Wesley Hardin’s Character and Fitness for the Practice of Law”

  1. David Papke Says:

    I wouldn’t know if John Wesley Hardin reformed during his 17 years in prison and could genuinely show he had the character requisite for admission to the bar. However, I do think that “character” is fluid and that redemption is possible.

    A modern bar application that has always intrigued me involves Whtefish Bay’s Bernadine Dohrn. In her youth she was a member of the radical Weather Underground and commited several violent crimes in the naive hope that the capitalist state could be toppled. She lived underground for years and was for a time on the Most Wanted List, but the government ultimately dropped charges against her. A graduate of the University of Chicago Law School Law, Dohrn sought admission to the bar in New York and Illinois, but she was denied on character and fitness grounds. Working as a para-legal, Dohrn went on to found the pro bono program at Chicago’s Sidley & Austin, and she is today a clinical professor at Northwestern and a nationally recognized expert on juvenile justice. She seems to me to have (or to have acquired) all the “character” any character and fitness committee could want.

  2. Domenic Hardin Says:

    Can anyone tell me what his family tree is all the way up until today please! I really need to know!

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