Texas Tales: The bullet that killed notorious gunman John Wesley Hardin

John Wesley Hardin was an American outlaw who lived between 1853 and 1895. It is reported that he killed at least 21 men in gun duels and ambushes.

Then 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 Watson.”

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.

Hardin 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 draw poker.

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.

On 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.

It 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 19th century.

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.

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