History Wars Civil War

A Confederate veteran-turned-lawman shot the deadliest gunfighter in the Old West

Before he became famous as a lawman, John Selman cut his teeth on the battlefields of the Civil War, wearing Confederate gray. 
john selman
Pictured: John Selman (left) and the gravestone of John Wesley Hardin (Public domain)

Sometimes, it takes a criminal to catch a criminal; that’s how John Selman managed to draw down on the Old West’s deadliest gunfighter and put a slug in his head. Before he became famous as a lawman, however, Selman cut his teeth on the battlefields of the Civil War, wearing Confederate gray

As a veteran of a defeated army, he headed west and became an officer of the law in Texas before turning to a life of crime and rejoining the side of law and order once again. One night, the infamous outlaw John Wesley Hardin went to the Acme Saloon in El Paso, giving Selman the chance to live forever in Old West lore. 

John Selman was 22 years old when the Civil War broke out. Although not a Texas native, that’s where he lived when the fighting started, so he decided to stay true to his home state and joined the 22nd Texas Cavalry Regiment. The 22nd fought Union troops in Missouri, Arkansas, and Louisiana, fighting for the duration of the war, but at some point, Selman deserted. 

He had returned to Texas, married his wife and started a family. In the wild lands of northwest Texas, locals began taking the law into their own hands to impose justice. Selman began working as a hides inspector, capturing cattle rustlers and bandits while trying to enforce the laws of the state. But old habits die hard and Selman found himself fighting vigilantes and lynch mobs of civilians just as much. 

When his partner was caught and shot by vigilantes for stealing cow hides, it was widely suspected that Selman was involved too. But Selman was out of town when his partner was shot. That didn’t matter; Selman was implicated in the crime and suddenly found himself living like a fugitive – so he leaned into it. 

john wesley hardin
John Wesley Hardin (Old West Gunfighters)

His wife died in 1879, so he put the kids in the care of a family member and moved to New Mexico, where his life as an outlaw took root. He started a gang of his own, called “Selman’s Scouts,” making money through cattle rustling. Eventually the fun came to an end there, too and his gang was forced out of New Mexico. Once back in Texas, he became subject to Texas law again, and quickly ran afoul of it.

Selman was captured by Texas Rangers and was being taken back to his old post in northwest Texas to stand trial. Somehow, he escaped to Mexico and stayed there until 1888, when all the charges against him were suddenly dropped. As soon as he was able to return to Texas he did, moving to El Paso, where he started a new life as the local law enforcement officer. 

His life, though new, was not without incident. It was still the Wild West, and Selman found himself in gunfights with outlaws, being wounded on a few occasions. By this time, his children had moved to El Paso with him, and his oldest son (also named John), became a lawman too. But trouble followed around John Selman, Jr., too. 

Like something out of a Willie Nelson song the younger Selman arrested a woman who also happened to be sleeping with notorious outlaw John Wesley Hardin, the deadliest outlaw in the west. That’s no joke: Hardin is believed to have killed an estimated 27-42 men, a lot for the outlaws of the Old West. Hardin confronted Selman Jr. about the affair and the two men had an exchange of words, which resulted in Hardin pistol-whipping Selman. 

When the elder Selman heard about the incident, he went to confront Hardin. These two men also got into a verbal altercation over the arrest, but nothing happened right away. Selman was able to walk away and Hardin went to the Acme Saloon that night. Hardin was playing dice when the elder Selman walked in. 

John Selman shot john wesley hardin

Gravestone of John Wesley Hardin. (Paul Garland/Public domain)

As he walked into the bar, Hardin began to draw his pistol, but he wasn’t quick enough for Selman. The old law officer put a slug into the outlaw’s head, killing him. He was tried for murder, but the killing was ruled self-defense and he walked free. Selman’s luck soon ran out in another meetup with the law. This time it was the U.S. Marshals.  

Selman was playing cards with a marshal when an argument started. The two men took their exchange of words outside, when Selman (according to official testimony) suddenly decided to try to kill his old friend from the Marshal service. The marshal was quicker though, and by the time it was all over, Selman hadn’t even gotten his gun out of its holster.