|Tom Horn - Wikipedia
Thomas "Tom" Horn, Jr. (November 21, 1861 – November 20,
1903) was an American Old West scout, who carried out varied roles as hired
gunman, Pinkerton, range detective, cowboy, and soldier. Believed to have
committed 17 murders as a hired gunman in the West, in 1902 Horn was convicted
of the murder of 14-year-old Willie Nickell near Iron Mountain, Wyoming.
The boy was the son of sheep rancher Kels Nickell, who had been involved
in a range feud with neighbor and cattle rancher Jim Miller. On the day
before his 43rd birthday, Horn was executed by hanging in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
While in jail he wrote his autobiography, Life of Tom
Horn: Government Scout and Interpreter (1904), which was published posthumously.
Numerous editions have been published of this book since the late 20th
century, and debate continues as to whether he was guilty of Nickell's
Known as "Tom," he was born in 1860 to Thomas S. Horn,
Sr. and Mary Ann Maricha (née Miller) on their family farm in rural
northeastern Scotland County, Missouri. They had 600 acres (bisected by
the South Wyaconda River), located between the towns of Granger and Etna.
Tom was the fifth of twelve children. During his childhood, the young Tom
suffered physical abuse from his father, and his only companion as a child
was a dog named Shedrick. The dog was tragically killed when the young
Tom got into a fight with two boys, who proceeded to beat Tom and killed
the dog with a shotgun.
Horn allegedly killed his first man in a duel—the man
was a second lieutenant in the Mexican Army, whom he killed as a result
of a dispute with a prostitute. At sixteen, Horn headed to the American
Southwest, where he was hired by the U.S. Cavalry as a civilian scout,
packer and interpreter under Al Sieber during the Apache Wars. Horn did
a great job in his work for the army, and soon he rose through the ranks.
In one instance, as Sieber, Horn and the army were crossing the Cibicue
Creek, they were ambushed by Apaches warriors positioned on high ground.The
officer in charge of their squad, Captain Edmund Hentig, was instantly
killed, and the men became pinned down under overwhelming fire. Desperate,
Sieber ordered Horn and another civilian Mickey Free to break away and
return fire from a hill. Together with the soldiers, the men managed to
repel the attack. Tom Horn and Al Sieber also participated during the Battle
of Big Dry Wash, and gained recognition when he and Lt. George H. Morgan
slipped through the banks opposite of the Apache line, and provided covering
fire for the cavalry as well as killing a number of Apaches warriors. Tom
Horn became a respected scout by then, known for going out alone in reconnaissance
missions as well as helping track down Geronimo's major stronghold. By
November 1885, Tom Horn earned the position as a Chief of Scouts under
Captain Emmet Crawford's command in Fort Bowie. During one operation, Horn's
camp was mistakenly attacked by a Mexican militia, and he was wounded in
the arm during the shootout and led to the death of Crawford. Finally on
September 4, 1886, Horn was present at Geronimo's final surrender and acted
as an interpreter under Charles B. Gatewood.
After the war, Horn used what he earned to build his own
ranch in his return to the Aravaipa Canyon in Arizona. His ranch consisted
of 100 cattle and 26 horses, and he also laid claim in the Deer Creek Mining
District near the canyon. Unfortunately, it was short-lived as cattle thieves
stormed his ranch one night and stole all his stock, leaving a tremendous
loss and bankruptcy for Horn. This incident would mark Horn's hatred and
disdain for thieves, which would escalate in him taking the profession
of range detective.
Career as a detective, lawman and gun for hire
Horn wandered and took jobs as a prospector, ranch hand
and rodeo contestant, but he's most infamous for being hired by numerous
cattle companies as a working cowboy and a hired gun to watch over their
cattle and kill any suspected criminals preying on them. In his line of
work, Horn developed his own means to fight cattle-rustling, which he described:
"I would simply take the calf and such things as that stopped the stealing.
I had more faith in getting the calf than in courts." If he thought a man
was guilty of stealing cattle and had been fairly warned, Horn said that
he would shoot the thief and would not feel "one shred of remorse." Horn
would often give a warning first to those he suspected of rustling, and
was said to have been a "tremendous presence" whenever he was in the vicinity.
Fergie Mitchell, a rancher of the North Laramie River described Horn's
reputation: "I saw him ride by. He didn't stop, but went straight on up
the creek in plain sight of everyone. All he wanted was to be seen, as
his reputation was so great that his presence in a community had the desired
effect. Within a week three settlers in the neighborhood sold their holdings
and moved out. That was the end of cattle rustling on the North Laramie."
Later, Horn took part in the Pleasant Valley War in Arizona
between cattlemen and sheepmen. Historians have not established which side
he worked for, and both sides suffered several killings for which no known
suspects were ever identified. Horn worked on a ranch owned by Robert Bowen,
where he became one of the prime suspects in the disappearance of Mart
Blevins in 1887. Horn also participated with Glenn Reynolds in a lynching
of three suspected rustlers in August 1888. He claimed that throughout
the war, he was the "mediator" of the conflict, serving as a deputy sheriff
under three famous Arizona lawmen of the time: William Owen “Buckey” O’Neill,
Commodore Perry Owens, and Glenn Reynolds. Horn worked in Arizona for a
time as a deputy sheriff, where he drew the attention of the Pinkerton
Detective agency due to his tracking abilities. Hired by the agency circa
late 1889 or early 1890, he handled investigations in Colorado and Wyoming,
in other western states, and around the Rocky Mountain area, working out
of the Denver office. He became known for his calm under pressure, and
his ability to track down anyone assigned to him.
In one case, Horn and another agent, C. W. Shores, captured
two men who had robbed the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad (on August
31, 1890) between Cotopaxi and Texas Creek in Fremont County, Colorado.
Horn and Shores tracked and arrested Thomas Eskridge (aka "Peg-Leg" Watson)
and Burt "Red" Curtis without firing a shot. They tracked them all the
way to the home of a man named Wolfe, said to be in either Washita or Pauls
Valley, Oklahoma, along the Washita River. In his report on that arrest,
Horn stated in part "Watson, was considered by everyone in Colorado as
a very desperate character. I had no trouble with him."
During the Johnson County War, he worked for the Wyoming
Stock Grower's Association, as well as being assigned by the Pinkerton
to be in the county with the alias Tom Hale. He is alleged to have been
involved in the killing of Nate Champion and Nick Ray on April 9, 1892,
and was a prime suspect for the assassinations of ranchers either John
A. Tisdale and Orley “Ranger” Jones. The Pinkerton Agency forced Horn to
resign in 1894. In his memoir, Two Evil Isms: Pinkertonism and Anarchism,
Pinkerton detective Charlie Siringo wrote that "William A. Pinkerton told
me that Tom Horn was guilty of the crime, but that his people could not
allow him to go to prison while in their employ." Siringo would later indicate
that he respected Horn's abilities at tracking, and that he was a very
talented agent, but had a wicked element.
In 1895, Horn reportedly killed a known cattle thief named
William Lewis near Iron Mountain, Wyoming. Horn was exonerated for that
crime and for the 1895 murder of Fred Powell six weeks later. In 1896,
a ranchman named Campbell, known to have a large stash of cash, was last
seen with Horn. In 1896, Horn offered his service in a letter to the Tucson
marshal in getting rid of William Christian's rustler gang. The next year,
William was killed by an unknown assailant, and his associate Robert Christian
disappeared the same year.
Colorado Range War
Although his official title was "Range Detective," Horn
essentially served as a killer for hire. By the mid-1890s the cattle business
in Wyoming and Colorado was changing due to the arrival of homesteaders
and new ranchers. The homesteaders, “nesters” or “grangers”, as they were
referred to by the big operators, had moved into the territory in large
numbers. By doing so they decreased the availability of water for the herds
of the larger cattle barons. Soon, efforts were made to get rid of these
homesteaders, including the hiring of gunmen such as Tom Horn. Violent
gunfights such as the bloody shootout that resulted in the death of nine
trappers in Big Dry Creek, as well as the lynching and burning of homesteaders
Luther M. Mitchell and Ami W. Ketchum, precipitated the war.
In 1900, Horn had begun working for the Swan Land and
Cattle Company in northwest Colorado. His first job was to investigate
the Browns Park Cattle Association's leader and cowboy Matt Rash, who was
suspected of cattle-rustling. Horn went undercover as "Tom Hicks" and worked
for Rash as a ranch hand, while also collecting evidence of Rash branding
cattle that did not belong to him. When Horn finally pieced together enough
evidence to determine that Rash was indeed a rustler, he put a letter on
Rash's door threatening him to leave in sixty days. The cowboy however,
defiantly stayed and continued working on his ranch. As Rash continued
to be uncooperative, Horn's employers were said to have given the assassin
the "go-ahead signal" to execute Rash. On the day of the murder, an armed
Horn arrived at Rash's cabin as the man had just finished eating, before
Horn shot him at point-blank range. The dying Rash unsuccessfully tried
to write the name of his killer, but no trace was left of the murder. Only
the accounts and rumors from various people point to Horn as the one responsible.
Rash was supposed to be married to a nearby rancher, Ann Bassett, and the
woman accused Hicks of being the murderer.
At that time Horn also suspected another cowboy named
Isom Dart of rustling. Dart was one of Rash's fellow cowboys, but was believed
to have been a rustler named Ned Huddleston, a former member of the late
"Tip Gault" gang. The gang, which had rustled cattle in the Saratoga area,
was wiped out in a gun battle. Dart also had three indictments returned
against him in Sweetwater County. When Dart was accused of murdering Rash,
he took refuge inside his friend's cabin and waited for the rumors to cool
down. Horn however, managed to track down Dart to his cabin, and saw him
hiding together with two other armed associates. The assassin was said
to have set up a sniping position under the cover of a pine tree, overlooking
the cabin from a hill. As Dart and his friends came out of the cabin, Horn
shot him in the chest from a distance. Prior to the assassination, Horn
instructed a rancher named Robert Hudler to ready a horse miles from the
murder scene for his getaway. The next day, two .30-30 shells were found
at the base of a tree where it was believed that the murderer had laid
in wait. Hicks was said to have been the only one in the area to use a
30-30. The news of Rash and Dart's deaths spread throughout the territory,
and as such the other rustlers scattered in fear. Horn tracked them all
down and killed three other members of Rash's association. The story goes
that he pinned one of the dead cowboy's ears at the homesteaders as a warning.
Working for the government
During the Wilcox Train Robbery investigation, Horn obtained
information from Bill Speck that revealed which of the robbers had killed
Sheriff Josiah Hazen, killed during pursuit of the robbers. Either
George Curry or Kid Curry were said to have killed the sheriff. Both outlaws
were members of Butch Cassidy's Wild Bunch gang, then known as "The Hole-in-the-Wall
Gang," for their hideaway in the mountains. Horn passed this information
on to Charlie Siringo, who was working the case for the Pinkertons.
Horn briefly entered the United States Army to serve during
the Spanish American War, as the chief packer of the Fifth Corps. He left
Tampa for Cuba, where he led some of the pack trains to the front. Horn
personally witnessed the bravery of the famous Rough Riders and colored
regiments the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry during their assault on San Juan
Hill, as well as the humiliating rout of American soldiers under Brig.
Gen. Hamilton Hawkins. Although the packers were non-combatants, they were
still prone to being attacked by Cuban rebels. Horn considered himself
lucky to have lost no tracker during the war, although Horn recalled that
he and his men were under constant fire as they deliver the rations and
ammunition to the soldiers. Horn continued working as a packer during the
war even though he and many of his men contracted yellow fever. At one
point he was bedridden and was deemed unfit for combat. After recovering,
he returned to Wyoming. Shortly after his return, in 1901 Horn began working
for wealthy cattle baron John C. Coble, who belonged to the Wyoming Stock
Murder of Willie Nickell
While working again near Iron Mountain, Wyoming, Horn
visited the Jim and Dora Miller family on July 15, 1901. They were cattle
ranchers. (Jim Miller was no relation to the Texas outlaw Jim Miller.)
Jim Miller and his neighbor Kels Nickell had already had several disputes
following Nickell's introduction of sheep into the Iron Mountain area.
Miller frequently accused Nickell of letting his sheep graze on Miller
At the Millers, Horn met Glendolene M. Kimmell, the young
teacher at the Iron Mountain School. Ms. Kimmell was supported by both
the large Miller and Kels Nickell families, and she boarded with the Millers.
Horn entertained her with accounts of his adventures. That day he and males
of the Miller family went fishing; he and Victor Miller, a son about his
age, also practiced shooting, both of them with .30-.30s.
The Miller and Nickell families were the only ones to
have children at the school. Kimmel had been advised of the families' feud
before she arrived, and found that it was often played out by conflict
among the children. A few days later, on July 18, 1901, Willie Nickell,
the 14-year-old son of sheep ranchers Kels and Mary Nickell, was found
murdered near their homestead gate. A coroner's inquest began to investigate
the murder. More violent incidents occurred during the period of the coroner's
inquest, which was expanded to investigate these incidents, and lasted
from July through September 1901.
On August 4, 1901, Kels Nickell was shot and wounded.
Some 60-80 of his sheep were found "shot or clubbed to death." Two of the
younger Nickell children later reported seeing two men leaving on horses
colored a bay and a gray, as were horses owned by Jim Miller. (Bay is a
common color among horses). On August 6, 1901 Deputy Sheriff Peter Warlaumont
and Deputy U.S. Marshal Joe LeFors came to Iron Mountain and arrested Jim
Miller and his sons Victor and Gus on suspicion of shooting Kels Nickell.
They were jailed on August 7 and released the following day on bond. The
investigation of the shooting of Kels Nickell was added to the investigation
of Willie Nickell's murder in the coroner's inquest.
Deputy Marshal Joe Lefors later questioned Horn in January
1902 about the murder, while supposedly talking to him about employment.
Horn was still inebriated from the night before, but Lefors gained what
he called a confession to the murder of Willie Nickell. Horn allegedly
confessed to killing the young Willie with his rifle from 300 yards, which
he boasted as the "best shot that [he] ever made and the dirtiest trick
that [he] ever done." Horn was arrested the next day by the county sheriff.
Walter Stoll was the Laramie County Prosecutor in the case. Judge Richard
H. Scott, who presided over the case, was running for reelection.
Horn was supported by his longtime friend and employer,
cattle rancher John C. Coble. He gathered a team for the defense headed
by Judge John W. Lacey, and included attorneys T.F. Burke, Roderick N.
Matson, Edward T. Clark and T. Blake Kennedy. Reportedly, Coble paid for
most of the costs of this large team. According to Johan P. Bakker, who
wrote Tracking Tom Horn, the large cattle interests by this time found
Horn "expendable" and the case provided a way to silence him in regard
to their activities. He wrote that 100 members of the Wyoming Stock Growers
Association paid $1000 each toward the defense, but wanted a minimal effort.
Horn's trial started October 10, 1902 in Cheyenne, which
filled with crowds attracted by the notoriety of Horn. The Rocky Mountain
News noted the carnival atmosphere and great interest from the public for
a conviction. The prosecution introduced Horn's confession to Lefors. Only
certain parts of Horn's statement were introduced, distorting his statement.
The prosecution introduced testimony by at least two witnesses, including
lawman Lefors, as well as circumstantial evidence; these elements only
placed Horn in the general vicinity of the crime scene. During the trial,
Victor Miller testified that he and Horn both had .30-.30 guns, and bought
their ammunition at the same store. Another, Otto Plaga, testified that
Horn was 20 miles from the scene of the murder an hour after it was committed.
Glendolene Kimmell had testified during the coroner's
inquest, saying she thought both the Miller and Nickell families responsible
for maintaining the feud, but she was never called as a defense witness.
She had resigned from the school in October 1901 and left the area, but
was in communication with people in the case. She submitted an affidavit
to the governor while the case was on appeal. It is recounted in secondary
sources but the original document disappeared from public records.
Horn’s trial went to the jury on October 23, and they
returned a guilty verdict the next day. A hearing several days later sentenced
Horn to death by hanging.
Horn’s attorneys filed a petition with the Wyoming Supreme
Court for a new trial. While in jail, Horn wrote his autobiography, Life
of Tom Horn, Government Scout and Interpreter, Written by Himself, mostly
giving an account of his early life. It contained little about the case.
The Wyoming Supreme Court upheld the decision of the District
Court and denied a new trial. Convinced of Horn's innocence, Glendolene
Kimmell sent an affidavit to Governor Fenimore Chatterton with testimony
reportedly saying that Victor Miller was guilty of Nickell's murder. Accounts
of its contents appeared in the press, but the original document has disappeared.
The governor chose not to intervene in the case. Horn was given an execution
date of November 20, 1903.
Tom Horn was one of the few people in the "Wild West"
to have been hanged by a water-powered gallows, known as the "Julian Gallows."
James P. Julian, a Cheyenne, Wyoming architect, designed the contraption
in 1892. The trap door was connected to a lever which pulled the plug out
of a barrel of water. This would cause a lever with a counterweight to
rise, pulling on the support beam under the gallows. When enough pressure
was applied, the beam broke free, opening the trap and hanging the condemned
Horn was hanged in Cheyenne. At that time, Horn never
gave up the names of those who had hired him during the feud. He was buried
in the Columbia Cemetery in Boulder, Colorado on 3 December 1903. Rancher
Jim Coble paid for his coffin and a stone to mark his grave. After his
death, many considered Horn was unrightfully executed for a murder solely
based on a drunk confession. Even the old Apache warrior, Geronimo, expressed
his doubts about Horn's charges during an interview with Charles Ackenhausen,
saying that he "did not believe [Horn] guilty."
It is still debated whether Horn committed the Nickells
murder. Historians including Chip Carlson believe he did not, while others
such as Dean Fenton Krakel believe that he did, but had not realized he
was shooting an underage boy. The consensus is that regardless of whether
Horn committed that particular murder, he had certainly committed many
others. Carlson, who extensively researched the Wyoming v. Tom Horn trial,
concluded that although Horn could have committed the murder of Willie
Nickell, he probably did not. According to Carlson's book, Tom Horn: Blood
on the Moon (2001), there was no physical evidence that Horn had committed
the murder. In addition, he was last seen in the area the day before it
occurred, and the conditions of his alleged confession made it without
value as evidence. Carlson believed the prosecution made no efforts to
investigate other possible suspects, including Victor Miller. In essence,
Horn's reputation and history made him an easy target for the prosecution.
In 1993, the case was retried in a mock trial in Cheyenne,
and Horn was acquitted.
In 2014, the historian Larry Ball, professor emeritus
at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, Arkansas, published Tom Horn
in Life and Legend. Ball was fascinated by Horn's conflicting and enigmatic
personality. Ball said that he is convinced that Horn shot and killed Willie
Nickell near the Iron Mountain area: "I have to fall back on the historical
record." Ball said that he found no evidence of a legal conspiracy against
Horn. He added that Horn's penchant for brutality contributed to his being
convicted of the murder.
At a discussion of their findings that year, Chip Carlson
of Cheyenne continued his support of Horn's innocence, saying: "I maintain
that Tom Horn was railroaded" because Horn had been employed by cattle
barons who were at odds with the homesteaders. Carlson also noted that
the presiding judge at Horn's trial was a candidate for reelection at the
time. Carlson described Horn in the trial as "his own worst enemy. The
more he talked, the tighter the noose" became.
Representation in movies and television
* In 1954, Louis Jean Heydt played Tom Horn
in an episode of the syndicated television series, Stories of the Century,
narrated by and
starring Jim Davis.
Walter Coy appeared in the episode as Sam Clayton.
* In 1967, the film Fort Utah was released,
a Western with John Ireland playing Horn.
* Mr. Horn (1979) was a made-for-TV movie
starring David Carradine.
* Tom Horn (1980), starred Steve McQueen
as Horn. While the film took liberties with facts, McQueen's performance
was highly praised,
and the film was
* In December 2009, the The History Channel
aired the series Cowboys & Outlaws; the episode "Frontier Hitman" was
about the life
of Tom Horn.
* In 2014, television station AHC's series
Gunslingers featured an episode dedicated to Horn entitled "Tom Horn: Grim
Reaper of the Rockies".
* Tom Horn was played by actor Chris Bauer
along with Matthew Le Nevez as Bat Masterson in the 2015 Lifetime series,
The Lizzie Borden
* Horn was played by Hollywood star George
Montgomery in the 1950 film Dakota Lil.