Tom Horn is a kind of litmus test of conflicting, class driven, views of Western history. Depending on who you ask the soft spoken man who was hung for shooting a 14 year old boy in the back and killing him was a misunderstood hero, the beau ideal of a cowboy, lawman, and range detective or a ruthless, pitiless gun for hire.
These two visions are represented in American culture by two iconic but contrasting western stories. Owen Wister’s The Virginian had as its hero the noble foreman of a great ranch who led a fight against rustlers and thieves. Years later in the classic film Shane, Alan Ladd would play a drifter with a past who would stand up to a cattle baron on behalf of sod buster farmers.
In 1901 the days of the wild and woolly frontier were fading fast, even in Wyoming. After gaining statehood in 1890, the bloody Johnson County War between the ranching barons of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association and their small, hired army of gunslingers and plug-uglies and the small ranchers and homesteaders suspected of throwing the occasional long lasso over the necks of cattle had officially ended in 1892. That’s when a local sheriff with the assistance of the Cavalry rounded up the gang of the gunmen besieging an isolated ranch. They were hauled to Cheyenne for trial. But oddly, while out on bail, all slipped away.Mostly cowboys and gunmen from Texas these men hired by the powerful Wyoming Stock Growers Association were rounded up to stand trial for crimes during the notorious Johnson County Range War. They all slipped away before they could be brought to trial.
The plutocrats of the Stock Growers Association and the state government in the hands of their handpicked officers laid low for a while in their mansions and in the impressive headquarters that dominated the city’s downtown. They helped establish Cheyenne Frontier Days, the oldest municipal rodeo, to celebrate the fading glory of the unchallenged Open Range and import tourists. By the turn of the century some of them were toddling around town in newfangled and expensive automobiles. But despite the appearance of modernity, they had re-launched their old campaign against small holders, on a scaled back level amounting to a low grade guerilla war.
Enter Tom Horn.
Horn was born on a 600 acre farm on the South Wyaconda River in northeast Missouri’s Scotland County on November 21, 1860. He was about in the middle of a pack of twelve children. Not much is known about his childhood other than it was probably pretty typical as any in its time and place.
By age 16, like many younger sons with a taste for adventure and no hope of inheriting the family farm, Tom headed west. He knocked around the Southwest picking up the skills of a cowboy. In 1883 he was enlisted as a civilian Cavalry scout under Albert Sieber for General George Cook’s campaign against Chiricahua Apaches under Geronimo. The German born Sieber took the young man under his wing and mentored him, even taught him to speak German, as well a much tracking and trailing lore.Tom Horn in his glory days as an Army Scout hunting for Geronimo.
The Scouts accompanied Cook when he illegally crossed into Mexico seeking the elusive Geronimo in the Santa Madre Mountains. In 1886, after Geronimo and a handful of followers escaped Cook’s custody, Horn was assigned to a small contingent commanded by Captain Henry Lawton of B Troop, 4th Cavalry and First Lieutenant Charles B. Gatewood to once again go into Mexico. The Mexican’s hated Geronimo but were also sensitive about their sovereignty. Horn was wounded when local militia attacked his camp. Later he killed his first known man, and the only one in a stand-up idealized western gun duel—a dust up with a Mexican officer at a cantina.
When Lt. Gatewood finally found Geronimo’s camp with Horn’s help, Seiber was elsewhere. It was Horn who translated at the delicate negotiations that resulted in the old chief’s final surrender.
At loose ends after the essential end of the Indians wars in the Southwest, Horn drifted back into cowboying then staked a mining claim. It did not take long however, for him to enter the Arizona Pleasant Valley War as a hired gun. But it is not clear to which side he sold his services. Also known as the Tonto Basin Feud it was a long running conflict between two large ranching families, the half-Indian Tewksburys and the Grahams over land and water rights as well as mutual rustling. It had been a deadly affair since 1882 and intensified in ’86 when the Tewksbury’s introduced sheep to the range.
In his autobiography Horn said he joined in the pursuit of rustlers, which could refer to either party. But given his later proclivity for cattle ranchers and enmity toward Indians it is likely that he accepted the pay of the Grahams. Both families and their employees were victims of several unsolved slayings, some of them perhaps by Horn acting as a “regulator”. Taken together, both families were nearly wiped out and the conflict has been called the deadliest feud in American history, far outstripping the body count of the Hatfields and McCoys or the earlier Arizona Lincoln County War made famous by Billy the Kid. Killing continued into the early 1892 when the last Tewksbury killed the last Graham.
Sporadically during and after the Pleasant Valley war, Horn also served as a deputy sheriff prized for his unmatched skill as a tracker. He served under three of the most famous Southwest lawmen, William “Buckey” O’Neill, later a Captain in the Rough Riders killed in Cuba; long haired Commodore Perry Owens of Apache County; and former Confederate Glenn Reynolds. Each of them, at one time or another, intervened in the Feud and Horn’s status as deputy may likely have been paid for by one or the other side when posse went after the other.
Horn’s exploits as a gun for hire and erstwhile lawmen became celebrated enough to come to the attention of the Pinkerton Detective Agency which hired him in 1890 as one of its operatives out of the Denver office. He specialized in tracking down those that stole effectively from the rich—rustlers, train, and bank robbers. In his most famous case, he tracked Thomas Eskridge “Peg-Leg” Watson and Burt “Red” Curtis who were suspected of a robbery of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad in August of 1890 all the way from Colorado to a hideout in Oklahoma Territory. His orders were to bring the men in. He and his partner took the men “with no trouble and without firing a shot.”
Horn by this time considered himself a professional. He held no personal animus to any of the men he relentlessly tracked down. As a professional he did what he was ordered. If the Agency wanted the publicity of nabbing two semi-famous outlaws and bringing them to justice, he was the man for the job. It the Agency or its wealthy clients preferred that their problems be eliminated, Horn had no trouble with that either. Some of the men he hunted ended up dead, generally shot from ambush in ways in which the killing could not be linked to the shooter, the company, or the client.
Horn considered himself honorable and consoled any qualms of conscience by telling himself he was working for if not law, then at least some sort of avenging justice.Charlie Siringo was a famous Range Detective who turned against his former Pinkerton employer in his memoir Two Evils: Anarchism and Pinkertonism. He claimed William Pinkerton told him that that Tom Horn was guilt of the murder with which he was charged.
By 1894, however, too many people were ending up dead in Horn’s vicinity. He resigned from the Pinkertons under pressure. It was not that the agency was displeased with the results of his work. When one of the best known of Pinkerton’s western operatives, Charlie Siringo who had worked closely with Horn published a memoir Two Evils: Anarchism and Pinkertonism he claimed that, referring to one case that “William 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.”
Although no longer an employee, Horn would continue to sometimes work with the agency and was sometimes contracted by them to work on specific cases in his new role as an independent Range Detective for hire. One of his most reliable clients was the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, the biggest employer of hired gunmen in the West. They put him to work on cases in the Johnson County War.Horn may not have been carrying a badge as an Official Stock Growers Association Range Detective, but was working under special assignment.
He was thought by many to be among the gunmen who killed Nate Champion the leading spokesman of the small ranchers that the Association accused of rustling. Champion was the first victim of the all-out war. He was besieged in his cabin at the KC Ranch where he held off a posse of 200 sheriff’s deputies and Association gunmen for hours, keeping while keeping a journal of the battle. He was cut down by fire from five men, allegedly including Horn, when he ran from the cabin on April 9, 1892.
It was sheer luck that Horn was not among the Association gunmen arrested later that year—he was off working, as he generally preferred, alone and independently at the time.
In 1895, now an independent agent for the Association, he was accused of killing William Lewis near Iron Mountain, Wyoming and six week later another alleged rustler, Fred Powell. He avoided being charged in both cases due to the powerful political influence of the Association. The following year a small rancher named Cambell, who had just sold some cattle and was caring a large amount of cash, vanished after last being seen in the company of Horn. There were other murders or disappearances on the range in those years. Horn may or may not have been involved—he was not the only gunman on the loose, just the most notorious.
Still, occasionally Pinkerton would call on Horn to investigate real criminals. He was contracted to investigate the Wilcox train robbery, committed by members of Butch Cassidy’s Hole in the Wall Gang. He identified two members of the gang, George Curry and Kid Curry as the likely killers of Sheriff Josiah Hazen who had been shot in pursuit of the gang. He passed the information on to Pinkerton Siringo.
Patriotically, Horn, like many westerners, volunteered in the Army for the Spanish American War. Before he could ship out to Cuba, however, he was struck down by malaria, which was rampant among the troops, in Tampa. He never got to see action and it took some time for him to recover his health.
Back in Wyoming by 1899, Horn was working for the Swan Land and Cattle Company and was known to have killed two rustlers, Matt Rash and Isom Dart. A year later, working in Colorado, he was suspected in the ambush killing of two other suspected cattle thieves.
In 1901 he was employed by cattle baron John C. Coble. He was working around an old stomping ground, Iron Mountain, when his attention was drawn to small rancher named Kels Nickell who was running sheep on the range.14 year old Willie Nickell was photographed on his father's ranch not long before he was shot and killed.
On July 18, 1901 Nickell’s 14 year old son Willie was shot from ambush twice while opening a gate at his father’s ranch. Two bullets tore completely through his body, one piercing his back and another entering his shoulder and traversing his body sideways and down, indicating that he was either twisting from the impact of the first round, or as some later investigators of the shooting believe, hit by a round from a second shooter.
A few days later Willie’s father was also shot and wounded.
Horn was known to be in the area and interested in the Nickells. He left immediately after the shooting. A year later, drunk and supposedly remorseful for killing the boy instead of his father, Horn allegedly confessed to an old acquaintance Joe Lefors, a deputy U.S. Marshall. Although many would later question the confession, he was charged with the murder.An artist's conception of the killing. The shooter may or may not have been Tom Horn and he may or may not have worked alone.
When arrested he had in his possession a Winchester Model 73 lever action rifle, too small a caliber to have been used in the Nickell murder. But he had in his pocket two rounds for larger caliber rifles, either of which might have been capable of producing Willie’s wounds. With no eye witnesses, this circumstantial evidence, the questionable and recanted confession, and the knowledge that his employer had targeted the Nickell ranch, was all prosecutor Walter Stoll had to go on.The Winchester rifle in Horn's possession when he was arrested was too small a caliber to have been used in the Nickell murder, but two larger caliber rounds were found in his pocket.
It turned out to be enough. The public was getting sick of continued violence on the range, and all of the Stock Growers Association political clout could not, for once, get around it.
At the trial the defense tried to show that neighboring rancher Jim Miller with whom the elder Nickell had clashed over his sheep had a motive to kill. The testimony came from an attractive school teacher, Glendolene M. Kimmell who boarded at the Miller ranch and who was romantically linked to Horn. But that was not necessarily exculpatory for Horn, who would have used Miller as an asset in his investigation of Nickell, and who might have even been encouraged by him to do the shooting.Horn visited school teacher Glenolene M. Kimmell on the Miller Ranch before the ambush and she visited him in jail awaiting trial. Her interviews of him were the basis of Horn's Autobiography published in Denver. He involvement with Horn has been romanticized in novels and movies.
Whatever the case, the jury returned a verdict of guilty. Horn’s appeal to the Wyoming Supreme Court failed. Tom Horn was going to hang.
All the time Horn was sitting in his jail cell he serenely passed his time braiding a two-color horse hair riata in the old Southwest style. He was visited frequently by Miss Kimmell who gathered from their conversations and Horn’s notes the material for the publication of Horn’s Autobiography in Denver in 1904. Horn also visited and modestly conversed with reporters and even visiting celebrities including Heavyweight Boxing Champion Gentleman Jim Corbet. His quiet, pleasant demeanor impressed many visitors. He just didn’t seem like a hardened killer.
None-the-less, Horn was hung in Cheyenne on November 20, 1903. He was just past his 43rd birthday.
Since then, Horn has lapsed into folk hero/villain status. He was the subject of several western novels and stories either under his own name or inspiring thinly veiled characters. At least one totally fiction western movie, Fort Utah staring John Ireland in 1967 cast him as a hero. Best known film version was Tom Horn released in 1980 with Steve McQueen sympathetically portraying him as a man lost out of his time and confused by the emerging modern world. David Carradine played him in a made for TV movie, Mr. Horn a year earlier. And the History Channel produced a documentary claiming to clear Horn of this particular murder or cast doubt on his guilt.Steve McQueen's Tom Horn was a man whose time had passed.
Western historians are divided on the case. A good many believe that despite the scant evidence, Horn was probably guilty. Others believe that he accidently killed the boy intending to kill the father and many of these would have excused the execution of the older man as rough range justice. Others believe he may have only been peripherally involved by perhaps fingering the Nickells for another shooter or abetting the Miller family. Some think he may have been one of two shooters. Others buy the two shooter theory but believe it was the work of the Millers. And decedents of the old cattle barons and their defenders still maintain that Horn was entirely innocent and the victim of persecution by small rancher/rustlers and a lynch mob of public opinion.
Take your pick.
As for me, however sympathetic and compelling he or Steve McQueen might have been, Tom Horn was a killer who was bound someday for the noose—even if he didn’t shoot Willie Nickell.