No Feeling in his Trigger Finger

A century of debate and research hasn’t cleared up who Tom Horn really was…and it probably never will.
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A century of debate and research hasn’t cleared up who Tom Horn really was…and it probably never will.
Credit: Joe Wilson

Credit: Joe Wilson

In the dismal half-light of early morning of July 18, 1901, a 14-year-old boy was in the process of closing a gate on his family’s sheep ranch near Iron Mountain, Wyo., when three rifle shots shattered the quiet. The boy—shot twice through the back—ran a short distance, then collapsed and died. To this day, no one knows for certain who fired the fatal shots, but the State of Wyoming arrested, tried, and executed the man who had been hired by the local cattlemen to rid the country of “undesirables.” His name was Tom Horn, and his legacy of violence and mystery still inspires a strong reaction in many a Wyoming classroom, social club, or bar.

Tom Horn is arguably the most complex character to occupy the crowded pantheon of heroes and villains of the Old West. Although he died on the gallows over a century ago, scholars and Western aficionados are still polarized in their views of the man—and apparently, no amount of research has helped to resolve the situation. People either admire Horn as an independent, if tragic, symbol of the fading frontier, or loathe him as a merciless killer-for-hire who slew a young boy from ambush. One biographer went so far as to call him the “Dr. Jekyl [sic] and Mr. Hyde of the rangeland…a perfect gentleman [and] a homicidal maniac.” It is virtually impossible to remain neutral when discussing the subject of Tom Horn.

In appearance and bearing, Tom was memorable. He stood more than 6 feet in height and weighed around 190 pounds—somewhat round-shouldered, but rangy and muscular. He was often quiet but well-spoken—a female acquaintance recalled his voice as “soft and drawling”—but he had a tendency to become loud and boastful, especially when in his cups, which was fairly often. A writer for the Denver Post, on meeting Horn in 1902, described him as a man with a “well-shaped” head sparsely covered with brown hair, “a fine, straight nose [and] a thin, cruel mouth.” His most arresting features were his eyes. They were very dark—nearly always described as black—and piercing. Observed one woman: his eyes “missed nothing going on around him, but yet never appearing watchful….” 

Apparently, Horn projected an aura of danger. In 1890, a Colorado lawman, with whom Tom tracked and captured a pair of horse thieves, described him as “an imposing figure of a man—deep-chested, lean-loined, and arrow-straight … an interesting conversationalist … but not the type of man one liked to argue with.” Said one Colorado roadhouse operator: “My wife was not afraid of man, God or the devil, but she said, ‘That man … is a bad man.’” A cowboy who worked with Horn, and was a close companion, later described him best: “As a friend, Tom was true blue; as an enemy, he was deadly.”

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No Ordinary Life

Thomas H. Horn, Jr., was born in Scotland County, Northeastern Missouri, on November 21, 1860—just months before the outbreak of the Civil War. He was born to a highly religious mother and a harsh disciplinarian father. While still a young teenager, after a particularly vicious beating, Tom ran away from home and headed west. 

Over the years, he lived the frontier life to the fullest, excelling at most jobs he undertook—and they were legion. In his 42 years, he worked as a railroad hand, rancher, teamster, pack-master, stagecoach driver, silver miner, trail driver, deputy sheriff, deputy U.S. marshal, Pinkerton agent, chief packer for Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in Cuba, and early-day rodeo star. As an army interpreter and chief of scouts during the Indian Wars, he was instrumental in capturing Geronimo. While working as a lawman and Pinkerton agent, he brought in—and when necessary, killed—train robbers, horse thieves, and murderers. Had he ended his career on any of these notes, he would be remembered quite differently today.

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His “Specialty”

In the years following Wyoming’s notorious Johnson County Cattle War of 1892, Horn responded to requests for his services as a range detective for a number of big Wyoming ranchers who were being plagued by rustlers. Apparently, the courts were lax in convicting rustlers, and the cattlemen saw little recourse but to employ the vigilante tactics that had worked so well in the past. Horn had already made a name for himself with a gun, and they clearly knew the type of man they were getting.

Horn had earlier tried to run his own ranch, but his stock was stolen by rustlers. Perhaps because of this, he loathed thieves, and he never bothered with the niceties of a face-to-face confrontation. 

“Killing men is my specialty,” he boasted. “I look at it as a business proposition, and I think I have a corner on the market.” 

“When all else fails,” he once told Wyoming Governor William A. Richards, “I have a system which never does.” 

He made the hills his own, camping out alone for extended periods. T. Blake Kennedy, Tom’s former counsel, later recalled his client’s “capacity for becoming familiar with the great open spaces, for withstanding hardships upon the open range and mastering to the highest degree the weapon of defense of the pioneer’s life, [and] his fearlessness as to both man and beast….” 

Throughout the 1890s, Tom Horn was viewed across the region as the cattlemen’s hired assassin, and was generally given a wide berth. His mere presence on the range was cause for dread. Indeed, while some men of questionable character took the hint and “lit a shuck” for distant parts, others began turning up dead. Nor was he averse to boasting of his “accomplishments,” especially when drunk—which was happening with increasing frequency as the decade progressed. 

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Credit: Corbis

Credit: Corbis

A Fatal Conversation

When 14-year-old Willie Nickell was shot in the back, many locals had no trouble laying the blame at Horn’s door. However, Tom had his supporters. In fact, there were other possible suspects whose names were considered in the initial investigation. There was a strong possibility that the boy was killed by Jim Miller and his two sons, neighbors with whom the Nickells had kept a running feud. Young Willie’s belligerent father, Kels Nickell, had made a number of other enemies in the region as well. He had slashed and nearly killed John Coble, the manager of Swan Land and Cattle Company, and Coble had reportedly sworn revenge. 

Interestingly, Coble was Tom Horn’s chief employer, and a close friend. He might very well have sicced his hired killer on Kels. Besides, Nickell was a sheep man in cattle country, and no further justification would have been required for the range detective to eliminate him. It is possible that, in the poor light of early morning, Tom might have mistaken young Willie for his father. 

Deputy U.S. Marshal and periodic stock detective Joe LeFors made up his mind that Tom Horn was the assassin. Intent upon solving the case and collecting the reward, he contrived a plan whereby he would ensnare Tom into incriminating himself. 

On the pretense of offering Horn a job as a “regulator” for the Montana Live Stock Association, he engaged the detective in casual conversation. The two sat in the outer room of the Cheyenne marshal’s office, while—unbeknownst to Tom—a deputy sheriff and a stenographer lay behind a door in the next room, listening to and transcribing the entire exchange. LeFors knew what he was doing. He would periodically suggest that he and Horn take a break, and walk to a nearby bar for drinks. Tom, thinking LeFors a friend, became more talkative as the liquor took hold. 

The lawman asked Horn about the types of weapons he preferred, and how he stalked his prey. Eventually, LeFors got around to asking him about the Nickell slaying. How far was Horn from the boy when he fired, LeFors asked—and Tom Horn’s answer would seal his fate:

“[A]bout three hundred yards …. It was the best shot I ever made, and the dirtiest trick I ever done.”

Horn would later assert that the transcript of the interview had been doctored. He would also claim—and not without some justification—that he was drunk at the time, and merely matching tall tales with LeFors. Indeed, it was no secret that Tom Horn, when inebriated, tended to tell “windies,” his stories getting progressively wilder as the whiskey flowed. Nonetheless, he was arrested, tried, and convicted of the killing, and sentenced to hang. 

Meanwhile, the citizens of Cheyenne were in a panic over rumors that a rescue attempt by Horn’s friends was imminent. Extra guards were stationed around the jail to discourage any such endeavor. They need not have worried. With the notable exception of John Coble, all the big cattlemen who had supported Tom Horn’s “activities” abandoned him, for fear he would name them in exchange for clemency. They need not have worried; Horn said nothing about his former employers. 

Tom spent the few months remaining to him braiding horsehair ropes and bridles, and writing his autobiography, Life of Tom Horn: Government Scout and Interpreter. He managed to briefly escape, but was immediately recaptured. Apparently, the gun he’d taken as he ran from the Laramie County Jail was a modern semi-automatic, and Tom—the consummate expert in the use of 19th-century weapons—was unfamiliar with its workings. 

On the morning of November 20, 1903—one day shy of his 43rd birthday—Tom Horn watched a group of county lawmen file in to witness his execution. He commented to the undersheriff, “Dick, that’s a mighty sick looking lot of sheriffs.” Two friends who had remained unshakeable in their support of Horn were cowboys Charles and Frank Irwin. The brothers were accomplished singers, and they came to the jail to sing one last song for their “pard.” According to T. Blake Kennedy, “one of the most dramatic things … at the ‘hanging party’… was the song sung by Charlie and Frankie Irwin just before the principal event took place.” The song was the old gospel number, “Life is like a Mountain Railroad.” A journalist from the Denver Republican described the scene for his readers: “[T]wo old friends … filled the jail with the odd, wild notes of an odd, wild song.” 

Horn was the gamest man present. As he stood on the gallows platform, the deputy sheriff—an old friend of Horn’s—fumbled while securing the leg straps, whereupon the condemned man calmly asked, “What’s the matter, Joe? Ain’t losing your nerve, are you?” He then said, “Joe, I hear you’re married now. Well, treat her right, and I hope you live happily.” Finally, standing on the trap, he couldn’t resist a final jibe, spoken through the black hood that covered his face: “You are not getting nervous, are you, boys?” Seconds later, Tom Horn was dead.

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In Hindsight

During his fatal conversation, Horn was reputed to have told Joe LeFors, “I have lived about 15 ordinary lives….” If indeed he said it, he was not far wrong. Although Horn wildly exaggerated most of his experiences in his autobiography, the actual record is impressive enough without embellishment. 

But when his life took a decidedly darker turn, he forged a legacy soaked in the blood of the men he killed—deliberately, and from hiding. He made the transition from lawman and scout to hired killer with scarcely a backward glance. In the words of a writer for the Wyoming Tribune, published shortly after Horn’s death, “He was by his own statement a man who felt absolutely no compunction in taking human life.” His legend grew after death, until he eventually became the very devil about whom frontier mothers warned their children: “If you don’t behave, Tom Horn will get you!”

To this day, Tom Horn’s guilt or innocence is fiercely argued among Western historians, Horn biographers, and descendants of the early Wyoming homesteaders. Whether he did, in fact, kill young Willie Nickell, there are few who would dispute that Tom Horn murdered enough men to have hanged several times over. Still, the legal proceedings that resulted in his conviction have long been called into question. For more than a century, it has been argued that Tom’s trial was less than objective. 

In September 1993, author and Horn biographer Chip Carlson orchestrated a re-trial—90 years after Tom had answered for the first verdict. It was held at the Wyoming State Museum, and conducted in strict accordance with the law. Both defense counsel and prosecutor were practicing attorneys, and the presiding judge was a retired justice of the Wyoming Supreme Court. This time, Horn was found “not guilty.” However, as the New York Times so succinctly stated, “Once Guilty, Now Innocent, But Still Dead.”