Early on the morning of July 18, 1901, two shots ... then, a
third, rang out across the Iron Mountain country of south-east
Wyoming. A 14-year-old boy, Willie Nickell, lay dead at the gate
that marked the entrance to his family's ranch.
A little over two years later, on November 20, 1903, one day
short of his forty-third birthday, Tom Horn, convicted of killing
Willie Nickell, would die in a hangman's noose at the Laramie
County jail. Not only did Tom talk himself into the noose, but he
also sprang the trap door, himself.
Thomas Horn was born near Memphis Missouri, November 21, 1860 to
a large, farming, family. Farming doesn't seem to have appealed
much to Tom, he was always sneaking off to hunt, rather than
working or going to school. Tom left home at the age of 13, after
losing a challenge to his abusive father.
Tom worked a few odd jobs, railroad track-layer, livery stable
partner, stage driver, mule drover - by mid-1876, the latter
occupation had brought him to Beaver Head Station, near the Verde
River, Arizona Territory.
His interaction with Mexicans in the region allowed Tom to become
quite fluent in Spanish. This language talent, combined with his
drover expertise, brought him to the attention of Al Sieber,
chief of the Fifth Cavalry army scouts. Al hired young Tom as an
interpreter - and seems to have served as a father figure to Tom,
as well. Tom worked for Al, and others, as interpreter and
drover, over the next several years.
In November, 1885, Tom Horn was chosen by Lieutenant Marion Maus,
to be his chief of scouts - his fluency in Spanish figuring
prominently in his appointment. Tom would serve as
chief-of-scouts under several Army commanders, including Generals
Crook and Miles. Tom saw action in several engagements with the
Apaches, and was involved in the final capture of Geronimo in
Tom wandered and dabbled in various occupations - prospector,
ranch hand, rodeo contestant, deputy Sheriff. There is some
evidence that Tom may have killed his first man in July 1887. In
later years, during drunken spells, he would brag of a "coarse
son of a bitch" that he had killed, possibly in a dispute about a
prostitute. It was Tom's bragging that would eventually lead him
to that Wyoming gallows.
It was in his capacity as deputy that he was noticed by the
Pinkerton's National Detective Agency. Tom Horn worked for the
Pinkerton's from late 1890 until sometime in 1892, being involved
in bringing at least two gangs of train robbers to justice. Late
in 1892, Tom's Pinkerton duties brought him to Wyoming - just in
time to see the last of the Johnson County War.
Even though the cattlemen 'lost' the Johnson County War, they
didn't consider the matter closed. They were still determined to
put an end to rustling of their herds - by whatever means
necessary. As a 'deputy Sheriff', Pinkerton agent, cattle
detective - Tom Horn was to work for Wyoming, and Colorado,
cattle barons for most of the next ten years.
It would become a common scenario - a cattle rancher would
report rustlers in his area, Tom Horn would be dispatched to the
scene, the rustling would stop. Whether it was Tom's rifle, or his
reputation, that caused the rustlers to disappear will never be
known for sure - but Tom bragged that killing men was his
occupation and that he had a corner on the market. Again, that
bragging, the behavior that would prove to be his downfall.
In 1900, two small-time cattlemen, Matt Rash and Isam Dart, were
killed in the Brown's Hole region of north-west Colorado. Rash and Dart
were both strong suspects in several rustling episodes in the
area. The killings were never solved, but it was well known that
Tom Horn, using the alias 'Jim Hicks', was in the area at the
time. Although never admitting to the two killings, Horn would
brag that he had taken care of the rustling problem in the
Brown's Park area.
The Rash and Dart killings, along with other un-solved killings,
were starting to become an embarrassment for the cattle ranchers.
The rustling was becoming less of a problem than the publicity
problems caused by Horn's bragging. Perhaps it was time that Tom
had to go.
Almost as big of a problem as rustling, to the cattle ranchers,
was the 'sheep problem'. In the minds of many, cattle and sheep
did not mix, and did not belong on the same range areas. It is
likely that Tom Horn was told to see what could be done about
some of the sheep ranchers in south-east Wyoming, one of those
was Kels Nickell - Willie's father.
To this day, historians disagree as to whether it was Kels, or
Willie, who was the intended target on that summer morning. They
also disagree as to whether it was Tom Horn who fired the shots,
or whether it was just made to look as if Tom had been involved.
Wyoming lawman, Joe LeFors, was able to wrangle a 'confession'
from Tom Horn, although many say that Tom was drunk at the time -
a state in which Tom was known to have become even more of a
braggart than when sober. The 'confession' was recorded by a
stenographer who hid in a back room of LeFors' office. One of Tom
Horn's comments, during the 'confession', "It was the best shot
that I ever made and the dirtiest trick that I ever done", would
prove to be one of most damning pieces of evidence at his trial.
The trial of Tom Horn was one of the biggest events in Cheyenne,
Wyoming, in 1902 - taking a full two weeks in October. Even
though the 'confession' would be thrown out, in a matter of
seconds, in a modern court of law, it was one of the primary
pieces of evidence against Tom. There were no eye-witnesses to
the crime. Several people were called to testify, including Joe
LeFors, who told of the evidence found at the scene and
how he came to get the 'confession' from Horn.
Then, the worst witness against Tom Horn testified - Tom Horn
himself. Reading the trial transcripts, one has to wonder why
his attorney allowed him to testify to begin with, let alone to
allow his braggadocio to go on, un-checked. Again, perhaps it
was time that Tom had to go, and certain people knew that Tom
would 'hang' himself. The case was given to the jury on October
24th - after 5 hours deliberation, the jury returned a verdict
of guilty in the murder of Willie Nickell, the jury setting Tom's
sentence as death by hanging. There was a general community
feeling that even if Tom hadn't murdered Willie, still Horn "had
it coming" (the hanging).
While waiting execution, Tom did manage to escape from jail, but
was almost immediately recaptured.
The gallows fashioned for the Tom Horn hanging was quite an elaborate
affair, consisting of a divided trap-door, water containers,
counter-weights, ropes and pullies - almost a Rube Goldberg
device. The weight of the condemned, after being placed on the
trap-door, started the entire process - so that, in effect, the
convicted man would spring the trap-door, himself.
On the morning of November 20, 1903, after a large breakfast, Tom
Horn was led to the gallows, where straps were buckled around his
arms and legs. By all accounts, Tom was the least nervous of
anyone at the event, even to the point of half-way joking with
the sheriffs gathered to witness the hanging. A noose was fitted around his neck, and the bound Tom was
lifted onto the trap-door, which started the 'machine'.
Thirty-one seconds later, the trap-doors opened and the life of
the range detective was over. His body was claimed by his
brother, Charles, and transported to Boulder, Colorado. Tom Horn
is buried on the southern edge of the old Columbia Cemetery, in
Boulder. The grave marker shows Tom Horn's birth year,
incorrectly, as being 1861.
Click image for larger view.
Life of Tom Horn - Government Scout and Interpreter
Written by Himself: A Vindication
An auto-biography of Horn, written while awaiting execution. This
book covers Tom's life up until the time that he arrived in
Wyoming. There is nothing in the book regarding his activities after 1894.
♠Krakel, Dean F.
The Saga of Tom Horn: The Story of a Cattleman's War
First published in 1954, this book immediately became the subject
of several threatened law-suits. Krakel and the publisher were
forced to replace several pages in the books - however, about 100
copies of the original were smuggled out of Wyoming, thus making
the original un-expurgated copies available, but quite scarce. The University of
Nebraska reprint contains all the original text. This book
contains significant portions of the trial transcript.
Tom Horn: "Killing Men is my specialty..."
Joe Lefors: "I slickered Tom Horn..."
Tom Horn: Blood on the Moon
In these three books, Carlson thoroughly investigates the history
of Tom Horn. In the third book, 'Tom Horn: Blood on the Moon', Chip reveals who he believes
killed Willie Nickell - and it's not Tom Horn.
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