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Tom Horn Author Biography Essay

For the 1980 western film, see Tom Horn (film).

For other people named Thomas Horn, see Thomas Horn (disambiguation).

Thomas "Tom" Horn, Jr.

Tom Horn

Born(1860-11-21)November 21, 1860
Scotland County, Missouri
DiedNovember 20, 1903(1903-11-20) (aged 42)
Cheyenne, Wyoming
Cause of deathHanging
Resting placeColumbia Cemetery, Boulder, Colorado
Other namesTom Hale[1]
CitizenshipUnited States
OccupationU.S. Army Scout, lawman, cowboy, detective, assassin
Years active1876–1903
EmployerPinkerton Detective Agency
Known forAssisting in the capture of Geronimo; murdering Willie Nickell
Height6 ft 2 in (188 cm)
Weight200 lb (91 kg)

Thomas Horn, Jr. (November 21, 1860 – November 20, 1903) was a scout, cowboy, soldier, range detective, and Pinkerton agent in the 19th-century American Old West. Believed to have committed 17 killings as a hired gunman throughout the West,[2] Horn was convicted in 1902 of the murder of 14-year-old Willie Nickell near Iron Mountain, Wyoming. Willie 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,[3] which was published posthumously in 1904. Numerous editions have been published in the late 20th century. Horn has since become a larger-than-life figure of western folklore, and debate continues as to whether he was actually guilty of Nickell's murder.

Early life[edit]

Thomas Horn, Jr., known as "Tom", 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. The family owned 600 acres bisected by the South Wyaconda River between the towns of Granger and Etna. Tom was the fifth of twelve children.[4] 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 beat Tom and killed the dog with a shotgun.[5]


Horn allegedly killed his first man in a duel — a second lieutenant in the Mexican Army, whom he killed as a result of a dispute with a prostitute.[1][6] 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 rose through the ranks. In one instance, as the army was crossing Cibecue Creek, they were ambushed by Apaches warriors positioned on high ground.[7] 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 scout, Mickey Free, to break away and return fire from a hill. Together with the soldiers, the men managed to repel the attack. Horn and Sieber also participated in the Battle of Big Dry Wash, and gained recognition when he and Lt. George H. Morgan slipped through the banks opposite the Apache line and provided covering fire for the cavalry, as well as killing a number of Apache warriors.[8]

Horn was 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 of Chief of Scouts under Captain Emmet Crawford in Fort Bowie.[9][10] During one operation, Horn's camp was mistakenly attacked by a Mexican militia, and he was wounded in the arm during the shootout, which also resulted in Crawford's death.[11] Finally, on September 4, 1886, Horn was present at Geronimo's final surrender and acted as an interpreter under Charles B. Gatewood.[12]

After the war, Horn used what he earned to build his own ranch in his return to 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 lead to his entering the profession of range detective.[13][14]

Detective, lawman and gun for hire[edit]

Horn wandered and took jobs as a prospector, ranch hand and rodeo contestant, but he is most notorious for being hired by numerous cattle companies as a cowboy and 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."[15] 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.[15] Fergie Mitchell, a rancher on 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."[15]

Later, Horn took part in the Pleasant Valley War between cattlemen and sheepmen in Arizona. Historians have not established which side he worked for, and both sides suffered several killings for which no known suspects were ever identified.[16] 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.[17] He claimed that throughout the war, he was the "mediator" of the conflict, serving as a deputy sheriff under three famous Arizona lawmen: William Owen “Buckey” O’Neill, Commodore Perry Owens, and Glenn Reynolds.[18] Horn also participated with Reynolds in a lynching of three suspected rustlers in August 1888. As a deputy sheriff, Horn drew the attention of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency due to his tracking abilities. Hired by the agency in late 1889 or early 1890, he handled investigations in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and Wyoming and in other western states, 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 (also known as "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."[19]

During the Johnson County War, Horn worked for the Wyoming Stock Growers Association as well as for the Pinkertons, who had assigned him to work undercover in the county using 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 John A. Tisdale and Orley “Ranger” Jones.[1] 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.[20][21]

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.[22] In 1896, a ranchman named Campbell, known to have a large stash of cash, was last seen with Horn.[1] In 1896, Horn offered his service in a letter to the marshal of Tucson, Arizona in getting rid of William Christian's rustler gang. William was killed by an unknown assailant in 1897, and his associate Robert Christian disappeared the same year.[23]

Colorado Range War[edit]

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, referred to as “nesters” or “grangers” 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.[24] Soon, efforts were made to get rid of these homesteaders, including by hiring 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 Colorado Range War.[25]

In 1900, Horn began working for the Swan Land and Cattle Company in northwest Colorado. His first job was to investigate the Browns Park Cattle Association's leader, a cowboy named Matt Rash, who was suspected of cattle rustling.[24] 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 that he must leave in sixty days. Rash, however, defiantly stayed and continued working on his ranch. As Rash continued to be uncooperative, Horn's employers were said to have given him the "go-ahead signal" to execute Rash. On the day of the murder, an armed Horn allegedly arrived at Rash's cabin as the man had just finished eating and 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.

Around the same time, Horn also suspected another cowboy named Isom Dart of rustling.[26] Dart was one of Rash's fellow cowboys, but was believed to have previously worked as a rustler named Ned Huddleston and a former member of the late "Tip Gault"'s gang. The gang, which had rustled cattle in the Saratoga area, had been 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.[27] Horn, however, managed to track 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 had instructed a rancher named Robert Hudler to ready a horse miles from the murder scene for his getaway.[28] The next day, two spent .30-30 Winchester casings were found at the base of a tree where it was believed 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 for the homesteaders to see as a warning.

Working for the government[edit]

During the Wilcox train robbery investigation, Horn obtained information from Bill Speck that revealed which of the robbers had killed Sheriff Josiah Hazen during their escape.[29] Either George Curry or Harvey "Kid Curry" Logan 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" after 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.[30] 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 Cavalries, 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 attack 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 delivered rations and ammunition to the soldiers.[31] 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. Upon recovering, he returned to Wyoming. Shortly after his return, Horn began working for wealthy cattle baron John C. Coble in 1901, who belonged to the Wyoming Stock Men's Association.[32]

Murder of Willie Nickell[edit]

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's land.[33][34]

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.[33]

The Miller and Nickell families were the only ones to have children at the school. Kimmell had been advised of the families' ongoing feud before she arrived, and found that it was often played out by conflict among the children.[33] 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.[33]

On August 4, 1901, Kels Nickell was shot and wounded. Some 60–80 of his sheep were found "shot or clubbed to death."[33] 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.[33] 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.[33]

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.[35] Judge Richard H. Scott, who presided over the case, was running for re-election.[4]

Horn was supported by his longtime friend and employer, cattle rancher John C. Coble. He gathered a team for the defense headed by former Judge John W. Lacey and which 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.[36]

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.[33] 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 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.[33] Another, Otto Plaga, testified that Horn was 20 miles from the scene of the murder an hour after it was committed.[15]

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.

Horn’s trial went to the jury on October 23, and they returned a guilty verdict the next day.[33] 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 since disappeared.[33] The governor chose not to intervene in the case. Horn was initially 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 man.

Horn was hanged in Cheyenne. At that time, Horn never gave up the names of those who had hired him during the feud.[15] He was buried in the Columbia Cemetery in Boulder, Colorado on December 3, 1903.[37] Rancher Jim Coble paid for his coffin and a stone to mark his grave.[33] After his death, many considered Horn was wrongly 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."[38]


It is still debated whether Horn was responsible for Nickell's 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 a boy.[39] The consensus is that regardless of whether Horn committed that particular murder, he had certainly committed many others.[20] 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.[4]

The case was retried in a mock trial in 1993 in Cheyenne, and Horn was acquitted.[40]

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.[41]

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.[41]

Representation in movies and television[edit]

  • Horn was played by Hollywood star George Montgomery in the 1950 film Dakota Lil.
  • In 1954, Louis Jean Heydt played Tom Horn in an episode of the syndicatedtelevision seriesStories of the Century, narrated by and starring Jim Davis. Walter Coy appeared in the episode as Sam Clayton.
  • In 1959, Les Johnson played Tom Horn in an episode of the TV series Tales of Wells Fargo, (year 4, episode 8, "Tom Horn").
  • In 1967, the film Fort Utah was released, a western starring John Ireland as 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 well-received.[42][43]
  • In December 2009, 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 Chronicles.


  1. ^ abcdDesert Evening News November 20, 1903
  2. ^Andrews, Evan (September 9, 2009). "Top 10 Deadliest Gunslingers". TopTenz. Retrieved October 30, 2014. 
  3. ^Life of Tom Horn: Government Scout and Interpreter (1904).
  4. ^ abcCarlson, Chip (2001). Tom Horn: Blood on the Moon: Dark History of the Murderous Cattle Detective. High Plains Press. pp. 22–28. ISBN 978-0-931271-58-8. 
  5. ^Ball (2014), p. 10
  6. ^Ball (2014), p. 307.
  7. ^Monaghan (1997), p. 59–60.
  8. ^Ball (2014), p. 29.
  9. ^Ball (2014) p.54
  10. ^Prisbrey, Denis. "The Legend of Tom Horn". Rare Winchesters. Retrieved February 2, 2014. 
  11. ^Carlson.(2001) p.33.
  12. ^Runkle, Benjamin (2011). Wanted Dead Or Alive: Manhunts from Geronimo to Bin Laden. Macmillan. pp. 29–33. ISBN 978-0-230-10485-3. 
  13. ^Monaghan (1997) Introduction
  14. ^Ball (2014) p.44-47
  15. ^ abcdeCarlson, Chip (June 12, 2006). "Tom Horn: Misunderstood Misfit". Wild West Magazine. Retrieved October 30, 2014. 
  16. ^Carlson.(2001) p.36
  17. ^Dan L. Thrapp, Encyclopedia of Frontier Biography, Volume 1: A-F (1991); University of Nebraska Press, pp. 127
  18. ^Tom Horn, Life of Tom Horn: Government Scout and Interpreter (1904); Doyce B. Nunis Jr., editor; Chicago: The Lakeside Press, R.R. Donnelley and Sons Company, 1987, pp. 317–318.
  19. ^Anderson, Dan & Laurence J. Yadon (2007), 100 Oklahoma Outlaws, Gangsters, and Lawmen: 1839-1939, Pelican Publishing Company, p. 231, ISBN 978-1-58980-384-8 
  20. ^ abTom Horn at www.thrillingdetective.com
  21. ^Charlie Siringo, Thrilling Detective website
  22. ^"The Murder of Fred U. Powell", Tom Horn website
  23. ^Dan L. Thrapp, Encyclopedia of Frontier Biography, Volume 1: G-O (1991), University of Nebraska Press, pp. 676.
  24. ^ abBall (2014) p.232-234
  25. ^"Johnson County War". Wyoming Tails and Trails. Retrieved February 2, 2014. 
  26. ^Ball (2014) p.237
  27. ^Ball (2014), p. 238.
  28. ^Ball (2014), p. 237–239.
  29. ^Sheriff Josiah Hazen, Converse County Sheriff's Office, Wyoming, The Officer Down Memorial Page 
  30. ^Ball (2014), p. 214.
  31. ^Ball (2014), Murder on Horse Creek.
  32. ^Carlson (2001), Blood on the Moon
  33. ^ abcdefghijklCarol L. Bowers. "School Bells and Winchesters: The Sad Saga of Glendolene Myrtle Kimmell"Archived 2010-06-14 at the Wayback Machine., READINGS IN WYOMING HISTORY (5th Revised Edition), Ed. Phil Roberts, University of Wyoming, 2007, Retrieved 2012-10-10
  34. ^"Glendolene M. Kimmell, The Schoolmarm", Tom Horn's Story website
  35. ^Krakel, Dean Fenton (1954). The Saga of Tom Horn: The Story of a Cattlemen's War, with personal narratives, newspaper accounts, and official documents and testimonies (2 ed.). Powder River Publishers. p. 204. 
  36. ^Johan P. Bakker, Tracking Tom Horn(Union Lake: Talking Boy, 1993) pp. 127, 131-132
  37. ^Wilson, R. Michael (2008). Outlaw Tales of Wyoming: True Stories of the Cowboy State's Most Infamous Crooks, Culprits, and Cutthroats. Globe Pequot. p. 115. ISBN 978-0-7627-4506-7. 
  38. ^Ball (2014), A Man Apart.
  39. ^Krakel, Dean, (1954/1988). The Saga of Tom Horn, Powder River Publishing
  40. ^Trimble, Marshall (20 May 2014). "Was Tom Horn really guilty of the murder for which he was hanged?". True West Magazine. 
  41. ^ abBecky Orr (August 22, 2014). "Legend of Tom Horn refuses to die: Western history authors Larry Ball and Chip Carlson talked about Wyoming legend Tom Horn Friday at a program at the Wyoming State Museum". Wyoming Tribune-Eagle. Retrieved August 23, 2014. 
  42. ^Fairbanks, Brian W. (2005). "Tom Horn". Brian W. Fairbanks - Writings. Lulu Press. p. 349. ISBN 978-1-4116-2432-0.  
  43. ^Davis, Steven L. (2004). "Tom Horn". Texas literary outlaws: six writers in the sixties and beyond. TCU Press. p. 368. ISBN 978-1-4116-2432-0.  


  • Carlson, Chip, (2001). Tom Horn: Blood on the Moon: Dark History of the Murderous Cattle Detective. - Glendo, Wyoming: High Plains Press. - ISBN 978-0-931271-58-8.
  • Gatewood, Charles B. (2005). Louis Kraft, ed. LT. Charles Gatewood & His Apache Wars Memoir. University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 978-0-8032-2772-9. 
  • Ball, Larry D. (2014). Tom Horn in Life and Legend. University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 978-0806144252. 
  • Monaghan, Jay (1997). Tom Horn: Last of the Bad Men. Bison Books. ISBN 978-0803282346. 
  • Herring, Hal (2008). Famous Firearms of the Old West: From Wild Bill Hickok's Colt Revolvers to Geronimo's Winchester, Twelve Guns That Shaped Our History. Globe Pequot. pp. 121–136. ISBN 978-0-7627-4508-1. 
  • Krakel, Dean, (1954). The Saga of Tom Horn: The Story of a Cattlemen's War: with Personal Narratives, Newspaper Accounts, and Official Documents and Testimonies. Powder River Publishing.
  • Allen, Henry Wilson, "I, Tom Horn", ISBN 978-0803272835, University of Nebraska Press (April 1, 1996)
  • Ball, Larry D., Tom Horn: In Life and Legend. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2014. ISBN 978-0-8061-4425-2
  • DeMattos, Jack, "Gunfighters of the Real West: Tom Horn," Real West, December 1980.
  • Horn, Tom, Life of Tom Horn, Government Scout and Interpreter, Written by Himself, Together with His Letters and Statements by his Friends. Denver: The Louthan Book Company, 1904.
  • Krakel, Dean Fenton, The Saga of Tom Horn: The Story of a Cattleman's War. Laramie, Wyoming: Powder River Publishers, 1954.
  • Monaghan, Jay, Last of the Bad Men: The Legend of Tom Horn. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1946.
  • Nickell, Phillip G., "The Family Tom Horn Destroyed," Real West, December 1986.

Further reading[edit]

Numerous editions of Horn's autobiography have been published and the 1904 original is available online:

  • Horn, Tom; John C. Coble (1904). Life of Tom Horn: Government Scout and Interpreter (full-text view via Google books). Denver: The Smith-Brooks Printing Company.  Also available as:
    • Horn, Tom, and John C. Coble, (2001). Life of Tom Horn: Government Scout and Interpreter. Narrative Press. ISBN 978-1-58976-068-4.
    • Horn, Tom, edited by Doyce B. Nunis, Jr., (1987). Life of Tom Horn: Government Scout and Interpreter—Written by Himself: A Vindication, Chicago: The Lakeside Press, R. R. Donnelley & Sons Company.
    • Horn, Tom, Introduction by Dean Krakel, (1973/1985). Life of Tom Horn: Government Scout and Interpreter: A Vindication. University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 978-0-8061-1044-8.
  • Henry, Will, (1975). I, Tom Horn. New York: Bantam Books. ISBN 978-0-553-29835-2. Historical novel.
  • "Hanged By The Neck Until You Are Dead", Tom Horn's Story, (includes Horn's last letter saying his confession was staged and inaccurate)

External links[edit]

Ned Huddleston, alias Isom Dart. Brown's Hole, Wyoming, c. 1890s.

Tried, convicted and hanged in 1903 in Cheyenne for a murder he almost certainly did not commit, Tom Horn was an enigmatic range detective in the employ of ranchers who controlled large tracts of land in southeastern Wyoming and northwestern Colorado.

Even today, he has a reputation as a killer hired to exterminate cattle rustlers, but in his own words his work was “that of a detective”—to patrol the range and look for cattle that were out of place—that is, away from the customary ranges of their owners.

Horn remains controversial for two reasons: first, because of doubts that he actually killed 14-year-old Willie Nickell at Iron Mountain, northwest of Cheyenne, on July 18, 1901, and second, because of the questionable nature of his trial. By then, he already had led an eventful life in a West that was evolving from frontier territory to a place more settled and economically developed.

Born in Scotland County, Mo., in 1860, Horn left home at the age of 14, according to his own account, and ended up in Arizona Territory by way of various livestock and stage-driving jobs, in Kansas and New Mexico. He was smart, tough and had an excellent ear for speech, quickly picking up Spanish and, later, some of the Apache language.

While still in his teens, he went to work for Al Sieber, chief of scouts for the U.S. Army in its campaigns against the Apache. In 1886, Horn escorted the Army column that captured the famed Apache leader, Geronimo, for the final time.

In 1891, the Pinkerton National Detective Agency hired Horn to pursue bandits who had robbed the Denver and Rio Grande train near Cañon City, Colo. Over the next decade, Horn did other jobs for the Pinkertons.

Tom Horn came to Wyoming in the late 1880s or early 1890s, his services apparently solicited secretly by prominent ranchers. Ranchers Ora Haley, John Coble, Coble’s partner Frank Bosler and, probably, the huge Swan Land and Cattle Company almost certainly were among his employers.

At that time the owners of large herds of cattle were struggling to survive in a business that just a decade before was making them rich. In the 1880s, they ruled their ranges like private fiefdoms. Most had little concept of the true carrying capacity of those ranges, however, and stocked them with more cattle than the land could support.

Cattle prices peaked in 1882, drawing more money to the industry and bringing more cattle to the land. Soon there was a beef glut. Prices began to fall, yet no one could think of anything to do but acquire even more cattle—weakening the ranges further and driving prices farther down. When a bad drought in 1886 was followed by the terrible winter of 1886-1887, the cattle business was nearly wiped out.

Many ranchers went out of business. Many longstanding cowboys and more recent immigrants to the Territory took up homesteads and other small land claims of their own. The once-powerful Wyoming Stock Growers Association found both its membership and its revenues from dues shrinking drastically.

Some of the cattlemen who survived began publicly blaming all their problems on cattle theft. Rustling was definitely a factor, but only one of many difficulties facing ranchers who owned large tracts of land. Claiming they were forced to make an example of thieves, cattlemen lynched homesteaders Ella Watson and Jim Averell on the Sweetwater River in 1889. When that crime went unpunished, leading men of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association led a private army of 50 men into Johnson County in northern Wyoming in 1892 to kill suspected rustlers there. They murdered two men, but those crimes, too, went unpunished.

Association Secretary Thomas Sturgis echoed a viewpoint common among the association’s members, and often repeated by newspapers under their control, when, in 1886, he blamed the problem on sympathetic juries that would not convict cattle thieves:

[I]t is very difficult to get an indictment from a grand jury [even] with pretty definite evidence as to the guilt of the party charged with stealing cattle. … There seems to be a morbid sympathy with cattle thieves both on the bench and in the jury room….[

It would be impossible for the Association ... to undertake to bring the parties referred to, to justice. In the first place, we have no money at our disposal. … Circumstances have forced cattlemen to look to themselves for protection outside of any association.…

Public outcry against the Sweetwater lynchings and the Johnson County Invasion was widespread. After the invasion, in the elections of 1892, the cattlemen’s political hold on the state weakened. And suddenly sheepmen, too, were bringing their flocks onto ranges cattlemen had long thought of as their own. But many cattlemen’s attitudes toward their difficulties appear not to have changed much. They still thought rustlers were the cause of their woes, but they began to deal with those woes in secret. Enter Tom Horn.

While no fixed date has been established for Horn’s arrival in Wyoming, the correspondence of U.S. Marshal Joseph P. Rankin shows Horn was in the state by May 1892, when Rankin deputized him to investigate a murder in the aftermath of the Johnson County invasion. Rankin believed Horn was working for the Pinkertons at the same time.

By 1895, Horn was most likely working for private interests when he was suspected of murdering two settlers. The first, William Lewis, was an immigrant from England who settled on Horse Creek northwest of Cheyenne. In previous years, Lewis had been jailed for stealing clothing and cheating a boy at a faro game. At the time of his death Lewis was suspected of cattle theft, and was under a court order to refrain from butchering cattle.

On July 31, as Lewis was loading a skinned beef into a wagon, three shots hit him.

Tom Horn was suspected, and subpoenaed to appear at the coroner’s inquest in Cheyenne. More than a dozen witnesses testified, including Horn and rancher William L. Clay. Clay and Horn both testified that Horn had been in Bates Hole south of Casper at the time of the murder. Horn was exonerated.

Two months later, Fred U. Powell, who homesteaded west of the Laramie Range and in Albany County, was shot and killed. Powell’s hired hand, Andrew Ross, was the only other person on the ranch at the time. Ross testified at the inquest that he heard one shot, found his employer’s body and fled.

Powell’s wife, Mary, and young son, Billy, were in Laramie at the time of the murder. But at the inquest Billy was in court and, upon seeing Tom Horn, cried out, “Mama, that’s the man who killed Daddy.” How the boy could make a statement like that when he was not present at the murder remains a major question, but the prosecutor in Horn’s trial years later would use it against the detective. Despite Billy’s sudden outburst, Horn was not charged in connection with the Powell murder.

But these crimes, and rumors of other killings, had by 1895 already solidified Horn’s intimidating reputation.

In 1914, Philadelphia physician Charles Penrose, who briefly accompanied the 1892 invasion of Johnson County but left before the killing began, wrote his recollections. Penrose included a vivid description of Horn as he was in 1895, as told to him by W. C. “Billy” Irvine, president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association during the 1890s.

At the time, Wyoming Governor W.A. Richards was experiencing cattle thefts on his own ranges in northwest Wyoming. As Penrose recounts Irvine’s story, Richards and Irvine encountered each other walking toward the Capitol, where both the governor and the Stock Growers Association had offices at the time:

When we reached the building he said, “Come into my office; I want to see you.” He immediately laid his troubles at the ranch before me [Irvine told Penrose], and we discussed the situation quite fully.

He finally said he would like to meet Tom Horn, but hesitated to have him come to the Governor’s office. I said, “Stroll in my office at the other end of the hall at three o’clock this afternoon, and I will have him there….” [At the meeting] the Governor was quite nervous, so was I, Horn perfectly cool. He talked generally, was careful of his ground; he told the Governor he would either drive every rustler out of Big Horn County, or take no pay other than $350 advanced to buy two horses and a pack outfit. When he had finished the job to the Governor’s satisfaction, he should receive $5,000, because, he said in conclusion, “whenever everything else fails, I have a system which never does.” He placed no limit on the number of men to be gotten rid of. This almost stunned the Governor. He immediately showed an inclination to shorten the interview.... [After Horn left] the Governor said to me, “So that is Tom Horn! A very different man from what I expected to meet. Why, he is not bad‑looking, and is quite intelligent; but a cool devil, ain’t he?”

Horn continued to work as a detective through the late 1890s. In 1900, many historians have concluded, Horn murdered two suspected cattle thieves, Matt Rash and Isom Dart, in Brown’s Park, where the Colorado, Utah and Wyoming borders intersect. A foreman for the ranchers who hired Horn was quite firm, in an account written down 20 years later, that Horn had done the crimes. The crimes received little notice in Wyoming.

After the Nickell murder in July 1901, the county commissioners in Cheyenne hired sometime stock detective and sometime deputy U.S. Marshal Joe LeFors, to investigate that crime.

In December 1901, LeFors received the first of several letters from a former boss in Miles City, Mont., that spoke of a need for a range detective to investigate rustling in the area. LeFors forwarded the letters to Tom Horn, apparently to induce him to respond.

Apparently taking the bait, Horn went from John Coble’s place in Bosler where he had been living at the time to Cheyenne on Saturday, Jan. 11, 1902, probably stayed up all night drinking and accompanied LeFors to the U.S. Marshal’s office on 16th Street (now 210 West Lincolnway) the next morning.

LeFors secreted two people, a stenographer and a witness, behind a locked door. Over the course of a couple of hours, LeFors led Horn into making a series of incriminating remarks about the Nickell killing. The most damaging was, “It was the best shot that I ever made and the dirtiest trick I ever done.” The stenographer recorded and transcribed these comments, which were used as key evidence in Horn’s trial.

The trial, held just before the November 1902 election, was tainted by politics. Prosecutor Walter R. Stoll and presiding judge Richard Scott were both up for re-election. Public interest was intense, and the event received widespread newspaper coverage in Wyoming and Colorado.

Horn’s lawyers included some of the best known in the state, including John W. Lacey, a former chief justice of Wyoming Territory, and T. Blake Kennedy, later a federal judge. But they hada client who on the stand became his own worst enemy. Horn’s oversized ego apparently caused him to challenge the prosecutor, and Horn’s own testimony destroyed an alibi placing him 20 miles from the site of the murder just an hour after it happened.

Horn’s lawyers closed by emphasizing that all the evidence was circumstantial, and that Horn’s supposed confession was nothing but drunken boasts.

Stoll, in closing arguments for the prosecution, posited that Horn killed Willie Nickell in order to keep the boy from reporting on his presence in the area. The jurors accepted this as a motive, but in all likelihood, given the anti-Horn press coverage and their poorly enforced sequestration, they made up their minds before they left the courtroom to deliberate.

Horn was hanged at the Cheyenne jail on Nov. 20, 1903. Although he might have murdered Willie Nickell, he probably did not. There was no direct material or testimonial evidence to prove that he did commit the crime.

The confession he gave to LeFors was given while he was drunk, Horn was a known boaster, and neither LeFors nor any other authorities tried to investigate anyone else. (The Nickells, for example, had been feuding for years with their neighbors the Millers. A strong case can be made that Jim Miller mistook Willie Nickell for his irascible father, Kels, that morning in 1901, and shot him to settle old scores.) Horn, it seems clear, was convicted because his reputation made him an easy target for the prosecution.

Horn remains an enigma because of the lingering controversies over whether he killed Willie Nickell and over the nature of the trial.

Even more important than questions of his guilt, however, was the political shift in Wyoming shown by the fact that Horn, friend of the barons, was convicted and executed. Their power, once substantial, was on the wane. Ordinary Wyoming citizens were growing intolerant of their heavy-handed actions.


Primary Sources

  • Horn, Tom. Life of Tom Horn: Government Scout and Interpreter: a vindication. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1964. First published 1904.
  • Penrose, Charles. The Rustler Business. Douglas, Wyo: The Douglas Budget, 1982, 55-56. Penrose wrote this account in 1914.
  • Clerk of the First District Court, Cheyenne, Wyo. Transcript of the Inquest into the Murder of William Nickell 1901.
  • State of Wyoming v. Tom Horn, 1902.

Secondary Sources

  • Donahue, James, ed., Wyoming Blue Book: Guide to the County Archives of Wyoming, Vol. V, Part I. Centennial Edition. Cheyenne, Wyo.: Wyoming State Archives, Department of Commerce, 1991, p. 496.
  • Mokler, Alfred J. History of Natrona County, Wyoming. New York: Arno Press, 1966, 221-223. Reprint; first published in 1923.
  • Urbanek, Mae. Wyoming Place Names. Boulder, Colo.: Johnson Publishing Company, 1967, 21.
  • Carlson, Chip. Tom Horn: Blood on the Moon. Glendo, Wyo: High Plains Press, 2001.
  • Burroughs, John Rolfe. Guardian of the Grasslands: The First Hundred Years of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association. Cheyenne: Pioneer Printing and Stationery Co., 1971, 154.
  • Krakel, Dean, The Saga of Tom Horn. Laramie: Powder River Publishers, 1954.
  • Larson, T.A. History of Wyoming. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965. 163-194, 372-374.

For Further Reading

  • Henry, Will. I, Tom Horn. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996. A highly entertaining fictional account.


  • The photo of Tom Horn braiding rope in the office of the Cheyenne Jail, 1902, is from the Wagner Collection, Wyoming State Archives. Used with thanks.
  • The photo of 16th Street (now West Lincolnway) in downtown Cheyenne early in the 20th century is from Wyoming Tales and Trails, with thanks. The second-story bay window in the building on the left was the location of the U.S. marshal’s office, where Joe LeFors lured Tom Horn into making his confession.

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