Born on this day in history, November 21, 1860, Thomas (Tom) Horn Jr. began his life in Memphis, Missouri. Horn had many occupations during his years on earth. He was raised on a farm where he learned to hunt for game and practice his skills with a rifle. This skilled served him well over the course of his years. His parents were of German descent, stern and religious and Tom was the fourth of eight children. His father, a violent man, severely beat young Tom and this is perhaps why he left the farm and became such a ruthless killer. Possibly his strict religious upbringing gave Tom some kind of justification for eliminating rustlers.
Tom Horn Flees the Family Farm
It is said the only thing Tom showed feelings for was Shedrick, the dog he had as a young boy. When the dog was shot by two migrant farm boys after an incident with Tom and the dog, in his autobiography Tom said it was the first and only real sorrow of is life. He buried the dog on the family farm. Throughout his adult life he never had a close, lasting relationship, only professional ones. There are stories that he was involved with a school marm named Glendolene Myrtle Kimmell but there are no facts to support the claim.
At 13 or 14 years old, reports differ in the exact age, young Tom fled the farm after one particularly brutal beating at the hands of his father. Young Tom challenged his father shortly after the death of his dog and ended up taking a week to heal from the beating. From his autobiography it is apparent he was closer to his mother than his father; however, as she was unable to protect him from his father's brutality, it is possible he felt abandoned by her.
Once he recovered from the beating, he said goodbye to his mother, visited the dog's grave and left the farm for good. His first job was as a teamster in Santa Fe, New Mexico. There he learned Spanish and this along with his ability to learn quickly earned him a job with the United States Army. He picked up foreign dialects easily and learned several Native American dialects that served him well. He served as an interpreter with the Apache Indians and while in this position honed his skills as a scout and tracker. In 1886 Horn was part of an expedition into Mexican territory tracking the Apache warrior Geronimo.
Tom Horn Becomes a Pinkerton Detective and a Hired Gun
After leaving the employ of the US Army, Horn hired out as a gun and took part in Arizona's Pleasant Valley War, a battle between local ranchers and sheepherders. It is unclear on which side Horn participated, but both sides lost several men to bullets. Horn's next job was as a deputy sheriff in Arizona. During this time his tracking ability attracted the attention of the Pinkerton Detective Agency out of Chicago.
A Pinkerton detective served as an armed guard and private police force, often for railroad magnates and cattle barons in the west. Though the Pinkertons did not often carry out actual murders, they did engage in gun battles with many people, from train robbers to striking miners. Sometime in late 1889 or early 1890, Horn took a job with the Pinkertons and handled investigations in Colorado and Wyoming as well as other western states in the Rocky Mountains area. His home office was located in Denver, Colorado. His reputation for his tracking ability and calmness under pressure grew, as well as his reputation as being a ruthless killer. He was also a physically intimidating man; whereas most cowboys of the time averaged 160 pounds on a five feet six inches frame, Horn was a big man at six feet that carried over 200 pounds.
Horn stayed with the Pinkertons for four years, resigning in 1894 under pressure from the agency. Apparently Horn's killings were not the reason. William A. Pinkerton told former Pinkerton Detective and later author Charlie Siringo that Horn was guilty of the crime but while in their employ, the agency could not let Horn be imprisoned. Pinkerton apparently respected Horn's tracking ability and considered him a talented agent but with a very "dark side." The agency more than likely did not want the negative press surrounding Horn and thus pressured him to resign.
After leaving the Pinkertons, Horn hired out as a detective and range deputy marshal for various cattle barons in Wyoming and Colorado. During the Johnson County War, he was employed by the Wyoming Stock Grower's Association. In the mid 1890s, Horn was accused and exonerated of killing several men. Though his official title was "Range Detective" in essence, Horn was a hired killer. His standard fee was $500 for each rustler killed. Horn's trademark was a large rock he would place under the dead man's head. It has been reported that around this time Horn stated "Killing men is my specialty. I look at it as a business proposition, and I think I have a corner on the market."
On one occasion the governor of Wyoming, W.A Richards, who was also the owner of a large cattle ranch, sought out Tom Horn. According to accounts, the meeting between the Governor and Horn took place in the office of the state Board of Livestock Commissioners who was under the Wyoming Stock Grower's Association's thumb. During this exchange, Horn offered to drive out every rustler in Wyoming. He would only charge $350 in advance for two horses and a pack outfit and at the conclusion of the job, should it be to the Governor's satisfaction he would receive a fee of $5000. According to reports Horn told the Governor, "Whenever everything else fails, I have a system which never does." Apparently Governor Richards got cold feet as Horn laid out his plan and Horn sensing this, took his leave, but informed the governor his services were available in the future should the Governor need them.
In 1898 Horn became a participant in the Spanish-American War. He was put in charge of Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders' pack train so did not see much combat. At the war's end, he returned to Wyoming and resumed his job as a hired gunman. At this time, Wyoming and the rest of the country was changing. Horn seemed to have difficulty changing with them. It was not until 1901 that Horn's activities caught up with him in a way he could not escape.
The Beginning of the End for Tom Horn
Early on the morning of July 18, 1901 about 40 miles northwest of Cheyenne Wyoming, a sheepherder's son, Willie Nickell, was ambushed and fatally shot in the back as he rode his father's horse near the family homestead. The investigation that followed, and the resulting arrest, trial and execution of the suspected murderer remains a controversy to this day.
There was much speculation that the intended target was young Willie's father, Kels, who had incurred the wrath of the local cattlemen which included Horn's employer at the time, John Coble. In the early part of August Kels was shot, though the wound was not critical, and this supported the theory.
During the investigation, another Pinkerton man, Joe Lefors, extracted a "confession" from Horn that was recorded by a hidden stenographer. Lefors drew Horn to Cheyenne by offering a job as a stock detective who would take on a gang of rustlers in the area. Horn's bravado was evident in letters he wrote in reference to the job; stating he could handle the job regardless of how big or bad the gang was and gave examples of prior experiences.
Tom Horn was arrested for the crime of Willie Nickell's murder on January 24, 1902. Tom's own testimony was damaging to his case. His characteristic for rising to any challenge to his capabilities and his propensity for boasting of his exploits lent to the prosecutor's presentation of Tom as a man who believed rules did not apply to him.
When questioned as to whether or not Willie's father had warned Horn not to travel the road through the family's homestead, Horn indicated he was at liberty to travel where he wished and no one could tell him different nor would he stand for anyone telling him different. Testimony from witnesses about the night of the "alleged confession" painted Horn as talking loudly and telling stories of his exploits in the Southwest. Witnesses testified that Horn said Willie Nickell was shot from about 300 yards and he thought the boy might get away at one point. He further stated the deed was the best shot he had ever made and the dirtiest trick he had ever done.
Further statements by Horn included accounts of his dealings with rustlers in which he stated simply that if he believed a man was guilty of stealing cattle and had been fairly warned of the consequences, he would just as soon shoot the man as look at him and he would not feel any remorse for doing so. He said he had more faith in his ability to get the stolen animals than the court doing the job. When an ally, Otto Plaga testified that Horn was 20 miles from the scene of Willie's murder, Horn later destroyed the alibi by stating he knew the country better than anyone and it would only take an hour for a good man with a good horse to ride from the site of the murder to where he was seen. He also acknowledged making all the statements in the alleged confession to Joe Lefors.
During his stay in jail, Horn seemed to become more fatalistic and appeared to sense that he no longer fit in the changing west. As his mother had abandoned him, so did the cattle barons who had once hired him to take care of business. The only exception was John Coble who did testify on Horn's behalf. At one point in early August of 1903, Horn did attempt to escape but was quickly disarmed and rearrested.
Tom Horn's Trial and Verdict Still a Controversy
Tom Horn did have a decent side to his personality. When he was not drinking, he was considered a quiet man. He was highly intelligent and articulate. He had a sense of fair play and loyalty. He always gave his victims fair warning to lay down their weapons and he never indicated any of his employers in any of his exploits. It is said he liked children and children seemed to like him.
On November 20, 1903, one day before his 41st birthday, Tom Horn was hanged for the murder of Willie Nickell. His body was buried in Boulder, Colorado and a headstone still marks the site. His trial and subsequent conviction remains a controversy. In today's court he most likely would not have been convicted. The alleged confession is suspect and Horn's bravado and penchant for story telling would be more prevalent in his defense in a modern court. In 1993 a mock trial resulted in the lack of a guilty verdict. No one but Tom Horn knows for sure if in fact he killed Willie Nickell on that foggy July morning; the truth remains buried in Boulder, Colorado.
Tractman, Paul. "Clandestine wars at the edge of the law." In The Old West: The Gunfighters, edited by George Constable. Alexandria, Virginia: Time-Life Books, 1974.
History.net "Tom Horn: Misunderstood Misfit"
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