Tom Horn: American outlaw (1860 - 1903) | Biography, Bibliography, Facts, Information, Career, Wiki, Life
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Tom Horn
American outlaw

Tom Horn

Tom Horn
The basics

Quick Facts

Intro American outlaw
Was Military personnel Soldier Army scout Detective Murderer Contract killer Explorer
From United States of America
Field Crime Military
Gender male
Birth 21 November 1860, Scotland County, USA
Death 20 November 1903, Cheyenne, USA (aged 43 years)
Star sign Scorpio
The details (from wikipedia)


Thomas Horn Jr. (November 21, 1860 – November 20, 1903) was an American scout, cowboy, soldier, range detective, and Pinkerton agent in the 19th-century and early 20th-century American Old West. Believed to have committed 17 killings as a hired gunman throughout the West, 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, 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

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. 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.


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. 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. 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.

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. 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. Finally, on September 4, 1886, Horn was present at Geronimo's final surrender and acted as an interpreter under Charles B. Gatewood.

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.

Detective, lawman and gun for hire

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." 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. 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.

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. 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. 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. 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 demeanor, 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."

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. 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.

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. In 1896, a ranchman named Campbell, known to have a large stash of cash, was last seen with Horn. 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.

Colorado Range War

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

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. Soon, efforts were made to get rid of these homesteaders, including the hiring of gunmen like 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.

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. 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. 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. 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. 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

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. 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. 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. 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.

Murder of Willie Nickell

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.

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.

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. 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.

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

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

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.

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

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. 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. 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. He was buried in the Columbia Cemetery in Boulder, Colorado on December 3, 1903. Rancher Jim Coble paid for his coffin and a stone to mark his grave. 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."


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. The consensus is that regardless of whether Horn committed that particular murder, he had certainly committed many others. 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.

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

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.

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.

Representation in movies and television

  • 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 syndicated television series Stories of the Century.
  • 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 1959, Gregg Palmer played Horn in the episode "Perilous Cargo" on the syndicated anthology series, Death Valley Days, hosted by Stanley Andrews.
  • 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 as Tom Horn.
  • Steve McQueen played Horn in the 1980 film, Tom Horn. While the film took liberties with facts, McQueen's performance was highly praised, and the film was well-received.
  • 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.

Other Resources

  • Carlson, Chip (2001). Tom Horn – Blood on the Moon: Dark History of the Murderous Cattle Detective. Glendo, WY: High Plains Press. ISBN 0-931271-59-2.
  • Henry, Will (1975). I, Tom Horn. New York: Bantam Books. ISBN 978-0-553-29835-2. Historical novel.
  • Carlson, Chip (2004). "Tom Horn's Story – 'Hanged By The Neck Until You Are Dead'". Tom Horn. Includes Horn's last letter that stated that his confession was staged and inaccurate.
The contents of this page are sourced from Wikipedia article on 02 Feb 2020. The contents are available under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.
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