Given his career as an Apache wars packer/scout and later as a hired gun in Wyoming—a stint that led to his 1903 execution in Cheyenne—Tom Horn has long attracted Western historians, including Doyce Nunis, Dean Krakel, Mark Dugan, Jay Monaghan and Chip Carlson. The latest is Larry D. Ball, professor emeritus of history at Arkansas State University, whose biography Tom Horn in Life and Legend (University of Oklahoma Press, 2014; reviewed in the December 2014 Wild West) earned 2015 Spur Award finalist honors from Western Writers of America.
What made you want to tackle Tom Horn?
After completing a book concerning the robbery of U.S. Army Paymaster Major Joseph Wham in 1999, I found myself without an immediate project. During my research on U.S. marshals I had occasionally encountered new material about Tom Horn. One item that intrigued me was a letter Horn wrote to the U.S. marshal of Arizona in 1896 in which he boasted of his manhunting skills and indicated that he was not averse to killing if necessary. When the University of Oklahoma Press asked me to write a short volume about him, it quickly became apparent a longer work would be necessary. Had I known the difficulties that lay ahead, I might not have tackled the story of Tom Horn.
How hard is it to discern myth from fact regarding Horn?
It is very difficult, in part because writers have relied so heavily on his autobiography—Life of Tom Horn, Government Scout and Interpreter (1904)—which covers his life up to the time he arrived in Wyoming. While this book ends abruptly in 1892, he became such a notorious figure in Wyoming that many legends arose about his years as a stock detective and hired assassin.
His autobiography isn’t useful?
Much of Life of Tom Horn is fiction and should be used with great care. He portrays himself as a scout from the beginning and has himself hobnobbing with the generals. Since he was such a minor figure in the early 1880s, factual material about his participation in the Apache wars is very difficult to locate. At the same time Horn was literate, and one of his lesser-known talents was that of a “romancer” and storyteller. While his book is a rousing and entertaining tale, he is boastful and self-serving. While he was actually present in many engagements with the Apaches, only toward the end of the pursuit of Geronimo, in 1885–86, did he become a civilian chief of scouts.
You’re known as a diligent researcher. How do you approach the process?
I do enjoy research, although locating original sources for this book was more difficult than any of my previous works. While Horn has been a popular subject for writers, I soon realized I would have to dig much deeper to document his activities. There were also gaps in our knowledge of his movements, especially as he shuttled between Arizona and Wyoming.
I think one advantage I have had in my research experiences was my training in graduate school at the University of Colorado Boulder. Two of my professors, Robert Athearn and Clifford Westermeier, were widely respected in the field of frontier history. In those days we were heavily grounded in the sources, with emphasis upon finding primary sources—original documents and eyewitness accounts. It was not good enough to merely quote or cite articles and books already written, although these works were to be respected. I was also fortunate that my professors encouraged me to search for sources in the National Archives and Library of Congress. Such visits introduced me to a whole new world of source material. In researching for the Tom Horn biography, I had to make almost annual trips to D.C. While at Boulder I also had access to large collections of 19th century newspapers, which provided very helpful evidence about the setting or context for my research subjects.
What were you able to learn about Horn’s early years?
One my biggest disappointments in researching this book was my failure to find more new and original sources for Horn’s early life. While he blamed his father’s harsh treatment for driving him away from home in his teenage years, Tom led an ordinary childhood in many ways. After leaving home, he demonstrated the inability to stick with a job. He became a sort of roving frontier roustabout. Early on he also exhibited an ego, as well as a tendency toward a loner. If tradition is to be believed, he also began to get into trouble with the law while cowpunching on Texas trail herds and hired out his gun in the Colorado mining camps.
Why did contemporaries seek to discredit Horn’s activities during the Apache wars?
The primary reason for this controversy rests with the popularity of Horn’s autobiography, which began to receive much attention in the 1920s and ’30s. When magazines with a nationwide circulation, such as Collier’s, began to publish unreliable stories about Horn, old Arizona pioneers and Army officers were outraged. Charles B. Gatewood Jr., the son of the officer primarily responsible for persuading Geronimo to surrender, took the lead in coordinating a writing campaign to discredit Tom Horn.
What exactly did Horn do during the Apache wars?
One of my surprises in researching Horn’s Arizona years was that he was present at several major fights with the Apaches. And after serving a sort of probationary period as a packer, he did become a civilian chief of scouts when his mentor, Al Sieber, was unable to perform this duty. One of the most revealing sources for Horn’s time in Arizona are Army quartermaster records, which show he was employed as a civilian teamster, packer and scout in the 1880s. Perhaps the high point of Horn’s career occurred during an accidental collision with Mexican militiamen in 1885. Horn, who was wounded, was recognized for his bravery in this incident. Army officers who personally knew him and worked with him considered him a reliable scout. General Nelson Miles was especially appreciative and later called on his services as a packer in the war with Spain in 1898. Horn did not have to lie or exaggerate in his autobiography; he served capably.
What about his role in the Pleasant Valley War?
Clarifying Tom Horn’s role in this bloody vendetta and rustler war was another of my disappointments. His place remains very shadowy. Horn’s memory for dates in his autobiography is often highly questionable. When he says he was invited to Pleasant Valley in April 1887, he is a year too early. He actually arrived in the following year. Whether he went there as a deputy sheriff or perhaps a stock detective is also unclear. While Horn and friends insisted he was nonpartisan in the feud, this was not true. He was a good friend of Ed Tewksbury. Apparently, Horn also aligned with the vigilante organization in Pleasant Valley and was present at the lynching of three alleged rustlers. When Glen Reynolds, one of the vigilante leaders, was elected Gila County sheriff in November 1888, he deputized Horn. Nonetheless, rumors persisted among residents of Pleasant Valley that Horn played a more critical role in the rustler war.
How did Horn’s years in Arizona change his character?
Tom Horn was a resident of Arizona for nearly a decade. During these years he was exposed to (and participated in) a great deal of violence. The U.S. government was very embarrassed at the persistence of the Apache problem and authorized the Army to take brutal measures to suppress the disturbance. This campaign was a no-holds-barred campaign against men, women and children. Horn was there and was no doubt aware of the Army’s use of summary executions against troublesome Apaches. He is very frank in his autobiography about some grisly episodes. His experiences in the Pleasant Valley War were equally brutal. My conclusion is that writers have been mistaken when they divide Horn’s life into “good” years in Arizona and “bad” years in Wyoming. There was only one, not two, Tom Horns.
Did he redeem himself as a Pinkerton detective?
Horn’s years as an operative for Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency (circa 1890–93) in the Denver branch office were both a success and a failure. Denver newspapers praised his achievements in hunting train robbers, but during one assignment he was arrested in Reno, Nev., for the robbery of a casino. Yet the agency stood by him and employed the lawyers necessary to get him off. Even after leaving the agency, Horn maintained contact with other operatives.
It seems to me Horn enjoyed the protection that institutions such as the Pinkertons, big cattle companies and the U.S. government afforded him while in their employ. He liked to play the “big shot” that such associations gave him and often boasted about his exploits.
Could he have settled down as a respectable rancher?
Horn attempted to go into ranching a couple of times in Arizona, but he failed. He blamed his first failure on cattle thieves and developed a morbid hatred for all thieves, regardless of race or ethnicity. This obsessive attitude probably played a part in his willingness to hire out his gun to Wyoming livestock barons who were waging war on cattle thieves. While Horn was an expert horseman and horse breaker (as well as pioneer rodeo star), and very reliable with mules in the Army pack trains, he lacked the patience and stick-to-itiveness to become a rancher. When he invested in mining property in Arizona, he also demonstrated this same shortcoming and even admitted his failure in writing.
What events in Wyoming led to his stint as a stock detective and his downfall?
Tom Horn arrived in Wyoming during a very disturbed time, as the big cattle companies were employing violent measures to run homesteaders and small ranchers out of the country. The cattle barons believed all “little people” were thieves. Ironically, the Pinkerton agency was responsible for assigning him to Wyoming in May 1892. He did not go there at the invitation of a particular cattle company. However, Horn quit Pinkerton sometime later and returned to Wyoming on the invitation of the livestock interests. It was an unfortunate decision for Horn, who apparently suffered from a blind spot when he overestimated the power and political influence of the cattle companies. Throughout the 1890s the livestock interests shrank in size and influence. That Horn began as a stock detective in the employ of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association and, later, as an employee of individual cattle barons is clear. However, he also demonstrated a willingness to assassinate suspected rustlers for money. While legend has credited him with numerous killings, there is no evidence for this. Even on the frontier, wanton slaying was not condoned. There is some evidence he assassinated at least four men for money.
What did you learn about the Nickell family?
In many ways the family of Kelsey (Kels) Nickell was a typical frontier family. Nickell was a former soldier who went about homesteading in the proper, legal way, on public land in the Iron Mountain community, about 30 miles northwest of Cheyenne. While he prospered, he was quick to take offense and proved very quarrelsome. In 1890 he seriously cut John C. Coble, the local cattle baron, with a knife. (Coble would later be Horn’s employer.) Nickell also carried on a long-term quarrel with a near neighbor, Jim Miller. However, Nickell was not alone in being protective of his property, as all of the inhabitants of this community were a protective and testy lot. It is interesting that the big cattlemen in his vicinity did not accuse Kels Nickell of cattle theft, although he built up a herd of 1,000 cattle.
Did Horn kill Kels Nickell’s son Willie?
Horn was convicted of the murder of 14-year-old Willie Nickell, son of Kels, who was mysteriously assassinated in July 1901. To this day much controversy exists as to whether Horn was guilty. One of the problems has been motive. Horn partisans declare he had no motive and that the guilty party was Jim Miller or one of his teenage sons. Nonetheless, the prosecution had a powerful case resting on a confession Horn made (unwittingly) to Deputy U.S. Marshal Joseph Lefors. The presiding judge admitted the confession as evidence; today it would be considered entrapment and thrown out. My impression is Horn was probably guilty of the murder of Willie Nickell. While I did not find a smoking gun, there is enough circumstantial evidence (beyond Horn’s own confession) to tilt the probability of his guilt in his direction.
Did Horn talk too much for his own good?
He did talk too much. However, he had apparently always been a talker. The Apache Indians nicknamed him “Talking Boy” because of this habit. Horn was a great storyteller in the frontier tradition. He was always ready to regale anyone who would listen to his exploits in the Apache wars or as a detective. As a born “romancer” Horn simply could not tell the truth.
What was his downfall at the Nickells murder trial?
When he insisted on testifying on his own behalf, Horn probably sealed his fate. While attorneys knew better than to place him on the witness stand, he insisted, erroneously believing he could demonstrate his innocence. The prosecutor maneuvered Horn into the appearance of someone who believed he was above the law. As many spectators later remarked, Horn literally talked himself into a noose. Before he testified, there was the feeling that the trial would result in a hung jury. Horn also made a mistake when he believed the big cattle companies would contribute to his defense. John C. Coble was the only cattle baron to come to aid in a substantial way.
How should we remember Tom Horn?
I do not view him as a tragic victim. Although he possessed some talents, he was not a likeable person. One of his attorneys later remarked, in so many words, Horn was a dangerous person, and society should not be subjected to someone like him. Horn partisans hold he was the victim of a conspiracy—the purpose being to convict him for prior assassinations. However, Horn had become a loose cannon. Since returning from Cuba in 1898 (where he served as the chief packer for General William Shafter’s expedition), he had sometimes acted erratically—apparently the results of a severe bout with yellow fever. He drank more heavily; friends believed he might be mentally imbalanced. He boasted of killing two suspected train robbers in 1899, but they turned out to be minor horse thieves. Yet he showed no remorse. My personal feeling is that Horn cannot be treated as a tragic character (a victim of the whims of arbitrary gods). Instead, Horn willfully went about the business of killing men for money and thus governed his own conduct.
What’s next for you?
The Horn project was not an easy one and took a lot out of me. I am not sure I can complete another book-length endeavor, although I have been doing some preliminary research concerning the United States marshals of Montana and Wyoming in the late 19th century. My primary interest remains law enforcement on the frontier. If I should undertake this project, it would be a sort of counterpart to my earlier work on the marshals of New Mexico and Arizona territories.
Anything else you want to add?
My book is not the last word on the subject; Horn will continue to attract writers, and the debate concerning this controversial character will continue. Yet I am happy to leave the matter of the guilt or innocence of Tom Horn in the Willie Nickell case to other interested parties. WW
BOOKS BY BALL: The United States Marshals of New Mexico & Arizona Territories, 1846–1912 (1978), Desert Lawmen: The High Sheriffs of New Mexico and Arizona, 1846–1912 (1992), Elfego Baca in Life and Legend (1992) and Ambush at Bloody Run: The Wham Paymaster Robbery of 1889—a Story of Politics, Religion, Race and Banditry in Arizona Territory (2000).
Originally published in the October 2015 issue of Wild West.