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Tom Horn: Misunderstood Misfit

By Chip Carlson 
Originally published by Wild West magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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At 6:30 on the foggy morning of July 18, 1901, 14-year-old Willie Nickell was brutally killed — shot in the back from ambush as he rode his father's horse near the family homestead 40 miles northwest of Cheyenne, Wyoming. The subsequent investigation and the arrest, trial and execution of the suspected murderer touched off controversy that has persisted for more than 100 years.

The central figure in that controversy is Tom Horn, a well-known stock detective who previously had been implicated in the murders of four rustlers in Wyoming and Colorado before being hanged for a crime that many historians believe he did not commit — even though Horn had claimed, 'Killing men is my specialty. I look at it as a business proposition, and I think I have a corner on the market. ' This from a man who was otherwise intelligent, sensitive and religious.

During the coroner's inquest following the shooting, speculation arose that Willie's killer had actually been gunning for the boy's father, Kels Nickell, a troublemaker and sometime sheepman who had earned the enmity of local cattlemen, including John Coble, Horn's employer at the time of the Nickell murder. On August 4, the theory that Kels Nickell had been the intended target gained credence; he was shot and wounded — but not critically — after his sheep trespassed onto a neighboring ranch.

After a lengthy investigation, which included the extraction of an alleged confession from Horn by use of a concealed stenographer, the suspect was arrested on January 24, 1902, and was subsequently tried, convicted and, on November 20, 1903, hanged for the crime. But the question of his guilt or innocence and the enigma of the man's personality remain.

A continuing interest in Tom Horn centers on his puzzling nice guy/nasty guy personality, his shadowy nature and the forces that drove him. Further complicating the issue is the historical context in which he operated. He was a transitional figure who somehow seemed unable to step from the 19th into the 20th century. He was, perhaps, a figure who did not want to take that step.

Psycho-history itself is controversial — it is hard enough to understand the psychology of contemporary people, much less the mindset of an obscure character from a century ago. Yet Tom Horn's formative years do offer insights into what produced this fascinating character of the Old West.

Horn was born November 21, 1860, in northeast Missouri, into a bilingual and apparently dysfunctional family of German descent. He was the fourth of eight children who survived childhood, and he had one older brother and two older sisters. His father, whose name was also Tom, had moved from Ohio in the 1840s. He was known to be an industrious, capable farmer and trader who kept his family's affairs private.

In his autobiography, Horn devoted a chapter to his childhood and told of his family's fundamentalist religion and the 'regular thumpings' delivered by his father and occasional whippings by his mother. In these two elements, the strong religious beliefs and beatings, may lie the major forces that molded his personality.

The strong religious environment of his childhood produced a means to justify, by his own interpretation, the deeds he committed. Eliminating a rustler amounted to rubbing out a manifestation of evil — 'thou shalt not steal.' And Horn's proficiency in this activity quickly become legendary.

The beatings his father administered, the second major component of his psyche, created a feeling of helplessness and produced a deep-seated rage. On a profound level, he may have thought that when he pulled the trigger, he was ridding the world of a child-beater.

He wrote that the farmwork left him short of time for things that were more important — fishing, tracking, hunting, and raiding bees' nests in the company of his only friend, his dog, Shedrick. There is little doubt that shirking his responsibilities created resentment in his brothers and father and that he paid a penalty for it.

At the same time, his father's beatings were an attempt to drive the 'bad' out of him, a common practice in the 19th century. Yet young Tom's priorities and instincts were the opposite of his father's. While the father apparently had a compulsion for hard work, the son was developing another kind of addiction: excitement. From the time he left home at 13, he went where the action was.

There is also room to suspect that the elder Horn made unfavorable comparisons between the kid and his siblings, and that he played on the fact that young Tom, his namesake, never quite measured up. A hint of low self-esteem surfaced in his actions as an adult.

He was quick to rise to any challenge to his capabilities. In the legal proceedings that followed Willie Nickell's murder, when questioned whether Willie's father had warned Horn not to stray off the road through the family's homestead at Iron Mountain, Horn said: 'I wouldn't allow 15 of the worst men in the world to tell me that. I am at liberty to go where I please in the country. I wouldn't stand for anybody to tell me anything of that kind. If my business took me through that country I would go. He couldn't tell me that; he wouldn't tell me half before I would have got him to stop.'

There is also a hint of deep-seated feelings of inadequacy in his propensity to boast and brag, especially (but not only) when he had been drinking heavily. Joe LeFors, the deputy U.S. marshal who extracted Horn's alleged confession of the Nickell murder, said that when he first met Horn at Frank Meanea's saddle shop, he found him 'rather inclined to brag.' On the weekend of his fatal 'confession,' many witnesses testified to his state of inebriation and said that he was talking loudly, telling stories, and speaking of having killed a Mexican lieutenant during his time in the Southwest. In the 'confession' taken down in shorthand by court reporter Charlie Ohnhaus, Lefors guided Horn through a string of leading and often confused questions and responses until Horn allegedly said that young Willie Nickell was shot from about 300 yards, and then he boldly remarked, 'It was the best shot that I ever made and the dirtiest trick I ever done. I thought at one time he would get away.'

Horn's bent for bragging on an epic scale surfaced in letters he wrote seeking a job as a stock detective who would take on a gang of rustlers — a job that LeFors had dangled as the bait to draw Horn into Cheyenne and extract his confession. 'I don't care how big and bad his men are, or how many of them they are,' Horn wrote. 'I can handle them. They can scarcely be worse than the Brown's Hole gang, and I stopped cow stealing there in one summer.'

The only close relationship Horn seems to have had was with the dog, Shedrick, whom he described as 'the sharer of my joys and sorrows … There never was a better dog!'

In his autobiography, Life of Tom Horn: Government Scout & Interpreter, he wrote of the killing of his dog by two migrant farm boys, who shot 'Shed' after an altercation with Horn and the dog. 'That was the first and only real sorrow of my life,' Horn said. He carried the big dog (known to be big enough to pull Tom's father in a cart) back to the farm and buried him. At that point in his life, Horn may have lost all hope that the world was good.

In those words about the death of his dog there is the hint of a developing detachment, a coldness and distance that stayed with him for the rest of his life. Horn never developed close, lasting relationships — only professional friendships. He was not the marrying kind; his alleged romantic involvement with a schoolteacher, Glendolene Myrtle Kimmell, is based more on legend and lore than fact.

Shortly after his dog was killed, Horn challenged his father. The bigger man prevailed, but young Tom told him it would be the last time because he was going to leave home. The beating was a severe one, and Horn lay in the barn all night; it took him a week to recover. When he was well enough to go, he said, he kissed his mother for the last time, looked at Shed's grave, and headed west.

Horn's own account of this episode provides a clue to his resigned attitude in the days preceding his death. It appears that he was much closer to his mother than his father, and when she did not or could not protect him from his father, the sense of being abandoned broke his heart. In the last months of Horn's life, when the big cattle outfits that had employed him abandoned him — with the exception of a ranch manager named John Coble — it broke his spirit. The long months in jail were depressing; Horn became fatalistic and evidently at last welcomed the end of it all.

At the same time, Horn's departure from home as a youth seems to have prompted him to write off all women as unreliable. It appears that he decided subconsciously to rely primarily upon himself from that point forward. By leaving home, Horn removed himself from a situation in which he could not prevail. After reaching maturity, he always placed himself in situations in which he could dominate. When he was arrested, he was in an unfamiliar position; others were in control. Still, he no doubt would have resisted had he not been suffering from the effects of a long weekend of drinking and carousing.

To Horn, his horse represented his freedom. Money and his rifle represented power. His adventurous lifestyle and many jobs reflect his restless quest. Writing of the period after he left home, Horn described his employment with the railroad in Kansas, during which time he earned $21 for 26 days' work. He wrote of a job as a driver for the Overland Mail in Santa Fe for $50 a month and 'use of a rifle.' Next came a job as a wrangler in Arizona for $75 a month, by which time he said he had outfitted himself with a good horse, tack and a rifle. Next, Al Sieber, chief of scouts for the Army in the Apache struggles, hired him as an interpreter for $75 monthly wages.

Horn's period of tutelage under Sieber resulted in admiration for the old scout. The passages of Horn's autobiography that describe Sieber's rages and the incident in which Sieber nearly decapitated an Indian are almost laudatory — between the lines one can almost read Horn saying, 'What a guy!' Sieber may have been a father-figure to Horn.

Horn had an unusual ability with foreign languages, a talent that likely stemmed from his early years in a bilingual family and community. He knew German and learned to speak fluent Spanish and Indian dialects. This ability allowed him to fit into others' worlds, and gave him a degree of power over those for whom he was translating.

Horn had an unusual ability with foreign languages, a talent that likely stemmed from his early years in a bilingual family and community. He knew German and learned to speak fluent Spanish and Indian dialects. This ability allowed him to fit into others' worlds, and gave him a degree of power over those for whom he was translating.

In his adventures in the Southwest and during his childhood years of hunting and tracking, he had become inured to bloodshed. At the same time, both during his youth and the period under Al Sieber's guidance, he developed his reputation for bravery, reliability and coolheadedness. Those qualities stood Horn in good stead in the Apache war.

Horn was involved in the Pleasant Valley war of 1887, a three-sided struggle among large cattle outfits, rustlers and sheepmen in central Arizona. There, Horn first developed his alliance with big cattle interests. Interestingly, Horn recalled that he had chosen to compete in a rodeo over the tedium of acting as a translator in the murder trial of the Apache Kid, a former Apache scout under Sieber's command who later escaped and went on a killing rampage. To Horn, rodeo action beat courtroom tedium any day.

Although Horn acquired an interest in a silver mine, he found working it was 'too slow'-too boring. Horn accepted a job with the Pinkerton National Detective Agency in Colorado in 1891, and for a year he was involved in violent episodes apprehending or 'discouraging' horse thieves, train robbers and murderers.

A close acquaintance at the time was the sheriff of Gunnison County, 'Doc' Shores, who developed a remarkably accurate understanding of Horn. He noted that Horn was an interesting conversationalist but 'not the type of man one liked to argue with.' In a grueling pursuit of train robbers from a site near Canon City, across to the west slope of Colorado, back through New Mexico and Texas and ending in Oklahoma, Shores perceived that Horn became selfish and ruthless and that he placed little value on human life. When Shores and Horn caught up with the robbers, one of them threatened Horn. Horn's reply was that he'd had enough of cheap threats and had already decided to leave the robber where he'd found him — dead. A rancher's wife interceded and saved the man's life.

After his stint with the Pinkertons, Horn was hired by the Swan Land and Cattle Company in Wyoming in 1892. While he was employed purportedly at first as a horse breaker, he was, in fact, a'stock detective,' ideal work for a lone wolf like him at a time when the cattle barons were fighting — sometimes with hired guns — for their very existence.

Wyoming had developed rapidly after the Union Pacific laid its tracks across the southern part of the territory in 1867 and 1868. Cattle companies, who brought their herds there in the late 1870s, were plagued by a series of events: passage of confusing laws pertaining to cattle range rights, overgrazing and drought, followed by blizzards. The end of the heyday of the overextended barons was soon at hand. Cowboys, thrown out of work, knew few things- cattle and horses, and the harsh fact that they were broke and hungry. A rustling epidemic and the influx of homesteaders who settled in the prime lowlands combined to force the big outfits to the brink of financial disaster, and indeed, many of them went under.

A climate of lawlessness and tolerance by lenient judges and juries sympathetic to rustlers brought even more pressure to bear on the cattle barons. Representatives of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association wrote: 'It 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. Unfortunately, it is almost completely useless to bring matters to the court even after an indictment has been obtained and the evidence pretty well gathered. There seems to be a morbid sympathy with cattle thieves both on the bench and in the jury room.

'If we had the means to enter into any investigation of the matter, we would be obliged to act through private detectives. We already have tried this system, and have been thrown out of court and laughed at for our pains. Circumstances have forced cattlemen to look to themselves for protection outside of any association.'

By 1890, Wyoming was entering a 20-year period that brought about the greatest degree of change in its history. Cheyenne was one of the first cities in the world to have incandescent lighting; by 1890 there was already a form of central heating, and the first automobile arrived in 1902.

And into this context stepped Tom Horn, who came to Wyoming at age 30. He has been aptly described as a man out of the Old West who was trying to live in the new. Fresh from his experience with the Pinkertons in Colorado, Horn seems to have felt that Wyoming offered a more favorable environment for a man of action. And perhaps he was right — but not for long.

What was this man like, this 'horse breaker' who had signed on to hunt down rustlers for the Swan Land and Cattle Company? Horn was big, over 200 pounds and 6 feet tall in a day when the average man weighed perhaps 160 and stood 5 feet 6 inches. Horn was tough and self-reliant to the extent that on a 10-day patrol that he undertook for his employer at the time of Willie Nickell's murder, he carried only the clothes on his back. A little bacon and dried bread were his only provisions, and he stopped at ranches only three times.

He commanded immediate respect. Describing Tom Horn's arrest of the Fred Langhoff gang in November 1893, eyewitness Gus Rosentreter wrote in his memoirs: 'One man had a big butcher knife and talked big. Tom Horn told him, 'Drop that knife or I'll put a bullet through your heart.' The knife dropped and the show was over.'

Deciding that the legal system did not work, Horn developed his own means to halt the stealing. Under cross examination in his trial, Horn described his action when he encountered rustlers: '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, he would as soon shoot him as look at him — and would not feel one shred of remorse.

Yet, there was a decent side to Tom Horn's personality. He was 'very quiet' when sober, as many witnesses at his murder trial testified. He was intelligent and highly articulate. He liked kids, and kids liked him. When he stopped occasionally at the Frank Wilkinson ranch north of Cheyenne, he sometimes brought gifts for the children — all six of them. Riding the grub line (a common practice among hungry cowboys, who would stop in at ranches on their travels), Horn was usually short on money, but he always left a little coin next to his plate.

He also had a sense of fair play. In the rustler-killing episodes in which he was involved, the victims always received fair warning. And he was loyal, by his own lights. To the end, Horn never exposed his employers. He never let them down, the way they did him by turning their backs on him in the end. He died bravely- described as the coolest man present at his hanging.

By the time he was implicated in the Willie Nickell shooting, Horn, then more than 40, had begun to experience doubts about his own methods of enforcing the law. Judging by his letters and other writings, he sensed the world was closing in around him and that he was coming to the end of his road. Perhaps that is why he jumped at the prospect of a job offer in Montana — although it may only have been a ruse, as described by the sheriff who tracked Horn down.

The proffered job in Montana was an opportunity to escape from a now stifling environment. Horn had lost his usefulness to his employers and had become a liability and a threat to their anonymity. It was no longer an asset to be associated with gunmen — especially Horn. Horn sensed his own outlaw status and also seemed to believe that ordinary citizens wanted him out of the picture. His behavior during his trial showed, on the one hand, understanding that he was in a fight for his life, and on the other, an apparent resignation — which produced an incredible series of damaging statements that helped produce his conviction. It was almost as if he had a subconscious death wish.

In his testimony, Horn acknowledged having made every one of the remarks in the 'confession' that Joe LeFors extracted, including the infamous 'best shot that I ever made and the dirtiest trick I ever done' line.

In spite of testimony from an ally, Otto Plaga, that Horn was 20 miles from the scene of the murder an hour after it was committed, prosecuting attorney Walter Stoll, perceiving Horn's monumental ego, led Horn into stating that he knew the country better than anyone — day or night — and that a good man with a good horse who knew the country could ride from the site of the murder to the point where he was seen in an hour. With that statement, Horn destroyed his own alibi.

Horn's employer and friend, John Coble, apparently did not realize the difficulty Horn faced in his trial. Other large ranchers may have recognized that Tom Horn's arrest and trial signaled the end of an era, but they likely were glad to see the end of him and unconcerned when he failed to muster a defense.

The lawyer who knew him best, T. Blake Kennedy, who was the first to interview Horn after his arrest and who did a major share of the legwork in the case, apparently failed to perceive that Horn's outlook was dated. Kennedy wrote in his memoirs his recollections of Tom Horn: 'He was tall, a trifle round-shouldered and had a black, beady eye which was intensely piercing. He had a marked degree of humor for one so concerned in the more dramatic affairs of life. His capacity for becoming familiar with the great open spaces of the West and Southwest, for withstanding hardships upon the open range and mastering to the highest degree the weapon of defense of the pioneer's life, his fearlessness as to both man and beast and his acquiring knowledge of the many hazards which confronted the pioneer of the great Western plains all gave him the background for a colorful and useful life.'

Yet Glendolene Myrtle Kimmel, the schoolteacher with whom Horn had been linked in legend and lore, perceived that he was an anachronism. Kimmell wrote in the appendix to Horn's autobiography, 'Riding hard, drinking hard, fighting hard, so passed his days until he was crushed between the grindstones of two civilizations.' Substitute 'centuries' for 'civilizations.'

A comparison between Tom Horn and a contemporary, Butch Cassidy, presents a sharp contrast. Larry Pointer demonstrated in his book In Search of Butch Cassidy how that prominent member of the outlaw community took steps that should have allowed him to remain a free man in a changed society. Late in the 1890s, Cassidy attempted to meet the governors of Wyoming, Montana and Utah in southwest Wyoming. His objective was to strike a deal whereby he would enlist in the military and, after a tour of duty, would refrain from lawlessness in their states. When the governors stood him up, Cassidy continued in his criminal activities, but it is clear from his failed strategy that he recognized what was happening to the West. In this respect, although he is a better-known figure than Tom Horn, Cassidy represents a symbolic, transitional figure in the fading days of the Old West. If Tom Horn perceived the same changes in his environment, either he did not know what he would have to do to adapt or he refused to adapt.

With homesteaders, ranchers and holders of the highest offices of the state, Tom Horn had what nowadays we would call tremendous presence. Whether a man's record was clean or not, he would feel uneasy if Horn was in the vicinity.

Fergie Mitchell, a rancher of the North Laramie River, offered this example: 'We had been having a lot of trouble with rustling on the North Laramie. One of our neighbors up the creek arrived in the spring with 11 cows, and that fall marketed 40 yearlings. He made serious inroads upon our herds, but no matter how hard we tried, we could not catch him in the act of stealing cattle. He would take them before our eyes, secret them some place, we never could find where, and that would be the last of them.

'So one day Tom Horn visited the North Laramie. 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.'

Perhaps the most telling commentary by a contemporary associate is an account written by Billy Irvine, who was president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association during much of the period when Horn was in Wyoming.

'Ex-Governor W.A. Richards [governor from 1895 until 18991 ... was the Governor when our office was in the Capitol Building,' Irvine wrote. 'He was a part owner of a ranch and quite a number of cattle in Big Horn County. It finally dawned on him that cattle thieves were not respectors of persons, and that he was losing an animal occasionally. One day I met him as I was walking up to the Capitol. 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, 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 3 o'clock this afternoon, and I will have him there.'

'When the three of us met, I opened the conversation by stating the trouble they were having in Big Horn County, and that the Governor wanted to talk to him as to the best way of stopping the stealing there. The Governor was quite nervous, so was 1, [but] Horn [was] 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, and Horn, who was an intelligent fellow, understood how he felt, at once rose to his feet, and said, addressing the Governor: 'I presume that is about all you wanted to know, Sir. I shall be glad to hear from you at any time I can be of service to you.' [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's drinking binges, which became more frequent and longer in duration as he grew older, were an attempt to escape from the way his world was changing. And they were perhaps a means to drown a guilt that grew in his later years, even if he still felt little remorse when he pulled a trigger.

In a spurt of his old rebellious spirit, Horn and another prisoner attempted to escape in early August 1903 after Horn had spent more than 1 1/2 years in jail. Quickly disarmed of an automatic pistol he had seized in the attempted breakout, Horn was brought back to jail amid threats of lynching. At his hanging the following November, he made small talk with lawmen who were present. From beneath the black hood that had been placed over his head, he asked, 'What's the matter, getting nervous I might tip over?' As the gallows trap was sprung, questions about Tom Horn's transcribed conversation were already being asked: Was it a confession or just another drunken boast? Certainly his statement regarding the death of Willie Nickell would never have stood the test of trial in a modern court of law.

However, guilt or innocence aside, we are much closer to answering the larger question: Why Tom Horn's personality withered when it touched the 20th century.

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4 Responses to “Tom Horn: Misunderstood Misfit”


  1. 1
    Martin Killough says:

    Enjoyed article about Tom Horn but would have liked a
    description of his rifle . Make caliber etc.

    • 1.1
      Chip Carlson says:

      At the time of Horn's arrest, he had a Winchester 1894 30-30. He may also have had a Winchester Centennial 1876 in 46-60.
      (More information on this mysterious 45-60 is forthcoming.)

  2. 2
    Dilbert says:

    another excellent article! thank you HistoryNet staff.

  3. 3
    Jeff Waters says:

    You can't plagerize what is historical fact….. Tom Horn's documented life existed long before Carlson came on the scene…..

    The best example of Horn's story to date. Thanks……………………



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