The Legend of Tom Horn

By Denis Prisbrey

Although not as famous, or infamous as the Earps and other major players in the Old West, legendary gunman, Tom Horn was a central character in the story of Wyoming's early days.  Born in Memphis, Missouri on November 21, 1860, Tom Horn began life on the farm and developed a liking for the outdoors that stayed with him all of his life.  After a disagreement with his father, which resulted in a severe whipping, Horn left home at the age of 14.  He drifted for two years; working on the railroad and driving freight wagons and stagecoaches, then signed on as a scout for the US Amy at the age of 16 and spent a decade involved in several military campaigns, eventually replacing the well known Al Sieber as chief of scouts in the Southwest.  It was Tom Horn, in 1886, who tracked Geronimo and his tribe to their hideout in the Sierra Gordo area outside of Sonora, Mexico, and it was Tom Horn who rode into the Indian camp alone to negotiate their surrender, which ended the last great Indian war in America.

After leaving his position as chief of scouts, Horn wandered through the gold fields and was hired on as a ranch hand.  He had a flair for cowboying and it showed when he won the world championship in steer roping at a rodeo in Globe, Arizona, in 1888.  In 1890, Tom Horn joined the Pinkerton Detective Agency, and,  working out of the Denver office, he pursued bank and train robbers successfully throughout Colorado and Wyoming.  Horn was known to be fearless and proved it on several occasions such as the day he rode into the famous Hole In The Wall outlaw stronghold and single-handedly captured the notorious Peg-Leg Watson, who was wanted for a recent train robbery.  Horn called Watson out of a cabin, Watson emerged with a pistol in each hand, and watched open mouthed as Horn walked steadily toward him across an open field with his Winchester held loosely at his side.  Watson never fired a shot, Horn took him to jail without a struggle, and the incident helped make Tom Horn a living legend in the West.

Horn tired of being a Pinkerton man after reportedly killing 17 men as an agent, but soon appeared as a hired gun far the Wyoming Cattle Grower's Association in 1892. His job initially was to recruit other gunmen for the association and he helped assemble a formidable private army which later attacked homesteaders in the bloody Johnson County War, although there's no indication that Horn himself participated directly in die fighting.

In 1894, Horn worked for the Swan Land and Cattle Company, ostensibly as a horse breaker.  His real job was tracking down rustlers, for which he demanded (and got) $600 for each rustler shot and killed.  During this period, Horn's tactics switched from a straight face-to-face standup confrontation to a methodical long range ambush, Horn killed from hiding and, using a long range buffalo rifle, he killed often.  More than a dozen dead "rustlers" were credited to Horn during this period  each found with a large rock, under his head, Horn's trademark.

Horn left the open range when the Spanish American War broke out in 1898 and joined the cavalry but saw little action himself when placed in charge of Teddy Roosevelt's pack trains.  After the war, Horn returned to Wyoming, working once again as a hunter of rustlers, this time for cattle baron John Cable.  In 1900, Horn orchestrated two more of his typical ambushes with the usual deadly results, and an the morning of July 18, 1901 he carried out his last one.

On that long ago morning, one hundred years ago, Horn waited in the brash along the Powder River Road near Cheyenne for rancher Kels P. Nickell.  Horn had only seen Nickell once, and did not realize that it was Nickell's 14-year-old son, Willie, who, wearing his father's coat and hat, was driving Kels' wagon out of the ranchyard.  When the boy got down from the wagon to open the gate, Horn fired a round from his .30-30 rifle, which struck Willie.  As Willie staggered to his feet and tried to get back into the wagon, Horn fired another shot that killed him.

The killing was immediately attributed to Horn, but couldn't be proved, so lawman Joe Lefors resolved to bring Horn to justice. Lefors rode to Denver, got Horn drunk in a small saloon, and had deputies hidden where they could write down anything Horn said.  Although Horn did not directly admit to the killing, he did describe it in such detail that Lefors arrested him for it, and during his subsequent trial back in Cheyenne, Horn's own words were sufficient to result in a guilty verdict and a death sentence.

Facing a hanging, Horn escaped from jail briefly with another prisoner by beating Deputy Richard Proctor.  The other prisoner leaped on the only horse nearby and rode out of town, leaving Horn to run on foot.  One citizen followed, firing on Horn as they both ran.  Other residents joined in and knocked Horn to the ground as he struggled to fire the pistol he had seized along the way, allegedly a German Luger, which he was completely unfamiliar with.

Horn was returned to his cell, where he spent his remaining time quietly weaving the rope used to hang him on November 20, 1903.  One of the most notorious characters in the Old West, Tom Horn can still provoke a fight today in certain parts of Wyoming when the question is raised of his guilt or innocence in the Willie Nickell Killing.


Note: According to Tom Horn historian Chip Carlson, "Willie Nickell was not wearing his father's clothes or hat, as has been erroneously stated. Joe LeFors said that when he visited the Nickell home he saw Willie's bloody clothes. Willie's mother also stated in testimony that he was wearing his own clothes."



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