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Joe Lefors (February 20, 1865 - October 1, 1940) was a lawman in the closing years of the Old West. He is best known for the arrest of gunman Tom Horn in 1903 for the alleged murder of 14 year old sheepherder Willie Nickell, which has since come into question, and it has long been believed that Lefors falsified evidence helping to convict the wrong man for the murder.
Lefors was born in Paris, Texas, and first arrived in Wyoming in 1885 after working on a cattle drive that ended there. Lefors played a minor role in the 1887 recovery of a large herd of cattle rustled by the "Hole in the Wall Gang". He later worked as a Contract Livestock Inspector for Wyoming, where his job was to recover stolen livestock and apprehend cattle thieves. Lefors married his first wife, 16 year old Bessie M. Hannum, in Newcastle, Wyoming on August 5, 1896.
In 1899, Lefors took part in a posse to capture those responsible for what would become known as the "Wilcox Train Robbery", committed by the "Hole in the Wall Gang" led by outlaw Butch Cassidy. The robbers eventually escaped into the Big Horn Mountains. Famed lawman and Pinkerton Agent Charlie Siringo worked heavily on that case, and would years later come into contact with Lefors in the process of working other cases, and would later indicate that Lefors was incompetent, at best, as a lawman. However, US Marshal Frank Hadsell appointed Lefors to a Deputy US Marshal's position in October, 1899. Lefors always claimed that Hadsell approached him to take that job based on his hard work on the Wilcox Robbery case. However, Lefors contributed to that case very little, if anything, and is not mentioned as a contributor at all in the official records of that investigation. It is more likely that Lefors asked Hadsell to give him the appointment, and eventually he asked often enough to get it.
Train robbers again robbed another Union Pacific train on August 29, 1900, near Tipton, Wyoming about fifty miles west of Rawlins, and this time Lefors led the posse. However, they again had no success, and the robbers escaped. That same year, former lawman, scout, tracker and longtime killer for hire Tom Horn began his investigation on the Wilcox robbery case, working on contract with the Pinkerton Detective Agency to solve the case, and with whom he had been employed many years before. He generated productive information which was later passed to Charlie Siringo via the agency, obtained from explosives expert Bill Speck. Through that information the investigators were able to identify who had killed Sheriff Josiah Hazen, who had been killed during a chase of the train robbery suspects. Horn and Siringo identified Hazen's killers as being Wild Bunch gang members George Curry and Kid Curry. Horn also killed rustlers Matt Rash and Isom Dart that same month, in his other job as a killer for hire to fight cattle rustling for large cattle companies.
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Little is known about Lefors' life after Horn's hanging. He had, throughout his career, a habit of bragging about his exploits, and his prowess as a lawman. However, short of his arrest of Horn, who did not resist whatsoever, Lefors was not what could be referred to as an effective law enforcement official. If anything, he was ineffective. He often led posses in pursuit of outlaws, robbers or thieves. However, more times than not, they would return home empty handed, capturing no one.
In a January 1, 1902, letter to W.D. Smith in Helena, Montana, of the "Iron Mountain Ranch Company", Lefors spoke with Smith about working in a position to infiltrate a gang, but not as a law enforcement officer but rather as an employee of the cattle company. Smith asked Lefors to recommend someone for the job, which paid a salary of $125 per month. Lefors quickly recommended himself, stating that it didn't matter how tough the gang members were, he could handle them. He states also in the letter that the gang couldn't be any worse than the "Brown's Hole Gang", and that he (Lefors) had stopped their cattle stealing in only one summer. That was, in fact, a lie. Lefors had nothing to do with stopping the "Brown's Hole Gang", although he did spend weeks looking for them.
There has since been some speculation that Lefors needed to close the Nickell murder case as soon as possible, so that he would not miss the opportunity at the high paying job offered in Helena. Already under pressure to do so, this only added to his incentive. However, that is mostly speculation, and cannot be verified as only Lefors knows what he was thinking. Following the hanging of Horn, Lefors did take the job offered in Helena, where he worked for many months. He not only did not infiltrate the gang in question, he had no effect whatsoever. Eventually, the cattle company fired him in 1904, and little is known about his whereabouts after that.
Joe Lefors is name-checked as "the best lawman" that leads a posse tracking after the eponymous lead characters in 1968's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
- Tom Horn's Story - A Confession? at www.tom-horn.com (communication by Lefors)