Tom Horn

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For the 1980 western film, see Tom Horn (film).
For other people named Thomas Horn, see Thomas Horn (disambiguation).
Thomas "Tom" Horn, Jr.
Tom Horn.jpg
Rare image of Tom Horn
(Wyoming State Museum)
He is braiding a rope for his friend Charles B. Irwin, to be used for rodeo performances.
Born (1860-11-21)November 21, 1860
Scotland County, Missouri
Died November 20, 1903(1903-11-20) (aged 42)
Cheyenne, Wyoming
Cause of death
Resting place
Columbia Cemetery, Boulder, Colorado
Nationality American
Other names Tom Hale[1]
Citizenship United States
Occupation US Army Scout, Lawman, outlaw, detective, assassin
Years active 1876-1903
Employer Pinkerton Detective Agency
Known for Work with the Pinkerton Detective Agency, Crawford Affair
Notable work(s) Assisted in the capture of Geronimo, disputably killed Willie Nickell
Height 6'2"
Weight 200 lbs

Thomas "Tom" Horn, Jr. (November 21, 1860 – November 20, 1903) was an American Old West lawman, scout, soldier, hired gunman, detective, outlaw and assassin. On the day before his 43rd birthday, he was hanged in Cheyenne, Wyoming, for the murder of Willie Nickell.


Early life[edit]

Born to Thomas S. Horn, Sr. and Mary Ann Maricha (née Miller), in rural northeastern Scotland County, Missouri, on the family farm of 600 acres (bisected by the South Wyaconda River) between the towns of Granger and Etna, he was the fifth of twelve children.[2]


At sixteen, Horn headed to the American Southwest, where he was hired by the U.S. Cavalry as a civilian scout under Al Sieber and became involved in the Apache Wars, aiding in the capture of warriors such as Geronimo. On January 11, 1886, he was involved in an expedition into Mexican territory in the pursuit of Geronimo as a packer and interpreter. During the operation, Horn's camp was attacked by Mexican militia and he was wounded in the arm.[3] Horn allegedly killed his first man in a duel — a second lieutenant in the Mexican Army.[1] Horn was present at Geronimo's final surrender, acting as an interpreter under Charles B. Gatewood.[4]

Later, hiring out his skills with a gun, he took part in the Pleasant Valley War in Arizona between cattlemen and sheepmen, but it is not known for certain with which side he was allied, and both sides suffered several killings for which no known suspects were ever identified.[5]

Career as a detective and lawman[edit]

He worked in Arizona for a time as a deputy sheriff, where he drew the attention of the Pinkerton Detective agency due to his tracking abilities. Hired by the agency circa late 1889 or early 1890, he handled investigations in Colorado and Wyoming, in other western states, and around the Rocky Mountain area, working out of the Denver office. He became known for his calm under pressure, and his ability to track down anyone assigned to him.

On one instance, Horn and another agent, C. W. Shores, captured two men for robbing the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad (on August 31, 1890) between Cotopaxi and Texas Creek in Fremont County, Colorado. Horn and Shores tracked Thomas Eskridge (aka "Peg-Leg" Watson) and Burt "Red" Curtis to a house (the home of a man named Wolfe) in either Washita or Pauls Valley, Oklahoma, along the Washita River, without firing a shot. 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."[6]

His termination from employment, however, was not as a result of his killings. In Charlie Siringo's book, "Two Evil Isms: Pinkertonism and Anarchism", he 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." More likely than not, this was due to the agency's desire to avoid negative press. 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.[7][8]

Horn resigned from the agency, under pressure, in 1894. Over the course of the late 1890s he hired out as a range deputy US marshal and detective for various wealthy ranchers in Wyoming and Colorado, specifically during the Johnson County War, when he worked for the Wyoming Stock Grower's Association; and is alleged to have been involved in the killing of Nate Champion and Nick Ray on April 9, 1892.[1] In 1895, Horn supposedly killed a known cattle thief named William Lewis near Iron Mountain, Wyoming. Horn was exonerated for that crime and for another six weeks later, the murder of Fred Powell. In 1896, a ranchman named Campbell who had a large stock of money was last seen with Horn and "disappeared."[1]

Although his official title was always "Range Detective," he actually functioned as a killer for hire.[9] In 1900, he was implicated in the murder of two known rustlers and robbery suspects in northwest Colorado. Just prior to the killings, Horn had begun working for the Swan Land and Cattle Company. He had killed the two rustlers, Matt Rash and Isom Dart, while he was following up on what became known as the Wilcox Train Robbery, and he was possibly working freelance for the Pinkerton Agency when he did so.[10]

During his involvement in the Wilcox Train Robbery investigation, Horn obtained information from Bill Speck that revealed which of the robbers had killed Sheriff Josiah Hazen, who had been shot and killed during the pursuit of the robbers.[11] He passed this information on to Charlie Siringo, who was working the case by that time for the Pinkertons. This information indicated that either George Curry or Kid Curry had killed the sheriff. Both outlaws were members of the Butch Cassidy's Wild Bunch gang, which was then known as "The Hole-in-the-Wall Gang."

He left that line of work briefly to serve a stint in the Army during the Spanish American War. Before he could steam from Tampa for Cuba, he contracted malaria.[12] When his health recovered he returned to Wyoming. Shortly after his return, in 1901, Horn began working for wealthy cattle baron John C. Coble.[7]

Willie Nickell murder, Horn's arrest and trial[edit]

On July 18, 1901, Horn was again working near Iron Mountain when Willie Nickell, the 14-year-old son of a sheepherding rancher, was murdered. Horn was arrested for the murder after a questionable confession to Joe Lefors, an office deputy in the US Marshal's office, in 1902. The prosecutor in the case was Walter Stoll.[13]

During Horn's trial, the prosecution introduced a vague confession by Horn to Lefors, taken while he was intoxicated. Only certain parts of Horn's statement were introduced, distorting the significance of the statement. Additionally, testimony by at least two witnesses, including lawman Lefors, was presented by the prosecution, as well as circumstantial evidence that only placed him in the general vicinity of the crime scene.

Glendolene M. Kimmell, a school teacher who knew the Miller family, testified that Jim Miller (no relation to the Texas outlaw Jim Miller) was nervous on the morning of the murder. Jim Miller and the Nickell boy's father had been in several disputes with each other over the Nickells' sheep grazing on Miller's land.[14]

Starting on October 10, 1902, Horn’s trial went to the jury on October 23, and the jury returned a guilty verdict the next day.[15] 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. However, the Supreme Court upheld the decision of the District Court and denied a new trial. Horn was given an execution date of November 20, 1903, which was carried out in Cheyenne.

It is still debated whether Horn committed the murder. Some historians such as Chip Carlson believe he did not, while others like Dean Fenton Krakel believe that he did, but that he did not realize he was shooting a boy. Whatever the case, the consensus is that regardless of whether he committed that particular murder, he had certainly committed many others.[7] Chip Carlson, who extensively researched the Wyoming v. Tom Horn prosecution, 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, there was no actual evidence that Horn had committed the murder, he was last seen in the area the day before the murder, his alleged confession was valueless as evidence, and no efforts were made to investigate involvement by other possible suspects. In essence, Horn's reputation and history made him an easy target for the prosecution.[2]

In 1993, the case was retried in a mock trial in Cheyenne and Horn was acquitted.[16]


Tom Horn has the distinction of being one of the few people in the "Wild West" to have been hanged by an automated process. A Cheyenne, Wyoming architect named James P. Julian designed the contraption in 1892, earning the name "The Julian Gallows," which made the condemned man hang himself. 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, this would cause the beam to break free, opening the trap and hanging the condemned man. Tom Horn was buried in the Columbia Cemetery in Boulder, Colorado on 3 December 1903.[17][18]

In television and film[edit]

In 1954, Louis Jean Heydt played Tom Horn in an episode of the syndicated television series, Stories of the Century, narrated by, and starring, Jim Davis. Walter Coy appeared in the episode as Sam Clayton.[19]

In 1967, the film Fort Utah was released, a Western film with John Ireland playing Horn.

Mr. Horn (1979) was a made-for-TV movie starring David Carradine.

Tom Horn (1980), starred Steve McQueen. The McQueen film was not entirely accurate historically, but McQueen's performance was praised, and the film was well received.[20][21]

In December 2009, the The History Channel aired the series Cowboys & Outlaws which featured an hour-long episode entitled "Frontier Hitman" about the life of Tom Horn.

In 2014, the historian Larry Ball, professor emeritus at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, Arkansas, published Tom Horn in Life and Legend. Ball traces his own interest in Horn to the subject's conflicting and enigmatic personality. Ball said that he is convinced that Horn shot and killed Willie Nickell near the Iron Mountain area northwest of Cheyenne: "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 lends credibility to the conviction and hanging.[22] Conversely, the western author Chip Carlson of Cheyenne dissents from Ball's claims: "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.[22]

Also in 2014, television station AHC's series "Gunslingers" featured an episode dedicated to Horn entitled "Tom Horn: Grim Reaper of the Rockies".


  1. ^ a b c d Desert Evening News November 20, 1903
  2. ^ a b Carlson, Chip (2001). Tom Horn: Blood on the Moon: Dark History of the Murderous Cattle Detective. High Plains Press. pp. 22–28. ISBN 978-0-931271-58-8. 
  3. ^ Carlson.(2001) p.33.
  4. ^ Runkle, Benjamin (2011). Wanted Dead Or Alive: Manhunts from Geronimo to Bin Laden. Macmillan. pp. 29–33. ISBN 978-0-230-10485-3. 
  5. ^ Carlson.(2001) p.36.
  6. ^ Anderson, Dan; and Laurence J. Yadon (2007), 100 Oklahoma Outlaws, Gangsters, and Lawmen: 1839-1939, Pelican Publishing Company, p. 231, ISBN 978-1-58980-384-8 
  7. ^ a b c Tom Horn at
  8. ^ Charlie Siringo at
  9. ^ The History Channel, "Cowboys and Outlaws," 2009
  10. ^ Tom Horn's Story - The Murder of Fred U. Powell. - at
  11. ^ Sheriff Josiah Hazen, Converse County Sheriff's Office, Wyoming, The Officer Down Memorial Page 
  12. ^ Tom Horn--Wyoming Tales and Trails. - at
  13. ^ Krakel, Dean Fenton (1954). The saga of Tom Horn: the story of a cattlemen's war, with personal narratives, newspaper accounts, and official documents and testimonies (2 ed.). Powder River Publishers. p. 204. 
  14. ^ Tom Horn's Story - Glendolene M. Kimmell, The Schoolmarm at
  15. ^ Carol L. Bowers. School Bells and Winchesters: The Sad Saga of Glendolene Mytrle Kimmell. University of Wyoming. Retrieved 2012-10-10.
  16. ^ "Innocent!". Tom Horn - Stories, Photos, and Forums. Retrieved 5 July 2009. 
  17. ^ Wilson, R. Michael (2008). Outlaw Tales of Wyoming: True Stories of the Cowboy State's Most Infamous Crooks, Culprits, and Cutthroats. Globe Pequot. p. 115. ISBN 978-0-7627-4506-7. 
  18. ^ "Thomas "Tom" Horn, Jr". Find A Grave. Retrieved 2013-07-06. 
  19. ^ "Stories of the Century: "Tom Horn"". Internet Movie Data Base. Retrieved February 16, 2011. 
  20. ^ Fairbanks, Brian W. (2005). "Tom Horn". Brian W. Fairbanks - Writings. Lulu Press. p. 349. ISBN 978-1-4116-2432-0. "One of the screen's greatest stars, McQueen was nonetheless vastly underrated as an actor. This is one of his finest performances." 
  21. ^ Davis, Steven L. (2004). "Tom Horn". Texas literary outlaws: six writers in the sixties and beyond. TCU Press. p. 368. ISBN 978-1-4116-2432-0. "Tom Horn did decent box office business, but it failed to reach the blockbuster status of McQueen's previous films. The producers had argued that people didn't want to pay to see Steve McQueen die. "And they were right," Shrake said." 
  22. ^ a b Becky Orr (August 22, 2014). "Legend of Tom Horn refuses to die: Western history authors Larry Ball and Chip Carlson talked about Wyoming legend Tom Horn Friday at a program at the Wyoming State Museum". Wyoming Tribune-Eagle. Retrieved August 23, 2014. 


  • Herring, Hal (2008). Famous Firearms of the Old West: From Wild Bill Hickok's Colt Revolvers to Geronimo's Winchester, Twelve Guns That Shaped Our History. Globe Pequot. pp. 121–136. ISBN 978-0-7627-4508-1. 
  • Gatewood, Charles B. (2005). Louis Kraft, ed. LT. Charles Gatewood & His Apache Wars Memoir. University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 978-0-8032-2772-9. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Carlson, Chip, (2001). - Tom Horn: Blood on the Moon - Dark History of the Murderous Cattle Detective. - Glendo, Wyoming: High Plains Press. - ISBN 978-0-931271-58-8.
  • Henry, Will, (1975). - I, Tom Horn. - New York: Bantam Books. - ISBN 978-0-553-29835-2.
(NOTE: fictionalization of Life of Tom Horn: Government Scout and Interpreter and other documents)
  • Horn, Tom; John C. Coble (1904). Life of Tom Horn: Government Scout and Interpreter (full-text view via Google books). Denver: The Smith-Brooks Printing Company. Retrieved 2007-07-08.  Also available as:
    • Horn, Tom, and John C. Coble, (2001). - Life of Tom Horn - Government Scout and Interpreter. - Narrative Press. - ISBN 978-1-58976-068-4.
    • Horn, Tom, edited by Doyce B. Nunis, Jr., (1987). - Life of Tom Horn - Government Scout and Interpreter - Written by Himself: A Vindication. - Chicago: The Lakeside Press, R. R. Donnelley & Sons Company.
    • Horn, Tom, and Dean Krakel, (1985). - Life of Tom Horn - Government Scout and Interpreter: A Vindication. - University of Oklahoma Press. - ISBN 978-0-8061-1044-8.
  • Krakel, Dean, (1954). - The Saga of Tom Horn. - Powder River Publishing.
  • Tom Horn's Story - Hanged By The Neck Until You Are Dead at (Horn's last letter proclaiming his confession being staged and not accurate)

External links[edit]