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 scout, who carried out varied roles as hired gunman, Pinkerton and range detective, and soldier. Believed to have committed several murders as a gunman in the West, in 1902 Horn was convicted of the murder of 14-year-old Willie Nickell near Iron Mountain, Wyoming. The boy was the son of sheep rancher Kels Nickell, who had been involved in a range feud with neighbor and cattle rancher Jim Miller. On the day before his 43rd birthday, Horn was executed by hanging in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

While in jail he wrote his autobiography, Life of Tom Horn: Government Scout and Interpreter (1904), which was published posthumously. Numerous editions have been published of this book since the late 20th century, and debate continues as to whether he was guilty of Nickell's murder.

Early life[edit]

Known as "Tom," he was born in 1860 to Thomas S. Horn, Sr. and Mary Ann Maricha (née Miller) on their family farm in rural northeastern Scotland County, Missouri. They had 600 acres (bisected by the South Wyaconda River), located between the towns of Granger and Etna. Tom 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. He served during the Apache Wars, aiding in the capture of warriors such as Geronimo. On January 11, 1886, he was involved as a packer and interpreter in an expedition into Mexican territory in the pursuit of Geronimo. 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 — the man was a second lieutenant in the Mexican Army.[1] Horn was present at Geronimo's final surrender, and acted as an interpreter under Charles B. Gatewood.[4]

Later, hiring out as a gunman, Horn took part in the Pleasant Valley War in Arizona between cattlemen and sheepmen. Historians have not established which side he worked for, and both sides suffered several killings for which no known suspects were ever identified.[5]

Career as a detective, lawman and gun for hire[edit]

Horn 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.

In one case, 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 and arrested Thomas Eskridge (aka "Peg-Leg" Watson) and Burt "Red" Curtis without firing a shot. They tracked them all the way to the home of a man named Wolfe, said to be in either Washita or Pauls Valley, Oklahoma, along the Washita River. 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]

Before then, he also hired out as a range deputy US marshal and detective for various wealthy ranchers in Wyoming and Colorado. During the Johnson County War, he worked for the Wyoming Stock Grower's Association. He is alleged to have been involved in the killing of Nate Champion and Nick Ray on April 9, 1892.[1]

The Pinkerton Agency forced Horn to resign in 1894. In his memoir, Two Evil Isms: Pinkertonism and Anarchism, Pinkerton detective Charlie Siringo 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." 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]

In 1895, Horn reportedly killed a known cattle thief named William Lewis near Iron Mountain, Wyoming. Horn was exonerated for that crime and for the 1895 murder of Fred Powell six weeks later.[9] In 1896, a ranchman named Campbell, known to have a large stash of cash, was last seen with Horn.[1]

Although his official title was "Range Detective," Horn essentially served as a killer for hire.[10] 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 killed the two rustlers, Matt Rash and Isom Dart, while following up on what became known as the Wilcox Train Robbery. He may have been working freelance for the Pinkerton Agency when he did so.[11]

During the Wilcox Train Robbery investigation, Horn obtained information from Bill Speck that revealed which of the robbers had killed Sheriff Josiah Hazen, killed during pursuit of the robbers.[12] Either George Curry or Kid Curry were said to have killed the sheriff. Both outlaws were members of Butch Cassidy's Wild Bunch gang, then known as "The Hole-in-the-Wall Gang," for their hideaway in the mountains. Horn passed this information on to Charlie Siringo, who was working the case for the Pinkertons.

Horn briefly entered the United States Army to serve during the Spanish American War. Before leaving Tampa for Cuba with the troops, Horn contracted malaria and was judged unfit for combat.[citation needed] After recovering, he returned to Wyoming. Shortly after his return, in 1901 Horn began working for wealthy cattle baron John C. Coble, who belonged to the Wyoming Stock Men's Association.[13]

Murder of Willie Nickell[edit]

While working again near Mountain, Wyoming, Horn visited the Jim and Dora Miller family on July 15, 1901. They were cattle ranchers. (Jim Miller was no relation to the Texas outlaw Jim Miller.) Jim Miller and his neighbor Kels Nickell had already had several disputes following Nickell's introduction of sheep into the Iron Mountain area. Miller frequently accused Nickell of letting his sheep graze on Miller land.[14] [15]

At the Millers, Horn met Glendolene M. Kimmell, the young teacher at the Iron Mountain School, which was supported by both the large Miller and Kels Nickell families. She boarded with the Millers. Horn entertained her with accounts of his adventures. That day he and males of the Miller family fished; he and Victor Miller, a son about his age, also practiced shooting, both of them with .30-.30s.[14]

The Miller and Nickell families were the only ones to have children at the school. Kimmel had been advised of the families' feud before she arrived, and found that it was often played out by conflict among the children.[14]

A few days later, on July 18, 1901, Willie Nickell, the 14-year-old son of sheep ranchers Kels and Mary Nickell, was found murdered near their homestead gate. A coroner's inquest began to investigate the murder. More violent incidents occurred during the period of the coroner's inquest, which was expanded to investigate these, and lasted from July through September 1901.[14]

On August 4, l901, Kels Nickell was shot and wounded. Some 60-80 of his sheep were found "shot or clubbed to death."[14] Two of the younger Nickell children later reported seeing two men leaving on horses colored a bay and a gray, as were horses owned by Jim Miller.[14] (Bay is a common color among horses.) On August 6, l901 Deputy Sheriff Peter Warlaumont and Deputy U.S. Marshal Joe LeFors came to Iron Mountain and arrested Jim Miller and his sons Victor and Gus on suspicion of shooting Kels Nickell. They were jailed on August 7 and released the following day on bond. Investigation of the shooting of Kels Nickell was added to the investigation of Willie Nickell's murder in the coroner's inquest.[14]

Deputy Marshal Joe Lefors later questioned Horn in January 1902 about the murder, while supposedly talking to him about employment. Horn was still inebriated from the night before, but Lefors gained what he called a confession to the murder of Willie Nickell. Horn was arrested the next day by the county sheriff. Walter Stoll was the Laramie County Prosecutor in the case.[16] Judge Richard H. Scott, who presided over the case, was running for reelection.[2]

Horn was supported by his longtime friend and employer, cattle rancher John C. Coble. He gathered a team for the defense headed by Judge John W. Lacey, and including attorneys T.F. Burke, Roderick N. Matson, Edward T. Clark and T. Blake Kennedy. Reportedly, Coble paid for most of the costs of this large team. According to Johan P. Bakker, who wrote Tracking Tom Horn, the large cattle interests by this time found Horn "expendable" and the case provided a way to silence him in regard to their activities. He wrote that 100 members of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association paid $1000 each toward the defense, but wanted a minimal effort.[17]

Horn's trial started October 10, 1902 in Cheyenne, which filled with crowds attracted by the notoriety of Horn. The Rocky Mountain News noted the carnival atmosphere and great interest from the public for a conviction.[14] The prosecution introduced Horn's confession to Lefors. (Horn later wrote that it was taken while he was intoxicated.) Only certain parts of Horn's statement were introduced, distorting his statement. The prosecution introduced testimony by at least two witnesses, including lawman Lefors, as well as circumstantial evidence; these elements only placed Horn in the general vicinity of the crime scene. During the trial, Victor Miller testified that he and Horn both had .30-.30 guns, and bought their ammunition at the same store.[14]

Glendolene Kimmell had testified during the coroner's inquest, saying she thought both the Miller and Nickell families responsible for maintaining the feud, but she was never called as a defense witness. She had resigned from the school in October 1901 and left the area, but was in communication with people in the case. She submitted an affidavit to the governor while the case was on appeal. It is recounted in secondary sources but the original document disappeared from public records.[14]

Horn’s trial went to the jury on October 23, and they returned a guilty verdict the next day.[14] 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. While in jail, Horn wrote his autobiography, Life of Tom Horn, Government Scout and Interpreter, Written by Himself, mostly giving an account of his early life. It had little about the case.

The Wyoming Supreme Court upheld the decision of the District Court and denied a new trial. Convinced of Horn's innocence, Glendolene Kimmell sent an affidavit to Governor Fenimore Chatterton with testimony reportedly saying that Victor Miller was guilty of Nickell's murder. Accounts of its contents appeared in the press, but the original document has disappeared.[14] The governor chose not to intervene in the case. Horn was given an execution date of November 20, 1903.


Tom Horn was one of the few people in the "Wild West" to have been hanged by a water-powered gallows. James P. Julian, a Cheyenne, Wyoming architect, designed the contraption in 1892. Known as "The Julian Gallows," it effectively 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, the beam broke free, opening the trap and hanging the condemned man.

Horn was hanged in Cheyenne. He was buried in the Columbia Cemetery in Boulder, Colorado on 3 December 1903.[18] Rancher Jim Coble paid for his coffin and a stone to mark his grave.[14]


It is still debated whether Horn committed the Nickells murder. Historians including Chip Carlson believe he did not, while others such as Dean Fenton Krakel believe that he did, but had not realized he was shooting an underage boy.[19] The consensus is that regardless of whether Horn committed that particular murder, he had certainly committed many others.[7] Carlson, who extensively researched the Wyoming v. Tom Horn trial, 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 (2001), there was no physical evidence that Horn had committed the murder. In addition, he was last seen in the area the day before it occurred, and the conditions of his alleged confession made it without value as evidence. Carlson believed the prosecution made no efforts to investigate other possible suspects, including Victor Miller. 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.

In 2014, the historian Larry Ball, professor emeritus at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, Arkansas, published Tom Horn in Life and Legend. Ball was fascinated by Horn's conflicting and enigmatic personality. Ball said that he is convinced that Horn shot and killed Willie Nickell near the Iron Mountain area: "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 contributed to his being convicted of the murder.[20]

At a discussion of their findings that year, Chip Carlson of Cheyenne continued his support of Horn's innocence, saying: "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.[20]

Representation in other media[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Desert Evening News November 20, 1903
  2. ^ a b c 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 Tom Horn at
  8. ^ Charlie Siringo, Thrilling Detective website
  9. ^ "The Murder of Fred U. Powell", Tom Horn website
  10. ^ The History Channel, "Cowboys and Outlaws," 2009
  11. ^ "The Murder of Fred U. Powell", Tom Horn Story website
  12. ^ Sheriff Josiah Hazen, Converse County Sheriff's Office, Wyoming, The Officer Down Memorial Page 
  13. ^ Carlson (2001), Blood on the Moon
  14. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Carol L. Bowers. "School Bells and Winchesters: The Sad Saga of Glendolene Myrtle Kimmell", READINGS IN WYOMING HISTORY (5th Revised Edition), Ed. Phil Roberts, University of Wyoming, 2007, Retrieved 2012-10-10
  15. ^ "Glendolene M. Kimmell, The Schoolmarm", Tom Horn's Story website
  16. ^ 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. 
  17. ^ Johan P. Bakker, Tracking Tom Horn(Union Lake: Talking Boy, 1993) pp. 127, 131-132
  18. ^ 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. 
  19. ^ Krakel, Dean, (1954/1988). The Saga of Tom Horn, Powder River Publishing
  20. ^ 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. 
  21. ^ 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." 
  22. ^ 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." 


Further reading[edit]

Numerous editions of Horn's autobiography have been published and the 1904 original is available online:

  • 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.  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, Introduction by Dean Krakel, (1973/1985). Life of Tom Horn - Government Scout and Interpreter: A Vindication. University of Oklahoma Press. - ISBN 978-0-8061-1044-8.

External links[edit]