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Tom Horn - Wyoming Killer for Hire
Tom Horn in 1903 while awaiting execution.
This image is available for photographic
Born in Memphis,
Missouri on November 21, 1860, Thomas "Tom" Horn, Jr., a.ka. James
Hicks, would become one of the most celebrated hired guns of the Old
West, winning national fame for his freelance work, due in large part
to his autobiography, but winding up on the gallows for practicing his
Tom was the fifth of 12 children, and Horn's father,
Tom Horn Sr., was a strict disciplinarian. It's said this is why
Tom ran away in 1874 at the age of 14, heading west, at first to Santa
Fe, then on to Arizona.
While little is known for sure about this
period on Horn's life, by the time he was
15 he was an army scout and involved in many campaigns for more than a
surrender in 1886, which Horn alleged he played a major role. During that time he also learned Spanish.
As to his own account, Horn writing that
he played a big role in the surrender of Geronimo, many historians
doubt that, and actual accounts of that day indicate that Tom
was there solely as a Spanish to English interpreter.
After the surrender of Geronimo, Horn was
discharged as a scout and reportedly mined for a while in Aravaipa
Arizona. Again, other than his autobiography, little is known about
this period of his life for sure. We know that he was involved somehow
Pleasant Valley War between Arizona cattlemen and sheepmen,
but for which side we do not have a clear picture. We also know he was
an excellent roper in addition to his shooting skills, and that he won
a steer-roping contest in Globe, AZ in July of 1888, and participated
in a Phoenix contest in 1890 or 91, setting a record time of 49.5
It was during this time he gained an
interest in law enforcement. In 1890, after proving himself during a
short stint as a deputy sheriff in Arizona, Horn joined the
Pinkerton Agency as a roving gunman, and using his gun with lethal effectiveness tracked down dozens
reputedly killing 17 men. He was pressured to resign by
even though he was respected as a tracker, reportedly to prevent bad
publicity. Horn then decided to go it alone as a cattle detective,
turning up in Wyoming in 1894 working for the beef barons.
Horn denied killing anyone for the
Pinkertons, although offering the same lethal services to the
engulfed in what is known as the
Johnson County War. As a "Stock
Detective", for each cattle rustler he shot, he charged $500-$600 and quickly
proved to be a methodical man hunter and ruthless killer. Horn once
said "Killing men is my specialty. I look at it as a business
proposition, and I think I have a corner on the market."
Changing tracks in 1898, he headed to Tampa Florida and hired on as a
Packer during the Spanish American War. That was in April, but accounts
show he was discharged by September due to contracting Malaria. On the
mend, Horn headed back to Wyoming and returned to his dealings as a "gun
Records show that he was hired to stop cattle rustling in Brown's Hole
Colorado in 1900, at which time he was going by the name James Hicks. He
would boast in a letter, "I stopped cow stealing in one summer", this
being after he killed two area ranchers and scared the rest of the
rustlers out of the area.
In 1901 he was again a stock detective in Wyoming, but this would be his
last stint. In mid July, William Nickell, the 14 year old son of a
sheep rancher, was ambushed and killed in the Iron Mountain region,
allegedly due to a case of mistaken Identity, as the bullet was meant for
his father. About a week later, the boys father Kels Nickell was
shot in the arm and hip during another ambush.
Deputy U.S. Marshal Joe LeFors suspected Horn's involvement. LeFors,
wanting to gain a confession out of Horn, pretended to be in need of
someone to take on a rustler clean up job in Montana. During this
famous interview, Horn admitted to the Nickell's shootings, not knowing
that there was a court reporter concealed and taking notes.
Ultimately it would be his undoing.
Cheyenne Wyoming, 16th Street
looking East, C.D. Kirkland 1890
Although Horn complained
at his trial that he was drunk during the interview,
he would be found guilty on October 23, 1902, with the Wyoming State
Supreme Court denying him a new trial. He was sentenced to hang, which was
carried out in Cheyenne Wyoming on November 20, 1903.
While waiting for his execution, Horn wrote his autobiography "Life of Tom
Horn Written by Himself: A Vindication", which has a published date of
1904. His tales of getting Geronimo to surrender, as well as other
embellishments of his killing career, would garner him national fame as
well as critical analyses over the years.
In addition to accusations of an unfair trial, much of the continuing
controversy was based on statements in the book and its authorship.
It is alleged that the book was actually the work of Hattie Horner Louthan,
and that a written copy by her had been found in Denver. Regardless,
Tom Horn was etched into Old West history, being immortalized in at least
two motion pictures and a made for TV movie.
Tom Horn was buried in Boulder Colorado at Columbia Cemetery in early
December of 1903.
In September of 1993, a mock trial in Wyoming actually found Horn
innocent, pointing to the fact that the original prosecution had only an
alcohol induced confession, no witnesses and weak evidence.
©Legends of America, Dave Alexander. Updated October 2013.
Special Note to Steinar (Stan) Iversen, Alberta Canada. This was much
too long in coming, but what was once lost can actually be found. Thanks for your encouragement, and input. It will
never be forgotten. - Dave
Encyclopedia of Frontier Biography, Dan L. Thrapp, Vol II, 1988
The Gunfighters, Time Life Books, Paul Trachtman 1974
The Last Apache Hold Out
The Pinkerton Agency
Pleasant Valley War
Johnson County War
Gunfighters of the Old West
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