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
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, Arizona in July, 1888, and participated in a Phoenix
contest in about 1890, setting a record time of 49.5 seconds.
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 manhunter 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.
Cheyenne Wyoming, 16th Street
looking East, C.D. Kirkland 1890
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 boy's father, Kels Nickell, was
shot in the arm and hip during another ambush.
U.S. Deputy 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.
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.