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 trade.
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 decade, including Geronimo’s 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 with the 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 of outlaws, reputedly killing 17 men. He was pressured to resign by the agency, 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 cattlemen, who were 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 for hire”. 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 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.
While waiting for his execution, Horn wrote his autobiography “Life of Tom Horn Written by Himself: A Vindication”, which was published in 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, Colorado.
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 the Columbia Cemetery in early December, 1903. In September, 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 September, 2017.
Encyclopedia of Frontier Biography, Dan L. Thrapp, Vol II, 1988
The Gunfighters, Time Life Books, Paul Trachtman 1974