The Story of Tom Horn
This post is a part of our series on Tom Horn – full collection of links at the bottom of the page.
Tom Horn – The Legends, The Truth
Old West outlaw? No, not in the conventional sense. Old West lawman, yes, at times a deputy U.S. marshal and deputy sheriff. Old West stock detective. Superb athlete and cowboy.
An instrument of Satan? Perhaps, depending upon one’s perspective.
But people whose parents and grandparents employed him say he was “a fine fellow, honest and dependable and very, very good at what he did.”
Today few stories are more alive, colorful and controversial than are those of Tom Horn of Wyoming. Hanged for a murder he probably did not commit (but could have), firestorms of controversy still surround debates of his guilt and the questionable nature of his trial.Operating unchecked as a stock detective for Wyoming’s cattle barons for ten years, he was a death sentence to rustlers and the devil incarnate to the homesteader.
Born in 1860 in northeast Missouri, he left home as a young teen, in search of adventure – and because of an abusive father.
He headed for the Southwest, where he soon became a wrangler and scout for the army in the Apache wars. Becoming chief of scouts under Generals Crook and Miles, he was instrumental in capturing Geronimo for the final time.
F. M. Ownbey, who worked with Tom Horn after Horn became a Pinkerton’s agent in Colorado. After Horn’s arrest for murdering Willie Nickell, Ownbey wrote to him in jail and said he felt he was innocent.
An epidemic of cattle rustling in southern Wyoming in the 1890s and the desperate straits of stockmen set the stage for Tom Horn’s arrival. Cattle thieves were duly warned, blood was shed, and Tom Horn was implicated but never charged.
Then on the morning of July 18, 1901, Willie Nickell, the fourteen-year-old son of a contentious, paranoid Wyoming sheepman, was shot.
Horn had been in the area, where romance entered the legend, in the person of an attractive schoolmarm.
Witnesses said “He made a very good impression on her; she was stuck on him.”
Joe LeForsHorn was duped into making a so-called confession after spending a night carousing in Cheyenne. The ruse was a job as a cattle detective in Montana – which did not exist. The master of dirty tricks was a deputy U.S. marshal in search of the reward money and glory, Joe LeFors.
Horn was arrested, tried in a controversial trial and hanged the day before his 43rd birthday in 1903.
A retrial was held in 1993 in which he was declared innocent. The New York Times described the trial, “Once Guilty, Now Innocent, But Still Dead.”
This essay was originally published on Chip Carlson’s personal website, which has since expired, and is re-published here as a way to preserve some of the content of this historical figure. If you would like to continue learning about Tom Horn, please explore the links below. If you’d like to read the complete story, and help to support the author, his book can be purchased here.
More about Tom Horn:
Tom Horn (main page)
The Tom Horn Story (summary)