Tom Horn - The Man Who Hanged Himself
Early on the morning of July 18, 1901, two shots ... then, a third, rang out across the Iron Mountain country of south-east Wyoming. A 14-year-old boy, Willie Nickell, lay dead at the gate that marked the entrance to his family's ranch.
A little over two years later, on November 20, 1903, one day short of his forty-third birthday, Tom Horn, convicted of killing Willie Nickell, would die in a hangman's noose at the Laramie County jail. Not only did Tom talk himself into the noose, but he also sprang the trap door, himself.
Thomas Horn was born near Memphis Missouri, November 21, 1860 to a large, farming, family. Farming doesn't seem to have appealed much to Tom, he was always sneaking off to hunt, rather than working or going to school. Tom left home at the age of 13, after losing a challenge to his abusive father.
Tom worked a few odd jobs, railroad track-layer, livery stable partner, stage driver, mule drover - by mid-1876, the latter occupation had brought him to Beaver Head Station, near the Verde River, Arizona Territory. His interaction with Mexicans in the region allowed Tom to become quite fluent in Spanish. This language talent, combined with his drover expertise, brought him to the attention of Al Sieber, chief of the Fifth Cavalry army scouts. Al hired young Tom as an interpreter - and seems to have served as a father figure to Tom, as well. Tom worked for Al, and others, as interpreter and drover, over the next several years.
In November, 1885, Tom Horn was chosen by Lieutenant Marion Maus, to be his chief of scouts - his fluency in Spanish figuring prominently in his appointment. Tom would serve as chief-of-scouts under several Army commanders, including Generals Crook and Miles. Tom saw action in several engagements with the Apaches, and was involved in the final capture of Geronimo in September, 1886.
Tom wandered and dabbled in various occupations - prospector, ranch hand, rodeo contestant, deputy Sheriff. There is some evidence that Tom may have killed his first man in July 1887. In later years, during drunken spells, he would brag of a "coarse son of a bitch" that he had killed, possibly in a dispute about a prostitute. It was Tom's bragging that would eventually lead him to that Wyoming gallows.
It was in his capacity as deputy that he was noticed by the Pinkerton's National Detective Agency. Tom Horn worked for the Pinkerton's from late 1890 until sometime in 1892, being involved in bringing at least two gangs of train robbers to justice. Late in 1892, Tom's Pinkerton duties brought him to Wyoming - just in time to see the last of the Johnson County War.
Even though the cattlemen 'lost' the Johnson County War, they didn't consider the matter closed. They were still determined to put an end to rustling of their herds - by whatever means necessary. As a 'deputy Sheriff', Pinkerton agent, cattle detective - Tom Horn was to work for Wyoming, and Colorado, cattle barons for most of the next ten years.
It would become a common scenario - a cattle rancher would report rustlers in his area, Tom Horn would be dispatched to the scene, the rustling would stop. Whether it was Tom's rifle, or his reputation, that caused the rustlers to disappear will never be known for sure - but Tom bragged that killing men was his occupation and that he had a corner on the market. Again, that bragging, the behavior that would prove to be his downfall.
In 1900, two small-time cattlemen, Matt Rash and Isam Dart, were killed in the Brown's Hole region of north-west Colorado. Rash and Dart were both strong suspects in several rustling episodes in the area. The killings were never solved, but it was well known that Tom Horn, using the alias 'Jim Hicks', was in the area at the time. Although never admitting to the two killings, Horn would brag that he had taken care of the rustling problem in the Brown's Park area.
The Rash and Dart killings, along with other un-solved killings, were starting to become an embarrassment for the cattle ranchers. The rustling was becoming less of a problem than the publicity problems caused by Horn's bragging. Perhaps it was time that Tom had to go.
Almost as big of a problem as rustling, to the cattle ranchers, was the 'sheep problem'. In the minds of many, cattle and sheep did not mix, and did not belong on the same range areas. It is likely that Tom Horn was told to see what could be done about some of the sheep ranchers in south-east Wyoming, one of those was Kels Nickell - Willie's father.
To this day, historians disagree as to whether it was Kels, or Willie, who was the intended target on that summer morning. They also disagree as to whether it was Tom Horn who fired the shots, or whether it was just made to look as if Tom had been involved.
Wyoming lawman, Joe LeFors, was able to wrangle a 'confession' from Tom Horn, although many say that Tom was drunk at the time - a state in which Tom was known to have become even more of a braggart than when sober. The 'confession' was recorded by a stenographer who hid in a back room of LeFors' office. One of Tom Horn's comments, during the 'confession', "It was the best shot that I ever made and the dirtiest trick that I ever done", would prove to be one of most damning pieces of evidence at his trial.
The trial of Tom Horn was one of the biggest events in Cheyenne, Wyoming, in 1902 - taking a full two weeks in October. Even though the 'confession' would be thrown out, in a matter of seconds, in a modern court of law, it was one of the primary pieces of evidence against Tom. There were no eye-witnesses to the crime. Several people were called to testify, including Joe LeFors, who told of the evidence found at the scene and how he came to get the 'confession' from Horn.
Then, the worst witness against Tom Horn testified - Tom Horn himself. Reading the trial transcripts, one has to wonder why his attorney allowed him to testify to begin with, let alone to allow his braggadocio to go on, un-checked. Again, perhaps it was time that Tom had to go, and certain people knew that Tom would 'hang' himself. The case was given to the jury on October 24th - after 5 hours deliberation, the jury returned a verdict of guilty in the murder of Willie Nickell, the jury setting Tom's sentence as death by hanging. There was a general community feeling that even if Tom hadn't murdered Willie, still Horn "had it coming" (the hanging).
While waiting execution, Tom did manage to escape from jail, but was almost immediately recaptured.
The gallows fashioned for the Tom Horn hanging was quite an elaborate affair, consisting of a divided trap-door, water containers, counter-weights, ropes and pullies - almost a Rube Goldberg device. The weight of the condemned, after being placed on the trap-door, started the entire process - so that, in effect, the convicted man would spring the trap-door, himself.
On the morning of November 20, 1903, after a large breakfast, Tom Horn was led to the gallows, where straps were buckled around his arms and legs. By all accounts, Tom was the least nervous of anyone at the event, even to the point of half-way joking with the sheriffs gathered to witness the hanging. A noose was fitted around his neck, and the bound Tom was lifted onto the trap-door, which started the 'machine'. Thirty-one seconds later, the trap-doors opened and the life of the range detective was over. His body was claimed by his brother, Charles, and transported to Boulder, Colorado. Tom Horn is buried on the southern edge of the old Columbia Cemetery, in Boulder. The grave marker shows Tom Horn's birth year, incorrectly, as being 1861.
Tom Horn Grave  
Click image for larger view.
Suggested Reading:
♠Horn, Tom
  Life of Tom Horn - Government Scout and Interpreter
  Written by Himself: A Vindication
    An auto-biography of Horn, written while awaiting execution. This book covers Tom's life up until the time that he arrived in Wyoming. There is nothing in the book regarding his activities after 1894.
♠Krakel, Dean F.
  The Saga of Tom Horn: The Story of a Cattleman's War
    First published in 1954, this book immediately became the subject of several threatened law-suits. Krakel and the publisher were forced to replace several pages in the books - however, about 100 copies of the original were smuggled out of Wyoming, thus making the original un-expurgated copies available, but quite scarce. The University of Nebraska reprint contains all the original text. This book contains significant portions of the trial transcript.
♠Carlson, Chip
  Tom Horn: "Killing Men is my specialty..."
  Joe Lefors: "I slickered Tom Horn..."
  Tom Horn: Blood on the Moon
    In these three books, Carlson thoroughly investigates the history of Tom Horn. In the third book, 'Tom Horn: Blood on the Moon', Chip reveals who he believes killed Willie Nickell - and it's not Tom Horn.

Back to Top of Page
Top of Page