Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Hanging of Tom Horn, 1903


Dear Friends

Since many of you have asked for my research on Tom Horn, here it is. So now, put a pot of coffee on and find yourself a place where the children can't hear you cussing me out.

I'll start by saying that America's Western Frontier was officially declared closed by the United States Government in 1890. And yes, there are some Old West Historians who argue that the Old West, the nation’s "final" frontier where law and order was often a home-spun enterprise, died when Tom Horn was hanged in Cheyenne, Wyoming on November 20th, 1903.

Tom Horn was sentenced to death for the murder of a fourteen-year-old boy. Some Tom Horn fans have written to say, "Well the boy was big for his age" -- as if that makes a premeditated murder, an ambush, OK somehow. Well, it doesn't.

At the time, Horn was working as a paid assassin for the local cattle-barons attempting to enforce their control of the open range of southeastern Wyoming against the growing number of rustlers and sheep headers in the area.

On the Western frontier where Tom Horn's gun was for hire, he gave his cattle-baron employers full measure of what they paid for. And yes, it is said that he took their deadly secrets with him into eternity.

As for his supposedly adoring young schoolteacher ladyfriend, Glendolene Myrtle Kimmel, she described him, "He was a man who embodied the characteristics, the experiences and code of the old frontiersmen." And yes, so adds to the myth.

Horn was born near Memphis, Scotland County, Missouri, November 21, 1860. His father was a prosperous farmer, his mother, as he recalled her, "was a powerful woman ... a good old fashioned Campbellite."

In 1876, he was sixteen when he left home after a "disagreement" with his father. Like others who floated from job to job working their way West, he worked on the railroad in Kansas, then joined a team of freighters heading to Santa Fe.

His next job was driving a stage for the Overland Mail from Santa Fe to Prescott, Arizona. It's said that his first contact with the Apache was near Camp Verde where he worked as a cowboy riding night herd.

An Army Scout

The extent of Horn's experiences in the West was like many others in that he floated from job to job. He was known for having the job of being a stagecoach driver and cowboy was not out of the ordinary for someone to do for work in those days.

What supposedly made Horn extraordinary was his claim of being an Indian scout and interpreter, and his being one of the men involved with capturing the Apache Chief Nana. Fact is, Horn was quite the bragger and was well known for his tall tales. One in particular which grew legs later was his claim that he persuaded Geronimo to surrender. But yes, he was a scout for a time before becoming a hired killer who would boast "my stock in trade is killing."

When he left the Army after less than a year, like most all of the white Army scouts, fact is all he could speak was what was termed "border" Spanish. No, he was never "fluent" in Apache. And frankly, he was never fluent enough in the Spanish the Apache spoke to talk to Geronimo in a conversation.

According to Horn, at eighteen he was employed by the quartermaster's department to herd horses for the Army posts. And there at Fort Whipple, Horn met the famous Indian scout Al Sieber who immediately hired him as a scout.

Supposedly joined him as Mexican interpreter at San Carlos for $75 a month. According to Horn, it was there that he also met Mickey Free, the celebrated one-eyed Apache-Mexican scout, who became a close friend.

Later, Sieber appointed Horn as a liaison scout between the Apache and the Army at San Carlos and Fort Apache. It was during that time that he supposedly met Apache Chief Geronimo.

True West Magazine stated that Horn told readers in his biography, which was published just before he was hanged, that Al Sieber hired him as an assistant in 1876, and that Horn immediately became a scout.

Just for the record, I see Tom Horn as much a psychopath as John Wesley Hardin was. And while I do not but any credence in the word of a psychopath, I put no credence in Hardin's biography the same as I put no credence in Horn's biography. And frankly, it always surprises me when historian observe anything coming from the likes of killers like Horn or Hardin. Since they have absolutely no compunction to lying, cheating, or killing the unsuspected or the innocent for a dollar, why would anyone believe anything they have to say?

Besides the source being faulty, the problem with Horn's statements is that it doesn't coincide with records. For example, records show that Horn did not arrive in Arizona Territory until 1881. Army quartermaster records indicate Horn was first employed in September 1881 as a teamster at Whipple Barracks, near Prescott. He soon moved on to the pack train service and remained there until 1885, when the Army began using him as a scout.

It was in the fall of 1885 that he become a chief of scouts, a position he held until October 1886 -- about a year. Point is, no, he was never an Apache interpreter.

Horn loved to tell tall tales and told folks that Geronimo himself insisted that only Horn serve as his interpreter.

While Horn was present in the final pursuit of Geronimo in the summer of 1886, he was never Geronimo’s interpreter. This is especially true for the formal surrender in Arizona in September 1886.

Horn was part of the unit that escorted Geronimo to the train at Bowie Station that transported the captives into exile in Florida, but he was one among many others. When a Indian Bureau scandal shook Washington that year, all civilians were banned from the Indian agencies and the Army scouts lost their jobs.

According to Horn's autobiography, and yes it is a piece of work that should be taken with a lot of salt considering it was widely known that Horn enjoyed telling some very tall tales, he said that he and Sieber joined Ed Scheflin and watched the birth of Tombstone. Horn said that while Sieber worked a claim they had staked out, Horn supplied the camps with venison at $2.80 a deer.

Horn said that in October they were recalled to Fort Whipple to join the Sixth Cavalry as scouts. After he and Sieber helped to bring in Geronimo for the first time, they were again fired in the spring of 1879 when federal appropriations ran out.

For a year, Horn worked for Tuly, Oches & Company in Tucson, supplying beef for the Apache at San Carlos. And yes, once again civilians were issuing the rations and corruption was rampant. As Horn recalled, one agent when arrested could not account for $54,000 in food and clothing he had received between six and eight months at San Carlos. but frankly, no one has verified this to be true.

When the Apache war had begun, Horn said that he first served under Colonel Forsyth, hero of Beecher's Island battle, then as a scout when Captain Adam R. Chaffee's troopers of the Third and Sixth Cavalry met the Apache at Chevelon's Fork on the Little Colorado River. The Apache had lost a number of warriors and withdrew to be pursued by Chaffee until they agreed to return to the agency.

In the summer of 1886, Geronimo led a large number of warriors into Mexico. General George Crook ordered Captain Emmett Crawford, one of the finest young officers in the Indian Fighting Army, to track down the wily chief -- Horn, as chief scout, accompanied the expedition.

Under a new treaty allowing American troops to move into Mexico to seek out runaway Apache bands, the tiny army crossed the border and continued on into the Sierra Madre. On the Aros River, Horn and his scouts found the Apache chief's camp. While they engaged the hostiles, they were attacked by Mexican irregulars and Crawford was killed.

It's said that it was his time as a scout with the U.S. Cavalry where he perfected his skills with firearms and tracking. For many years, especially after Horn had been executed for killing a child, the US Army refused to credit him for the part he had played during the Apache campaign. They had no desire to give credit to a child killer.

After Horn's autobiography was published, an autobiography which was finished a short time before he died on the gallows, Army officers contemptuously dismissed him as a braggart. In the section of his autobiography that describes the Apache wars, Horn is said to brag about his bravery and courage.

Of course, if he was truly brave or courageous, why would he later become a killer for hire whose specialty was killing at a distance with a rifle?

By 1887, Horn was out of the Army and a participant in in the Arizona Territory’s Pleasant Valley War, a feud between the Grahams and the Tewksburys that began in 1882 and lasted over ten years.

Just three weeks after the Pleasant Valley War began, 1890, Horn was in the employ of the Pinkerton Detective Agency as a tracker tasked with tracking and finding various suspected lawbreakers. In reality, Pinkerton didn't use his services but a few times.

Horn's biography reads: "While Pinkerton's is one of the greatest institutions of the kind in existence, I never did like the work, so I left them in 1894. I then came to Wyoming and went to work for the Swan Land and Cattle Company."

A Hired Gun Or Hired Killer?

Horn became one of the many hired guns for the large cattle owners some time after being let go by Pinkerton after the Johnson County War. Horn had been in Wyoming and the Brown’s Park area years before that, 1894 according to his autobiography which is really only half true at best.

But many historians who have studied Tom Horn believe that he was in that area as early as 1892, already working for the big cattle interests with other gunman while doing on-and-off work for the Pinkertons.

It appears he alternated working between Arizona and Wyoming when weather conditions and the pay were suitable. During the period following Wyoming's Johnson County War, more people became aware that most of the cattle barons were from the East or Foreigners.

In many cases they were from big Eastern corporations as managers. They became tired of seeing settlers and sheep move in. And of course, they were tired of seeing "rustlers" take their cattle.

Then again, to the big cattle men at the time, whether they were settlers or sheep-men or thieves didn't matter. To them, they were all "rustlers".  And their solution, well that was to hire men willing to commit murder to protect their herds.

The movies makes it sound as if Tom Horn was one of a kind, but in reality Horn was one of many so-called "Stock Detectives" in the Wyoming territory alone. We forget that even fired Texas Ranger Bass Outlaw was a "Stock Detective" before murdering another Texas Ranger.

Most of them captured rustlers and brought them in to face the law, Horn was a bushwhacker in that he shot his suspects from a distance and left his victims face down dead on their land or even on their doorsteps. His specialty was killing from a distance, and definitely not face to face or in public.

It is said that people feared the sight of a solitary man on horseback outlined on a ridge-line or sitting beside a campfire. Tom Horn was the Wyoming boogieman to many at the time.

Bounties on the heads of sheep ranchers, settlers, and cattle rustlers usually paid anywhere from $300 to $600 a man. That was big money during a time when a working cowboy made $30 a month. Horn was known to collect and satisfy his employers.

And yes, in the eyes of the cattle barons, the term "rustlers" did not always mean cow thieves. Some were homesteaders who refused to leave the free range, had staked out water as part of their claim and were stubbornly willing to fight it out.


Horn stalked them until there would be a solitary shot and his victim's body would be found by his children, wife, or friends. Some historians have said Horn placed a small stone under his victim's head as his trademark, but this appears to me to be a legend of sorts.

Horn worked for some of the wealthiest and most powerful cattlemen in the West including in Utah, Colorado, Nevada, and Wyoming. And yes, he would roam the countryside prowling the valleys and isolated canyons, searching for signs that a rustler had used a running iron to change a brand.

While killing mostly unarmed men and scaring others was lucrative, Horn had become a drifter on the high plains. He moved from spread to spread and had only transient friends and saloon admirers who crowded around him to hear his boasting and tall tales while accept his drinks that he bought with his blood money.

In Brown's Hole, once Butch Cassidy's headquarters, Horn killed "Nigger Isam" Dart and Matt Rash. They were two suspected rustlers.

In the early summer of the year 1900, Matt Rash found one of Horn's famous notes tacked to his door. It was a warning to both him and Isam Dart to quit their rustling and leave the country or else.

Matt thought it was big talk, a bluff, and decided stick it out. He was shot twice as he ate breakfast on the morning of July 8th. He had just enough life left in him to crawl to his bed, remove one of his boots, and attempt to leave a note scrawled in his own blood.

Isam Dart, a sometimes partner of Rash, was an emancipated slave. He was a freed slave who until the Civil War carried the name of Huddleston who was his slave owner.

Dart received his note from Horn on September 26th, 1900. At dawn on a cold October morning, Isam Dart died of a single gunshot wound to the head as he stepped out of his cabin heading towards the corral.

Horn lived with wealthy cattle baron John Coble north of Laramie, Wyoming, since about 1894. John Coble was the son of a wealthy Pennsylvania family. He was in fact an Easterner who had gone West rather than accept an appointment at the United States Naval Academy. Coble is said to have been like most Easterners who romanticized about the West after reading Dime Novels. He believed the myth and accepted the fraud as fact.

John Coble had established the Frontier Land & Cattle Company with young Irish nobleman Sir Horace Plunkett, only to be wiped out in the bitter winter of 1886-1887. Sir Horace returned to Ireland and a brilliant political career while Coble moved to Iron Mountain, Wyoming, where he established a ranch.

Coble viewed Horn as a link to the days of the frontier. Remember, these were the days of Wild West Shows and the romantic notions of the West. A lot of people were making a lot of money romanticizing about the West that was never as they portrayed it.

Horn is said to have accommodated Coble by playing the role of the intrepid Indian fighter while entertaining Coble and his guests at the Cheyenne Club. Horn was the "Forest Gump" of his time as he told tales supposedly placing him at just about every historic event in the Old West in the 1800s.

Yes, according to Horn, he moved the herds up the Chisholm Trail, stalked the Apache, settled Tombstone, and tamed the West almost all by himself before breakfast.

While living with Coble, Horn began to search out "rustlers" and others of annoyance to Coble. This was the reason Horn met the Millers, a homesteading family, and the strange little schoolteacher who boarded with them.

The schoolmarm Glendolene Myrtle Kimmell is said to have been born in Hawaii, but supposedly arrived in Wyoming in July of 1901 by way of Hannibal Missouri -- if that makes any sense at all. By way of San Francisco maybe, but by way of Missouri is certainly taking the long way to get to Wyoming.

Glendolene Myrtle Kimmell is said to have been a round-faced girl who some thought was Chinese because she reportedly looked Asian. She supposedly had a deep desire to see the Wild West with its gallant frontiersmen about whom she had read so much about.

By her own statement in the supplementary articles to Horn’s autobiography, she had come West because she was "strongly attracted by the frontier type."

Miller's sons were said to be a disappointment to her. But the "legend" Tom Horn fulfilled her dreams with all sorts of tales. As she later wrote, "he was the true embodiment of the romantic man of the West, tall, lean, hawk-eyed with an air of danger about him."

It's said that she was good for Horn's ego and bankroll, as he basked in her admiration and hero worship. While being the object of her admiration, Horn also learned of the feud between the Millers and their neighbor -- the homesteader Kels P. Nickell.

As with other places in the West, feuds over land had been going on in an out of court for a long time. Miller and Nickell had been in and out of court, and once they had such an angry confrontation. That was when Nickell is said to have actually tried to slash Coble with a knife.

Then when Nickell brought in sheep, the cattle country rose against him. But that didn't matter to the fiercely stubborn Kentuckian Nickell who defied his neighbors and stood guard over his flock armed with a shotgun.

Child Killer?

On the very early morning of July 18th, Kels Nickell's 14 year old son Willie went out to saddle up and stay overnight with his father at the sheep camp. His mother waved good-bye and went back into the house. Shortly after two shots rang out.

It was later that morning when the two younger Nickell boys found the body of their brother at the corral gate. Apparently he had been knocked from his saddle with one shot, then as he weakly tried to run toward the house he was shot a second time. Mrs Nickell later testified that she did not hear them and remained in the house.

Yes, it's true that Horn had a real aversion to killin’ people in public. During his life he may have shot and killed at least four men that can be confirmed. So yes, the story that he killed as many as 15 to 20 is all just myth most likely made up by Horn himself. As with others who were hired to do such things, a great reputation served them well.

It is interesting to note that Horn's contemporaries never regarded him as a "gun man" or "man killer" or a "shootist." Because of his reputation shooting his victims from ambush, he was considered a "bushwhacker."

Horn liked to brag about his marksmanship, but realistically t is believed that his shots were always less than 100 yards. Some say 50 yeard. The distance of the his rifle shots must not have been very far because he was known to walk over to his victim's body to examine the body. He was known to shot from fairly close hiding position.

Kels Nickell's 14 year old son Willie was shot as he was closing a gate at his father's ranch. It is believed that the boy tried to run but staggered or crawled approximately 60 to 70 yards up the road towards home before dying from a second shot. Willie Nickell died of two rather nasty gunshot wounds to the torso.

Willie was wearing his father's hat, coat and was riding a big bay horse belonging to his father. When his body was found, he had been rolled over on his back and his shirt opened so whoever killed the boy inspected the exit wounds.

Later at Horn’s trial two physicians with military experience testified about the wounds. One said the wounds were from soft-nosed .30-30 rounds, the other said they were inflicted by .45-90 rounds.

Willie’s head was found to be lying upon a flat rock. Settlers who knew of Horn's MO, his "modus operandi," and his reputation named him as the killer. But Horn produced an alibi saying that he was on a train between Laramie and Cheyenne on the day Willie was killed. No one could confirm he was on that train.

Victor Miller was also a suspect but schoolmarm Glendolene Kimmell, the schoolteacher, testified at a coroner's jury that he was at home when the shooting took place. It was also believed that Victor Miller and Glendolene Kimmell were romantically involved.

John Coble was a friend with Jim Miller who was also feuding with Nickell. It is believed that Horn sent Nickell a message for Miller and Coble by killing his son Willie.

The killing of a boy set the people on fire. Soon the county offered a reward of $500 and reward posters appeared, then state of Wyoming matched the county's reward offer of $500 and reward posters appeared on fence posts and telegraph poles.

Willie's father is also shot!

Something that is never talked about, and the movie Tom Horn conveniently left out, is the fact that just a few days after his son Willie was shot on July 18th, on July 23rd, his father Kels Nickell got into a fight with John Coble and Coble’s foreman, George Cross, at the Western edge of Nickell’s homestead over some cattle. 

During the two on one fight, Kels Nickell is said to have actually knifed John Coble in the abdomen. This was a wound that was said to be serious but not life threatening. Although that doesn't make any sense since any wound at the time was fairly life threatening because of infection.

Then on August 4th, Kels Nickell was shot and wounded from ambush, the bullets shattering his arm. Riders near by scared away the would be killer. Later as he lay in the hospital, Kels Nickell learns that a number of masked men had clubbed many of his sheep to death. 

Some say that Horn sent Kels Nckell a message by killing his son, but that message did not work. So on August 4th, Horn is said to have ambushed and shoot Kels Nickell.

It was only after that ambush that Kels Nickell moved on. And yes, it is believed that Tom Horn took credit for shooting Kels Nickell and forcing him to move on.

Remember, he was quite the bragger. Besides, he certainly could have done it because Horn was still free to do so. Remember, when Kels Nickell was shot, Horn had not been arrested yet. He was not arrest for killing the Nickell's boy until the following year.

Joe LeFors' Investigation

While we think that the interest in the killing of a boy would not die away, believe it or not, it's said that the interest in the murder of Willie Nickell gradually died away. And frankly, while the movie Tom Horn was not favorable to him, if it weren't for Joe LeFors -- the murder of Willie Nickell would have been forgotten.

While the movie shows LeFors to be a corrupt cop bought off by the cattle barons, that wasn't the case with Joe Lefors. Fact is Joe LeFors, who was the Deputy United States Marshal in Cheyenne. He didn't let the murder of a young boy go without attention. It is said that he doggedly continued to investigate the boy's murder even after some told him that he would be putting his own life in danger doing so. 

After he had interviewed the Millers, while in Denver on a shopping spree, Miss Kimmell wrote a long letter to Horn to warn him that LeFors was asking questions about him. Some believe this was an attempt to get Horn to leave the area. Instead, Horn ignored the letter and continued to make his nightly tour of the saloons.

Horn who had not been in Cheyenne for years discovered the city was no longer a large cow camp where a cowboy with money was king. The night was lighted with electric signs, the wooden sidewalks were gone along with the old fashioned stores and their false fronts. It was a modern city. 

To the supposedly adoring Ms Kimmell, Tom Horn in his high-heeled boots and sombrero, was a living legend -- but to some of the people the city of Cheyenne, Horn was see as a living anachronism. Yes, seen as something or someone that is not in its correct historical or chronological time period -- something or person that belongs to an earlier time.

It's said that when Horn was sober, he was a delightful companion who held the attention of a crowd with an endless storehouse of anecdotes and fanciful stories about the frontier. But when drunk, he was a violent and unpredictable killer. And since Horn was 6’1” and weighed in at 204 lbs, he was very capable of being very violent without a gun.

Drunk or sober, Tom Horn liked the sound of his own voice and talked a great deal to prove it. Of course, if you listened well, you'd soon find that Horn placed himself at every historic event in the West even if they took place before he was born. But for many at the time, Horn's reputation, whether inflated or not, was a link to the frontier that was fast becoming a romantic memory.

It's said that when Horn walked into a saloon, he was quickly joined by admirers who were always ready to buy him drinks and listen to tales of his supposed bravery and courage. It is known that on a few occasions Horn let his mouth write checks that his ass couldn't cash -- and did in fact get the stuffing knocked out of him.

One such brawl took place in the first week of October 1901 in a Denver Colorado bar brawl. The outcome of that brawl wasn't one that Horm wanted to brag about. He actually got his jaw broken and was laid up for nearly twenty days in a St. Luke’s Hospital.

No, the fight wasn't with the legendary boxing champion Jim Corbett as in the movie Tom Horn. Fact is, he never met the legendary boxer Gentleman Jim Corbett.

Deputy U.S. Marshal Joseph S. LeFors, in his autobiography, states he was first introduced to Tom Horn by Cheyenne police chief Sandy McMcNeil in Frank Meanea’s saddle shop. Horn was buying a scabbard for his Winchester and he and LeFors talked about guns. But there is a good chance that they may have had first met in the early 1890s when Horn was employed by the Pinkerton Detective Agency.

Marshal LeFors was in Laramie gathering information regarding the day of the Nickell murder when Horn had arrived in Laramie "on a steamy shaken horse" that had obviously been ridden hard. Horn had left a bloodstained sweater at a cobbler's shop.

The marshal set a trap for Horn. On the pretext that a rancher-friend in Montana wanted a good "Stock Detective". According to the movie Tom Horn, Lefors found Horn drinking heavily in a boasting mood as usual. Supposedly between chews of tobacco, the cattleman's hired killer told how he had been paid "twenty-one hundred dollars for killing three men and shooting five times at another." 

He also calmly told LeFors how he shot the Nickell boy at "three hundred yards" and called it "the dirtiest trick I have ever done ... killing is my specialty ... I look on it as a business ..."

Behind the door of LeFors's office were Deputy Sheriff Leslie Snow and Charles Ohnhatus who was the district court stenographer. Charles Ohnhatus was not some amateur at taking statement, he actually recorded everything Horn told LeFors just as if Horn were sitting in court. And yes, LeFors let the drunk "Talking Boy" brag all he wanted.

After Horn left, Deputy US Marshal LeFors swore out a warrant for murder and Horn was arrested in the lobby of the Inter-Ocean Hotel.

According to court records, Deputy U.S. Marshal LeFors acknowledged in direct examination from Walter Stoll that his conversation with Tom Horn had occurred in the morning, starting around 11 o’clock, and that it had "perhaps" continued in the early afternoon. LeFors also stated that Horn’s condition was not drinking and that he was "sober and rational."

The Arrest

Tom Horn was arrested without incident on Monday the 13th of January 1902. County Sheriff Edward J. Smalley, Under-Sheriff Dick Proctor, and Chief of Police Sandy McNeil were the arresting officers. Federal Deputy US Marshal Joe LeFors is said to have supervised the arrest. Some say from a distance, while others say he stood next to Chief McNeil at the time of the arrest.

Horn's Model 1894 Winchester, serial #82,667 in 30WCF, was taken from him at his arrest the next day. It had been shipped from the Winchester factory on the 19th of June 1900.
The Trial

Horn's trial in the fall of 1902 was one of the most sensational of its time. The West knew the legendary killer was not as important as the unlined issue of the case -- that being the wealthy influential cattle barons war against small mostly penniless homesteaders and sheepherders. Some said the trial was the old century colliding with the new, but most knew it was about big money and power and greed which are as old a sin itself. 

As for the cattle barons, the members of Wyoming Stock Growers Association paid over $1,000 per member to pay for Horn's defense counsel -- which was said to be the best that money could buy.

Foremost among them was former Judge John W. Lacey, Wyoming’s first Chief Justice. Other members of the team were Timothy F. Burke, Roderick N. Matson, Edward T. Clark and T. Blake Kennedy.

On the prosecution’s side of the aisle were Prosecuting Attorney Walter R. Stoll and a couple young attorneys named Clyde M. Watts and H. Waldo Moore, no slackers here by any means either. Unlike the movie Tom Horn which depicts the trial outside, the trial was in reality held on the second floor of Cheyenne's old courthouse.

And yes, it was a spectacle as every day the courtroom was jammed with on lookers. Cattlemen and homesteaders came on horseback, in fringed carriages, and wagons loaded down with children, some who would boast years later to their grandchildren how they had seen Tom Horn, the child killer, during the days he had fought for his life in the small dusty courtroom.

The trial ran from October 10th until October 24th, 1902, and was presided over by Judge Richard Scott. Some say the prosecution’s case rested on circumstantial evidence, the "LeFors Confession" and public opinion. One of the many things that hurt Horn’s case was the fact that the jury was not completely sequestered -- and Horn himself.

The jury had to walk two and a half blocks to take their meals at the Inter-Ocean Hotel where they would engage in conversations with other restaurant patrons about the trial. The jurymen were also subjected to catcalls and threatening remarks by some and cheering by others on their way to and from the courthouse.

This is in addition to the incredible political pressure for a conviction, it was very near Election Day for Prosecutor Stoll. Subsequently, a carnival-like atmosphere prevailed and the court was packed everyday with members of the press, some from as far away as New York and of course the locals.

The big city reporters from back East strut about in derbies and celluloid collars while cowboys in tight Sunday suits and ties with tiny knots were there as well. Self-conscious "witnesses" in their best suits, and farmers with mud-splattered boots and collarless shirts, all attended.

The highlight of the trial was the testimony of Joe LeFors and Tom Horn. The marshal detailed how he had set the trap for Horn, then read his "confession." Horn denied he killed the boy and insisted LeFors had doctored the notes in his quest for the $1,000 reward. 

Tom "Talking Boy" Horn

Horn's defense team's biggest problem was Horn himself -- or more precisely Horn's mouth which they couldn't keep shut. Like it or not, Horn was not the stoic figure some try to paint him as, in fact his defense team soon found out why famed Apache Chief Geronimo nicknamed Tom Horn "Talking Boy".

His defense team found out they couldn't get him to shut up once he was on the witness stand. "Talking Boy" certainly lived up to the Apache warrior's nickname under Prosecutor Stoll's questioning.

Of course he also shot himself in the foot after a comment that many feel really turned the proceedings against him. It was an answer to a question about a witness’s earlier statement. Otto Plaga said he had seen Horn, "He was just spooking along in his usual way, about 25 miles away from the scene -- only an hour or so after the shooting of Willie."

One of Horn's attorneys, Blake Kennedy wrote this is his memoirs: "Plaga gave me an affidavit to the effect that he had seen Horn on horseback at a point where it was practically impossible for him to be, had he been at the spot where the killing took place, which I thought was very valuable evidence; and it would have been except that Horn, when testifying himself upon the trial, not willing to subdue his passion for 'braggadocio' responded to a question that he supposed it would not be impossible for a man who was a good rider and knew the country to cover the ground between where the killing took place and where Plaga had testified he saw him."

Yes, Tom Horn was anything but stoic and actually debunked a witness that may have gotten him off. Imagine that!

A sense of drama, or is it all just myth?
Tom Horn Jury
On the morning of October 23rd, 1902, the jury returned a verdict of guilty and Horn was sentenced to be hanged. He was returned to his cell while appeals took place. And supposedly the big question at the time was: Would Tom Horn betray his wealthy accomplices to save his own life?

Supposedly at the time, there was in fact a plot to blow up the jail by Horn's cowboy friends which was uncovered in December. In the saloons the story was going around that Butch Cassidy was gathering his Wild Bunch to help in Tom Horn's escape. Of course it didn't matter that at the time Cassidy was in South America and most of his gang were dead or in jail.

Five sticks of dynamite were "supposedly" found in the snow outside the wall of the jail and guards found a length of lead pipe hidden in the range killer's pants leg.

All in all, the winter passed and in August as the city prepared for its annual Frontier Days. That was when Horn made a desperate attempt to escape. His partner was Jim McCloud (also spelled Macleod), waiting trial for robbery.

Horn's attorneys fought to the last hour to save him.

Supposedly a grief-stricken Miss Kimmell, who had gone back to Missouri, gave a last-minute affidavit in which she claimed she had "overheard on three different occasions" two men talk of how they had shot the boy. The attorneys appeared before Governor Chatterton, but after a hearing, he ruled that the schoolteacher "was not telling the truth but seeking to shield Horn" and refused to postpone the execution. 

He also revealed there was "a plan by which the train which took Horn to the penitentiary was to be wrecked and the prisoner freed. But that was contingent upon his securing a commutation of the sentence to life imprisonment. But I have given the matter the last consideration and the execution will take place on Friday without fail ..."

Horn did try to Escape! 

In the cell next to Horn was a safe-cracker by the name of "Driftwood Jim" McCloud (or Macleod), prisoner 802. McCloud constantly complained of stomach problems and was prescribed a medicine he needed to take twice a day and the deputies had to open his cell door to do so. The mechanism that remotely opened McCloud's cell door, also opened Horn's cell door.

So, on Sunday, August 9th, 1903, at 8:00am, when the cell door to McCloud was opened to dispense his medicine -- Horn and McCloud decided to make their break. County Under-Sheriff Dick Proctor was tied up with a window cord to affect their escape and they proceeded into the Sheriff’s office in search of weapons.

But as fate would have it, they overlooked a cabinet containing five .30-30 Winchesters and McCloud then ran out a side door leaving Horn to wrestle the Under-Sheriff alone. Horn snatched a pistol from Under-Sheriff Proctor, that he didn't know how to use, beat the officer and ran. 

According to historian Lee A. Silva, the handgun Tom Horn tried to use during his escape attempt was a John Browning designed, Fabrique Nationale manufactured, semi-automatic pistol.

 The F.N. pistol had a slight resemblance to the Colt 1903 Pocket Hammerless. Silva met with Richard Proctor, grandson of Under-Sheriff Dick Proctor from whom the little F.N. was forcibly removed by Horn. Richard Proctor is still in possession of his grandfathers F.N. semi-automatic pistol which carries the serial number 56666.

Horn ran out the same door used by McCloud, but when hearing the Cheyenne police shooting at his old roommate, Horn decided to run south then East towards Capitol Avenue.

Beware of the Merry-Go-Round Operator!

Believe it or not, a Merry-Go-Round Operator by the name of O.M. Aldrich spotted legendary killer Tom Horn running. In response Aldrich grabbed his own .38 caliber Iver Johnson pistol and took a shot at Horn. But sadly, Aldrich missed. It is said that Horn then turned and tried to return fire, but didn't know how to operate the semi-automatic pistol. 

The Merry-Go-Round Operator Aldrich got up behind Horn and pulled the trigger again. This time his shot creased Horn's head -- stunning the killer. And yes, believe it or not, it is said Horn fainted when shot sending him down face first into the ground.

As Horn tried to regain his feet, he again attempted to fire at Aldrich -- and again he didn't know why the FN semo-automatic pistol wouldn't fire. By this time Robert LaFontaine showed up to help Aldrich tackle Horn.

After being clubbed several times on the back of the head by the Merry-Go-Round Operator Aldrich with his little Iver Johnson .38 caliber pocket pistol, the famed Tom Horn stopped resisting and surrendered to Aldrich. Yes, the Merry-Go-Round Operator whopped the hell out of Tom Horn!

Robert LaFontaine said later that he spent most of his time pulling Aldrich off Horn for fear he was going to kill the killer. Imagine that!

A Crowd Escorted Horn Back To Jail
Horn was lead back to jail by a large group of townies and city policemen Otto Aherns, a second officer named Stone and Deputy Sheriff Leslie Snow. The last few days before Tom’s execution armed troops surrounded the block where the jail and courthouse were located and supposedly a Gatling gun was placed on the roof.
As for being railroaded?

I have never believed that Horn was rairoaded. I've never believed that was the situation simply because there was no need for him to be railroaded and there has never been any proof as such. Let's be frank here, other than in a plot of a Hollywood movie, there is absolutely no evidence, absolutely none presented to anyone, to prove that there was some sort of conspiracy to get rid of Horn because he was some sort of embarrassment as the movie Tom Horn tries to say.

Fact is, Horn applied his trade for many years with many other ranches and associations in Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, and even Utah. In every instance when he was done, he was simply paid and moved on to other ranchers who needed his services. So why was he all of a sudden a supposed embarrassment when everyone made no secret as to what he was there for?

Besides, why would the Wyoming Cattlemen's Association and Coble specifically be the only people to want to frame him -- especially when knowing full well that all they would have had to do to make him go away was to pay him and send him on his way? And if he was "railroaded," why would the cattle-barons pay for the best lawyers that money could buy to defend him? Does that sound like someone trying to railroad someone?

Also remember that the Johnson County War proved how the cattle-barons were above the law because of their political influence. It was a fact that the Wyoming Stock Growers Association had friend in the White House.

In a second ambush, Kels Nickell was shot a few days after his son was killed and many thought that was Horn as well. As for Kels Nickell being some recent homesteader just arriving there, fact is Kels Nickell was actually in that area before Coble was. Coble was the newcomer to the area.

Unlike how the movies portray homesteaders, Kels Powers Nickell was typical of Americans who got out of the Army and decided to stay. Kels Nickell came West when he served in the US Army under General Crook in 1876. He fought in the Indian Wars and was no slouch when it came to fighting.

Nickell fought under Crook at the Battle of the Rosebud in southern Montana, north of Sheridan, Wyoming. Crook lost the battle, which forced his retreat to the south just days before Custer’s annihilation. Nickell was counted as part of the force at Fort Laramie, Wyoming, in the census of 1880.

After his discharge that year, he moved to Camp Carlin on the northwest outskirts of Cheyenne, and opened a blacksmith and farm machinery repair shop. He got married in 1881, and filed a homestead claim in 1885, a few years before Coble arrived in the Iron Mountain region.

The Coble and Nickell feud started over land. In 1885, Nickell filed for an additional 480 acres of government land, which could be acquired for $1.25 per acre. Over the course of years, he bought, sold and filed desert claims -- which was a common way to acquire arid government tracts by going through the motions of irrigating them.

Coble and Nickell were arch enemies and had a long history of being such. And yes, John Coble was friends with Jim Miller who were also feuding with Kels Nickell. 

From 1894 to 1901, Horn worked as an "enforcer" for the large cattle interests in Arizona, Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming. He was charged with the task of tracking down and "dealing justice" to those suspected of stealing cattle or encroaching on their range. Horn’s “justice” was delivered by a bullet fired by his .30-30 Winchester carbine from a concealed position.

Supposedly, Horn had studied his victim and was familiar with his routine. When it came to Willie Nickell, it was surmised that in the early morning hours, Horn nestled in a group of rocks overlooking the entrance of the Nickell’s ranch He saw his victim approach the gate and dismount. Horn stood up from his concealed position and aimed his rifle. 

It is believed that he suddenly realized that the person in his rifle sights was not his intended victim. It was his fourteen-year-old son, Willie, wearing his father’s hat and coat. Seeing Horn, the boy whirled and ran. After an instant of indecision, Horn fired a series of shots and watched the boy collapse to the ground, dead.

Tom Horn could have escaped justice if it were not for the extraordinary detective work of the legendary Old West lawman Joe LeFores who tricked "Talking Boy" Tom Horn into confessing his crime. Horn was tired and convicted on October 24, 1902.

The Hanging of Tom Horn

On the morning of November 20th, 1903, Horn went to his death, scorning requests that he turn informer and name the wealthy cattle barons who paid him to murder the defenseless ranchers and rustlers. When he died on the gallows in Cheyenne on a November morning in 1903, the city was under martial law after rumors had been printed Horn's "cowboy friends" would storm the jail and release him.

Such a thing was not a Wild West fantasy -- not many years before Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch riders had been prepared to free his fellow outlaw Matt Warner from a Utah jail until Warner's wife begged him not to do it.

Those there were said have held their breath until the trap was sprung to let Horn's body dangle at the end of the hangman's rope. Horn had been hired by prominent men in the cattle industry and the prosecutor had indicated his death sentence might be commuted to life imprisonment if he talked. Horn scorned the offer. He was a cool calculating killer.

His supposedly adoring Miss Kimmel was heard to say, "He never broke the code -- to betray an employer or a friend was unthinkable."

Too bad she didn't understand that the code she spoke off was not meant to cover for criminal behavior such as murder. The Cowboy Code was scorned by outlaws, badmen, con men, scoundrels, and man killers.

Eyewitness Account of the Hanging

The following eyewitness account of the hanging of Tom Horn was written by John Charles Thompson, a reporter. His account was originally published in the Denver, Colorado, Posse of Westerners. 

Horn was executed with a new, and supposedly, more humane, method of hanging that relied on the emptying of a bucket of water to trigger the release of the trap door upon which the condemned man was standing: 

"We newspapermen were crammed into a little space at the edge of the platform adjoining Horn's cell; the visiting sheriffs were marshaled on the first-tier level below.

The Irwin brothers, flanked by guards, stood beside them. The executioners and a venerable Episcopal clergyman, Dr. George C. Rafter, an acquaintance of Horn, were on the gangway at the opposite edge of the platform.

Beside the Irwins stood two physicians, Dr. George P. Johnston and Dr. John H. Conway. They were gentlemen of the highest integrity whom nothing could have induced to contribute to a criminal conspiracy.

Horn, his back against the cell grill, was half-reclining on his narrow bed, puffing a cigar. He was perfectly composed. His soft shirt was unbuttoned at the collar, this exposing the scar of the wound he had suffered in a fight at Dixon.

'Ready Tom,' said Proctor.

Horn arose, carefully placed his cigar on a cross reinforcement of the grill, strode firmly the few steps required to take him to the side of the gallows platform.

He nodded to the Irwins; sardonically scanned the peace officers below.

Ed,' he commented to Smalley, 'That's the sickest looking lot of damned sheriffs I ever seen.

'Would you like us to sing, Tom?' asked Charlie Irwin. ‘Yes, I'd like that,' responded Horn.

So, while Proctor buckled straps that bound Horn's arms and legs, the Irwins, each in a rich tenor, sang a rather lugubrious song popular on the range, Life Is Like a Mountain Railroad.

The clergyman read his church's prayer for the dying Horn, standing relaxed, listened without a tremor.

‘Would you like to say anything?' asked Smalley.‘No,' replied Horn.

‘Tom,' spoke up Charlie Irwin, ‘did you confess to the preacher?

No,' was the reply

Proctor adjusted the noose, formed with the conventional knot of 13 wraps, to Horn's neck; drew a black hood over his head. Smal¬ley on one side and a friend of Horn, T. Joe Cahill, on the other, lifted the doomed man onto the trap.

Instantly the sibilant sound of running water permeated the breathless stillness; the instrument of death had begun to operate. To the straining ears of the listeners that little sound had the magnitude of that of a rushing torrent.

Smalley, his face buried in the crook of an arm resting against the gallows tree, was trembling.

‘What's the matter,' came in a calm tone through the black cap, getting nervous I might tip over?’

Seemingly interminable, the sound of escaping water ran on.

‘Joe,' said Horn, addressing Cahill, ‘they tell me you're married now. I hope you're doing well. Treat her right.'

Indubitably, he was the best composed man in that chamber of death.

Still the sinister sound of running water; then mercifully, the leaves of the trap parted with a crash and Horn's body hung through the opening.

Thirty-one seconds had elapsed since he had been lifted onto the trap!

He fell only four and one-half feet; his head and shoulders projected above the gallows floor. This drop was not sufficient; his neck was not broken. Proctor had feared to arrange a longer drop, apprehensive that stoppage of the fall of a body so heavy as Horn's might tear the head off. The slam of the massive hangman's knot against the side of Horn's skull knocked him into unconsciousness, however, and he did not suffer. For seventeen minutes the physicians with fingers on his pulse, felt impulses as a mighty heart labored on; then the pulse ceased.

Tom Horn was dead – unconfessed!
"


Yes, its eyewitness accounts like that that add to the myths of Tom Horn.

Another Myth: No One Wanted To Hang Horn

Actually, there were quite a few folks who wanted to hang Tom Horm. Fact is there was quite a line formed to pull the lever.

You see besides some of the family members of the "nesters" who he had reportedly killed, the list also including Kels Nickell whose son was shot by Horn.

And let's talk about the notion that "it was an accident." Friends, it was a murder of a boy while in the commission of a homicide. Horn intended to murder whoever was at that house. There is no accident here. Whether it was the father or the son, Horn intended on murdering someone.

As for his hanging? Looking at the times, the late 1800s and early 1900s, we have to remember that it was a time when people were already looking into more "humane" ways of preforming executions. In fact, as earlier in 1881, the state of New York established a committee to determine a new "more humane" method of execution to replace hanging.

Alfred P. Southwick, a member of the committee, developed the idea of running electric current through a condemned man after hearing a case of how relatively painlessly and quickly a drunk man died due to touching exposed power lines. We have to remember that the first Electric Chair execution in New York's Auburn Prison on August 6, 1890.

The electric chair was adopted by Ohio in 1897, Massachusetts in 1900, New Jersey in 1906, and Virginia in 1908, and soon became the prevalent method of execution in the United States, replacing hanging.

As for Horn's gallows, were they specially built specifically to hang Tom Horn? No it wasn't. 

Actually in 1892, which was many years before the hanging of Tom Horn, Cheyenne architect James P. Julian had designed the water operated gallows.

Yes, it was designed and built in 1892. It was created with the reasoning being that it would not require an executioner to spring the trapdoors.

The system alleviated any stigma of guilt placed upon anyone. The design was said to make a hangman obsolete. 

So no, it was not designed special just for Tom Horn. That's just another myth perpetrated by the movie "Tom Horn."

Fact is, that water operated gallows was created 11 years before the Horn hanging and actually remained the official gallows until Wyoming began using the gas chamber in the 1930s.

On that Friday morning on November 20th 1903, it was cold, windy and gray for what would be Laramie County’s last legal execution. Horn awoke early, had a large breakfast of eggs, bacon, cakes, bread and black coffee.

At approximately 10:30 am, Tom Horn was led from his cell for the last time. Frank and Charlie Irwin tried to sing the Baptist hymn "Life’s Railway to Heaven" -- "Keep your hand upon the throttle and your eye’s upon the rails."

The story goes that Frank and Charlie had to stop several times to compose themselves and wipe away tears before they could start the next stanza. But frankly, that's all part of the myth.

Because of the shackles worn by Horn, he had to be lifted onto the trapdoor of the gallows and then a black hood was placed over his head. There was no conversation and thirty-one seconds after Horn was placed on the trap he fell four-and-a-half feet into eternity. 

Again, unlike what Hollywood wants us to believe, his death was not as pleasant as portrayed in the movie either. Fore when he fell, he was knocked unconscious by the heavy hangman’s knot and died of strangulation a long agonizing 17 minutes later. Yes, 17 minutes of strangling to death.

Somehow, I don't doubt that the father of the boy that he shot enjoyed watching him die like that. You see, after Horn's body was cut down and taken to the local undertaker, it's said that Kels Nickell met the corpse at the mortuary and pulled back the rubber poncho.

Reports say Kels Nickell looked at Horn's dark blue face and nodded his approval -- as if satisfied before turning away and leaving.

The next day was Tom Horn’s 43rd birthday. And yes, his body was retrieved from the Gleason Mortuary by his brother Charles and taken to Boulder Colorado to be buried. John Coble of the Swan Land and Cattle Company paid for the cost of the coffin and all expenses associated with the funeral in Boulder.

John Coble paid for an elaborate coffin. Charles Horn accompanied the body of his brother to Boulder, Colorado, where it is said that more than two thousand gawkers followed the cortege to the cemetery. And yes, the Horn family is said to have kept a guard at the grave for some time to prevent ghouls "from digging up the corpse and selling it to showmen to put on exhibit."

In the long run, Coble and Miller won their long fight against Kels Nickell as he was forced to sell his spread and move to Cheyenne where he was said to have opened a steam laundry.

Wyoming State Capitol, 1890 
For the record, Cheyenne had a population of almost 12,000 people when it became Wyoming State Capitol in 1890.

It was a very large cosmopolitan city. It was nothing like the sparse cowtown that was portrayed in the movie "Tom Horn."

Fact is, the city of Cheyenne was a city in that it had brick building and sidewalks. It had enjoyed an incandescent lighting system since 1883.

It also had telephone service since the early 1890s. Which by the way, really wasn’t too shabby for a state with a total population of 92,531 in 1900.

After Horn's hanging, there were rumors in Cheyenne that Tom Horn was never executed but actually been freed through the power and political influence of the cattle- barons.

And yes, like Elvis, soon people were swearing that they had seen Tom Horn here and there. And believe it or not, some folks wondered if he was still stalking nesters, sheepmen, or getting ready to dry-gulch some settler. Some wondered if maybe, just maybe, he'd decide to shoot another unsuspecting kid who might just be wearing his father's hat and coat -- all as a supposed "favor" to a friend.

I can understand that feeling. After all, for settler in the Old West, bushwhacking killers like Horn were the original boogiemen.

And yes, that's just the way I see it.
Tom Correa


1 comment:

  1. Tom was a mean kid growing up as a boy and didnt like work or obey his parents...A rebel in his own time,,

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