Tom Horn: Colorful Hired Killer Spreads Terror in Wyoming

Last week we saw serial killer Donald Gaskins have his budding career cut short. This week’s case is that of Tom Horn, one of the authentic “hired guns” of the American west. Horn rose to fame (or infamy) as a hitman during the fading days of the Old West.

Tom Horn—Scout, Rancher, Detective

Thomas Horn, Jr. was born on his family’s farm in Scotland County, Missouri in the northeastern corner of the state. The fifth of eventually 12 children, young Tom was a lonely child who often suffered abuse from his father. At 16, he traveled to the Southwest where the U.S. Army hired him as a scout and packer. His performance as a scout earned him praise and promotion. By 1885, he was chief of scouts at Fort Bowie in Arizona Territory. While with the Army, he witnessed Apache leader Geronimo’s final surrender to Gen. Nelson Miles on September 4, 1886.

Tom Horn braiding rope. The rumor that he braided the rope he was hanged with was false.
Tom Horn braiding rope. The rumor that he braided the rope he was hanged with was false.

Geronimo’s surrender marked the end of the Apache Wars in the Southwest. Horn took the money he had earned as a scout and started a small ranch in Southeastern Arizona Territory. However, one night, thieves attacked the ranch and stole his 100 head of cattle and 26 horses. The theft left Horn bankrupt. It also marked the beginning of his intense hatred for thieves

Following his failed attempt at ranching, Horn wandered about, holding a number of jobs. Most often he worked as a cowboy, where he was expected to use his gun to watch over the stock. In 1889, the Pinkerton National Detective Agency hired him because of his reputation as a tracker and for being cool under pressure.

Tom Horn Becomes a Hired gun

The so-called Johnson County War was essentially a class conflict between the big (and wealthy) cattlemen and small homesteaders. It was fought mostly over land and water rights. Ranchers who raised sheep were especially targeted; sheep supposedly destroyed the common grazing lands. Typically, the cattlemen would accuse a small rancher or farmer of rustling, often falsely. Lynch mobs often dispatched the “rustlers.”

"The Invaders," gunmen hired by the WSGA to elimnate the alleged rustlers in Johnson County (Photo taken at Fort D.A. Russell near Cheyenne, WO in May 1892)
“The Invaders,” gunmen hired by the WSGA to elimnate the alleged rustlers in Johnson County during the Johnson County War (Photo taken at Fort D.A. Russell near Cheyenne, WY in May 1892)

The Wyoming Stock Growers Association (WSGA) hired Tom Horn as a “range detective,” a euphemism for hired killer. He also continued to work for Pinkerton’s when the agency was in the service of the WSGA or other cattle interests. Horn earned a reputation as a tough and fearless killer.

Tom Horn Kills Willie Nickell—Or Did He?

The Miller and Nickell families were neighbors near Iron Mountain, Wyoming. Jim Miller raised cattle while Kels Nickell raised sheep. Conflict between the two families was inevitable. On July 18, 1901, Willie Nickell, the 14-year-old son of sheep rancher Kels, was found murdered near the gate of the Nickell homestead. The violence continued. On August 4, someone shot Kels Nickell. The next day, Deputy Sheriff Peter Warlaumont and Deputy U.S. Marshal Joe Lefors arrived in Iron Mountain. They arrested Jim Miller and his sons Victor and Gus for the shooting of Kels Nickell. The trio bonded out the next day.

Kels P. Nickell and Mary Mahoney Nickell, Willie’s parents (WY State Archives)

Months passed. In January 1902, Deputy Marshall Joe Lefors questioned Horn about the Willie Nickell murder while discussing potential employment. Horn, still drunk from a bender the night before, allegedly confessed to killing Willie with his rifle from 300 yards away. The county sheriff arrested him the next day.

Willie Nickell
Willie Nickell

Horn On Trial

Horn’s trial began in Cheyenne on October 10, 1902. Because of Horn’s notoriety, the trial attracted large crowds and a carnival atmosphere prevailed. Cattle rancher John C. Coble, a long-time friend and employer, funded the defense. However, ninety years later, writer Johan P. Bakker proposed that Horn had become expendable to the WSGA’s members. The trial became a way of silencing him before he could talk too much about their shady activities. Bakker theorizes that although WSGA members forked over $1,000 each for the defense, they made it clear they wanted a minimal effort.

The prosecution case against Horn leaned heavily on his supposed “confession” to Deputy Marshall Lefors. Circumstantial evidence placing him in the general vicinity at the time tended to support the “confession.” The defense called one Otto Plaga, who testified that Horn was 20 miles away at the time of the murder.

Tom Horn in Jail in Wyoming awaiting execution in 1903
Tom Horn in Jail in Wyoming awaiting execution in 1903

The jury got the case on October 23 and returned a guilty verdict the next day. Several days later, Judge Richard H. Scott sentenced Horn to death by hanging. A petition to the Wyoming Supreme Court for a new trial failed.

Epilogue

Tom Horn was hanged on November 20, 1903. People still argue his guilt today. Author Chip Carlson researched the case and wrote Tom Horn: Blood on the Moon. He concluded that while Horn could have killed Willie Nickell, he probably didn’t. Another writer, Dean Fenton Krakel, believes Horn did commit the murder but did not realize he was killing a boy. His book, The Saga of Tom Horn: The Story of a Cattlemen’s War, contends the real target was Kels Nickell, Willie’s father.

Rancher Jim Coble paid for Horn’s coffin and a stone to mark his grave. He was buried in Columbia Cemetery in Boulder, Colorado on December 3, 1903.

Tom Horn's tombstone in Columbia Cemetery, Bolder, CO
Tom Horn’s tombstone in Columbia Cemetery, Bolder, CO

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