The Story of Tom Horn: Old West Legends Die Hard
Excerpt from Arizona Adventure by Marshall Trimble, the state’s official historian.
It was a brisk, dreary November morning in Cheyenne, Wyoming, in the year 1903. A few people were stirring about, dogs were barking here and there, but otherwise there was a quietness in the air, casting an ominous pall over the town. Off in the distance was heard the shrill, lonesome whistle of a freight train locomotive as it gathered steam to make its run up Sherman Hill. A chilly wind was blowing the grey smoke from the city out into the plains.
At the Laramie County Courthouse, Tom Horn, legendary government scout, Pinkerton detective, champion rodeo cowboy, and range regulator was taken from his cell and led into the courtyard and up the scaffolding steps to the gallows platform where a hangman’s noose was waiting. He paused momentarily to speak briefly with friends and looked placidly at the crowd of witnesses. The group, composed mostly of lawmen, journalists and friends, waited nervously. Horn looked at Sheriff Ed Smalley and commented dryly, “Ed, that’s the sickest looking lot of damned sheriffs I ever seen.”
While Horn stood patiently, the straps that bound his arms and legs were fastened. He gazed off towards the distant mountains while two close friends, Charlie and Frank Irwin, sang a doleful, but popular tune of the day, “Life is Like a Mountain Railroad,” then listened quietly while an elderly Episcopal clergyman prayed for his soul. Finally, the condemned man was asked if he would care to make any final remarks. “No,” was the crisp reply. The conventional noose with its 13 wraps was placed over Horn’s head. The knot was adjusted in such a way as to break his neck when his body dropped through the trapdoor. When the black hood was placed over his head, Horn concealed whatever emotion he might have felt. No one in the crowd was more composed than he on that fateful morning. Tom Horn was facing death in the same manner he faced life— without a trace of fear.
A few seconds later, the trap door fell open with a crash and the body of Tom Horn plunged through the opening. The massive hangman’s knot slammed against the side of Horn’s head knocking him unconscious. Horn remained suspended for 17 minutes before attending physicians pronounced him dead.
Tom Horn had gone to the grave un-confessed—accused and convicted of a crime he didn’t commit.
The Early Days of Tom Horn
Tom Horn’s remarkable life began in Scotland, Missouri, in 1861. Almost from the beginning, the restless youth was filled with wanderlust. At 14 he ran away from home and headed for the “great and glowing West.” From that time on, his life reads like something out of a Louis L’Amour or Zane Grey novel. No Hollywood scriptwriter could conjure a more suitable, hard-riding hero. Horn was a strapping, broad-shouldered man who stood well over six feet tall. Lean and muscular, he was quite handsome with a couple of exceptions: a prominent nose, and, contrasting with his quiet, mild manner, his small and penetrating eyes. It was said Horn could “stare a hole straight through you.”
Tom Horn Makes His Way in Present-Day Arizona
He arrived in Arizona in 1875, working as a teamster, driving a stage between Santa Fe and Prescott. For the next 15 years Tom Horn would call Arizona home.
The legend of Tom Horn began at 16 years of age, when he went to work as an apprentice for the famed army scout Al Sieber. From Sieber and the Apaches whom he befriended and campaigned with, the youth learned the ways of survival on the harsh frontier where men and the environment asked no quarter and gave none. Horn learned another skill that would benefit him in another trade long after the Apache Wars had ended. The crafty scout and his Apaches taught the youth how to stalk an adversary. It was later said, Horn could “track bees in a blizzard.”
Many years later Sieber wrote of his former protege, “a more faithful or better worker or a more honorable man, I never met in my life.”
For the next several years, Horn served as packer, government scout, interpreter and chief of scouts for Generals George Crook and Nelson Miles. During periodic lulls in the Apache campaigns, Horn scoured Arizona’s rich mountainous country for a glory hole. When silver was discovered at Tombstone in 1877, he was among the first to arrive at the new mining camp.
Horn was in on the action at the Battle of Big Dry Wash on the Mogollon Rim in the summer of 1882, the last major clash between the army and the Apaches inside the borders of Arizona. A year later, he went into Mexico as a packer during General Crook’s famous Sierra Madre Campaign. Much of the success of this arduous trek into the Apaches’ mountainous sanctuary was due to the ability of the pack trains to sustain the soldiers and scouts for prolonged periods of time.
During the Apache campaign of 1885-86 Horn was promoted to chief of scouts. He was in Mexico again in pursuit of Apache renegades in January, 1886, with Captain Emmett Crawford and a company of Apache scouts, when the officer was treacherously shot and killed by a force of Mexican militia. Horn’s scouts had attacked Geronimo’s camp and defeated the wily renegade when a large body of soldados suddenly appeared and opened fire. Horn and Crawford ran into the open and called upon the Mexicans to cease firing. Moments later, several shots rang out. Horn was hit in the arm and Crawford in the head. The gallant captain died a few days later without regaining consciousness.
The murder of one of Crook’s most prominent field commanders caused an international incident, but except for a few angry exchanges between embassies, nothing ever came of it. An interesting sidelight to the faceoff occurred when Geronimo offered to side with the government scouts and “rub out” the Mexican force. Later, Horn played a prominent role in bringing Geronimos’s band to the famous parley with General Crook at Canon de los Embudos. Unfortunately, some American whiskey peddlers sneaked into the chieftain’s camp and convinced the Apaches they should continue their restive ways. (Certain business interests were reaping a harvest of profits from the war and didn’t want to see it end.)
The renegade Apaches slipped off during the night, leaving General Crook in an embarrassing position. He was relieved of his command for putting what some Washington officials called “too much trust in the Apaches,” and replaced by General Nelson Miles. One of Miles first acts was to disband the Apache scouts. This put Horn out of a job temporarily. His talents as an interpreter, scout, and packer made him too valuable to keep on the sidelines for long. Soon, Miles put him back on the government payroll and the scout played an integral part in the final subjugation of Geronimo in September, 1886. Officers who had served with the scout considered him to be both honorable and brave. Years later, during his trial, his opponents would portray him as a conspirator among the renegades.
Following the conclusion of the Apache Wars, Tom Horn prospected and ranched in the Globe area. During this time he established a reputation as a champion-class calf roper. When the Pleasant Valley War, or Graham-Tewksbury feud, broke out in 1887, Horn found himself caught in the middle of the conflict. In his memoirs, Horn denies taking sides despite pressure from both factions. Others have said Horn was a participant. Certainly a man of his reputation would be much sought after.
During these years Horn was a deputy in Yavapai County under Buckey O’Neill and in Gila County with Glen Reynolds. During his tenure with the latter, one of Arizona’s most famous murders occurred. One of Sieber’s scouts called “Kid” (later Apache Kid) was arrested for murder after he took vengeance upon another Apache who killed his father. The Kid was following Apache custom whereby the oldest son vindicates the transgression. He and some friends made a run for it and in making their escape shot and wounded Al Sieber. A bullet shattered the old scout’s leg, crippling him for life. The Kid and his gang were captured after a brief spree and sentenced to long terms at the Yuma Territorial Prison. Tom Horn was to be one of the escort guards for the long ride from Globe to the train station at Casa Grande before fate intervened.
Earlier, Horn had won a rodeo contest at Globe qualifying him for the Territorial Fair at Phoenix. The rodeo was held the same time the prisoners were to be taken to the train. Horn went to Phoenix and Sheriff Reynolds and deputy “Hunky Dory” Holmes left Globe with the prisoners. On the way to Casa Grande, the Kid and his gang plotted their escape. Neither Reynolds nor Holmes could savvy Apache lingo and were unaware of the scheme. Had Horn been present, it was likely he would have understood what the Apaches were saying and thwarted the escape. Reynolds and Holmes were both brutally murdered, something Horn never forgot. The championship steer roping prize was of little consolation.
Tom Horn Heads Back to Wyoming
Tom Horn left Arizona in 1890 for Wyoming where he went to work as a range inspector with a commission as deputy U.S. Marshal. His talents as a tracker and gunman were much in demand during those turbulent times of range country feuds. The Pinkerton Detective Agency hired him to help solve a train robbery near Denver. Horn tracked the bandits several hundred miles, taking a notorious outlaw named “Peg Leg” McCoy single-handedly.
He quit the agency soon after because he found the job too dull. The West was changing. More and more Horn became a man out of place and time.
When the war came with Spain in 1898, Tom Horn sought out his old friends in the military, Marion Maus, Henry Lawton, Leonard Wood and Nelson Miles and offered his services. He was commissioned Chief Packmaster for General William Shafter. In his new position, Horn skillfully managed to transport more than 500 pack mules to Cuba just prior to the battle of San Juan Hill. Horn’s pack trains delivered much-needed supplies and ammunition for the military, especially the Rough Riders. Had Horn not accomplished this near-impossible task, there might not have been a Teddy Roosevelt-Rough Rider charge up that now-famous hill. Before the war’s end, Tom Horn caught the fever and was sent back to a friend’s ranch in Iron Mountain, Wyoming, to recuperate.
The range wars were going strong in Wyoming and Horn quickly found employment as a “regulator” for the large cattle interests. Again his unique talents as a tracker and gunman were much in demand. These were many-sided feuds—large cattlemen against small—sheepmen against cattlemen-politicians vs. politicians. Local politics played such a role in the courts that a cow thief caught red-handed usually got off lightly. Also, public sympathy was decidedly against big business and large cattle ranchers were considered big business. The big cattle ranches retaliated by hiring range detectives or regulators. These range detectives generally acted as judge, jury and executioner to cow thieves. The mere presence of a man like Horn was enough to strike fear in the heart of the toughest of men. It was said the ruthless Horn stalked his victim Apache-style for several days, sometimes waiting in the rain for hours for just the right shot.
Horn’s reputation was such that the suggestion to a suspected rustler that Horn was stalking him was enough to send the frightened man scurrying
from the territory. In effect, the cunning regulator became the “rustler’s bogyman.” Through it all, Horn did nothing to discourage this kind of legend-making. On the contrary, he encouraged it. Killing is “my stock and trade” he would say mild-mannerly.
A brief feud broke out between two small ranch families, the Millers and the Nickells, when the latter began running sheep in the area. Since the Nickell’s sheep were running on the Miller’s range and Horn wasn’t employed by either, he took no interest in the matter, When 13-year-old Willie Nickel)’ s body was found, circumstantial evidence indicated a Miller did the killing. However, the matter was dropped when not enough evidence could be gathered, and the case was added to the growing list of unsolved murders in the region.
U. S. Marshal Joe Lafors, himself a former range detective who would later gain fame for his relentless pursuit of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, became convinced that the killer of 13-year-old Willie Nickell was Tom Horn. Horn was a temperate man when on a job but went on tremendous drinking bouts in between. Lafors caught Horn on a binge and tricked him into “confessing” to the crime. Lafors had concealed a deputy and a stenographer to eavesdrop in the next room while he swapped yarns with Horn. Lafors skillfully led Horn into a conversation about the Nickell’s murder where implications and innuendos were made concerning Horn’s role in which Horn seemingly confessed. The next day Tom Horn was placed under arrest for the murder of Willie Nickell.
The trial in Cheyenne was inundated with politics. Several members of the jury were men who had reason to hate Horn. He had recovered stolen cattle from their ranches. Newspapers in Denver and Cheyenne pictured Horn as a heinous murderer of children. Large ranchers feared Horn might reveal his employers. The most damaging testimony was the “confession” to Lafors.
Throughout the trial and later Horn insisted the conversation with Lafors was a set up and the stenographer twisted facts and filled in the missing parts.
Still the odds were better than even that Horn would be found innocent. (The “confession would be thrown out in today’s courts, but was ruled admissible in the carnival atmosphere of Cheyenne in 1903.)
On October 25, 1902, the jury returned a verdict of guilty and Tom Horn was sentenced to hang. Thus began the long process of appeals. Horn’s attorneys searched vigorously for some kind of legal loophole to gain a new trial for their client. Horn grew restless in his cell and became determined to gain his freedom—one way or another. One plot to escape failed. On another attempt, Horn and a cellmate made a successful break, but were recaptured a few minutes later.
These incidents did little to improve Horn’s public image.
Glendolene Kimmell, a school teacher who had taught at the Miller-Nickell school and lived at times with both feuding families, made a courageous plea on Horn’s behalf. Miss Kimmell testified that young Victor Miller confessed to her the Willie Nickell murder. Her testimony was discounted, however, because it was believed the pretty, young teacher was deeply infatuated with Horn.
On October 1, 1903, the State Supreme Court issued an opinion affirming the lower court’s decision. Tom was scheduled to be executed on November 20, 1903.
During the final hectic days, Cheyenne took on a fervid atmosphere. The amount of alcohol consumed was awesome. Rumors of another escape ran rampant. Horn’s friends added fuel to the fire by vowing to spring him. A machine gun was placed atop the county courthouse in case they decided to carry out their bold threat.
Horn Remembers His Time in Arizona
His last months had been occupied writing, in pencil, his memoirs which were released in book form the following year. The work was subtitled “A Vindication.” It was really no vindication, but was instead, a history of his years spent in Arizona. Horn’s experiences in Arizona were written from memory. Some of the details are inaccurate and misleading. There is also a bit of yarn spinning in the story. Still, Horn’s history of the Apache Wars is one of the most important primary historical documents to come out of that period. He didn’t “tell all” in the story, preferring to follow a strict code of loyalty to his employers. Horn went to the grave with lips sealed, a detail which, no doubt, adds to the enigma and romance of this western legend.
The hanging of Tom Horn ushered in a new period in American history—the closing of the frontier and the dawning of the 20th century—the old ways superseded by the new. Tom Horn was a product of the old—a misfit in the new.
The curtain rang down on the gunfighter era, passing into the realm of romance—and into the hands of novelists and mythmakers.
Tom Horn saw himself as the embodiment of a knight in dusty leather maintaining law and order as he defined it—by a means known as “Winchester litigation.”
And, there were those who believed Tom Horn did not hang that November day in 1903, but instead, rode off into the “great and glowing west” from whence he came, in search of some new adventure.
Excerpt from Arizona Adventure by Marshall Trimble, the state’s official historian.