Tom Horn: Innocent Murderer by William Irwin

Tom Horn was a very prominent and mysterious figure in the history of Wyoming. Running away from home at a very young age, he endured many hardships that shaped his rugged character and personality. Horn had many different, yet interesting careers. He was a scout and interpreter for the government during the Apache Wars, he served as a Pinkerton detective, but most importantly he was a hired gun and a range detective. Horn lived and worked in Wyoming during this time. As a range detective, Horn protected cattle barons’ cattle by fighting rustlers, recovering stolen cattle, and keeping track of cattle (Horn n.d.). Behind closed doors, Horn worked as an assassin. He would place a rock under the head of every man that he killed, which would eventually be his downfall (Krakel 1988).

Tom Horn ran away from his hometown in Missouri to escape an abusive father and rough home life. Horn drifted until he ended up in the American Southwest where the U.S. Cavalry hired him at the age of 16. Horn was used as a civilian scout and interpreter during the Apache Wars. Horn was present during the surrender of Geronimo (Horn n.d.). After the Apache Wars, Horn starting his own ranch in Arizona, where he was raided by rustlers and ultimately failed as a result (Krakel 1988).

After Horn was forced to stop ranching, he became a hired gun and range detective. Horn participated in several “range wars.” While working as a sheriff in Arizona, he was recruited by the Pinkerton Detective agency. Horn was known for his cool head and tracking abilities. Horn was present in the Johnson County War, hired by the Wyoming Stock Growers Association through the Pinkertons. Supposedly he was present during the murder of Nate Champion, which was an important moment in the Johnson County War (Monaghan 1997).

Tom Horn was supposedly involved in many different assassinations of ranchers and many other players in the Wyoming cattle industry.

The myth in question is the crime that Tom Horn was arrested and ultimately hung for. On July 18th, 1901 Willie Nickell was murdered on his father’s ranch near Iron Mountain, Wyoming. The Nickell family at the time was in a dispute with another local family, the Millers. Supposedly, Horn was close with the Miller family and was contacted by them shortly before the murder of Willie Nickell. When Willie was killed, a rock was placed under his head, Horn’s trademark. An investigation was launched after the murder of Willie and other violent crimes against the Nickell family. Though Horn was suspected, nothing could tie him to the murder beside the trademark rock. (Ball 2007) (Monaghan 1997)

Months later, Horn was questioned about the incident by a U.S. Marshal named Joe Lefors. Horn did admit to the murder, but there was one problem with Horn’s confession: Horn was under the influence of alcohol. The Marshal, Lefors, supposedly questioned Horn in a bar while he had an associate listening and taking notes from a distance. Horn stated, “Best shot that I ever made and the dirtiest trick that I ever done.” This was the only thing that tied Horn to the murder of Willie Nickell besides the trademark rock. (How Horn Was Trapped 1902)

One might say that this was enough evidence to arrest Horn for the murder, but a drunken confession is not an effective way to catch a murderer. Horn was drunk and talking to someone in a setting that was not conducive to an interrogation. Horn could have very well been bragging or claiming an action that was not committed by himself to impress Lefors or other people in the bar. Horn was arrested for the murder of Willie Nickell and transported to the Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins, Wyoming. Horn was hung in Cheyenne, Wyoming on November 20, 1903 at the age of 42 (Ball 2007).

Horn fits into the myths of the American West in multiple different ways. Because Horn did so many different things throughout his life, many aspects of his life are inflated. His work as a government scout and lawman gave the belief that Horn at least had a good moral character. The later part of Horn’s life contradicted that preconceived notion, however. Horn intended for his life to be defined by his work as a scout in the Apache Wars. His autobiography was mainly centered on that part of his life. However, in hindsight, his life is defined by his work as a range detective, hired gun, and a killer. (Ball 2007)

Though working as a range detective may be a semi-honorable occupation, Horn’s work as a range detective was less honorable. Horn was violent toward cattle rustlers and did not follow the letter of the law very closely when contracting for cattle ranchers. Horn gave life to the myths surrounding cattle rustlers and violence in range wars in the rural American West. Horn acted more as an outlaw for hire. His life supported the myth of the “Wild West.” It gave a sense that death was a common occurrence and that men could kill with very little consequences.

In reality, Horn’s life was brutal and did contain a good amount of death and violence, but it was far from the myth of the “Wild West” and outlaws. Though he lived an adventurous life, he was not the desperado that popular culture has made him out to be. In Wyoming, he is a very popular character and has been immortalized through inflated stories of his life and death. Horn’s hanging theoretically marked the end of the “Wild West” and the age of the outlaws.

Almost exactly 90 years later, a mock trial was held and Horn was acquitted of the charges, due to the conditions of his confession and the fact that there was no physical evidence that could place Horn at the scene of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. The trademark rock could obviously be used to frame Horn by basically anyone. Though Horn was acquitted 90 years later, it is still a much-debated case. (Ball 2007)

By William Irwin


Ball, Larry D. “THAT “MISERABLE BOOK”: Life of Tom Horn, Government Scout and Interpreter.” The Journal Of Arizona History, 2007: 323-348.

Cheyenne Daily Leader. “How Horn Was Trapped .” October 16, 1902: 3.

Horn, Tom. The Life Of Tom Horn: Government Scout and Interpreter. Denver: The Louthan Book Company.

Krakel, Dean F. The Saga of Tom Horn: The Story of a Cattlemen’s War. University of Neberaska Press, 1988.

Monaghan, Jay. Tom Horn Last of the Bad Men. Universtity of Nebraska Press, 1997.

tom horn

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