As with so many colorful characters who lived during the heyday of the American Wild West, there are a lot of uncertainties about the life of Tom Horn. What no one disputes, however, is that Horn killed a lot of people. The notoriety he earned through bloodshed made him an icon of the frontier, so renowned (and feared) that some people believe that Horn’s spirit lingers to this day, haunting the Rocky Mountains and desert plains where he once stalked his human prey.
Born in 1860 in Missouri, Horn was the fifth of 12 children and suffered an abusive upbringing that he fled when he was just 14. Two years later he became a scout for the Army out West, where he learned Spanish, and some Apache, and became useful as an interpreter during the Apache Wars. He played a small role in helping translate surrender terms between famed Apache leader Geronimo and U.S. forces.
After the war, Horn restlessly wandered the West, sometimes working as a ranch hand, prospector, deputy sheriff, U.S. Marshal and rodeo competitor.
After a few drinks, Horn had an eye-rolling propensity for bragging about his exploits, telling anyone within earshot about his adventures and his courage in the face of gunfire.
He wasn’t all talk. His second-to-none tracking skills caught the attention of the famed Pinkerton National Detective Agency, which hired him to locate and apprehend wanted men throughout the West. But his propensity for extreme violence made him a suspect in the killings of several fugitives. Horn’s behavior was a public relations risk for Pinkerton, so the company forced him to resign his position.
By then, Horn’s skillset dovetailed neatly with a series of 1890s frontier conflicts. As more and more homesteaders established ranches, they clashed with cattle barons who’d previously had free run of the land. With more people competing for grazing land and water, the bigger, more established players took extreme measures to root out the little guys.
Some went so far as paying for hired guns, like Tom Horn, who intimidated and threatened homesteaders into abandoning their land.
One man, named Kels Nickell, was a Wyoming sheep herder who had a run-in with a baron named John C. Coble. “Kels Nickell had a lot of enemies. The irascible rascal had managed to offend most of his neighbors,” says Marshall Trimble, an author and official state historian in Arizona in an email interview. “In a scuffle with John Coble, Nickell pulled a knife and inflicted a near fatal wound on him. Coble carried a grudge. A Cheyenne resident had this to say, ‘Coble hates Nickell like the devil hates holy water.'”
“When the rich cattlemen wanted to bully [Kels], they were messing with the wrong guy,” says Joe Nickell, an author and paranormal investigator with the Skeptical Inquirer. (He’s also a very distant relation of Kels Nickell.) “He wasn’t the guy you [could] run off his property, so they [the cattle barons] knew they had to kill him.”
And that’s where Tom Horn came in.
The Murder of Willie Nickell
In July 1901, Kels’ 14-year-old son Willie was shot from ambush at long range. That morning Willie just happened to don his father’s coat and was riding his father’s horse, making his death one of mistaken identity.
The public, somewhat numb to the violence of the cattle wars, found fresh outrage in the killing of a child. Law enforcement that might’ve otherwise looked the other way was suddenly prodded into finding a culprit.
In early 1902, a lawman named Joe Lefors tracked down Horn and roped him into a drunken conversation at his office. True to form, Horn boasted about his past exploits and essentially bragged about being the triggerman in the Nickell killing, calling it one of the best shots he’d ever made. Unbeknownst to Horn, Lefors had a deputy sheriff and court stenographer listening to the conversation in an adjacent room.
“By today’s standards that wouldn’t be a fair [interrogation] technique because they’d been drinking,” says Nickell. “But this is the Old West when we had shootouts, and the trials were as rough as the shootouts. Justice could be rough, too.”
Because concepts like entrapment and leading questions weren’t a thing in the early 20th century, a judge allowed the drunken confession as evidence of a crime. Horn was promptly convicted by a jury and sentenced to death, even though some witnesses presented stories that seemed to indicate that Horn was innocent.
The public largely saw Horn as a wrongly convicted man, figuring he was used by the cattle barons, who then allowed him to take the fall for their murderous methods.
But Joe Nickell is convinced that Horn was guilty. “Not everyone who had a few drinks would confess to murder, I know I wouldn’t, would you? [In his confession], he made it pretty clear what he did,” he says. “It’s my opinion that if Tom Horn had shot and killed Kels first off, he probably would’ve gotten away with it.”
“The debate regarding his guilt or innocence in the shooting of a young boy is still going on today,” says Trimble. “The consensus seems to be that regardless of whether he killed young Nickell, he killed a lot of others. This is what makes Western history so fascinating and it wouldn’t be nearly so if we had definitive answers to our questions.”
If Horn was innocent in the Nickell killing, his life choices didn’t help his cause. For starters, his reputation as a cold-hearted killer was a rather obvious stumbling block. Then, he took the stand during his trial and offering up incriminating statements to the prosecution. Finally, he escaped from jail but was quickly recaptured. It’s no wonder that the governor refused to commute his death sentence.
According to a reporter who witnessed the hanging, Horn, who was just one day shy of his 43rd birthday, was the calmest man on the scene. He refused to offer a last confession – he even refused to rat out his wealthy employers – and reportedly had the presence of mind to kindly congratulate one witness on his recent marriage.
The Ghost Legend
The story of Tom Horn hardly ended with his execution. In some ways, it was just getting started.
After Horn’s death, locals claimed that spirits were making eerie noises in the county jail. Inmates were frightened, sure that Horn’s restless ghost was causing the ruckus.
Frustrated frontier mothers silenced their mischievous offspring using Horn’s fearsome legend. Instead of threatening their children with, “I’ll turn this car around,” they’d claim that “Tom Horn will get you.”
In Cheyenne, locals say that the Wrangler Building is haunted. Some suspect that Horn’s ghost haunts the hallways, his apparition perhaps still awaiting a fair trial (though in reality he was jailed in another location).
And at Horn’s gravesite in Colorado, grim visitors sometimes say they’ve seen a cowboy ghost swinging from a noose in the trees.
Yet it almost goes without saying that the legend of Tom Horn needs no supernatural embellishment.
“Horn was a mythological figure before he was hanged and would have been an even greater icon had he never gone to Wyoming,” says Trimble.
But go to Wyoming he did, setting the stage for a tragedy that would come to define his legacy, one that casts a long and bloody shadow in the minds of frontier descendants to this day.