The Case of Tom Horn


Old West history books are filled with stories about large cattle ranches, the cattlemen that ran them, the long and dangerous trail drives that took months to complete, and the conflicts between cattle barons and small farmers and ranchers.  The reason for so many stories is that frontier ranching was an industry like no other in U.S. history.  As with most stories, there were main characters, a supporting cast, heroes, anti-heroes, victims, and people caught in the middle of what became, in several areas, a series of murderous confrontations.  Some of these lasted for decades.

We generally do not know about heroes until someone tells their story.  In the post-Civil War period, some storytellers were dime novelists who churned out one story after another about old west characters.  The stories were highly embellished, of course — or, as some might say, an absurd demonstration of poetic license.  But there is little doubt that the reading public had an appetite for such stories.  In 1875, a dime was more or less equivalent to $2.50 today.  That doesn’t seem like much to pay for an exciting (albeit fictionalized) old west tale, but in 1875, back-breaking work only paid around $0.75 per day; ten cents was a lot of money.[1]

The hero of the cattle industry story (as decided by dime novelists) was the American cowboy.  Of course, the cowboy was the obvious choice because he was the fellow who spent his days in the saddle, doing back-breaking work, suffering the effects of stifling heat and frigid cold, who confronted swollen creeks and rivers, and who faced down hostile Indians and cattle rustlers.

There were several choices for the anti-hero role (depending upon what part of the country a novelist was writing about).  It might be the cowboy’s employer (the cattle rancher) or corrupt lawmen, judges, politicians, or townie businessmen — the people who could be bought for a few pieces of silver.  The victims of the drama were small-time ranchers and sodbusters — people who were always in the way of cattle barons.

Cattle barons had their champions — the so-called range detectives who were shootists and assassins.   And the victims of the drama had their defenders, as well: they were vigilantes, cattle rustlers, and horse thieves who thought of themselves as redistributors of wealth.   The stories occurred in Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, California, Wyoming, the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Kansas.

Conflict over land was a common occurrence in the old west, but it was particularly prevalent in the late 19th century when wealthy cattle barons seized public land for selfish purposes and attempted to deny migrating families access to the land for farms and small ranches.  A loose association of cattlemen controlled this land for many years.   They didn’t own it, had no legitimate claim to it, and never paid taxes on it — but they did defend it in bloody confrontations.

Enter Tom Horn

One of the cowboys who played a notable role in this story was Thomas Horn, Jr.  Tom was born on 21 November 1860 in Scotland County, Missouri — the fifth of 13 children —  162 years ago today.   Tom’s abusive father guaranteed him a miserable childhood.  In 1876, Tom left home and traveled to the American Southwest, where the U.S. Army hired him as a scout.

In his life, Horn was an army scout, stockman, soldier, range detective, Pinkerton detective, and a shootist — believed to have murdered seventeen men on behalf of his employers — various cattlemen.  Tom’s life came crashing down when he was accused of the murder of Willie Nickell, a fourteen-year-old boy.

The Soldier

Tom signed on as a scout when he accepted employment with the U.S. Cavalry.  His immediate supervisor was the battle-tested Albert Sieber, a German-born Army scout, and guide who became Chief of Scouts under George Stoneman.  When Horn wasn’t scouting, he was a packer and an interpreter of Indian languages.  Tom had a sophisticated and much-appreciated work ethic, and within a short time, he earned the respect and appreciation of his troop.  Not long after joining the Army Scouts, Horn demonstrated his courage while under hostile fire.

On this first occasion, Horn’s troop was in the process of crossing Cibecue Creek when hostile Apache ambushed the soldiers from the high ground.  Enemy fire killed the officer commanding, Captain Edmund Hentig, which left his men penned down under overwhelming rifle fire.  In desperation, Chief Scout Sieber ordered Horn and fellow scout Mickey Free to break away, relocate, and fire on the Apache from a different position.   Horn and Free managed to break up the Indian assault without further casualties among the men.

Tom also worked for Sieber during the Battle of Big Dry Wash.  Horn became a hero when he and Lieutenant George H. Morgan slipped through the Apache line and provided devastating fire against the Indians, killing several hostile warriors.

From every account, we know that Tom Horn was a dependable scout and fearless in executing his duties.  He often conducted reconnaissance missions alone and was instrumental in tracking down Geronimo’s primary stronghold.  Horn became Chief Scout at Fort Bowie in 1885 — assigned to work for Captain Emmet Crawford.  During one operation (which took Crawford’s troop into Mexico in search of Geronimo), Mexican militia mistakenly attacked the Army camp killing Crawford and wounding Horn.  In September 1886, Horn was present at Geronimo’s final surrender to First Lieutenant Charles B. Gatewood.

Tom Horn left Army service after an incident that resulted in the death of a Mexican army lieutenant.  Horn and the lieutenant, both drinking to excess, got into an argument over a prostitute.   The lieutenant challenged Horn to a duel, which Horn accepted, and as it happened, Tom Horn was faster on the draw.

Going Dark

After leaving the army, Horn used his savings to build up his own cattle ranch in Arizona.   e had around 100 head of cattle and 26 horses and filed a claim for the Deer Creek Mining District.   t was a short-lived investment because cattle thieves relieved him of his herd, helped themselves to his horses, and stormed his homestead in the middle of the night, running him into the fields for safety.   The financial loss drove him into bankruptcy and became the reason for his hatred for thieves.   Afterward, he became a range detective, allowing him to shoot thieves wherever he found them.

Horn initially spent his time prospecting, working on a ranch, entering rodeos, and finally accepting employment as a shootist.  A shootist was a hired gun paid to watch over his employer’s cattle and arrest and detain anyone suspected of rustling cattle.   The terms “arrest and detain” would appear self-evident — but more often than not, the detainee was shot while trying to escape.

Tom Horn never regretted shooting a thief, and his reputation as a no-nonsense shootist gave him a tremendous presence on the range.  People obsessed with felonious thinking gave Tom Horn a wide birth — and he used this reputation to his advantage.  One rancher on the North Laramie River, a man named Fergie Mitchell, said of Horn, “I saw Horn ride by.  He didn’t stop but just went straight up the creek so everyone could see him.   Well, he wanted to be seen; his reputation was so great that his presence had the desired effect.  Within a week, three settlers in the neighborhood sold their stock and moved out.   And that was the end of cattle rustling on the North Laramie.”

The Pleasant Valley War was a dustup that lasted for ten years in the area of Pleasant Valley, Arizona.  The trouble began as early as 1858 but became more serious when one family introduced sheep into a traditional cattle ranching region.  The cattlemen countered by hiring gunslingers to sort things out.  Tom was one of those shootists.   No one today can say which side of the fight he was on — both sides suffered several killings, and no one was ever arrested or charged with any of those killings.   By “several,” I mean between 35-70 killings.  Some scholars insist that the Pleasant Valley War had the highest number of fatalities of any other range war in U.S. history — while other fights claim to be the bloodiest.  I’m not sure I understand that.

Tom Horn worked for a ranch owner named Robert Bowen.  While working for Bowen, Horn became a prime suspect in the disappearance of Mart Blevins (1887).  Horn always claimed he was a mediator in the conflict — always trying to prevent injury.  He even served as a deputy sheriff under Bucky O’Neill, Glenn Reynolds, and Perry Owen — all famous Arizona lawmen.  Horn was present when Reynolds hanged three “suspected” rustlers in August 1888.

Horn’s service as a deputy sheriff brought him to the attention of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency.  Pinkerton hired him as a tracker in cases investigated in the Rocky Mountain region of Colorado and Wyoming.  Horn was one of those people who always remained calm under pressure.  If anything ever flummoxed him, he kept it to himself.  Reputation-wise, Horn always found his prey, and no varmint wanted to find out that Tom Horn was on his trail.

During the Johnson County War, Tom Horn worked for the Wyoming Stock Growers Association and for Pinkerton, who assigned him to work undercover in the county using the alias Tom Hale.  Scholars claim that Tom Horn is the likely shooter of Nate Champion on 9 April 1892 and the “prime suspect” of the killings of small-time ranchers John Tisdale and Orley “Ranger” Jones.

Eventually, Pinkerton forced Horn to resign from his position in 1894.  According to famed lawman Charlie Siringo, Pinkerton was convinced that Horn was guilty of murder.  It was a matter of good business; Pinkerton could not allow Horn to go to prison while employed at the agency.  In any case, according to Siringo, Pinkerton felt that there was something “wicked” about Horn.[2]

In 1895, Tom Horn was accused (and exonerated) of the murders of William Lewis and Fred Powell, which took place within six weeks of each other near Iron Mountain, Wyoming.  In 1896, a rancher named Campbell (known to have a large stash of cash) disappeared after being last seen with Tom Horn.  Later that year, Horn applied for a position with the Marshal’s Office in Tucson, Arizona — there was a matter of getting rid of the rustler gang of William Christian.  An unknown assailant killed William in 1897 and his associate, Robert Christian, disappeared in the same year.  It was probably a coincidence, but one shouldn’t have hired Tom Horn for help in getting rid of outlaws if they didn’t intend to get rid of outlaws.

Although Tom’s official title was Range Detective, he was, in effect, a hired assassin.  By the mid-1890s, the cattle business was changing in Wyoming and Colorado.  The problem was a massive influx of homesteaders and small ranchers.  Established cattlemen referred to these people as “nesters” or “grangers” and hired people like Horn to “get rid of them.”  Nine trappers were mysteriously murdered in Big Dry Creek; unknown persons lynched Luther Mitchell, and someone set fire to Ami Ketchum’s cabin, and he was burned alive inside his home.  After these incidents, the Colorado Range War began in earnest — lasting well into the 20th century.

Over in Brown’s Park

Tom Horn began working as a range detective for the Swan Land and Cattle Company in northwest Colorado.  His first assignment was to investigate the Brown’s Park Cattle Association’s leader, a cowboy named Matt Rash.  Horn began his investigation as Tom Hicks, and Mr. Rash was the target of Horn’s inquiries.  As one of Rash’s stockmen, Horn pieced together evidence that Rash was a rustler.  Horn placed a letter on Rash’s door warning him to leave the county within sixty days.

Matt Rash was two things: stubborn and stupid, as evidenced by his defiance to remain on his ranch.   When Horn’s employers gave him the “go ahead,” Tom Horn assassinated Matt Rash.  Now, is this information a known fact?   No.  Scholars claim that Horn was smart enough to remove all evidence of his involvement.  Ann Bassett, a neighbor, fingered “Hicks” as the murderer — but then, Ms. Bassett was also a known cattle rustler.

Tales of rustling, murder, and chaos on the range are legion today, so it is nearly impossible to separate fact from folklore.  It is probably safe to conclude that there is at least some truth in every old west fairy tale.  But the fact remains that while many old west characters rejected violence as a means of conflict resolution, others were highly independent small-time ranchers who subscribed to traditional notions of family loyalty, Old Testament justice, and immediate retribution of grievances.  Rustling, especially of stock belonging to outsiders, was generally accepted because they had no business settling down on land belonging to someone else, even if it didn’t.  Hardly anyone ate their own beef, yet nearly everyone rejected cold-blooded murder.

At about the time of Matt Rash’s mysterious demise, Tom Horn began to suspect another cowboy of cattle rustling — a fellow named Isom Dart.  Dart was of African descent and previously known to the world as Ned Huddleston — an employee of Tip Gault.  Gault was the so-called sagebrush king of Bitter Creek who led a gang of stock thieves in Utah.

Gault’s scheme involved cattle stealing and a con game.  Gault’s Hispanic lieutenant, a man named Terresa, kept a close watch on the immigrant trails for likely victims (waggoneers moving large numbers of cattle across the country).  During the night, Terresa and his cohorts would run the best animals off, and when the owners of these missing cattle went looking for them, Gault befriended the pioneers and offered to help them search for the missing animals.  The stolen animals were never found, of course.  And because time was of the essence — travelers had to get over those western mountains before the snow season.  Gault would offer to purchase the missing cattle, usually for pennies on the dollar, saying he would try to find the animals later.  In this way, Gault obtained legal title to the missing stock, which he later sold to miners or travelers.

Gault’s luck finally ran out when he crossed the trail with a hardnosed cattleman named Hawley.  Cattleman Hawley and his boys tracked down the missing cattle and found them in Gault’s possession.  It didn’t take long for gunfire to erupt — probably seconds because Hawley wasn’t interested in explanations.  Gault and Terresa were among the first to fall.  Gault gang-member Ned Huddleston jumped into an open pit and played dead until he could slip away in the night to become Isom Dart.  As Dart, Isom managed three indictments for rustling in Sweetwater County, Wyoming.  Horn started a rumor that Isom Dart was the likely murderer of Matt Rash.  The talk forced Dart to “disappear,” which he did by taking refuge in Rash’s cabin, where he intended to remain until the rumors died.  However, Horn tracked Dart to the place and learned that he was hiding with two other well-armed cowboys.

Horn set up a hillside ambush position hidden in a clump of trees.  When Dart and his friends came out of the cabin, Horn shot and killed Dart.  The next day, county lawmen discovered two .30-30 casings at the base of a tree where the assassin likely laid in wait.  The effect of Rash and Dart’s murders put fear into other area rustlers, and they began to scatter.  One story is that Horn pinned Rash’s sliced-off ear to a tree — as a warning to homesteaders and grangers.  There is no evidence that this actually happened.

The Short War

A short time later, Tom Horn also disappeared — he re-joined the U.S. Army during the Spanish-American War and became Chief Packer (involving the transportation of supplies) within the Army’s Fifth Corps.  Horn and his men were not infantry or cavalry troop, but they were targets of Spanish infantry and exposed to great personal danger — not only from Spanish bullets but also from Yellow Fever.  Horn became bedridden toward the end of the conflict, but whether his problem was related to Yellow Fever, we don’t know.  Consequently, Horn was returned to the United States and discharged from further military service.

Back in Wyoming

Early in the morning of 2 June 1899, near Wilcox, Wyoming, a Union-Pacific train was flagged down before crossing a wooden bridge.  Armed men forced the train crew to separate the locomotive from the train carriages and move it across the bridge.  Once this was accomplished, the robbers destroyed the bridge with dynamite and helped themselves to the contents of the safe and other valuables on the train.  Union-Pacific reported the loss at around $36,000.

Following the train robbery, Tom Horn obtained information from Bill Speck suggesting that the murderer of Sheriff Josiah Hazen was either George Curry or Harvey Logan of the Wild Bunch Gang, both members of Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch.  Horn passed this information along to his former Pinkerton colleague Charlie Siringo, who was working on the investigation for Pinkerton. 

Willie Nickell

On 15 July 1901, while working (again) near Iron Mountain, Wyoming, Tom Horn visited cattle ranchers Jim and Dora Miller.[3]  Miller and his neighbor Kels Nickell had not been on the best terms.  Whether true or not, Miller claimed that Nickell frequently grazed his sheep on Miller’s cattle land.[4]

While visiting the Millers, Horn was introduced to Miss Glendolene Kimmell, a young teacher at the Iron Mountain School.  Since both the Miller and Nickell families had numerous school-aged children (and whose children were the only students at the school), both families financially supported Miss Kimmell and the Iron Mountain School.  Miss Kimmell boarded with the Miller family.[5]

Young and impressionable, Kimmell was taken with Tom Horn, who regaled her with his adventurous stories.  Later in the day, Horn and several male members of the Miller family went fishing.  While fishing, Victor Miller and Tom Horn engaged in some target practice; both men used .30-30 Winchester rifles.

Three days later, Willie Nickell — the 14-year-old son of Kels and Mary Nickell, was found dead near their homestead property gateway.  A coroner’s inquest opened an investigation into the cause and circumstances of Willie’s death.  Meanwhile, more violent acts occurred during the inquiry — these were added to the inquest.

On 4 August, someone shot and wounded Kels Nickell, and some 60 to 80 of his sheep were found shot or clubbed to death.  Two of the Nickell children reported seeing two men leaving on horses, one a bay and one gray — which matched the description of two of Jim Miller’s horses.  On 6 August, Sheriff’s Deputy Pete Warlaumont and Texas-born U.S. Deputy Marshal Joe LeFors arrested Jim Miller and his sons Victor and Gus on suspicion of shooting Kels Nickell.[6]  Having posted a bond, the court ordered the release of the three men on 7 August. 

In January 1902, while pretending to talk to Horn about employment, LeFors began to ask him questions about the murder of Willie Nickell.  Horn, hung-over from the previous night, gave LeFors what the lawman believed was a confession of the shooting.  What gave LeFors that impression was Horn’s boast that “… it was the best shot I ever made and the dirtiest trick I ever done.”[7]

County Sheriff E. J. Smalley arrested Horn the following day.  The prosecutor assigned to the case was Mr. Walter Stoll — who announced that the case would be tried as a capital offense.  The trial was handed to Judge Richard H. Scott, who was running for re-election.

For his part, Tom Horn enjoyed the support of his long-time employer, Mr. John C. Coble. Coble’s money allowed him to create a defense team that involved former Judge John W. Lacey, T. F. Burke, Roderick N. Matson, Edward T. Clark, and T. Blake Kennedy.  Interestingly, in 1902, the men who benefitted most from Tom Horn’s range detective activities saw him as a threat to their long-term interests.  None of these men wanted to see Horn acquitted.  He knew too much.

Horn’s trial began on 10 October in Cheyenne.  The courtroom was packed with onlookers attracted by the notoriety of Horn.  The Rocky Mountain News noted the carnival atmosphere and great interest from the public for a conviction.  Even if Horn had not confessed, the people of Wyoming were convinced that he was capable of such an odious crime.  And, of course, Stoll introduced Horn’s confession almost immediately.  It didn’t matter that all other evidence was circumstantial.  Victor Miller testified that he and Horn had purchased .30-30 ammunition on the same day from the same merchant.  Otto Plaga testified that at the time of the shooting, Horn was twenty miles away.

The sticking point was Horn’s confession.  If that’s what it was.  Kimmell, who never testified during the trial, did testify during the Coroner’s Inquest — suggesting that both families were responsible for the feud.  She left Laramie County in 1901 and was not heard from again until after Horn’s conviction.

Thirteen days after the trial started, it went to the jury.  They considered the evidence and announced a verdict on 24 October: Guilty.  A few days later, a separate hearing sentenced Horn to death by hanging. Horn’s legal team immediately filed an appeal, and Tom Horn began writing his autobiography.  Horn had little to say in his writing about the trial or his part in the murder of Willie Nickell.

The Wyoming Supreme Court denied Horn a new trial, but convinced of Horn’s innocence, Miss Kimmell sent an affidavit to Governor Fenimore Chatterton insisting that it was Victor Miller who killed Willie Nickell.  Chatterton acknowledged receiving the affidavit, but he refused to act on it.  And in any case, the document “disappeared.” No one with more than $10,000 in their bank account wanted to see Horn released from jail or his sentence. Horn’s execution date was 20 November 1903 (the day before his 43rd birthday).

After Horn’s execution, John Coble paid for his coffin and a headstone.  Suddenly, people came out of the woodwork, claiming that there was simply “no way” Tom Horn would have killed that boy.  First, he made his statement while drunk, making it inadmissible even in Wyoming.  Even the Apache warrior Geronimo discounted Horn’s guilt.

During a mock trial in 1993, a Cheyenne jury acquitted Horn.  Well, it came ninety years too late — but that’s what happens to a defendant when everyone fears him. The debate continues.


  1. Ball, L. D.  Tom Horn in Life and Legend.  University of Oklahoma Press, 2014.
  2. Carlson, C.  Tom Horn: Blood on the Moon – Dark History of the Murderous Cattle Detective.  Glendo Press, 2001.
  3. Gatewood, C. B.  LT. Charles Gatewood & His Apache Wars Memoir.  University of Nebraska Press, 2005.
  4. Horn, T. and John C. Coble.  Life of Tom Horn: Government Scout and Interpreter.  Smith-Brooks Publishing, 1904.
  5. Krakel, D.  The Saga of Tom Horn: The Story of a Cattleman’s War.  Powder River Publishing, 1954.
  6. Nickell, P. G.  The Family Tom Horn Destroyed.  Real West, December 1986.


[1] In 1870, the annual base salary for a lawman was $200.00.  He made his money (up to $4,000.00 a year) by collecting a percentage of the fees assessed for such things as subpoenas, warrants, making arrests, serving court papers, issuing licenses and permits, and collecting taxes. 

[2] Charles Angelo Siringo (1855 – 1928) was a Texas-born stockman, lawman, detective, and bounty hunter who worked with Tom Horn in the Denver office of Pinkerton.  Charlie admired Horn but was always wary of the fact that Tom Horn had a worrisome dark soul.  Siringo is best known for infiltrating the outlaw gang known as Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch.  Charlie said of Cassidy, “He was the shrewdest and most daring outlaw of the present age.”

[3] This Jim Miller was no relation to the famed assassin of the same name.

[4] Whether true or not, it was not unusual for cattlemen to make accusations against sheep ranchers.  This same issue was what started the Pleasant Valley War.

[5] Miss Kimmell was aware of the feud between the Miller and Nickell families — and that some of this animosity played out among the Miller-Nickell children.

[6] Joe LeFors also played a role in the Wilcox Train Robbery investigation.

[7] To my knowledge, LeFors never had Horn make a written statement or sign any confession so that in the courtroom, it amounted to oral testimony by a lawman without the corroboration of Horn’s signature attesting to what LeFors said that he said.  There is also a question about the admissibility of a statement taken while under the influence of alcohol.  Noted lawman/investigator Charlie Siringo opined that LeFors was at best incompetent, and at worst, criminally so.  LeFors may have been as competent as James Comey in 2019.   

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
This entry was posted in American Frontier, American Indians, American Military, American Southwest, Apache Indians, Arizona Territory, Cheyenne, Colorado, Corruption, Gunfights and such, History, Indian Territory, Indian War, Montana, Nevada, Northwest Territory, Oklahoma, Outlaws, Pioneers, Politicians, Range War, Texas, Utah, Wyoming. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Case of Tom Horn

  1. bunkerville says:

    An interesting tale… the movie was interesting and worth a watch though they apparently didn’t let facts get in the way.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mustang says:

      Right. IMO, Horn was guilty by reason of politics. I’m convinced that I wouldn’t want to invite Mr. Horn over for dinner — but I don’t think his guilt was proven in a court of law. This is my sticking point with the death penalty.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Andy says:

    Horn packed a lot of living into just 43 years.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mustang says:

      Interesting, too, is the fact that the life expectancy back then was around 45-48 years. He almost went the distance. Almost. As in horseshoes.


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