Tom Horn By Sue Eckhoff, Grundy County Heritage Museum
October 4, 2013
Tom Horn (born in 1860) was an American Old West lawman, scout, soldier, hired gunman, detective, outlaw and assassin. On the day before his 43rd birthday, he was hanged in Cheyenne, Wyoming for the murder of Willie Nickell which many people feel he did not do. Tom was born in rural Scotland County, Missouri on the family farm of 600 acres. He was the fifth of twelve children. At sixteen, Horn headed to the American southwest where he was hired by the U.S. cavalry as a civilian scout. On January 11, 1886, he was involved in an expedition into Mexican territory in the pursuit of Geronimo. He was hired as a packer and interpreter. During the operation, Horn’s camp was attacked by Mexican militia and he was wounded in the arm. He allegedly killed his first man in a duel there, a second lieutenant in the Mexican Army. Horn was present at Geronimo’s final surrender, acting as an interpreter. Horn was known for his calm under pressure, and his ability to track down anyone assigned to him. This caught the attention of the famed Pinkerton Detective Agency, and Horn worked for them for several years as a tracker and bounty hunter. Although Tom Horn spent a good portion of his life legitimately employed as both a lawman and a detective, in actuality he was one of the most cold blood killers of the Old West. Though known as being eerily cool under pressure, Horn was considered to have a dangerous capacity for violence, and in 1894 he was forced to resign his post as a detective after he became linked to the murders of 17 people. Following his resignation he developed a reputation as a killer for hire and is said to have been responsible for the deaths of some 20 cattle rustlers over the course of several years. In the late 1890’s he hired out to the Wyoming Stock Grower’s Association and it is alleged that he was involved in the killing of Nate Champion and Nick Ray, which started the Johnson County War. On July 18, 1901, Horn was working near Iron Mountain, Wyoming when a 14 year old son of a sheepherding rancher was murdered. Horn was arrested for the murder. During the trial, prosecution offered a vague confession by Horn to Joe Lefors while he was intoxicated. Only certain parts of Horn’s statement were introduced, distorting the significance of the statement. Additional testimony only placed him in the general vicinity of the crime but the trial went to the jury on October 23, and the jury returned a guilty verdict the next day. Horn was sentenced to death by hanging. He was denied a new trial and was given an execution date of November 20, 1903, which was carried out in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Ironically, some modern historians have claimed that on this particular occasion, Horn was probably innocent. Whatever the case, regardless of whether he committed that particular murder, he had certainly committed many others. Horn has the distinction of being one of the few people in the “Wild West” to have been hanged by an automated process, “The Julian Gallows”, which made the condemned man hang himself. The trap door was connected to a lever which pulled the plug out of a barrel of water. This caused a lever with a counterweight to rise, pulling on the support beam under the gallows. When enough pressure was applied it would cause the beam to break free, opening the trap and hanging the condemned man. Tom Horn was buried in the Columbia Cemetery in Boulder Colorado on December 3, 1903.
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