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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: Killer or Scapegoat

The Legend of Tom Horn

By Tom Morrow

Thomas Horn, Jr., born Nov. 21, 1860, was an Indian scout, cowboy, soldier, range detective, and Pinkerton agent during the late 19th-century in American Old West. Horn was convicted in 1902 of the murder of 14-year-old Willie Nickell near Iron Mountain, Wyoming.

A movie, starring Steve McQueen, was made in 1980. The mystery of Tom Horn’s guilt or innocence has remained since his death in 1903.

Horn was born in Missouri and at 16, he was hired by the U.S. Cavalry as a civilian scout, packer and interpreter during the Apache Wars. Horn helped track down Geronimo’s major stronghold. On Sept. 4, 1886, he acted as interpreter at Geronimo’s final surrender.

Horn developed his own means to fight cattle rustling, If he thought a man was guilty of stealing cattle and had been fairly warned, Horn said that he would shoot the thief and would not feel “one shred of remorse.”

Fergie Mitchell, a rancher on the North Laramie River, described Horn riding through town: “… All he wanted was to be seen …Within a week, three settlers in the neighborhood sold their holdings and moved out. That was the end of cattle rustling on the North Laramie.”

As a result of earlier murder charges, the Pinkerton Agency forced Horn to resign in 1894. They could not allow him to go to prison while in their employ.

In 1898, Horn briefly entered the U.S. Army to serve during the Spanish–American War as the chief packer of the Fifth Corps. He witnessed the Battle of San Juan Hill.

While working again near Iron Mountain, Wyoming, Horn visited the Jim and Dora Miller family on July 15, 1901. Miller and his neighbor Kels Nickell already had several disputes following Nickell’s introduction of sheep into the Iron Mountain area. Miller frequently accused Nickell of letting his sheep graze on Miller’s land.

At the Millers, Horn met Miss Glendolene M. Kimmell, the young teacher at the Iron Mountain School. Kimmell boarded with the Millers. The Miller and Nickell families were the only ones to have children at the school. On July 18, 1901, Willie Nickell, the 14-year-old son of sheep ranchers Kels and Mary Nickell, was found murdered near their homestead gate.

A coroner’s inquest began to investigate the murder. More violent incidents occurred during the coroner’s 1901 inquest. In January 1902, U.S. Deputy Marshal Joe Lefors questioned Horn about the Kickell murders, while supposedly talking to him about employment.

The Key: While Horn was still inebriated from the night before, Lefors gained what he called a ”confession” to the murder of young Willie Nickell. Horn “allegedly” confessed to killing the boy with his rifle from 300 yards, which he boasted as the “best shot that I ever made and the dirtiest trick that I ever done.”

Horn was arrested for the boy’s murder, but was supported by his long-time friend and employer, cattle rancher John C. Coble, who gathered a defense team for him.

Horn’s trial started Oct. 10, 1902 in Cheyenne, which filled with crowds attracted by the notoriety of Horn. The Rocky Mountain News noted the carnival atmosphere and great interest from the public for a conviction.

The prosecution introduced Horn’s confession to Lefors. Only certain parts of Horn’s so-called confession were introduced, distorting his statement. The prosecution introduced testimony by at least two witnesses, including Lefors, as well as circumstantial evidence, putting Horn in the general vicinity of the crime scene.

One witness testified Horn was 20 miles from the scene of the murder an hour after it was committed. The trial went to the jury on Oct. 23, 1902, and they returned a guilty verdict the next day and was sentenced to hang.

The Wyoming Supreme Court upheld the decision of the District Court and denied a new trial. Convinced of Horn’s innocence, school teacher Kimmell sent an affidavit to Gov. Fenimore Chatterton with testimony reportedly saying Victor Miller was guilty of Nickell’s murder.

Horn was hanged on Nov. 20, 1903, in Cheyenne. After his death, many considered Horn was wrongly executed for a murder solely based on a drunk confession. Even the old Apache warrior, Geronimo, expressed his doubts about Horn’s charges. Many historians believe Horn didn’t do it, while others speculate he did it, but had not realized he was shooting a boy. The case has been in constant debate for years and was retried as a 1993 mock trial in Cheyenne with Horn acquitted.

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