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Monday, November 2, 2020

The Characters Behind the Characters - Tom Horn - Murderous Killer-for-hire and Lawman.

 The Characters Behind the Characters - Tom Horn - Murderous Killer-for-hire and Lawman. 

C. A. Asbrey

In all Innocence, features a bounty hunter turned murderer. He was based on a number of people, but much inspiration came from one man. Thomas Horn Jnr. was born 21st November 1860, in Scotland County Missouri, to an abusive father, Thomas S. Horn Snr. and Mary Ann Maricha Miller. He came from a large family, the fifth of twelve children, and they lived on a 600 acre farm. He had a close bond with his dog, Shedrick, but the dog was killed in a fight with two other boys, who shot his pet dead.

He left home at sixteen, and became an army scout, tracker, and interpreter in the Apache Wars. He perfected his skills in firearms and tracking, and soon worked his way up to greater recognition. Horn is said to have killed his first man in a duel over a prostitute. Around 1887 he was no longer working for the army, and was involved in the Pleasant Valley Wars in Arizona (sometimes called the Tonto Basin Feud). That was essentially a feud between the two families; the Grahams and the Tewksburys. Horn claimed to be a mediator in the feud, and did indeed end up a deputy sheriff. However, he was undoubtedly paid by one side (we don't know which side) and there were several murders on both sides which still remain unsolved. We do know that Horn was involved in the lynching of three suspected rustlers. He also became the prime suspect in the disappearance of a man called Martin Blevin. 

During his time in Arizona he started a ranch which was heavily hit by rustlers, causing him to go bankrupt. He later claimed this hardened his attitude to lawbreakers, making a career in law enforcement a more attractive proposition, eventually leading to a career as a range detective.

Horn's wanderings took him afar, employed as a prospector, ranch hand and rodeo contestant, before being hired by various cattle companies to ward off rustlers as a hired gun. Ward wrote, "I would simply take the calf and such things as that stopped the stealing. I had more faith in getting the calf than in courts." 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."

Horn was noted as being bold and upfront, riding straight into danger, and depending on his intimidating presence and charisma to make his point.  It did work at times. A rancher on the North Laramie River is quoted as saying, "I saw him ride by. He didn't stop, but went straight on up the creek in plain sight of everyone. All he wanted was to be seen, as his reputation was so great that his presence in a community had the desired effect. 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."  

He attracted the attentions of the Pinkerton Detective Agency due to his formidable prowess at tracking, and was hired early late 1889 or 1890. He was stationed out of the Denver office, and covered a number of investigations in the Rockies and Wyoming, impressing the agency with his ability to remain calm under pressure and being able to track people down where others failed.        
Nathan D. Champion

But that's where it all started to go wrong. His job title was 'Range Detective', but in reality they were hired guns, with the aim not just to keep the peace. They also kept those employed on the ranches in line. Many cowhands were very young, unskilled juveniles. The life was hard, and authors such as Jack London, Juoquin Miller, and Mark Twain have confirmed that they were often ex-slaves, orphans, and the dispossessed. The hard labour of ranch work was every bit as dangerous and hard as that of the hellish factories of the industrial revolution. Many range bosses were, quite literally, former slave-drivers, and the physical distance from help, support, or any other source of food, meant that the young ranch hands relied totally on their employers for their survival. It was often child-labour, akin to a quasi-slavery, and a brutal life. That dependence was often abused, and the average working cowboy had a life expectancy of only 21 years old. Once they could afford a gun, it meant they were physically abused less-often, but on the flip side, armed juvenile disputes spilled over into vendettas and murder. A scarcity of women often meant that the abuse had a sexual element. Once free of the ranch system, they developed into violent, self-loathing men with a grudge against the world. That's where men like Tom Horn came in. 
Charles A. Siringo

As well as working for the Pinkertons, Horn was also employed by the Wyoming Stock Growers Association during the Johnson County War. At that point he was considered a suspect in the killings of Nate Champion and Nick Ray, who were suspected rustlers. Even more evidence pointed towards him being the prime suspect in the deaths of John A. Tilsdale and Orley Jones. The Pinkerton Agency forced Horn to resign in 1894, but the Pinkerton Agent, Charlie Siringo in his memior, 'Two Evil Isms: Pinkertonism and Anarchism', Pinkerton detective Charlie Siringo wrote that "William A. Pinkerton told me that Tom Horn was guilty of the crime, but that his people could not allow him to go to prison while in their employ." Siringo also said that he 'respected Horn's abilities at tracking, and that he was a very talented agent, but had a wicked element'.

The next year Horn was cleared of the killings of William Lewis and Fred Powell. Horn offered his services to the marshal of Tuscon, Arizona to help deal with William Christian's Rustler gang, William Christian was then killed and Robert Christian subsequently disappeared. 

The West was growing and new homesteaders were putting pressure on resources such as grazing and water. The Cattle Barons hired men like Horn to drive these people away, and very soon killings and lynchings devolved into full scale range wars. The killings stacked up. Horn was accused of killing Matt Rash after finding evidence of him re-branding cattle. Isom Dart was next to be cut down. Horn asked a rancher to ready a  getaway horse and laid in wait near a hideout Dart was using. .30-30 Winchester casings were found under a tree after Dart's killing. Horn was the only man known to use .30-30 in the area. The rest of the gang made a run for it, but they were all tracked down and three more men killed. He is said to have pinned the ears of one of the dead men to a homesteader's door as a warning.

After a brief spell leading teams of pack horses to the front in the Spanish-American War, he began working for the Cattle Baron, John C. Coble in 1901. Coble was a member of The Wyoming Stock Men's Association. In July, Horn visited the Miller family in The Iron Mountain area. A neighbour, Kels Nickell had been in dispute with the Millers over allowing his sheep to graze on the Millers land. Within days, Willie Nickell, the 14 year old son of the Nickell family was murdered. As the authorities began to investigate, more violence occurred extending right through the coroner's inquest and into September 1901. 

Almost eighty of the Nickell's sheep were shot or clubbed to death, while Kels Nickell was wounded by a shot. The Nickell children reported seeing two men on horses which matched those belonging to Jim Miller. This information was passed on to Deputy Sheriff Peter Warlaumont and Deputy U.S. Marshal Joe LeFors, who arrested Jim Miller, and his sons Gus and Victor, but they were released on bail 

Deputy Marshal Joe Lefors interviewed Horn, ostensibly about potential employment, but it was a subterfuge. Horn's tongue was loosened by a liberal amount of alcohol, and his subsequent confession was transcribed by a hidden stenographer. In his statement Horn claimed to be proud of the shot which killed the 14 year old boy, as he made it from a distance of  300 yards, saying it was "best shot that ever made and the dirtiest trick ever done."

He was arrested and charged. His employer, John C. Coble gathered a formidable defence team, but he ended up with the lion's share of the bill as The Wyoming Stock Grower's Association saw Horn as expendable. They paid only small amounts towards Horn's defence. They wanted minimal efforts put in to defend him as they saw it as a good way to silence Horn in relation to his activities on their behalf.    

The trial resulted in a guilty verdict, and a death sentence, but Horn's legal team fought for a retrial. It was denied, despite a schoolteacher who lodged with the Millers naming one of the sons as the killer after she left the area. He wrote his memoirs in jail, not covering the crime for which he was being hanged, but covering his childhood and early life. 

Horn was hanged on a water-powered gallows called 'The Julian Gallows'. They were invented in 1892 and used water as a counterweight to open the trap door. He never gave up any names related to his work,

Debates continue to this day about Horn's guilt, and the admissibility of evidence obtained whilst drunk, and in what he thought was an employment interview where he sought to impress. Whatever the outcome, there's no doubt that death followed Horn around as a constant companion, and it always fell to the benefit of whoever was paying at the time.   

Horn was retired at a mock trial in 1993. There is still a contention that he was railroaded due to his violent reputation, that a conviction conveniently silenced him to protect the interests of The Wyoming Stock Grower's Association, and that the presiding judge was campaigning for re-election.

There is no doubt he killed many. Psychological studies have concentrated on emotional distance from his family, serious beatings from both parents, religious fundamentalism, a difficulty in making relationships, and a distorted reaction to right and wrong. Given that he felt the need to write about these things, they were obviously a factor; albeit viewed without emotional distance. Modern studies would also look at family history of mental illness, possible frontal lobe injury, and test for things like psychopathy, addictive behaviour (there are indications), and a perverted relationship with power.

Horn was a transition from the Old West, to the new century, and a different society, but he also helped make the American dream a nightmare for far too many who found themselves outgunned by those able to pay for gunmen to make their arguments for them.    



“She hasn’t got the combination to the safe,” said the manager. “You can scare her as much as you want. We all know you’re not gonna use that gun on us.”

Rebecca’s breath halted as she felt a careless arm drape around her shoulder.

“I don’t need a gun to hurt someone. Give us the combination.” The manager remained mute and turned his face away. “Your call, sir.” He pulled Rebecca around to face him as she gasped in alarm. “Just remember who you’ve got to thank for this, ma’am.”

He pointed over at the manager, who refused to meet her eyes. “That man right there.”

“Anything that happens to her is down to you. Not me,” said the manager.

Rebecca felt herself dragged from the room by one arm. She was pulled into the office next door and pushed against the wall. The man walked over and pulled down the blind before returning to her. Her breath came in ragged pants of fear. “Please, no. Don’t.”

He leaned on the wall, a hand on either side of her head, and pressed his face close. “You were gonna hold this place up. Are you some kind of idiot?”

She blinked in confusion. “Huh?”

The man pulled down his mask, revealing the face of the fair man who had walked into her office looking for Fernsby. “Don’t lie to me, honey. You had the same idea as we did— look at Meagher’s bank account to see where he gets his money. We’ve watched you march up and down outside this place all day, like you were on sentry duty, while you built up your courage. You even got in the way of us doin’ it. What the hell is goin’ on in your head? How dumb can a woman get?”

“You? Here?” She couldn’t quite decide whether to stop being scared or not.

“Yeah. Me.” He indicated with his head. “Now, Nat’s in there, and he needs the combination of the safe. It’s too new and sophisticated for him to crack the combination. You and me need to put on a bit of a show to make sure the manager gives it up.”

“You’re not robbing the bank?”

Jake huffed in irritation. “Try to keep up, Becky. I need you to scream for help so the manager gives Nat the combination to the vault. We want Meagher’s records too.”

She shook her head. “Me? I can’t scream.”

“What do you mean you can’t scream? All women can scream.”

“I can’t. I’m just not made that way.”

He frowned. “Look, Becky. If you won’t scream, I’m gonna have to make you. Let’s do this the easy way, huh?”

“Please, help! Noooo.”

Jake frowned. “You call that screamin’? That’s useless.”

“I told you. I can’t.”

Jake flicked up an eyebrow. “Last chance, Becky.”


“Nope.” A gloved hand reached up to her hat as his eyes glittered with mischief. “Don’t say you weren’t warned, sweetheart.” 



  1. Tom Horn is one of those characters that, like Butch and Sundance, the whole truth may never be known. At the same time, they are the characters who, as you say, were the transition from the Old West we know to the West we sometimes forget.

    Great post. Thank you. Doris

    1. Thank you. I suspect he was behind deaths not attributed to him, but as you say, we'll never really know. The whole 'might is right' philosophy led to so many injustices, and men like Horn helped the strong bully the weak. He was a perfect model for a villain.

  2. I sort of feel sorry for him. He seems like a guy who could have been so successful in life, but bad luck seemed to get in the way of everything, starting with his abusive parents and his dog being shot to death. I don't know, maybe I'd have to get revenge on someone if they killed my dog.
    Somewhere along the line he lost his humanity and his conscience.
    It strikes me as odd how many lawmen were once law breakers.
    You certainly did a thorough research on Horn. Well done, Christine.

    1. Thanks, although my version changes him up quite considerably. I only use the real history as inspiration. I agree that violence begets more violence, and think he was damaged by his upbringing.

  3. What a wonderful piece of research, Christine. I had heard of him but never knew the extent of his reputation. I'm inclined his violent childhood was a contributing factor to his adult activities when he crossed the line. Great article and I love the excerpt.

    1. Hi Elizabeth. Christine here. I'm having sign in problems too today. Yes, I definitely think his abusive childhood had an affect on his view of life and violent tendencies too. A perfect man to base a villain on.

  4. I see my identity woes continue, Christine. Elizabeth, here.

  5. Hi, Christine. You really dug into this one! I know about Tom Horn but many details you added were new to me--the pet dog :( My novel His Unexpected Companion was based on the goings on at Brown's Park including the murder of Rash and Dart and the subsequent revenge by Rash's fiancee. The hired gun terrorizing the small ranchers is based on Tom Horn. I also never heard about the pinned ears! Yikes!
    It is an interesting picture you paint of a cowboy's life at that time. A hard life, indeed. I read somewhere that about a quarter of the cowboys were ex-slaves or men of color.
    Great excerpt as always!

    1. Thanks, Patti. He was fascinating, and pretty much a textbook case of abuse becoming a cycle of behaviour. I left out a lot too. Yes, I do tend to dig into the underbelly, but I find the same abuse as goes on today when there are no checks and balances to protect the weak. People never really change, sadly.

  6. Such an interesting character. So many historical figures, like Tom Horn, provide great inspiration whether on not they are included in the stories. I like to include actual people as characters when I can. Enjoyed your excerpt.

    1. Thanks so much. Yes, I think including real people, or basing them on real people, adds a veracity the readers can feel.