Trigger-happy range detective Tom Horn was hung as a murderer in Cheyenne in 1903, after a sensational trial.
There were no eyewitnesses to the crime—the ambush killing of 14-year-old Willie Nickell. All the evidence was circumstantial and some was contradictory. A few trial witnesses undoubtedly committed perjury in their efforts to either save or convict Horn.
The major incriminating evidence came from the defendant himself—a confession. He even refuted the defense claim that he was too drunk at the time to know what he was saying.
Horn claimed that his confession was no more than “joshing” with a friend, Joe LeFors, a US Marshal. But LeFors had set a trap for Horn by moving the conversation from a hotel where he had run into Horn, to an office where a stenographer and another witness were secreted.
Horn also admitted that in summer 1901 he was near the murder site. He was working for John C. Coble and Frank Bosler at their large Iron Mountain Ranch, at Bosler. Willie Nickell was killed on July 18, 1901 in Laramie County, but near Iron Mountain Ranch lands.
It didn’t help Horn’s defense that most of the jury would have known him as an “enforcer” for wealthy cattlemen. The 1877 Desert Land Act had allowed small operators to claim land without needing to live on it while making improvements. For the Iron Mountain country, that brought many fenced pastures between stretches of public land. Fences were one problem for the large cattlemen, but sheep were even worse because they grazed nearly to bare dirt.
Much earlier, in1893, Horn was in the Iron Mountain area of southeastern Wyoming, mostly working for John Coble. But he left Wyoming, adventured in Arizona, and had a stint with the US Army in Cuba. In 1899 he was recovering from malaria. He came back to the Coble ranch, where he was given work, a place to bunk, and had his choice of horses from Coble’s herd.
In 1900, Horn, under the alias Thomas Hicks, was in Brown’s Park, Colorado where ranchmen (including Ora Haley of Laramie) were concerned about small landholders. Two, Matthew Rash and Isom Dart, had been gunned down separately in unsolved crimes. Later, Horn bragged that he had been in Brown’s Park at the time and implied he knew all about the murders. In fact, Colorado authorities said that if Horn were acquitted, they wanted him arrested again for the murders of Rash and Dart.
Kels Nickell had brought a large herd of sheep to the Iron Mountain country, to the consternation of local cattle ranchers. A belligerent man, Nickell had run-ins with several neighbors.
A plausible scenario, and one that Tom Horn himself suggested, was that Nickell’s son Willie spotted the gunman stalking for his father and was shot to keep him from spreading the alarm back at the ranch. After the boy’s murder, at least 50 sheep of Nickell’s were found killed, lending credibility to the likelihood that someone who didn’t like sheep had killed the boy.
Writing 50 years after the trial, Dean Krakel, then an assistant professor in the Western History Department at UW, reiterated a popular notion at the time that young Willie Nickell was killed by mistake by someone who thought he was shooting at Kels Nickell.
For six months after the murder, Horn was free to continue working and wasn’t even a major suspect. But the Laramie County Commissioners had put a $1,000 reward out for information leading to a murder conviction. That attracted the attention of Joe LeFors, who set the successful trap for Horn to incriminate himself.
John Coble raised much of the money for the defense team, probably paying a good share of it himself. The three defense attorneys were highly skilled, according to John W. Davis, in his 2016 book, “The Trial of Tom Horn.”
Davis refutes the suggestion that the defense team intentionally presented a half-hearted defense, supposedly because the wealthy cattlemen wanted Horn out of the way. The defense found people who would testify that Horn was in Laramie on the morning of the murder, and that he had stabled his horse (actually Coble’s) in the Elkhorn Stable on 3rd St. But Horn himself said that he didn’t come to Laramie until two days after the murder. Furthermore, the records of the stable were shoddy and couldn’t corroborate the day the horse arrived; only the date it was taken out.
There wasn’t much public sympathy for Horn at his trial. The day of romantic western gunslingers who took law into their own hands was over in 1901. Someone like Horn was a throwback to an earlier generation. But as Davis points out, that doesn’t matter in a trial—everything rests on the information presented to the jury.
Between the time of his arrest and hanging, Horn wrote an autobiography, “Life of Tom Horn: Government Scout and Interpreter.” It covers his early exploits and leaves off anything about his Wyoming experiences. Coble published it in 1904.
Included in the autobiography are supplementary letters and testimony by friends of Horn’s, most of whom were not called to testify at his trial. One was Iron Mountain schoolteacher Glendolene Myrtle Kimmell who had met Horn once. She claimed that another person had confessed to her of killing Willie. She says she did not testify because Horn’s attorneys had assured her they were confident of winning.
In fact, suggests Davis, the defense attorneys didn’t call those people because they knew such testimony would not hold up in cross-examination. Kimmel, for instance, had been characterized by the press as Horn’s lover or as a prostitute, both of which were completely off the mark. But she, like many others, was fascinated by Horn, and may have been willing to commit perjury to save him. However, as Davis points out, juries are swayed by body language, not just the words of trial witnesses. They can tell who is lying.
Davis suggests that it is not up to us to second-guess the jury about who was telling the truth and who was not. The jury included at least six men who had cattle ranching interests that Horn thought would be “good for him.” But they all agreed on a guilty verdict.
After the hanging, Horn’s older brother Charles, a modest teamster from Boulder Colorado, claimed the body. Loyal friend John Coble bought the casket and small tombstone for the cemetery. And many cattle barons could rest easy that Horn died without telling who paid for the killings that he did do in his lifetime. \
By Judy Knight
Caption: Tom Horn’s tombstone is a tourist attraction in historic Columbia Cemetery, Boulder, Colorado, where it lies next to that of his older brother Charles and sister-in-law Elizabeth (Blatner) Horn. Tom Horn’s birth date (1861) is a year off from what he wrote in his autobiography (November 21, 1860). Photo courtesy of Judy Knight