The Life And Times Of Tom Horn - Range Detective

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Tom Horn was a range detective that worked for the Wyoming Cattleman's Association to rid the range of cattle rustling and rustlers. A job he did far to well.

“It was the best shot that I ever made and the dirtiest trick that I ever done.” These are the words that would send Tom Horn to the gallows.

In the late 1800's the cattle business was changing. The large cattle barons that had ruled the vast, open ranges of Wyoming, Colorado and Montana were seeing an influx of settlers moving in on, what they considered, their land. People were moving west and more and more small ranchers and farmers were settling on lands that cattlemen had used to raise and feed their herds for years.

The animosity grew when small ranchers, known as “nesters” by the cattle barons, started putting up fences that blocked traditional access to land and water. The nesters were also bringing sheep to the range. An animal detested by cattle ranchers for their reputation of over grazing the land. Rustling also increased exponentially and the barons were losing large numbers of cattle each year to thieves.

By 1901 The Wyoming Stock Growers Association had had enough and called a meeting to find a way to stop the rustling. A wealthy ranch owner by the name of John C. Coble told the other members that he had a man working for him that could fix the problem. After some debate they agreed to hire the man and pay him $600. for every rustler that he brought in and it didn’t matter if he was dead or alive. They also agreed on a title. He would be known as “a range detective”.

Thomas Horn was six feet one inch tall and weighed about two hundred pounds. He was a hardened man who had spent most of his adult life out on the range and had seldom had the pleasure of sleeping under a roof. A situation that he admitted to prefer. He had left his home in Missouri at the age of 13 to escape an abusive father and for years drifted from job to job across the west. He eventually went to work as a scout for the army and was instrumental in the finale capture of the famous Apache leader, Geronimo. After he left the army he was recruited by the Pinkerton Detective Agency to track down and bring in wanted criminals who were fleeing prosecution.

After two and a half years Tom’s relationship with the Pinkerton Detective Agency was dissolved due to the fact that he had shot and killed the majority of the men he had pursued. Tom’s choice of weapon was a Winchester rifle in a 45/70 caliber with which he was deadly accurate. Tom was known to use his skill with the rifle without hesitation if and when the need arose and that’s what brought him to John C. Coble’s Iron Mountain Ranch in the winter of 1900.

Tom’s duty while working for the Wyoming Stock Growers Association was simple. He was to patrol the holdings of the ranchers and to stop the rustling of cattle. A job that he did far to well. Tom put out the word that he was now an agent of the stockmens association and that all rustling must cease or pay the consequences. By 1902 rustling had stopped. Those suspected of rustling just disappeared or their bodies were found scattered across the range.

In time, the success of which Tom Horn did his work became a liability to the ranchers for which he was employed. The bodies spread across the ranches were attracting attention and the stockmen feared they may be implicated in the “deaths” if Tom was ever arrested and questioned.

On July 18, 1901, Horn was once again working near Iron Mountain when Willie Nickell, the 14-year-old son of a sheep-herding rancher, was found at the gate of his fathers ranch. He had been shot. Tom was arrested, while drinking heavily in the local saloon, and questioned about the murder by U.S. Marshall, Joe Lefors.

Joe Lefors was politically ambitious and wanted desperately to solve the murder of Willie Nickell to further his career. While he questioned Tom he had someone, hidden in the back room, taking down anything that Tom said that was incriminating. During the interview it’s alleged that Tom said “It was the best shot that I ever made and the dirtiest trick that I ever done.”

It’s doubtful that Tom Horn actually made that statement, even while intoxicated, but it was entered as evidence and Tom was found guilty of the murder and hanged in Cheyenne, Wyoming in 1903. It’s obvious to me and most historians that the murder of Willie Nickell and the subsequent hanging of Tom Horn was a conspiracy between the cattlemen and Joe Lefors.

The cattlemen succeeded in silencing Tom Horn and Joe Lefors advanced his political ambitions. Tom Horn was by no means a saint, by anyone’s standards, and the methods in which he employed to rid the country of rustlers was at the least questionable. But, when everything was said and done, he was no worse than the men that hired him and eventually had him hanged.

A movie of the life and times of Tom Horn was made in the 70's starring, one of my favorites, Steve McQueen. In the movie Tom is depicted as a "shoot first and ask questions later" type range detective. A depiction that I believe is accurate. The conspiracy is also brought to light.