Podcast Episode 9: Tom Horn – Gunslinger (part 1)

Hi everyone, just a quick update. In my 9 to 5 I normally spend a reasonable portion of the day on the phones, but in the wake of the COVID 19 lockdown that volume has maybe tripled, from incoming calls. When I recorded the scripts for both parts of Tom Horn my voice was strained… my throat extremely agitated.

As such the recording was less than desirable. I am going to let the scripts for the podcasts run, but wait till my voice is recovered before I re-record and upload them. Apologies to the listeners – Simone

Hi all welcome to Tales of History and Imagination, season two. Today I want to tell the tale of one Tom Horn. In a number of ways Tom Horn was the imagined image of the rough, tough frontiersman. He worked on the railways, as a scout, a mule packer, a rancher, miner, lawman, and a gun for hire. Horn came up in a world full of opportunities for rough men willing to murder without conscience. He found, in his relatively short life however, that the world changed beneath him. As such his death is often considered a turning point – the end of the wild west, and though Horn was hardly the last of the frontiersmen – his death sent a clear message to desperados and black hats everywhere that their lawlessness would no longer be tolerated. Horn’s tale also remains noteworthy, as the incident which finally brought him low is mired in controversy.

I want to briefly pick up the tale in November 1903. Our subject is in a jail cell in Cheyanne Wyoming, just killing time. In the lead up to the date he’s to be executed – November 20th 1903- Horn has been busying himself with two tasks. One is the writing of a memoir- a pulpy, dime store affair, full of tall tales. The other is rather more macabre. A bona fide state champion in roping cattle, he weaved the very rope which would be used to hang him. Tom Horn has been charged, tried and sentenced in the murder of 14 year old Willie Nickell.

Willie, The son of local sheep farmers Kels and Mary Nickell, was found murdered on 21st July 1901. Sent on a mission to talk with a stranger who had been mooching around their farm looking for work, he was assassinated from a distance with a Winchester 30-30 rifle. Struck three times, Willie struggled in the first blush of day back towards the farm house, stumbling a distance of 75 feet before he gave out. At 7am three days later his body was found – the killer long gone. Whether Willie had been the target in the dim early morning light itself is up for speculation – only days earlier someone had attempted to kill Kels Nickell, but only managed to shoot him in the elbow. Kels was not well liked, and many locals would have loved to see him ended, but more on that later. Horn had reasons to doubt he was the killer too, definitely more on that as the tale goes. Let’s kick this off, welcome folks to Tales of History and Imagination Episode 9: Tom Horn- Gunslinger.

(Theme music)

Tom Horn was likely born November 21st 1860 in Scotland County, Missouri to Thomas Horn Sr and his wife Mary. The Horns were a large, strictly religious family – Tom the 5th of 12 children. Although Horn himself depicts his childhood as one big boys own adventure, a real life Mark Twain novel, it is clear he was a lonely child. Much of his childhood consisted of him cutting school to go hunting and tracking through the wilderness, accompanied by his dog Shedrick. Horn makes much of his disdain for learning and of bookish people – including a tale of beating an older, bookish cousin staying with his family, basically out of disdain for the learned cousin. He writes of various fights he, and occasionally Shedrick would get into with other children– and of how mean, tough and abusive his father was.

Image stolen from the movie Old Yeller but you get the idea…

Aged 14 Horn got into one fight which escalated way out of his control. One day he spotted a group of travellers passing through – two teenagers at the back of the group – Tom picked a fight with the boys, stating anyone who carried a single barreled shotgun, as one boy was – wasn’t a real man. The larger boy of the two engaged in a fist fight with Horn. In the melee the younger boy put down the gun and tried to separate the two, only to be mauled by Shedrick. – At this the elder boy picked up the shotgun and shot Shedrick dead. Horn would later recall this was “the first and only real sorrow” of his life. Not long after this incident he got into an argument with his father, announcing he was leaving home to moving west. Tom Sr gave him a thrashing which left him bedridden for a week – however as soon as he could, Tom Horn sold what little he had and struck out west.

First Horn reached Kansas City, picking up work on the railroads, from there- moving to Santa Fe, to drive mail coaches. It was around this time that Horn claims to have learned to speak Spanish. By the time Horn turned 16 he had picked up a number of skills in the wild west. He knew the region very well, and he had picked up at least conversational skills in Apache and Spanish. He had acquired a Winchester rifle, a horse, and enough sense to navigate a dangerous, lawless region without getting himself killed. Arizona was particularly hazardous at the time, as the latest flashpoint in a decades long war with the Apache tribes. The resistance had passed from earlier chiefs like Cochise and Mangas Coloradus to Geronimo, who was proving far too wily for the American soldiers. The army always needed good scouts, and in July 1876, at the recommendation of chief scout Al Sieber, Tom Horn was picked up by the Fifth Cavalry. This would be one of several stints, on and off, with the military.

Chief scout Al Sieber

The first thing I should say about Tom Horn’s military service is yes, the guy saw action, but examination of primary sources of the era paint him as a teller of tall tales, a grandiose bullshit merchant always putting himself in the centre of the action. He was genuinely tough and a cool customer, and was recognized for his bravery, but much of what he wrote of himself was nonsense. He did became an expert gunslinger in the army though, and that served him well in his life. Second thing I should say is his first stretch, which ran until 1880 was pretty uneventful. Horn lived for some time among the Apache, and made all kinds of connections. He did a lot of hunting, and may have taken a common law bride he later abandoned.
During his first run there was a constant, looming threat from Geronimo and his tribe in the air. One reason they were so formidable was they would strike in American territory, guerrila style, then disappear back over the border into Mexico. The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed at the end of the Mexican – American war, barred American soldiers from pursuing them across the border. People hunkered down, leaving little for Horn and the scouts to do, so he temporarily found work elsewhere. First he spent time working on his brother Charles’ ranch in Burton, Kansas – then moved on to Leadville, Colorado – in the hope of making his fortune as a miner. This did not go successfully for him, but it did provide him an opportunity to work as a gun for hire.

To add a little context – in this tale we will touch upon big businesses doing horrific things several times. As settlers moved westwards, and particularly as they discovered items of value, the railways followed. Private enterprise rather than public infrastructure works drove the development. Cash was king, and oversight was slim to none. When two companies decided to develop in the same area wars, actual wars with armies of hired guns broke out. In 1864 the Sacramento Valley Railroad and Central Pacific Railroad companies came to blows over a proposed length of track in Placer County. In the late 1880s the Rock Island Railroad clashed with two Oklahoma counties, Enid county and Pond Creek over land speculation in their back yards. In 1879 the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railway and the Denver and Rio Grande company broke a truce around the Royal Gorge track. The reason tensions flared up? This portion of track became a great deal more valuable after silver was struck in nearby Leadville, Colorado – the same strike which brought Tom Horn to town. The ensuing turf war saw several infamous gunslingers brought in by both railways – perhaps the best known of the bunch today Doc Holliday.

By the time Horn joined up – we know he did though don’t even know which side hired him – most of the fighting was over. When he moved on and attempted to hire himself out elsewhere, he struggled, having yet to build up a reputation as a hard man. He rejoined the army, staying till 1884. When he left this time his reputation did proceed him, and he found work at the Arizona cattle ranch of Horace and Burt Dunlop. This time the job came with a license to shoot and kill cattle thieves on sight. Whether all his kills were actual rustlers, or a combination of bona fide thieves, business rivals and people the Dunlops – or Horn himself- had a grudge against is debatable but we know he killed 17 men in the year he worked for the Dunlops.

Ironically Horn became sheriff of Gila County the following year, but was lucky to keep his badge for the year that he did. During 1885 Sheriff Tom Horn would be arrested twice, but twice found not guilty in the ambush murders of two “cattle thieves”. Horn had begun to develop a modus operandi of killing from a distance – sniper style – although he was as capable as anyone in a conventional gunfight. It is worth mentioning, any time he was accused, Horn was able to arrange an alibi. In a fairly lawless time where powerful friends could make things disappear, and unlikely alibis could be provided Tom Horn could, and did get away with murder.

By the end of 1885 Horn had rejoined the army, this time as a civilian mule driver. The army had built up enough resources now to pursue Geronimo. At times they would even chase him over to Mexico. The Mexicans came to a special agreement with the USA, as the Apache were causing them trouble too. Horn spent much of his autobiography describing his central role in the hunt for, and final surrender of Geronimo – even claiming to be the translator who facilitated Geronimo’s surrender – he wasn’t, an officer named Charles Gatewood translated for General Miles and Geronimo. Gatewood’s family were livid at the claim and threatened to sue Horn’s publishers.
Horn however was involved in a shootout with a Mexican militia while on the wrong side of the border, in January 1886. Part of a small crew commanded by Captain Emmet Crawford, they had notified the Mexicans they were entering the Sierra Madres in pursuit of a band of Apaches – but they drew fire from an irregular militia which clearly hadn’t got the memo. Crawford was killed and Horn wounded in the firefight. He would again be involved in a number of skirmishes in Arizona, which would win him accolades from the military. All the same, Horn wrote of single-handedly tracking Geronimo back to his base in Sierra Gordo, near Sonora Mexico. He claimed to have rode into the enemy camp, all on his lonesome, and negotiated a surrender with Geronimo himself. The truth is he never tracked them down, never negotiated, although he appears to have been present at the event.


By 1887 Horn would be working as a gun for hire yet again, this time in the Pleasant Valley War. This war grew out of a feud between two families – the Tewksbury clan and the Grahams, between 1882 and 1892. Both sides hired killers as the feud escalated. The alleged reason the war broke out? The Tewksburys started farming sheep alongside their cattle, bringing sheep onto the common grazing land known as the range – put a pin in that concept for now, it will be important later in the tale.
Horn, as always, is unclear about his involvement in the war, claiming he brokered peace between the factions. He does appear to have been aligned with the Cattle owners however. Of the 50 deaths, several men on the Tewkesbury side were assassinated from a distance by a ‘sharpshooter’. This is thought to be Tom Horn’s true contribution. The Pleasant Valley War would cost the lives of almost all the men in both families, and delayed Arizona’s ascension into statehood till 1912. If your territory had a running feud with a death toll which would make a Hatfield or McCoy blush, then maybe that territory was ‘not ready’ to join the USA yet. Horn would take a little time out in 1888 to compete in, and win several roping competitions across the West. He would make his way back to the Dunlop family ranch, and may have been involved in the hunt for Butch Cassidy and the Hole in the Wall gang, but again his tall tales cast the shadow of doubt on anything he may have genuinely done.

John Tewksbury’s grave

In late 1889 Tom Horn’s tale took an unexpected turn. A deputy marshall named Cyrus ‘Doc’ Shores approached Horn for help in tracking down a gang of horse thieves. Shores was astonished when Horn managed captured the thieves without firing a shot. He simply marched up to them and through force of personality convinced them to put down their guns and surrender. Soon after he would recommend Horn to Alan Pinkerton for a role in the Pinkerton detective agency.

The Pinkertons, like Horn, flourished in their time because the west was such a lawless place. Established in 1850 they provided private security for businesses who needed protection from outlaws, and would sometimes pursue and arrest outlaws after the fact. The Pinkertons first came to prominence when they foiled the February 1861 Baltimore plot, an alleged plan to stab President Lincoln to death as he stepped off a train in Baltimore. This is a whole story in of itself, historians argue if there even was a plot to kill Lincoln in this instance – and the alleged mastermind, a pro slavery Sicilian hairdresser called Cypriano Ferrandini was accused but never indicted. The Pinkertons would however go on to protect the president – and run an extensive pro union intelligence network throughout the Confederate South during the American Civil War. Of note, personally, I like that they hired women and minorities from day one – an unusual practice in those days. The really big downside to the Pinkertons was they infiltrated unions, threatened striking workers and occasionally broke strikes with deadly force as America continued to industrialize. Tom Horn joined the Pinkerton Detective Agency in 1890

That year Peg Leg Watson and Bert Curtis, two members of the notorious Hole in the wall gang, robbed a train in Cotopaxi, Colorado, leading to a massive manhunt involving numerous gangs of lawmen and vigilantes. Horn and Doc Shores were also on the case. They first came upon the robbers trail, and tracked them upwards of 500 miles. At the McCoy ranch they caught up with Watson and Curtis and a gunfight ensued. No one was killed and the two escaped. They pursued the train robbers into Oklahoma, where Horn and Shores found a sleeping Curtis at the home of a lady friend. Days later Peg Leg Watson returned to find the two waiting for him. He would draw his pistols and prepare for battle but a calm, collected Horn would walk across to him – Winchester 30-30 rifle loosely by his side, and convince him he needed to come with them.

Over time however Horn’s hair trigger would return, as would his practice of sharpshooting wrongdoers. His habit of drunken public bragging about his exploits also annoyed the typically tight lipped Pinkertons. There were suggestions he was still turning his hand to assassinations on the side for the highest bidder. He let himself down when he failed to apprehend a group of train robbers in Salem, Oregon. Then, in April 1891, Tom Horn walked into a casino in Reno, Nevada- bandanna wrapped around his face, pistol in hand. He walked up to a faro dealer and relieved him of $800 cash. Horn would be arrested boarding a train soon after. He would face two trials for the robbery, however he finally got off after scapegoating the robbery on Frank Shercliffe, a wanted jewel thief known as Kid McCoy. After this incident other Pinkertons began to view Horn as a ‘dirty cop’, and would coerce him to move on to greener pastures – quite literally. His next role, officially a farm hand – unofficially an enforcer – for the Swan Land and Cattle Company, Wyoming. Yet again Horn found himself, officially, a bad man in the employ of the unscrupulous Beef Barons.

And this is where we’ll wrap up part one – in parts two and three I’ll conclude Tom Horn’s tale, discussing just what he was up to in his final years, and how the world was changing. Please join us for the next episode of Tom Horn – Gunslinger

Please note I’ll be putting this out as a two part podcast series, and a three part blog with additional sidebar. See you all next Tuesday morning NZ time- Simone


2 thoughts on “Podcast Episode 9: Tom Horn – Gunslinger (part 1)

  1. Pingback: Podcast Episode 10: Tom Horn – Gunslinger (part 2) | Tales of History and Imagination

  2. Pingback: Podcast Episode 10: Tom Horn – Gunslinger (part 3) | Tales of History and Imagination

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