Podcast Episode 10: Tom Horn – Gunslinger (part 3)

Hi all this is the third part of this tale, for part one click here, part two here.

At this point in the tale we need to introduce Wyoming lawman Joe LeFors. Tough as nails, and determined to solve the Nickell case by any means necessary, LeFors was not above bending the rules for a result. From the outset Tom Horn was the prime suspect – though others could have been considered. Many locals hated Kels Nickell, and other beef barons could, and still did, employ range detectives to take out ‘squeaky wheels’ like Nickell. LeFors quickly determined Willie was not mistaken for Kels. It had been suggested that Willie was wearing Kels’ coat – but he wasn’t. A scene examination showed someone had stalked Willie that morning, getting close enough to realize he wasn’t Kels. The killer also took his time leaving, and stood over Willie’s body, opening his shirt to observe his handiwork. The ambush, the long shot, the coolness in which the kill was carried out had Tom Horn written all over it. To add to the evidence pile, Horn had drunkenly bragged to a patron in a saloon that he was the assassin.

Horn was brought in on 4th August for questioning. He claimed he was hundreds of miles away on the day the murder happened. After the Nickell family offered a $500 reward to find Willie’s killer, Horn hit the road – entering several out of town roping contests. In September, Horn was drunkenly telling tales in a bar when he got into a fight with a boxer. The boxer, Jim Corbett, was one of the best pugilists of his generation – and made easy work pummeling Horn. Corbett would later go down in history as the only man to beat the great John L. Sullivan, and for a time would wear the world heavyweight belt.

Former World Heavyweight boxing champ James J. Corbett.

In January 1902 Joe LeFors had another chance at catching Horn out. What he did however would muddy the waters, doing something underhanded even in his own time. LeFors sent a letter to Coble’s ranch offering short term employment to Horn for help on a job, offering a salary of $125 a month. Never one to pass up an opportunity, Horn agreed to meet with LeFors – completely oblivious of the trap he was about to walk in to. To celebrate the opportunity, Tom Horn went out and got very drunk – so drunk in fact that he showed up at his meeting the next day still three sheets to the wind.


Picture if you will, two men in a quiet room. One a dedicated, and somewhat obsessive police officer, the other a habitual liar, especially when drunk. The drunker of the two has come to get himself a job, and would be willing to say anything to secure the role. Add to this scene two people sitting in an adjoining room – one imagines each with a glass, one end to their ear, the other to the wall – listening intently. One is a court stenographer, the other an impartial witness.

Lefors soon turned the conversation to the murder of Willie Nickell, needing to know if he is the right kind of guy to work as a range detective, and make those long shots. Had he been the gunman who shot Willie down? Horn answered in the affirmative. He had taken the shot cleanly at a distance of 300 yards. Horn boasted it was “the best shot that I ever made and the dirtiest trick I ever done”. And like that Tom Horn was arrested and charged with the murder of Willie Nickell.

By the time the case came to trial Tom Horn had a highly capable team of lawyers, two of whom would later become judges, one of whom, John W. Lacey, would be chief justice for Wyoming. The team had been paid for, no expense spared, by John Coble. However good they were, and however shaky the evidence should have been – the main evidence against him was a confession, and Horn was a compulsive liar after all – the defense team had quite an uphill battle. The politics of the day had changed in favour of the homesteaders, many of whom had been affected by th barons’ thugs in one way or another, and were determined the beef barons would no longer get away with murder.

Tom Horn himself was a nightmare defendant. As the trial unfolded he often got into arguments with the prosecutor, letting his alibi slip in the process. He refused to heed his defense team’s advice, undermining his own defense to the point where it no longer mattered to anyone how flimsy the evidence was – or for that matter that he had been entrapped into giving said flimsy evidence. Horn was found guilty and sentenced to hang on November 20th 1903. Joe Lefors would write a book on the trial – hoping to be the Vincent Bugliosi of his own era I suppose. Tom Horn’s own book would be the bigger seller by far, in spite of it barely discussing the Nickell killing.

Just prior to Horn’s execution he managed to overpower a deputy and flee custody. Somehow grabbing a pistol, he fled on foot down the street, pursued by an angry mob. Symbolically he, the wild west gunslinger, had grabbed a modern Luger and understood it about as well as he understood the Wyoming of the early twentieth century. He stood in the street trying in vain to fire the pistol, unaware of how to release the safety. He was caught and dragged back to prison by the mob.

In the years since his execution, Horn’s case has faced much scrutiny. Modern historians have, while not exonerating Horn as a multiple murderer for his other acts, questioned the flimsiness of the evidence of the Nickell case.

In 1993 an unofficial retrial was held in a Cheyanne courtroom, using modern methods. Although few jurors believed Horn was innocent, they all agreed there was nowhere near enough evidence to convict. In 1980 Steve McQueen would star in a William Ward directed film titled Tom Horn, based largely on Horn’s own autobiography. The film would portray Horn as a reformed bad man who had fallen for local school teacher Glendolene Kimmel. In real life Horn did have a passing relationship with Ms Kimmel, who was unquestionably head over heels in love with him. He seemed rather disinterested by comparison. In any case in recent decades we have come to question his guilt in the Nickell murder.

Personally I don’t believe he was a reformed bad man, there is simply no evidence of it. I agree with the 1993 jury, he probably committed the murder, and certainly was responsible for dozens of other assassinations. The English jurist William Blackstone once wrote, in what has come to be known as Blackstone’s Ratio

“It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.”

Coming from New Zealand we have our share of innocent people later exonerated, from Arthur Allan Thomas to David Bain, to the late Peter Ellis, who had he not passed surely would have been cleared of the 1991 Christchurch crèche child abuse case – it bore a striking resemblance to the Satanic panic of the 1980s, for the non New Zealand readers. While I admit for that reason Blackstone’s ratio seems sound to me, I can’t feel at all sorry for the grown up Horn if wrongly hanged. Now the boy of about the same age as young Willie Nickell, the lonely outsider who fled an abusive upbringing from a loveless family – Yeah, that Tom Horn I do feel a little sorry for.

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