Hi all welcome to Tales of History and Imagination, on today’s episode we’re continuing the tale of Tom Horn – This is part two of a three parter so if you haven’t read part one yet, you might want to check it out here first. In part one I discussed how Tom had grown up a loner in a strictly religious family, in Scotland county, Missouri. How following the loss of his faithful dog Shedrick, and a terrible beating from his father, 14 year old Tom struck out west – taking up several jobs to make ends meet. He increasingly found himself employed as a man of violence; becoming involved in the Apache Wars, railroad wars, one of America’s bloodiest family feuds, as a lawman, then – and this brings us up to date – as an enforcer for the Beef Barons of Wyoming. Though ostensibly his role was to protect their interests from cattle rustlers, in reality his role would be much more complex.
We discussed the kind of guy Tom Horn was. While he excelled under pressure, and became notable for several brave acts, he was also a braggart and, at times a bold- faced liar. Also worth reiterating from part one – while a capable gunfighter, Horn became known as an expert sharpshooter, what we would now call a sniper. Sharpshooters were rare, but occasionally known at the time – the best known known victim of a sharpshooter just prior to Horn’s era was Union General John Sedgwick; killed in the American Civil War after stating to his men “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance”.
Tom Horn had killed dozens of men by sharpshooting, but his time was the end of an era. Times were a changing, the west began to tame. Welcome to Tales of History and Imagination Episode 10, Tom Horn – Gunslinger, Part Two.
We left off last episode as Tom Horn had just left the Pinkerton detective agency in 1894. He soon found himself in Wyoming, officially working for the Swan Land and Cattle company as a ranch hand. Unofficially, he was there as an enforcer – hired muscle for when asking nicely wouldn’t do. To explain why the group we now refer to as the Beef Barons needed hired thugs, we need to delve back to the 1860s, first via a war with the neighbours.
To put a little context in explaining why the west was so wild, and less developed than the east coast at this time, it is worth pointing out places like Wyoming were still new to the USA. The United States seized the west coast of the country, by conquest, off the Mexicans in the Mexican – American war (1846- 48). Prior to Mexican rule, the west coast was conquered – their peoples almost annihilated – by the Spanish Conquistadors following the fall of the Aztec Empire in 1521. The West was then part of what was called New Spain. Prior to that the west was ruled by various indigenous tribes.
A few things happened during, and in the wake of the American Civil War (1861-65) which would bring two new groups in to this region. The first that from 1866 cattle farming became extremely popular in these states – starting in Texas, then up to regions like Wyoming. The model of much of this farming was to grab a big piece of land, but to take your cattle out onto a common area- the range- to graze. The Beef Barons – I prefer this to their other name, the Cattle Barons – were often farming large, essentially squatting on massive swathes of land. Up until the mid 1880s these barons were making a killing – America was growing rich, eating better, and anyone selling good dry-stock like cattle was making great money. This wealth reflected in the region, Cheyanne, Wyoming particularly had the newest and best of everything- gas lighting throughout the streets, phone lines – The Cheyanne Club, a plush gentlemen’s club where wealthy cattle investors spent their days.
The other group we have to mention is the Homesteaders. The Homestead Act of 1862 was actually the first of a series of acts passed by Abraham Lincoln, in relation to the new territories of the USA. If a settler wished to stake a claim to unclaimed land up to 160 acres – most of which was west of the Mississippi river, they just had to possess the land, and still be living there five years later. This would become a wildly successful scheme, with around 1.6 million homesteaders occupying around ten percent of the land in the USA. Though they would come in various waves, the bulk of them would begin to arrive in Wyoming around 1874.
In effect you had two very different schemes, competing with far less oversight than there should have been – and a region with nowhere near enough law enforcement to ensure anyone’s safety. One model was based around a large commons where everyone could use what they needed, without restriction. The other on outright ownership, but with a caveat that if you could be unseated from your land, you would lose it. It really isn’t hard to see how this could get ugly, fast.
By 1886 Wyoming, now overrun by homesteaders, found itself flooded with far too many cattle, which was lowering the cost they could sell their stock for. Some of the homesteaders were running into conflict with the Beef Barons by bringing sheep onto the range, putting further stress on resources. By 1886, counting cattle alone, there were already an estimated 1.5 million cattle in the state, and the free feed which had previously allowed a Beef Baron to buy young cattle at $5 a head, sell them grown at $60 a head, and pay very little in overheads- was fast diminishing. What did people do in this time to protect their livelihoods? For one, you hired a private army of gunslingers, two, you designated anyone you didn’t like a ‘cattle rustler’ and sent your enforcers out to mete out summary justice.
With murders of homesteaders a common occurrence in this time, one particular event did become particularly shocking nonetheless. Now I am sitting on the Johnson County war for an episode in it’s own right some time in the future – but I do need to touch on it today. From 1889 to 1893 the Wyoming Stock Growers Association – a group of barons who regularly gathered at the Cheyanne Club – went to war with a group of homesteaders who’d grown tired of being threatened and attacked by the baron’s heavies. The first flashpoint was the lynching of two homesteaders, Ella Watson and Jim Averill – having falsely been accused of cattle theft. This escalated on both sides, till, in 1892 the Stock Growers Association hired a fugitive killer and bank robber, turned sheriff, turned gun for hire who went by the name Frank Canton to put together an army of Texan killers to come to town and carry out a night of long knives style hit on 70 targets. It has been said Horn was among the killers for hire, though he does not appear in the photo they took to memorialize the planned killings. Nor was he arrested with the others after. I won’t spoil this topic for later, but there were up to three dozen murders resulting in this conflict. It does not go exactly as planned, but is plenty bad enough. This was the world Tom Horn settled into, full time in 1894.
Tom Horn came to work for the barons at a point where their power began to dissipate. Before the Johnson County War they owned the judiciary and politics. At the next round of elections the homesteaders made their numbers known, and got rid of a lot of the barons’ stooges. Were Horn able to see the writing on the wall, one wonders what he would have done differently. It is clear though he really didn’t see the shift in power in the region. He kept doing what he always did.
1895 saw two murders of note which were probably carried out by Horn. The first victim was an English settler named William Lewis. Lewis genuinely came with a bad enough reputation that many were happy to see him dead. In his short time in Cheyanne he had been caught stealing clothing, cheating at faro (a card game mentioned in the last episode) and genuinely cattle rustling. On 30th July a bullet struck Lewis from out of nowhere via a hidden assailant. Lewis was left walking wounded, but in good enough shape to get on with his day, which included fighting with his neighbors – and butchering more stolen cattle. The following day William Lewis was out in the open air skinning a stolen animal when a second bullet, fired from a Winchester 30-30 at a range of 300 yards, struck him in the chest, this time killing him.
The second murder that year was another bona fide rustler, named Fred U Powell. Powell met his end by the same modus operandi. In both cases Tom Horn was arrested and charges brought, but Horn had witnesses who put him elsewhere when the murders occurred. In both cases he walked free. If inclined to make Horn out as some good guy vigilante, it is worth remembering that days after Horn was released without charge for Powell’s murder, a letter arrived at Powell’s old house. Powell’s brother in law Charles Keane had moved in following his murder. The letter threatened Keane with the same fate as Powell if he wasn’t gone in 3 days’ time. Sometimes Horn killed bad men, but bad appears to have had little to do with the killings.
For a little while Horn would be selective over his contracts, not jumping for every job as he had previously, and particularly avoiding anything where he would have to work in a posse. In 1897 Horn was involved in the killing of a cattle rustler in Arizona named William Christian, then later his associate Robert Christian – presumably related. In 1898 he would head off to Cuba however, to get involved in a war.
In February 1898 an American warship, the USS Maine blew up outside of Havana, Cuba. They had been there to look out for Americans in the country, which had broken out in a war of independence between the Cubans and their Spanish rulers. Although the explosion was caused by a malfunction, which in turn set off several rounds of ammunition, and not a Spanish attack- it was just the provocation America needed to enter the war. When the Spanish American war broke out, Tom Horn was quick to re-enlist, as a mule packer. Although Horn was not directly involved with the fighting, he was fired upon numerous times by the enemy, while transporting goods to and from the front lines. Around 1900 he would catch yellow fever and he would be sent back to Wyoming, in spite of wanting to continue on to the Philippines for the next stage of the war.
Back in Wyoming, Horn would commit two more murders before we get to Willie Nickell. The first was Matt Rash, the head of the Brown’s Park Cattle Association – a group of smaller ranchers who had banded together in an effort to stop the beef barons running them out of business. Horn was given instructions to investigate Rash for cattle rustling, allegedly finding him a rustler. The barons green lit his killing. Horn left a note on his door giving Rash 60 days to vacate the area, and when rash would not, on July 21st someone came up to his front door while he ate, and gunned him down at close range. Although not his usual M.O, a dying Rash wrote the name of his killer in his own blood. The writing pointed to Horn. Days later an associate of Rash, a cowboy called Isom Dart – formerly a cattle rustler who went by the name Ned Huddleston, was gunned down from a distance. As per modus operandi 30-30 cartridges were found from the vantage point where the shot had been fired. Which finally brings us back round to where I started this season – the assassination of Willie Nickell.
Though Horn knew of the Nickells, his first dealings with them came in 1901. That year Horn took a job with a baron called John Coble, at the Iron Mountain Ranch Company. Coble was a man who hated rustlers, and even more then the rustlers hated sheep farmers. There was one particular sheep man he hated most, and that was Kels Nickell. A feud between the two had turned ugly only prior to Horn’s employment, when Coble and Nickell had come to blows at the Iron Mountain railway station. Reports state Coble threatened Nickell with death if he didn’t leave town immediately. Coble then drew his pistol, but Kels Nickell was too quick for him, pulling out his Bowie knife and stabbing Coble in the gut. The wound was not enough to kill Coble, but more than enough to make him hire an assassin to finish what he started.
The Nickell family had been in the area for 15 years, having come up from Kentucky. Kels had made few friends in that time. Soon after his arrival Kels had dammed water on his property, cutting the water supply to a number of lower ranches. It took other ranchers taking him to court, and the Nickells being fined $500 to stop him doing this. He had also clashed with a neighboring family, the Mahoneys. In all fairness to Tom Horn and John Coble, a lot of people wanted the Nickell family gone. Horn however was the one sent to their farm to deliver the message, pack up and leave, or die.
Soon after Horn began stalking Nickell, watching his every move for weeks. At the time Kels was especially paranoid – packing a sidearm at all times. Tom Horn visited the Nickells’ neighbors, the Miller family on July 15th, finding they too hated Kels Nickell. The following day someone took a shot at Kels from a long distance, though unusually for Horn, he only managed to catch him in the elbow. Kels Nickell managed to escape to the safety of his ranch house. Kels kept his head down for a little while. Meanwhile his son Willie was sent out to do a lot of the jobs his father normally would have. In the cold, dim light of morning on the 18th July 1901 Willie Nickell would be gunned down while opening a fence, his body to be found three days’ later. As usual Horn would have an alibi – another employee of John Coble, who had seen him on Coble’s ranch at around the same time as the murder. Early in August, following the mutilation of several of his sheep, someone took another shot at Kels, but again only managed to injure him. This could have ended like all the other murders, but it didn’t. I’ll be right back after this break to discuss how Tom Horn found himself in a cell, weaving the rope which would hang him.
I’ll pick this tale up for it’s conclusion, part three, next week – Simone