Tom Horn's Stock in Trade

Tom Horn's

"Stock in Trade"

by Daniel Borgström

The last decades of the 19th century in the U.S. are remembered as the Gilded Age, the era of the robber barons back east, while out west cattle barons grabbed virtually unlimited stretches of range land. In their view, the homesteaders, small ranchers, needed to be driven out. There were intermittent range wars, with occasional shootings, and also a few large-scale incidents such as the "Johnson County Range War," an operation where the barons assembled an army of fifty gunmen to clean out the "nesters." That had happened in 1892, and in the decade following that incident, Tom Horn worked, drank, murdered, terrorized and boasted his way to fame as a legendary paid hit-man.

"Killing men is my specialty," Tom Horn said. "I look at it as a business proposition and I think I have a corner on the market."

To hear it from him, one might think he was the fellow who invented murder as a means of intimidation. Addressing a gathering of Wyoming cattle barons, he famously said, "Men, I have a system that never fails, when everything else has." In reality, the primary object of his "system" was not to kill people. It was to intimidate and terrorize homesteaders into leaving. Murder was only a means to this end.

In that capacity Tom Horn worked for cattle barons until 1903, when he was hanged for the murder of a 14-year-old boy. Some believed he didn't do that particular killing, and maybe he didn't. Even his defense attorneys wondered about it, one believing Horn did it, another, Blake Kennedy, saying he didn't know, "but he killed plenty of other people." For over a century the killing of the teenager has remained a matter of controversy; historians are sharply divided on the issue, and a good many books and articles have been written about Horn, many focusing on the trial. Tom Horn himself might've been very pleased with some of these, at least with the ones that defend him. He wanted his story to be told and said so himself.

"I have the satisfaction of knowing I have lived about fifteen ordinary lives. I would like to have had somebody who saw my past and could picture it to the public. It would be the most God damn interesting reading in the country."

There have also been movies about him; the best known is "Tom Horn," a 1980 film produced and acted by Steve McQueen. McQueen often played antiheroes and was very well cast for this role, in which he brings the murderous Tom Horn to life, presenting him as a fellow we grudgingly like and even admire. He is a killer but also has a gentle side; he loves his horse, and he has a romantic interest in a woman who is aware of his dark side. She is Glendolene Kimmell, played by Linda Evans, and in the movie she wisely breaks off the relationship, telling him:

"Someday, you're going to have to pay for your way of life, Tom. You're a bad man and I know it. Goodbye, Tom."

Maybe the historical Glendolene Kimmell really did say something like that. Who knows? But in her numerous recorded public statements, Kimmell loyally supported Horn to the very end and beyond. She took to the witness stand and spoke for him at the trial; then, after the verdict of guilty came in, she pleaded his case with the governor of Wyoming, and after Horn's death by hanging, she wrote a twenty-page statement in defense of his memory. "The hanging of an innocent man!" she lamented. That was the historical Glendolene Kimmell.

She was twenty-two years old and seems to have been star struck by Horn. Like many of us, then and now, she had a romantic passion for the "Old West." Wanting to see it for herself, she'd left a comfortable home back east and took a job teaching school in Wyoming. But it wasn't what she'd envisioned.

"I was doomed to disappointment," she wrote, "for all the cattle men and cow boys I saw were like the hired hands back East." Nevertheless, she did encounter one man who properly fit the image of her ideal. "[O]n the night of July 15th, [1901] there stopped at the Miller ranch a man who embodied the characteristics, the experiences and the code of the old frontiersman. It was Tom Horn."

As Kimmell saw him, "He was the representative of a type not common. He was a man of action . . . had an active imagination, a keen perception and a genius for language. He was truthful in the ordinary affairs of life, but if the spinning of a yarn would give pleasure, he was not one to let facts stand in the way."

Several others also described him as a likable fellow. He had charm, the gift of gab, and spoke eloquently. He was well-read and wrote his autobiography. However, not everyone was delighted with his stories. Among the unimpressed was Ann Bassett, a homesteader's daughter in Brown's Park. Ann wrote, "[W]hen I came home from school and joined the work as usual, I did not take kindly to [Tom Horn]. His bragging of having been a great Indian fighter, and his descriptive account of slaughters he had accomplished single-handed, made him extremely obnoxious to me."

Ann Bassett may not have been easy to impress. She was a frontierswoman from the start, and later became a legend in her own lifetime. Her first playmates had been the children of Paiutes who then shared the valley. So Horn's boastful accounts of killing Indians would not have appealed to her concept of a pleasurable yarn. Her memory of him may have been further soured by his murder of two of her neighbors, homesteaders in Brown's Park.

In cowboy movies we're used to seeing glorious gunfights. It's a tiresome cliché, with all the mythical stuff about quick draws, fair fights and not shooting an unarmed man. And McQueen's movie is no exception; McQueen's Tom Horn gallops headlong into firefights, shoots it out and wins. But the historical Tom Horn was not a gunfighter.

Tom Horn was a sniper; his style was to bushwhack his victims, sitting outside their cabins and shooting them down when they opened the door. That's how he killed the two ranchers in Brown's Park, Matt Rash and Isom Dart.

Matt Rash was president of the Brown's Park Cattle Association, and Isom Dart was a former slave who'd been freed in the Civil War. Both were homesteaders, small ranchers -- those words were synonyms for "rustlers" in the cattle barons' vocabulary. The rustlers refused to abandon their homesteads, so Tom Horn murdered them.

It needs to be recognized that cattle rustling did happen. Big ranchers rustled cattle from small ranchers, and small ranchers rustled them back. Rustling was a two-way trail. The cattle barons made a big issue of it, naming it a huge problem. In reality it was among the least of their problems. The barons did lose cattle, due to overgrazing, bad weather, wolves, lack of care, ill luck, and poor management. Not all cattle barons were experienced cattlemen; many were financial investors who lived in cities back east and hired managers to run their estates; that didn't always work out well. In the famously severe winter of 1886-87, herds were massively decimated, the "great die up," causing many of the barons to go bankrupt, the rest barely surviving. On top of all that, economic boom and bust cycles affected the market price of beef and hides. The combination of these challenges was devastating, and the remaining barons were struggling for their very survival, cursing their fate, and blaming their troubles on those god damn homesteaders -- the "rustlers."

The results of Tom Horn's work in Brown's Park were as might be expected: The more timid homesteaders (who perhaps didn't steal any cattle anyway) left the valley in a hurry. The hardier ones stayed, and among them were persons like Ann Bassett, who took up cattle rustling with a vengeance, eventually becoming known as "Queen Ann of the Cattle Rustlers." She fought back against the barons and won.

Nevertheless, for the moment at least, Tom Horn's efforts in Brown's Park appeared successful, so, mission supposedly accomplished, he moved on to look for employment with a cattle baron up in Montana who had a rustler problem, and he wrote in a letter: "I don’t care how big or bad [the rustlers] are or how many of them there are, I can handle them. They can scarcely be any worse than the Brown’s Hole Gang and I stopped cow stealing there in one summer."

Horn's contemporaries called him a braggart, but there was method and function in his bragging. It was his pitch to prospective employers as well as a scare tactic to ranchers. "[Horn]'s main weapon was his reputation as a killer," Glendolene Kimmell wrote. "He himself carefully fostered this reputation, for as he would say to his friends: 'That is my stock-in-trade.'"

In today's parlance we'd call it his "resume." Tom Horn killed for pay, not for the hell of it. He was a professional, and an important part of being a professional in any field, be it hair-styling, graphic arts, or computer science, is that a job applicant must promote himself as skilled and ready to take on an assignment. And that's what Tom Horn did; he was an accomplished self-promoter. Had he lived in today's world, he might've worked for Blackwater or some other mercenary private security firm. Or, being the talker that he was. he might've been a TV show host. Nevertheless, there are professions where self-promotion can be dangerous, and there are things one should never, ever say in a job interview. But Tom Horn could never keep his mouth shut, and here's how he came to his end.

About a year after the Brown's Park murders, Tom Horn was in Iron Springs, Wyoming, which was where he met Glendolene Kimmell. That was at the same time that a 14-year-old rancher's son, Willie Nickell, was murdered, shot by a sniper. The Nickell family were sheep ranchers and had an ongoing quarrel with their neighbors, the Miller family; the culprit could've been one of the Millers. But the Nickells also had some dispute with Horn's employer. A few days after the murder, the boy's father was shot in the arm. The shooter, whoever he may have been, was obviously persistent. Beyond that, there was only circumstantial evidence against Horn. Deputy U.S. Marshal Joe LeFors investigated the killing, and, suspecting Horn, he played a trick on him.

The deputy marshal invited Tom Horn to his office, offering him an introduction to a potential employer who was looking for a "stock detective." In the next room, unbeknownst to Horn, the marshal had a stenographer writing it all down. Of course Horn thought he was in a job interview. Below are some excerpts from the historical document:

Deputy Marshal Joe LeFors: "What kind of a gun have you got?"

Horn: "I used a 30-30 Winchester."

LeFors: "Tom do you think that will hold up as well as a 30-40?"

Horn: "No, but I like to get close to my man. The closer the better."

The 30-30 and 30-40 were both state-of-the-art cartridges; Horn possessed a 30-30 Winchester Model 1894, as stated in the interview. That, of course, is the sort of weapon we'd expect a professional assassin to be using.

LeFors: "Tom, let us go downstairs and get a drink. I could always see your work clear, but I want you to tell me why you killed the kid. Was it a mistake?"

Horn: "Well, I will tell you all about that when I come back from Montana. It is too new yet."

The stenographer records that they then left the office, but returned in the afternoon and resumed the conversation.

LeFors: "How much did you get for killing these fellows? In the Powell and Lewis case, you got $600 apiece. You killed Lewis in the corral with a six-shooter. I would like to have seen the expression on his face when you shot him."

Horn: "He was the scaredest son of a bitch you ever saw. How did you come to know that, Joe?"

LeFors: "I have known everything you have done, Tom, for a great many years. I know where you were paid this money."

Horn: "Yes, I was paid this money on the train between Cheyenne and Denver."

Fred Powell and William Lewis were killed in 1895, and Horn was suspected. At a coroner's inquest he denied it and had witnesses to back him. So he was cleared. Nevertheless, it was widely believed that he had done it, and that added to his reputation, his "stock-in-trade." Several years passed, but those murders were not forgotten. While investigating the killing of the teenager in 1901, Deputy Marshal LeFors talked with one George Prentice, an employee of the Swan Land and Cattle company, who reportedly told him of being the payoff man; Horn received two one-hundred dollar bills and the rest in gold for the killings of Powell and Lewis.

LeFors: "Have you got your money yet for the killing of Nickell [the 14-year-old]?"

Horn: "I got that before I did the job."

It was during this interview that Tom Horn made his signature statement about killing. They were talking about pay. "I got $2,100," Horn said, and the marshal asked, "How much is that a man?" And Horn replied, "That is for three dead men, and one man shot at five times. Killing men is my specialty. I look at it as a business proposition and I think I have a corner on the market."

Horn trusted LeFors, and he expected this discussion to result in an introduction to a Montana cattle baron who was looking to hire a range detective. The next day, January 13th, 1902, Horn was arrested for the murder of the teenager, 14-year-old Willie Nickell. It must've been quite a surprise to him.

The trial was held that October, in Cheyenne, Wyoming, no longer a frontier cow town but by then a city with electric lights and telephones. The courtroom was packed. This was a major event, attended by newspaper reporters from as far away as Chicago and New York. The whole country was watching, and, no question about it, this was a political trial. Popular sentiment was against the barons, and prosecuting attorney Walter Stoll was running for reelection.

"You used that language?" Prosecutor Stoll asked Horn on the witness stand, referring to incriminating statements in the transcript.

"I did," Tom Horn told the court. "Every time that LeFors and I have ever met, the conversation has generally been about shooting someone or killing someone."

Horn's defense strategy was to explain that the dialogue in the transcript was all just kidding around. "Joshing," he called it. "There was nothing serious about the talk at all. It was all a josh," Horn testified, and he denied having ever killed anyone. "I never killed a man in my life, or a boy either."

The jury may or may not have been convinced that Tom Horn murdered the boy, but they certainly did know who Horn was and whom he worked for. They clearly believed that he had killed several people, and although technically he was not on trial for any of his other murders, in reality he was on trial for all of that, plus the sins of his employers (and perhaps also for his bragging). The jury found him guilty, and after exhausting the usual appeals, he was hanged the following year, on November 20, 1903.

Since that day and for over a century now, the debate has continued over whether or not Horn killed the boy; it's a fascinating discussion. However, while focusing on the whodunit of that story, it's easy to overlook the most essential underlying fact -- that this event was not just about Tom Horn. It was about ending the power of the wealthy cattle barons to intimidate and drive homesteaders off their land. The trial and the hanging of Tom Horn amounted to the people of that region telling the barons to back off.

That was a world where an agent of the cattle barons, in effect a privatized law enforcement officer, could actually get hung for murdering people; that's quite different from today, where police officers and even private security guards gun down children with impunity.

last updated September 30, 2018