1945: Three German war criminals 1920: Bloody Sunday in Ireland

1903: Tom Horn

November 20th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1903, Tom Horn hanged in Cheyenne — a frontier legend lost in the post-frontier world.

Tom Horn passed the months between trial and execution braiding rope. Legend obviously holds that he made the noose that hanged him.

Horn‘s forty-three colorful years traced the waning days of the Wild West: he was a cavalry scout who helped capture Apache warrior Geronimo, a Pinkerton agent, a hired gun in the murderous Wyoming cattle wars. (He made a side trip to Florida during the Spanish-American War to organize Teddy Roosevelt’s supply train before the Battle of San Juan Hill.)

He had hunted many rustlers to their deaths, though he may have swung for a killing he didn’t do; the verdict against him in the murder of 14-year-old Willie Nickell is still hotly disputed to this day. It turned on a dubious liquor-induced “confession” as recorded by the lawmen who wanted to arrest him.

Horn’s death, to the hymn of “Life’s Railway to Heaven”, is a milestone in the passing of the frontier West; too, it was a milestone in a weird experimental cul-de-sac for modern America’s fascination with technological innovation on the scaffold. A contraption called the “Julian gallows,” named for the man who designed it, used the prisoner’s weight on the trap to open a water valve that filled a barrel that knocked over a post supporting the trap, causing the prisoner to eventually drop without any hangman’s hand on a lever.

A steady,* solitary man, Horn took it all in with equanimity. Maybe it was written: not for this rugged plains gunslinger to lurk on as a relic into the age of flight, cubism, trench warfare. Already in his lifetime the frontier had disappeared into kitsch.

Tom Horn lives on in Wyoming lore, and the tale has no greater curator than Wyoming’s Chip Carlson. Carlson manages www.tom-horn.com and is the author of Tom Horn: Blood on the Moon; he was good enough to chat with Executed Today about our day’s subject.

First things first — did Tom Horn actually do the crime for which he hanged?

Tom Horn was convicted because of social pressure (the fact that he represented the cattle barons) and the political ambitions of the prosecutor and presiding judge.

So what was different in Wyoming after Horn’s execution?

The cattle barons and other big business entities (e.g., mining barons, railroad barons, etc.) had much less influence on public affairs.

He seems like an almost self-consciously inscrutable character. What drove him?

He was a faithful and reliable employee, but seemed to thrive on adrenaline.

Was he just, at the end, a man who couldn’t change as his world changed around him?

Yes, he was out of date and out of the times.

Did people of his own time also see him as a part of the frontier West that was no more?

Yes.

How did you become so interested in Tom Horn? As the go-to expert on his life, what do you find draws others to him, and what sorts of lessons do people draw from his story?

He is the number one Name in Wyoming history, because of the controversies about whether he killed 14-year-old Willie Nickell (tom-horn.com page) and how his trial was conducted. (tom-horn.com page)

I had read every book published about him up till the time I started researching him, and when contrasting the various testimonies in the inquest with the trial, puzzled, how the hell could they have ever convicted him? All this is laid out in my book, Tom Horn: Blood on the Moon.

Two films about Tom Horn — Mr. Horn, starring David Carradine, and Tom Horn, starring Steve McQueen — were released within months of each other in 1979-80.

* His reported last words were coolly directed at one of his executioners who showed anxiety — “Ain’t losing your nerve, are you, Joe?”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Hanged,History,Interviews,Mercenaries,Milestones,Murder,Other Voices,Popular Culture,Soldiers,Terrorists,USA,Wrongful Executions,Wyoming

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3 thoughts on “1903: Tom Horn”

  1. Kaye Nickell says:

    Willie Nickell had his life taken by a coward and a disgusting pig. Finally Horn was hanged. All the murders that Horn was suspected of doing and the many times he slipped through the cracks…finally justice. A young man with such promise died young and left a family grieving from coast to coast, Indiana, Kentucky, West Virginia, to Colorado.

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