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Horn Vs Hollywood
by D.L. Staley
First, let me say right from the get go, I’m a big fan of the late actor Steve McQueen and his portrayal of Horn in the 1980 film “Tom Horn.”It’s this movie that really piqued my interest in Tom, I knew of him from other readings on old west lawmen and outlaws, but this movie pushed me more in Tom’s direction. Second, I’ll assume that if you’re reading this you’ve seen the movie and or know who Tom Horn was. With that said, I’m gonna get nit-picky with the history in the film. Don’t get me wrong, I love this movie. It’s just that it is so darn entertaining pokin’ fun at Hollyweird these days.
At the beginning of the film it states, Based on a true story… Well, they did get some of the names right.
In 1901, he drifted into Wyoming Territory…
Nope. The killing of Willie Nickell, which Tom was later executed for, took place in 1901. Thursday the 18th of July, to be exact.
Tom had been in Wyoming and the Brown’s Park area years before that, 1894 according to his autobiography. But many students of Tom Horn believe he was ‘in country’ as early as 1892, already secretly working for the big cattle interests gathering gunman for use in the up coming ‘Johnson County Invasion’. It appears he alternated working between Arizona and Wyoming when weather conditions and the pay were suitable.
Testimony from the inquest August 9, 1901;
Prosecuting Attorney Walter R. Stoll: “State your name, occupation and residence.”
Tom Horn: “ My name is Tom Horn; I suppose my occupation is that of a detective, as near as I can get at it. When I am at home I reside at Mr. Coble’s ranch in Albany County; that has been my home for a number of years.”
Based on… Life of Tom Horn Government Scout & Interpreter Written by Himself…
I wonder if anyone connected to the film actually read this particular book. It’s more likely based on the so-called “LeFors Confession,” the inquest, trial manuscripts and Jay Monaghan’s Tom Horn: Last of the Bad Men. Out of 225 pages of his autobiography and 47 pages of letters to and from friends, this is exactly what Tom had to say about his Wyoming days…
“I then came to Wyoming and went to work for the Swan Land and Cattle Company, since which time everybody else has been more familiar with my life and business than I have been myself. And I think that since my coming here the yellow journal reporters are better equipped to write my history than am I, myself!”
OK, ok, I guess that would make for an awful short movie
Tom rides into Cheyenne and proceeds to get the snot knocked out of him by Gentleman Jim Corbett…
“Then whad a ya pickin’ on a little fella like me for…”
Tom did get the stuffing knocked out of him the first week of October 1901 in a Denver Colorado bar brawl. Actually, he had his jaw broken, which laid him up for nearly twenty days in St. Luke’s Hospital, but boxing champion Jim Corbett didn’t inflict his injuries. He wasn’t any little fella either; Tom was 6’1” and 204lbs. I did love the comment though, that McQueen made in that scene;
“Geronimo's a man so great, that Corbett there would have to stand on his mothers shoulders to kiss his ass…”
Tom and John Coble ride up to Brown’s Hole and John is made to dance at the whim of a cowboy…
“Tom, some of them cows in there are mine…”
John Coble and Tom Horn were never known to be seen in the field together. If a person ever shot at one of Tom’s employers in front of him, that person would be toast, not just shot in the foot. If Tom Horn was anything, he was loyal and died proving it. Horn certainly never shot anyone in front of a witness; at least not one who lived to tell about it.
At a large outdoor lobster dinner, Tom is introduced to U.S. Marshal Joe Belle and Glendolene Kimmell, of Hawaii…
“I’ll be darned, I’ve… I’ve never eaten a bug that big before…”
Actually, his name was Deputy U.S. Marshal Joseph S. LeFors. In his autobiography LeFors states he was first introduced to Tom Horn by Cheyenne police chief Sandy McMcNeil in Frank Meanea’s saddle shop. Horn was buying a scabbard for his Winchester and he and LeFors talked about guns. But they may have first met in the early 1890s when Horn was employed by the Pinkerton Detective Agency.
Schoolmarm Glendolene Myrtle Kimmell is said to have been born in Hawaii, but came to Wyoming in July 1901 from Hannibal Missouri. By her own statement in the supplementary articles to Horn’s autobiography she had come west because she was “strongly attracted by the frontier type.”
Well, Mr. Horn sure fit that dance card.
The Wyoming Stock Growers Association most assuredly never threw a garden party announcing their employment of Wyoming’s most notorious boogeyman.
John Coble takes Tom aside and relates to him that if he is caught, the WSGA will disavow any knowledge of him…
“$200 for every rustler that goes somewhere else to ply his trade…”
Pretty close I reckon, although the WSGA did fund Tom’s defense team in the Nickell’s trial and shoot, everybody in Wyoming Territory knew who had employed Tom Horn anyway. Reportedly his fee was $600 dollars for every rock he placed under a rustler’s head. Dang good money in 1901
Tom tracks four rustlers out on the plains and blows three out of the saddle, runs down the forth and proceeds to warn said rustler...
“Tell ‘em what ya saw here…”
Horn never took on four men out in the open. Neat sequence though and it is a fair bit of shootin’ if you consider his 1876 Winchester doesn’t have a rear sight in this scene (you can see the open dove tail cut in the close-up), and he doesn’t have the tang sight installed. Now, in the scene where he shoots the dude at long range out of the saddle, that big ol’ 76 has both.
OK, Tom did give out warnings; usually notes left on the doors of the rustlers cabins. He would never have sent you away to talk about a killin’ he just did in front of your very eyes.
Tom rides up to Lee Mendenhour’s shack as he’s eating breakfast and asks Lee if he got his note. “Yeah, I got your F…… note, I rolled it up with some tabaccy and smoked it, that’s what I did, champion.” With that, Lee commences to shoot Horn’s horse out from underneath him with a Walker Colt’s…
“Well, Lee he weren’t too bad a fella…”
Didn’t quite happen that way. The man’s name was Matt Rash.
In the early summer of 1900 Matt Rash found one of those famous notes tacked to his door, warning both him and Isam Dart to quit their rustling and leave the country, or…
Matt thought it was big talk, a bluff and decided stick it out. Oops! Bad decision. He was shot twice as he ate breakfast on the morning of July 8th. He had just enough life left in him to crawl to his bed, remove one of his boots, and attempt to leave a note scrawled in his own blood.
Isam Dart, a sometimes partner of Rash, was an emancipated slave who first carried the name of Huddleston, his owner, until the Civil War. Dart received his ‘note’ September 26, 1900.
At dawn on a cold October morning Isam Dart died of a single gunshot wound to the head as he stepped out of his cabin heading towards the corral.
The rustler he previously shot in the foot at Brown’s Hole makes an attempt to assassinate Horn in the streets of Cheyenne. Tom in turn shoots this fella, walks up to him and anchors his trophy with a coup de grace…
Boy, I don’t think so. For one thing, Cheyenne was a much more cosmopolitan city than that portrayed in the movie. The city had enjoyed an incandescent lighting system since 1883 and telephone service since the early 1890’s, which wasn’t too shabby for a state with a total population of 92,531 in 1900. Second, remember Tom had a real aversion to killin’ people in public.
Ora Haley, Ian MacGregor, John C. Coble, U.S. Marshal Joe Belle (Joe LeFors) and another unnamed Cattle Baron or two meet on the open plains of Wyoming to discuss this Horn problem…
"divest ourselves of this Mr. Horn...”
I don’t doubt a discussion like this could have taken place, but at the Cheyenne Club and not on the open prairie. These fellas enjoyed the finer things in life too much. The Cheyenne Club, which was built in 1881 as an alternative to what the landed gentry saw as a barbarous frontier lifestyle, was a popular spot with the cattle barons and state politicos. It was a place they could nibble on pickled eels or play billiards while awaiting a dinner of French cuisine brought to them by dumb-waiter.
With John Coble’s public defense of Tom Horn at the time, I don’t think he would have been privy to a conversation such as this, if it even took place.
Jimmy Nolt is shot from a fence he’s sitting on from a long ways off and falls face first into the herd of sheep he is tending…
“It was the best shot that I ever made and the dirtiest trick I ever done…”
Remember when I said they got some of the names right? Well, this ain’t one of ‘em either. The 14-yr. old boy’s name was Willie Nickell and he was shot as he was closing the gate of that fence to his father’s ranch. He then proceeded to run, stagger, or crawl 60 to 70 yards up the road towards home before dying from two rather nasty gunshot wounds to the torso. It very well may have been a case of mistaken identity; Willie was wearing his father’s (Kels Nickell) hat, coat and was riding a big bay horse belonging to him. As to the distance of ‘the shot’ it depends on who’s theory you choose to believe. It could have been anywhere from point blank range to 300yrds. When his body was found it had been rolled over on its back and his shirt opened so whoever did the ‘dirty trick’ could inspect the exit wounds. (Later at Horn’s trial two physicians with military experience testified about the wounds. One said they were from soft-nosed 30/30s, the other said they were inflicted by a 45/90) Willie’s head was found to be lying upon a flat rock. Set up or sign?
Joe LeFors, AKA Joe Belle gets “the confession…”
“I slickered Tom Horn…”
Yes, LeFors did get a so-called confession from Tom in much the same way as shown in the movie, but with some differences.
The bait LeFors used to get Tom to come into the Marshal’s office was a job offer from Chief Livestock Inspector W.D. Smith of Montana. Ol’ Joe had secreted court reporter Charlie Ohnhaus and Deputy Sheriff Leslie Snow behind the door in the clerk’s office. Everybody who saw Tom that day said he was ‘snockered up good’ and in his ‘braggin state of mind’, everybody with the exception of LeFors, Ohnhaus and Snow that is.
A few facts we did learn from the real ‘confession’ given on the 12th of January;
Tom did not use a Model 1876 Winchester in 45/60 at this point in time.
As we now know, he used a Model 1894 Winchester serial # 82,667 in 30WCF that was taken from him at his arrest the next day. It had been shipped from the Winchester factory on the 19th of June 1900.
Joe LeFors: "What kind of gun have you got?"
Tom Horn: "I used a thirty-thirty Winchester."
Joe LeFors: "Tom, do you think that will hold up as well as a thirty-forty?"
Tom Horn: "No, but I like to get close to my man. The closer the better."
We also know Tom used a 45/70 at some point in time, from a note related in General Nelson Miles’ Personal Recollections, Horn once wrote;
“Well a hundred rounds of 45-70 cartridges weigh eleven pounds when you first put them on, and at the end of twenty days, they weigh about as much as a small-sized locomotive”
Whether he used a Marlin 1881, Winchester 1886 or more likely a Government issued Trapdoor carbine when he was a civilian scout for the army, no one knows for certain.
Another taste from the confession;
LeFors: “How much did you get for killing these fellows? In the Powell and Lewis case, you got $600 a piece. 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 that you have done Tom for a great many years. I know where you were paid this money.”
Horn: “Yes, I was paid this money between Cheyenne and Denver.”
LeFors: “Why did you put the rock under the kid’s head after you killed him? That is one of your marks isn’t it?”
Horn: “Yes that is the way I hang out my sign to collect money for a job of this kind.”
LeFors: “Have you got your money yet for the killing of Nickell?”
Horn: “I got that before I did the job.”
LeFors: “You got $500 for that, why did you cut the price?”
Horn: “I got $2100 for that.”
LeFors: “How much is that a man?”
Horn: “That is for three dead men and one man shot at 5 times. Killing men is my specialty, I look at it as a business proposition and I think I have a corner on the market.”
After Horn was found guilty in the Nickell case it was then appealed to the Wyoming Supreme Court. Tom claimed that he had made this boastful confession to LeFors while intoxicated.
On September 30, 1903 the Wyoming Supreme Court denied the appeal. A reputation as a killer was in many ways as good as the fact, but sometimes it could get you hung.
By the time Tom’s trial was over LeFors had lost all respect from his brothers in law enforcement. No southeast Wyoming cattleman would have anything to do with him after that either.
A quote from an old-time resident whose grandparents knew the players in this drama well, as given to author Chip Carlson about LeFors;
”He was not a stand up guy. He was all hat and no cattle. He had the manners of an organ grinder and the morals of his monkey.”
Slim Pickens as Sheriff Sam Creedmore and at least half a dozen heavily armed deputies arrest Horn for the murder of Jimmy Nolt, at the Inter-Ocean Hotel…
“Whad’a ya gonna do with that Winchester…”
Hey, they got the name of the hotel right! Tom was arrested without incident on Monday the 13th of January 1902. Sheriff Edward J. Smalley, Under-Sheriff Dick Proctor, and Chief of Police Sandy McNeil were the arresting officers. Joe LeFors watched on from a distance.
Tom Horn is put on trial for the murder of Jimmy Nolt, real name Willie Nickell, remember? Tom sits by quietly as his life and the freedom to roam the mountains he loves slips away. Due in part to the incompetence of his attorney and his own silence…
“I was tried, convicted and hung before I left the ranch…”
The fact of the matter is Tom had a stellar defense team! Foremost among them was Judge John W. Lacey, Wyoming’s first Chief Justice. Other members of the team were Timothy F. Burke, Roderick N. Matson, Edward T. Clark and T. Blake Kennedy. Mr. Horn did not suffer for want of good representation. Remember now, cattle baron money was buying this legal brain trust.
On the prosecution’s side of the aisle were Prosecuting Attorney Walter R. Stoll and a couple young attorneys named Clyde M. Watts and H. Waldo Moore, no slackers here by any means either.
Briefly, the trial ran from October 10 until October 24, 1902 and was presided over by Judge Richard Scott. A carnival-like atmosphere prevailed and the court was packed everyday with members of the press, some from as far away as New York and of course the locals.
The prosecution’s case rested on circumstantial evidence, the “LeFors Confession” and public opinion. One of the many things that hurt Horn’s case was the fact that the jury was not completely sequestered. They had to walk two and a half blocks to take their meals at the Inter-Ocean Hotel where they would engage in conversations with other restaurant patrons about the trial. The jurymen were also subjected to catcalls and threatening remarks on their way to and from the courthouse. This is in addition to the incredible political pressure for a conviction, it was very near Election Day for Prosecutor Stoll.
“… and his own silence.”
Tom's defense team could hardly get him to shut up once he was on the witness stand. "Talking Boy" (Geronimo's nickname for Horn) certainly lived up to the Apache warrior's nickname under Stoll's questioning. Tom’s testimony is too long to go into here, but a comment that many feel really turned the proceedings against Horn was in answer to a question about a witness’s earlier statement. Otto Plaga who said he had seen Tom (“He was just spooking along in his usual way…”) 25 miles away from the scene, only an hour or so after the shooting of Willie.
From attorney Kennedy’s memoirs;
“Plaga gave me an affidavit to the effect that he had seen Horn on horseback at a point where it was practically impossible for him to be, had he been at the spot where the killing took place, which I thought was very valuable evidence; and it would have been except that Horn, when testifying himself upon the trial, not willing to subdue his passion for “braggadocio” responded to a question that he supposed it would not be impossible for a man who was a good rider and knew the country to cover the ground between where the killing took place and where Plaga had testified he saw him.”
Tom Horn fantasizes about Miss Kimmell, then breaks jail…
“You damn fools, whad’a ya tryin’ ta do kill ‘im…”
Jeez, I have no idea on the first statement; I don’t
think Tom ever wrote that down. He did try to escape though and the truth
happens to be more entertaining than the movie, but alas, no Apache mojo charms.
In the cell next to Tom was a safecracker by the name of “Driftwood Jim”
McCloud or Macleod, prisoner 802. Well, 802 constantly complained of stomach
problems, was prescribed a medicine he needed to
take twice a day and the
deputies had to open his cell door to do so. Now here’s the cute part, the
mechanism that remotely opened Driftwood’s cell door, also opened Tom’s cell
Sunday, August 9th at 8:00am the cell door to
Driftwood’s cage was opened to dispense his tummy medicine. Under-Sheriff Dick
Proctor was the unlucky fella that Horn and Driftwood bound with a window cord
to affect their escape. They proceeded into the Sheriff’s office in search of
weapons. Unfortunately fate wasn’t on their side. In their haste they
overlooked a cabinet containing five 30/30 Winchesters and McCloud/Macleod then
ran out a side door leaving Tom to wrestle the Under-Sheriff alone. Tom snatched
one of them new fangled semi-auto pistols from Under-Sheriff Proctor. "According to historian Lee A. Silva, the handgun Tom Horn tried to use during his escape attempt was a John Browning designed, Fabrique Nationale manufactured, semi-automatic pistol. This little F.N. pistol has a slight resemblance to the Colt 1903 Pocket Hammerless. Mr. Silva met with Richard Proctor, grandson of Under-Sheriff Dick Proctor from whom the little F.N. was forcibly removed by
Tom Horn. Richard Proctor is still in possession of his grandfathers F.N. semi-automatic pistol which carries the serial number 56666."
Horn ran out the same door used by McCloud and hearing the Cheyenne police shooting at his old roomy, ran south, then east towards Capitol Avenue. A merry-go-round operator by the name of O.M. Aldrich spotted Horn and grabbed his .38 Iver Johnson and snapped off a shot at Tom but missed. Tom turned and tried to return fire, but that dang auto pistol just wouldn’t go off. Aldrich got up behind Tom and pulled the trigger again. The shot creased Tom’s head, stunning him and down he went face first. As Tom tried to regain his feet he attempted to fire at Aldrich again, attempted being the key word here. By this time Robert LaFontaine showed up to help Aldrich tackle Horn. After being clubbed several times on the back of the head by the little Iver Johnson, Horn stopped resisting. Tom was led back to jail by a large group of townies and city policemen Otto Aherns, a second officer named Stone and Deputy Sheriff Leslie Snow. Now get this; Snow had been sitting right in front of the jail sunning himself when the break took place, no kiddin’. But I do need to give him some credit. Snow did saunter into the jail when he finally heard the ruckus, but the boys were gone. In the meantime, prisoner 802 had run into an ally, jumped a fence behind a residence and hid in a barn. The Cheyenne police were alerted and Officer John Nolan along with a young mail clerk named Oscar Lamm arrived within minutes. Lamm, who was armed with a rifle, yelled out “There he is! I can kill him now!” What a liar. Lamm in fact could not see him, but the ruse worked, “Driftwood Jim” McCloud surrendered peaceably. The last few days before Tom’s execution armed troops surrounded the block where the jail and courthouse were located and a Gatling gun was placed on the roof.
Horn is put to death on a water-operated gallows designed and built just for him, “Nobody wants to spring the trap on ya Tom…”
“Keep your nerve, John, for I’ll keep mine…”
Cheyenne architect James P. Julian had designed the water operated gallows in 1892, reasoning that it would not require an executioner to spring the trapdoors, thereby alleviating any stigma of guilt from the hangman. It was not designed just for Tom Horn and remained the official gallows until Wyoming began using the gas chamber in the 1930s.
Friday morning the 20th of November 1903 dawned cold, windy and gray for what would be Laramie County’s last legal execution.
Tom awoke early, had a large breakfast of eggs, bacon, cakes, bread and black coffee. At approximately 10:30am Tom was led from his cell for the last time. Frank and Charlie Irwin tried to sing the Baptist hymn ‘Life’s Railway to Heaven’ (“Keep your hand upon the throttle and your eye’s upon the rails”). Frank and Charlie had to stop several times to compose themselves and wipe away tears before they could start the next stanza.
Because of the shackles on Tom he had to be lifted onto the trapdoor of the gallows and then the black hood was placed over his head. Thirty-one seconds after Tom was placed on the trap he fell four-and-a-half feet into eternity. His death was not as pleasant as portrayed in the movie either. When he fell he was knocked unconscious by the heavy hangman’s knot and died of strangulation seventeen minutes later. The next day dawned bright and clear. It was Tom’s forty-third birthday. Tom Horn’s body was retrieved from the Gleason Mortuary by his brother Charles and taken to Boulder Colorado to be buried.
John C. Coble, of the Swan Land and Cattle Company, friend and employer of Horn’s, paid for the cost of the coffin and all expenses associated with the funeral in Boulder.
Tom Horn kept his nerve…
I would like to thank Mr. Kelly for allowing this to be posted at his web site and a special thanks to Revered Jim Taylor, Doc Hudson, John Killebrew and Renita Staley for unselfishly subjecting themselves to the horrors of editing and proofreading. In addition, I would like to thank Tom Lewis for the updated material on the Proctor handgun.
By Chip Carlson,
Tom Horn: Blood on the Moon, Dark History of the
Murderous Cattle Detective.
Joe LeFors: “I slickered Tom Horn…”
By Dean F. Krakel,
By Jay Monaghan,
By Tom Horn,
By Will Henry (Henry W. Allen)