by Ryan Monahan
A research paper I wrote for school about Tom Horn, a wild west man put on trial.
| Ryan Monahan
Wyoming v. Tom Horn
Tom Horn was a well-known scout, soldier, detective, and alleged hitman. He was born on November 21, 1860 in Scotland County, Missouri and was the fifth to be born out of twelve children. Tom was hired as a civilian scout for the U.S. Calvary at age 16. He served under Al Seiber in the Apache Wars, where he helped capture Geronimo and other Native American leaders. Tom later became a deputy sheriff in Arizona, where he was eventually noticed and hired by the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Through the agency, he worked cases in Wyoming, Colorado, and other nearby states. He quickly became known for his talents to track down anyone he was assigned to find and working well under pressure.
Tom was rumored to have been a gun-for-hire during his time at the agency. After these rumors began to spread, Tom resigned under pressure from his superiors. He then took jobs as a deputy marshal and as a detective for wealthy ranchers during the late 1890s. During this time, Tom was accused of killing ranchers and "cattle rustlers," of which he was found innocent. Tom would later be involved in the Spanish-American War, though only for a small period of time; he contracted malaria and was sent back to Wyoming to recover.
Soon after, in 1901, he began to work under the wealthy cattle baron John C. Coble. While working for Coble, a feud between two ranching families, the Nickells and the Millers, was taking place. Cattle from the Nickell ranch had been found to be grazing on the range that was owned by the Millers. On July 18, 1901, a teenage boy named Willie Nickell was murdered near the area where Tom was working. While evidence, although circumstantial, pointed towards one of the Millers as the perpetrator, not enough evidence could be gathered to build a strong case. The case was then added to a long and growing list of unsolved murders in the region, putting pressure on the law enforcement agencies.
U.S. Marshal Joe Lafors, who used to be a former range detective like Tom and would later be famous for his pursuits of the infamous Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, was convinced that it was Tom Horn who killed Willie Nickell. Tom was known to drink after finishing work for the day, and Lafors decided to use this as an opportunity to see if Tom would confess. Lafors had a deputy and a stenographer planted in the room next to where he talked to Tom. While Tom was on a drinking binge, Lafors tactfully tricked Tom into saying things, that when put together, made Tom seem like he committed the murder. Tom was arrested the next day for the crime.
The trial for the murder of Willie Nickell couldn't have happened at a worse time for Tom. The prosecutor, Walter R. Stoll, and the judge, Richard Scott, were both up for reelection that November. There was an immense amount of public interest; news of the case even reached the surrounding states. Tom's lawyers were some of the best in the state of Wyoming. His lawyers were John W. Lacey, a former chief justice of Wyoming, and T. Blake Kennedy, who would later become a federal justice.
Tom, unfortunately, proved to be his own worst enemy during the trial. Tom had a big ego, which led him to challenge one of the prosecutors. The prosecutors used parts of the conversation between Tom and Lafors, which put the quotes from it out of context. This, along with testimony by Lafors, at least one other witness, and circumstantial evidence placing him near the murder, only convinced the jury even more of Tom's guilt - the papers had been condemning him before the trial began and caused the jury to be extremely biased against him.
The defense brought Glendolene M. Kimmel, a school teacher who knew the Miller family, to testify on Tom's behalf. She said that Jim Miller, one of the men in the Miller family, was nervous on the morning of the murder. Ms. Kimmel also testified that Victor Miller, a young man in the Miller family, had confessed to killing Willie to her. Her testimony, however, was ignored, as it was believed that she liked Tom romantically. Shockingly, Tom's own testimony destroyed his alibi, which had placed him 20 miles from the murder.
The prosecution closed by claiming that Tom had killed Willie to prevent him from reporting that Tom was in the area. The defense argued that all of the evidence against Tom was circumstantial and that Tom's "confession" was nothing but drunken boasts. When it came time for the jury to deliberate, Tom wasn't in the best position. Many of the jurors had reason to hate Tom, as he had returned cattle that they had stolen. The next day, the jury returned and delivered a verdict of guilty and Tom was sentenced to hang. His lawyers appealed to the State Supreme Court, as required by the law, but it was denied.
Tom was determined to gain his freedom and attempted to escape from his jail cell twice. The first attempt failed, but he managed to escape the second time, only to be caught 5 minutes later. The days before the trial were filled with drinking and rumors. Some of Tom's friends had planned to break Tom out of jail by force, which led to a machine gun being mounted on top of the court house in case they decided to follow through. Tom was hung outside of the Cheyenne, Wyoming court house and buried in Boulder, Colorado.
It was never officially clear if Tom killed Willie Nickell or not, as he was convicted on circumstantial evidence and a biased jury that hated him before he stepped foot in the court room. 90 years later, however, a mock trial would be held in Cheyenne to retry Tom. He would be found not guilty in it, since his "confession" was obtained while he was intoxicated and the used out of context of what he was saying at the time of his conversation with Lafors.