By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
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By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
Tom Horn made his name in law enforcement -- even if many of his actions straddled the law. Legal or not, however, they were certainly effective, although not the sort of behavior that inspires most modern law-enforcement agents.
Then again, those agents don't have Kelly Hamilton's job. A few years back, when a naked man was spotted galloping around the Wyoming governor's mansion on a strapping white stallion, declaring the Second Coming of the Lord, Hamilton got the call. He was also the one brought in to deal with the guy who was observed having relations with his neighbor's sheep -- "deviant behavior" was the legal description. And when a teenager decided to hang his horse from a tree just outside of Cheyenne, that was considered Kelly's jurisdiction, too. So it's not surprising that Hamilton, the law-enforcement administrator for the Wyoming Livestock Board, might start looking outside the standard academy training for inspiration. And Horn was a local boy.
At various times in his life, Tom Horn was a railroad worker, a stagecoach driver, an Army scout, an Indian fighter and a world-champion steer roper, but today he's best known for his work as a Pinkerton agent and, later, range detective. Horn joined the Denver office of the Pinkerton Detective Agency in 1890, at the age of thirty, and soon gained a reputation as a fearless (or crazy -- opinions diverge) person who would stop at nothing to get his man.
Horn often relied on a killer's intuition, a feeling that might make no apparent sense but often turned out right. When he finally tracked the notorious and vicious Peg-Leg Watson to the Hole-in-the-Wall hideout, for example, Horn merely called out Watson's name and then began walking toward the cabin, his carbine slung loosely over his arm. Watson, who was well armed with two pistols, simply watched as Horn walked up and handcuffed him. Other arrests were less pacifistic, however, and Horn killed a reported seventeen men during his 24-month career with the Pinkertons. He appeared to enjoy the work more than necessary.
In 1892 Horn contracted with the Wyoming Cattle Growers' Association. Although his official title was horse breaker, his actual job was as a hired gun, the man called when a rustler -- or suspected rustler, or even potential rustler -- needed tracking down and killing. Over time his methods became more unorthodox, and more efficient. His standard technique involved hiding out, generally behind a tree or rock, with a high-powered buffalo gun in hand. When the man came within range, Horn would aim for his head and fire. He got so good at his job that he could kill men from hundreds of yards away. Yet it was this very remoteness from his victims that did him in.
The morning of July 18, 1901, found Tom Horn lying in wait near Powder River Road, north of Cheyenne, for a rancher named Kels Nickell. Horn had been ordered to kill him by another local ranching family that had been feuding with the Nickells. The actual cause of the feud has been forgotten by all but the most obsessed historians; it was the sort of dispute in which neither side was guiltier than the other, and no one was purely innocent.
But none of that was Horn's concern, and so when a familiar man appeared in the distance, he raised his gun and fired. Unfortunately, he was so far away he didn't notice that the man was, in fact, Nickell's fourteen-year-old son, Willie, who'd had the bad fortune to put on his father's coat and hat and drive his wagon out of the yard that morning.
It probably wasn't the first time that Horn had killed an innocent man. But it was surely the first time he'd killed an innocent boy, and this time the law could not look away. On November 20, 1903, Tom Horn was hanged. "Hurry it up. I got nothing more to say," he said, just before the trapdoor dropped.
Today, a circle of rocks marks the supposed location where young Willie Nickell fell from his wagon after being hit by Horn's first shot. The old Nickell homestead lies on private property, and so even livestock investigator Hamilton had to get permission to go there. He drove out to the site several weeks ago to see the spot that had done in the state's most famous cattle cop. He went partly out of historical curiosity -- there remains some debate as to whether Horn was set up -- but Hamilton had other reasons for the visit.
"One time," he explains, "there was this murder that me and my partner solved when I was working as a deputy up in Sheridan. This eight-year-old girl had been kidnapped, raped and thrown off a bridge. And we solved that on nothing more than a hunch -- a gut feeling. And I've had gut feelings since that literally have saved my life -- things that I felt that then have come to pass. So when I went up to visit Tom Horn's site, I wanted to see if I could feelanything -- anything! -- that might help me with this case. After all, I do what Tom Horn did back in the 1880s.