By Eric Jacobsen
The Millers had ongoing struggles with Kels Nickell, a sheep farmer accused by the Millers of letting his sheep graze on their Wyoming land. On July 18, 1901, Willie Nickell, the fourteen-year-old son of Kels, was found murdered on the Nickell land. An investigation followed while the range violence continued.
In August 1901, Kels Nickell was shot and nearly eighty of his sheep were killed. Deputy U.S. Marshal Joe LeFors arrested Jim Miller and his sons for the crime, although bail freed them the next day.
But when Marshal LeFors questioned Horn in January 1902, Tom claimed he had killed Willie Nickell. Horn, still drunk from the night before, proclaimed it was “the best shot I ever made from 300 yards away, and the dirtiest trick I ever done.” Sheriff Peter Warlaumont arrested Tom shortly thereafter.
When Horn’s trial began on October 10, 1902 in Cheyenne, Wyoming, he stood before Judge Richard Scott, who was up for reelection soon and had a vested interest in a short trial. Cattle ranchers supported Tom and paid for an impressive defense team. Some skeptics thought the ranchers just wanted Horn out of the way because he knew too much about their nefarious activities.
Apparently due to Tom’s colorful reputation, the trial became a media frenzy, with journalists and attention seekers crowding the courtroom. Only parts of Horn’s questionable confession were introduced by the prosecution.
Tom’s lady friend Gwendolene Kimmel, who previously testified at the coroner’s inquest into the teen’s murder, stated that both the Miller and Nickell families contributed to the ongoing feud and shared responsibility for the violence. But the defense team ignored this information and never asked her to testify during the trial. One defense witness claimed Horn was seen 20 miles away at the time of Willie Nickell’s killing.
On October 23, the jury received the case and declared Tom guilty the following day.
Death by hanging was the court’s decision. Horn’s execution date was set for November 20, 1903. Sitting in jail, Tom wrote his autobiography, “Life of Tom Horn, Government Scout and Interpreter, Written by Himself.”
The Wyoming Supreme Court denied Horn’s appeals. He was executed in Cheyenne using the unique Julian water-powered gallows named after the inventor James Julian. Although the rope likely broke Tom’s neck, some observers believed he would have drowned in the barrel anyway.
To this day, historians of the American West disagree on Horn’s guilt in the murder of Willie Nickell. These same historians agree that Tom murdered other men by various methods but was never charged for those crimes. And Horn’s trial was tarnished from top to bottom by evidence manipulation and incompetence.
Many Hollywood actors have portrayed him on TV and in movies. One of the more well-known was Steve McQueen. McQueen portrayed Horn in a 1980 film, “Tom Horn” co-starring Linda Evans and Slim Pickens. Filmed in Tucson and Patagonia, Arizona, the film experienced production and postproduction issues. Unfortunately, near the end of editing prior to the movie’s release, McQueen had difficulty breathing and was diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma. The film earned only nine million dollars at the box office and some viewers complained that when Horn dies at the end of the movie, they left the theater depressed. But Steve McQueen fans were not disappointed in his portrayal of the infamous Tom Horn.
In the final analysis, Tom Horn lived as a transitional figure between the heavily romanticized old American West and the modern West. Girlfriend Gwendolene Kimmel penned the appendix to Horn’s autobiography. She wrote, “Riding hard, drinking hard, so passed his days until he was crushed between the grindstones of two civilizations.”
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