“I have lived about fifteen ordinary lives. I would like to have had somebody who saw my past and could picture it to the public. It would be the most God damn interesting reading in the country.”
Yep, that TOM HORN.
The notorious Western gunman.
The Indian fighter.
The bounty hunter.
The rodeo champ.
The drunken braggart.
The hired killer.
The real-life subject of one of Steve McQueen’s last films.
The private eye.
Choking on that last one? But it’s true. For four years, Horn worked as an operative for The Pinkerton Detective Agency, and his official job title in the years following was ostensibly “range detective” or “stock detective.” What he really was is another story.
Or several stories.
Most of what we know about Horn is up for grabs. While he certainly had a varied career in his 43 years, most of what we know came from his “memoirs,” written while awaiting execution in a Cheyenne jail. Most historians consider the book to be full of exaggerations and out-right lies. That — and the later myths, legends, tall tales and plain old bullshit that sprang up after his death — have “had the effect of making the real Tom Horn difficult to discern,” to say the least.
Still, here’s what we may know:
Born in Tennessee in 1860, Horn was raised on a farm, but ran away from home at fourteen, after his father (maybe) gave him a severe beating. The young boy headed west, working on the railroad, driving wagons for a freight company, and later, stagecoaches.
At sixteen, he joined the army as a scout, and rose through the ranks to become chief of scouts in the Southwest region in 1885. It was as chief scout that he tracked down the notorious Geronimo and (allegedly helped) negotiate Geronimo’s surrender.
After quitting the army, Horn wandered the gold fields, working as a prospector and eventually a ranch hand, and in 1888 even won a rodeo championship for steer roping. It’s also thought that Horn may have killed his first man sometime in this period, a “coarse son of a bitch” he would later boast, possibly in a dispute over a prostitute.
He worked as a deputy sheriff in Colorado for a spell. His pursuit and capture of a gang of horse thieves, plus his reputation as an Army scout and Indian fighter in the 1880s, attracted the attention of the Pinkertons, which he joined in 1890. He worked out of the Denver office, roaming the Rocky Mountain area, hunting down train robbers and other outlaws, and promptly acquired a reputation for fearlessness. On one occasion, for example, Horn rode — alone — into the deadly outlaw hideout known as Hole-in-the-Wall, and captured the train robber Peg-Leg Watson, without firing a shot.
But it soon became clear that he had no problem firing his gun if he had to, and he became known for other, far less heroic acts. Supposedly in the four years he was employed by the Agency, he was responsible for the deaths of seventeen men. Worse, at least from the agency’s viewpoint, was that while employed by them he committed a robbery in Nevada. The Agency frantically scrambled to cover it up. Fellow Denver operative Charlie Siringo, who befriended Horn, related in his book Two Evil Isms that “William A. Pinkerton (the head of the agency at the time) told me that Tom Horn was guilty of the crime, but that his people could not let him go to the penitentiary while in their employ.”
Not too surprisingly, Horn and the agency parted ways, with Horn resigning in 1894, complaining of the “good many instructions and a good deal of talk given the operative regarding the things to do and the things that had been done,” and the violence, saying: “I have no stomach for it anymore.”
But he must have had a pretty resilient stomach, because his next career move was to sign up with the powerful Wyoming Cattlemen’s Association as a freelance “range detective.” His job was to recruit men for the association’s rather formidable army, to combat the growing tide of homesteaders and rustlers. It was that “army” that later massacred homesteaders in the legendary Johnson County Range War, although there’s no evidence Horn took part in any of the actual killing.
But by 1894, that point was rather moot. When Horn was hired by the Swan Land and Cattle Company, he may have been ostensibly there as a “stock detective” or a “horse breaker,” but it was quite obvious what he was really expected to do — kill. He was paid $600 for each rustler he killed. Coolly and methodically, Horn went about tracking rustlers down and shooting them, often with a buffalo gun, usually from a distance, and frequently in the back. He’d then place a large rock under the corpse’s head, a sort of advertisement for his skills. “Killing men is my specialty,” he once boasted. “I look at it as a business proposition, and I think I have a corner on the market.”
In fact, it was Horn’s drinking and boastfulness that eventually sealed his fate.
After a short stint in the army as a mule skinner during the Spanish-American War, Horn returned to Wyoming, this time hiring on with wealthy cattle baron, John Coble. But his business remained the same: hired killer. The death of a homesteader’s son, a fourteen-year-old boy, in 1901 proved to be the last straw. In 1903, Horn was arrested by lawman Joe Lefors in Denver, after a controversial drunken confession, and hauled back to Cheyenne, where a jury tried, convicted and sentenced him to death by hanging. The debate still rages as to whether Horn actually killed the boy, but he had certainly killed many others — by his own admission — by that time.
After a botched escape attempt, Horn spent his last months writing his memoirs. The legend goes that his last words, uttered from the gallows, were, “Hurry it up. I got nothing more to say.”
Maybe he should have thought of that when he was boasting about all the men he’d killed.
As for the McQueen film, well, it has very little to do with history — it attempts to portray Horn as a victim, just a poor misguided scout facing his execution on trumped-up charges, not a murderer and hired killer whose luck finally ran out. It suggests that at worst, Horn accidentally killed a child, mistaking him for a wild animal.
Still, taken as fiction, it’s a decent enough flick, a little messy at the edges, but McQueen’s performance, all quiet dignity and weary resignation, is impressive.
- Life of Tom Horn, Government Scout and Interpreter, Written by Himself (1904) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- TOM HORN | Buy this DVD | Watch it now!
(1980, Warner Bros.)
Directed by William Wiard
Screenplay by Thomas McGuane and Bud Shrake
Produced by Fred Weintraub
Associate producers: Michael I. Rachmil, Sandra Weintraub
Executive produce: Steve McQueen
Starring Steve McQueen as TOM HORN
Also starring Linda Evans, Richard Farnsworth, Billy Green Bush, Slim Pickens, Peter Canon, Elisha Cook Jr., Roy Jenson, James Kline, Geoffrey Lewis, Harry Northup, Stephen Oliver, Bill Thurman, Bert Williams
Possibly as much fiction as Horn’s own memoirs, but still an interesting, slow-burn of a man going down the drain.
- Nash, Jay Robert,
Encyclopedia of Western Lawmen and Outlaws
- Horan, James D.,
Desperate Men: The James Gang and the Wild Bunch
Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1962
Revised and expanded from original 1949 book.
- Morn, Frank,
The Eye That Never Sleeps: A History of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency
Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1982.
- These Eyes Keep Themselves in Trouble
Bad, Bad Eyes.
- My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys
- The Dangers of Dime Westerns
From Mark Twain’s “bloodthirstily interesting” favorites to first-person shooters, Westerns were the first “true crime” sensation.