Sunday, July 27, 2014

Tom Horn

Howdy ya’ll!

The rodeo was recently in town in Estes Park, and we celebrated here at the Baldpate Inn with flannel shirts and cowboy boots. I went to see the rodeo for the first time in my life and it was pretty incredible. I saw some very impressive cowboying and even got a little dirt kicked up in my face by an angry horse who made me feel like part of the action. It was a lot of fun, and keeping with the rodeo theme, I’m going to talk about a piece in our collection that came straight out of the Wild Wild West not too far from Estes Park.

It’s the story of a western lawman and outlaw named Tom Horn whose life ended in Cheyenne, Wyoming where he was convicted of killing the young son of a sheepherder. His life story seems like it was tailor made for a Western flick and he does appear in a few including a 1980 movie called Tom Horn starring Steve McQueen. The real Tom Horn was born in 1860 on a rural 600-acre farm in Scotland County, Missouri; the fifth of 12 children. When he was 16 he left home for the Southwest and started working for the U.S. Cavalry as a civilian scout. He soon became involved in the Apache Wars and assisted in the capture of the Apache warrior Geronimo. His skills as a gunman and a tracker earned Horn a reputation throughout the West. After spending time as a scout he spent a brief period as a deputy sheriff in Arizona and later caught the attention of the Pinkerton Detective Agency in Denver where he worked as a detective tracking down criminals throughout Colorado and Wyoming.

Charlie Siringo, one of Tom Horn’s fellow Pinkerton agents at the time, once wrote about Horn that he was a very talented tracker and agent but had a wicked side to him that could not be tamed. This became evident as Horn turned from a law enforcer to an outlaw himself. He was eventually dismissed from the Pinkerton Agency for crimes he had committed while under their employ and was thereafter hired out as a Range Detective for wealthy ranchers in Colorado and Wyoming. As a Range Detective he functioned basically as an assassin. He killed a number of thieves and robbers in the area including Fred Powell, a rancher often charged for stealing horses. Horn’s work as a Range Detective was seasonal and in his down time he made a name for himself as a cowboy and horse breaker. The letter accompanying his “key” identifies his as “the man who broke Muggins, the horse belonging to Charles Camp,” and Charles Camp said of Horn that, “his great strength and size and panther-like agility made all broncos look like playthings to him.”

Horn maintained his position as Range Detective and cowboy until October 1902 when he was convicted for the murder of 14-year old Willie Nickell; the son of a sheepherding rancher in Wyoming. The case against him was based off shaky and circumstantial evidence and many modern historians believe that Tom Horn was innocent of this particular crime. Nevertheless, his murderous reputation made him an easy scapegoat for the crime and he received a guilty verdict on October 24, 1902. He was executed November 20, 1903 after his appeal to the Supreme Court for a re-trial was rejected and was buried in the Colombia Cemetery in Boulder, Colorado.

The “key” we have here from Tom Horn is actually a piece out of the rope that was used to hang him in Cheyenne. It was donated to us by a former chief of police of Greeley, Colorado and now holds a prominent position in our collection as a symbol of the old West.

So I hope you’ve all enjoyed this trip back to the cowboy days and maybe get a chance to see all of the Western keys we have here.

Until next time,

Key Room Museum Curator