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On October 22, 1903, infamous hired killer, Tom Horn was hanged for having allegedly murdered Willie Nickell, the 14-year-old son of a southern Wyoming sheep rancher. Some historians have since questioned whether Horn really killed the boy, pointing out that the jury convicted him solely on the basis of a drunken confession that Horn supposedly made to a detective.
The jury also seems to have failed to give adequate weight to the testimony of a number of credible witnesses who claimed Horn could not possibly have committed the crime. Yet even Horn's defenders in the Nickell case do not dispute that he was a brutal hired killer who was unquestionably responsible for many other deaths.
Born in 1860 in Memphis, Missouri, Horn reportedly showed an aptitude for hunting and marksmanship at an early age. After moving westward in the mid-1870s, Horn was at various times a cowboy, miner, army scout, deputy sheriff, and packer for the Rough Riders in Cuba, but his most notorious job was as a hired gun. Horn first worked for the famous Pinkerton Detective Agency which hired him to track down and apprehend, western outlaws who were preying on Pinkerton clients, but after four years he became bored; and in 1894 he signed on as a hired killer with the privately run Wyoming Cattlemen's Association. For several years the large Wyoming ranches had been fighting a vigilante war in Johnson County against a diverse group of small farmers, sheep ranchers, and rustlers who were resisting their domination. By 1894, negative publicity had made a public war too costly. Instead, the ranchers shifted to more stealthy means, hiring Horn to use his gun-handling skills to murder any man the ranchers marked as a troublemaker. Some historians suggest that Horn may have murdered Willie Nickell by accident, having mistaken the boy for his father. Others, though, argue that it is more likely that Horn was deliberately convicted for a crime he did not commit by Wyoming citizens seeing an opportunity to take revenge.
Michael Thomas Barry is the author of Murder & Mayhem 52 Crimes that Shocked Early California 1849-1949. The book can be purchased from Amazon through the following link: