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Tom Horn, the last man legally hanged in Cheyenne

Tom Horn, the last man legally hanged in Cheyenne, died on November 20, 1903. His hanging, however, did not end the mystery of who actually shot and killed Willie Nickell, a 14-year-old boy.

Before coming to Wyoming, Horn worked as a stage driver in New Mexico Territory, an interpreter for the Army, a deputy sheriff, and a detective for the Pinkerton Agency in Denver. When Geronimo surrendered for the fourth time, he specifically asked for Tom Horn to be his personal translator. In 1890, Horn came to Wyoming as a stock detective for the Swan Land and Cattle Company. The Spanish-American War interrupted his service to the Cattle Company, and Horn left Wyoming to serve in the Army. During this time he fought in the Battle of San Juan Hill. After the war, Horn returned to his former job as a stock detective, this time working for the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association. He was active in the bitter warfare between the cattlemen and rustlers. He had brought in a number of rustlers only to have lenient judges fine them and release them. This was not the law of the old West! Horn took exception and became what was known as a Regulator, an assassin! Mothers would warn their children to avoid being outdoors at night so Tom Horn would not "get" them.

On July 18, 1901, Willie Nickell was shot in the back, wearing his dad's hat, rainslicker, and riding his dad's horse. Most likely he was mistaken for his father, Kels, who was later shot and wounded. The young boy was found on his family's sheep ranch with a stone placed beneath his head. This was a reputed Horn trademark.

The Nickell's next door neighbors, the Millers, had demanded they move away with their sheep. Miller had even taken pot-shots at Kels Nickell to scare him away, but Nickell stood fast.

When Cheyenne's sheriff heard of the incident, he swore Horn would hang for the killing! Horn had been out of town at the time of the murder, adding to the suspicion. The sheriff brought in a marshal from Denver, who Horn didn't know. Under the guise of being a rancher from Montana, who wanted to hire Horn to be a cattle detective there, the marshal set up a meeting with Horn. During the interview, of sorts, on the second floor of the Commerce Building on 16th Street downtown, Marshal Joe LaFlur reportedly provided enough alcohol that the drunk Horn inadvertently confessed to the murder of Nickell. A tactic which would not be legal today. The sheriff arrested Horn immediately. But once sobered up in jail, Horn recanted.

Horn went on trial in Cheyenne on October 10, 1902. One physician testified that Horn could not have killed Nickell because the bullet used in the murder was of a larger caliber than used in Horn’s gun. Testimony assured the jury that Tom Horn could not have ridden all the way to the Nickell ranch and back in the time he was out of town. However, public opinion was firmly against Horn and the two-week trial ended in a verdict of "Guilty of murder in the first degree." Historians still debate the guilty verdict.

There was doubt cast upon Horn's guilt, however, when hearsay evidence, not allowed in the trial, was printed in the local newspapers. It seems Vic, the 15-year-old son of the Miller family, admitted to at least two people that he'd gotten into an argument with little Willie that day, circled around behind him, and shot Nickell in the back. After standing over his body, Miller said he placed a stone under Nickell's head "just like Tom Horn would have done!"

Horn was hanged on the west side of the Laramie County jail in the center of the block on Eddy (now Pioneer) between 19th and 20th Streets. The condemned stood on a platform and his own weight released water from a tank till it equaled his weight and tripped the gallows door, leaving him hanging in a noose. This unique device made it possible for the accused to be hanged without an executioner.

There was a large crowd of spectators, although they were not allowed to witness the hanging. Horn asked his friends Frank and Charlie Irwin to sing "Life is Like a Mountain Railroad" (sometimes stated as "Life’s Railway to Heaven.") while he was hanged. Rumor had it that this request was to cover any last-minute admissions Horn might make about influential men who may have hired him as a gunslinger.

Wyoming License Plate
Wyoming License Plate



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Source: Cheyenne CVB; magazineUSA.com
Last modified: 20070708
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