At the turn of the twentieth century in Wyoming, the “range wars” claimed many victims, among them fourteen-year-old Willie Nickell (yes, one of my distant cousins).1 This is the story of his murder and the hanging of his killer—a legendary lawman and now “ghost.” It begins over a quarter of a century earlier in my home county of Morgan in eastern Kentucky.
The Range Wars
In 1875, Willie’s father Kelsey P. “Kels” (or “Kelse”) Nickell went west from his Kentucky home to join the U.S. Cavalry, spending much of his time there as an Indian fighter. In fact, his company was encamped just fifty miles south of the Little Big Horn River on June 26, 1876, when General George Armstrong Custer and his men were massacred. Kels Nickell was one of two troopers dispatched to reconnoiter the site, and he reported the overwhelming stench of dead men and horses. Following his discharge in 1880, he opened a blacksmith shop at Camp Carlin, Wyoming, and the next year married a young woman named Mary Mahoney, who, like her husband, was of Irish descent. They homesteaded a ranch at Iron Mountain where they eventually raised eight children (Nickell 1998).
In time, the Nickell family became embroiled in a range war between open-range cattlemen on the one hand and sheepherders and homesteaders on the other. The violence involved vigilante slayings of suspected cattle rustlers and altercations between individuals. In one such incident in 1890, Kels Nickell was charged with “cutting and wounding in attempt to kill” a cattle baron named John C. Coble. Coble’s cattle had overrun Nickell’s land, and the men quarreled. Another man and Coble, armed with a rock, pursued Nickell, who defended himself. He was jailed, but the charges were eventually dismissed and hard feelings continued. At a meeting of big ranchers, a proposal to lynch Nickell was voted down, but other plans were discussed. All the while Nickell, who knew of the meeting, sat inside the door of his cabin with his rifle across his knees (Nickell 1998; Ball 2014, 170–172).
The unsolved slayings of two ranchers and as many suspected cattle rustlers were followed in July 1901 by a warning note posted on Kels Nickell’s ranch gate: “Take your sheep and get out, or meet the same fate as Matt Rash and Isam Dart” (the alleged rustlers) (Nickell 1998).
Murder from Ambush
Just eight days later, on July 18, 1901, Kels Nickell’s fourteen-year-old son Willie set out on an errand, wearing a hat and coat and riding his father’s horse. He failed to return, and the next morning his younger brother discovered his blood-soaked body at the open gate. Willie had been shot in the back, almost certainly mistaken for his father.
Funeral services for the boy were held on Sunday, July 21. Kels Nickell knelt by the open grave and vowed to avenge the death. An inquest was held the following day, and the three physicians who had performed the autopsy testified that Willie had been shot twice and that the bullets—which were not recovered—were apparently of large caliber. A surveyor who had diagrammed the crime scene concluded the killer laid in wait at a distance of about 200 feet. At the inquest, the name of a cattlemen’s hired gun elicited much discussion.
Then, several days later on August 4, Kels Nickell was himself shot at from ambush. As he ran a zig-zagging course toward the safety of his home, he was hit in the arm, side, and hip. His youngest daughter had been with him but was unscathed; the would-be assassin, obviously a good shot, was not shooting at her. Nickell’s brother-in-law got him to a hospital in Cheyenne, saving his life.
Had it been Kels who had been killed and not Willie, the crime might have gone unsolved. Kels has been described as “red-headed and combative,” with “an uncanny ability to offend just about every neighbor” (Ball 2014, 263). But the murder of the boy provoked an immediate clamor for justice. The public outcry persuaded the Laramie County sheriff to enlist the aid of the deputy U.S. marshal for southern Wyoming, Joseph LeFors. Marshal LeFors went on leave to devote time to solving the murder.
Although the first suspects in the case were neighbors with whom Kels Nickell had feuded, Jim Miller and his two sons, they were soon eliminated from suspicion. Not only did they have an alibi, but LeFors had examined the scene after Kels’s wounding and found hoof prints of a single horse. These led through a gate, onto a road, and in a direction away from, not toward, the Miller residence. LeFors’s attention was now drawn to the hired gun whose name had come up at the inquest. The man, reportedly bragging of his deeds, was something of a legend in his own time. His name was Tom Horn. (The name would eventually be given to a Hollywood movie starring Steve McQueen in the title role.)
Tom Horn was the quintessential cowboy: a former trail-herd crewman, prospector, Army Indian fighter, and interpreter—serving as such at the surrender of Geronimo (Ball 2014, 11–98). Afterward, he had apparently worked as a hired gun, then underwent training to become a full-time “operative” of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. However he was fired for being too rough (Siringo 1927, 240)—or as he said in his autobiography, “My work for them was … too tame for me” (Horn 1904, 259–263). Following service in the Spanish American War, he went to Cheyenne to recuperate from Yellow Fever—courtesy of John Coble (with whom Kels Nickell had fought). There, often given to drink, he revealed a dark side to his personality (Ball 2014, 199–217, 251; Raine 1949, 89).
The gunslinger had drawn attention to himself from his association with Coble and his reported bragging about killing people. Marshal LeFors was assisted in the Willie Nickell murder case by a female Pinkerton operative hired by prosecutor Walter Stoll. She had first posed as a reporter, roaming the Iron Mountain country, although the terrorized folk mostly refused to talk. She next played the role of LeFors’s wife, and the two sleuths pursued a woman believed to have information. When they got her alone and plied her with her favorite highballs, she told how she had carried sandwiches to Tom Horn as he lay in hiding for his quarry to come into his sights.
To attempt to cinch the evidence, Marshal LeFors developed a clever strategy. An acquaintance of Horn, he wrote to him on the pretext of helping him seek employment as a “stock detective” to chase rustlers. Horn accepted LeFors’s invitation to meet with him in Cheyenne. It was January 1902, some six months after the murder of Willie. To carry out his plan, LeFors secretly placed a deputy sheriff and court stenographer in a room adjoining the sheriff’s office. After drinks at a saloon, the pair retired to the office where they could, supposedly, talk more privately.
Horn was in an expansive mood. As he bragged to someone he thought a like-minded individual (both men had been range detectives), LeFors skillfully steered the conversation to the slaying of Willie Nickell, and Tom Horn made highly incriminating statements. These were secretly recorded in shorthand by court reporter Charles Ohnhaus. For example:
LEFORS: Have you got your money yet for the killing of [Willie] Nickell?
HORN: I got that before I did the job.
LEFORS: You got $600 for that. Why did you cut the price?
HORN: I got $2,100.
LEFORS: How much is that a man?
HORN: That is for three dead men, and one man shot at five times. Killing men is my specialty. I look at it as a business proposition, and I think I have a corner on the market.
Stenographer Ohnhaus worked throughout the night to transcribe and type the ostensible confession. Sheriff Smalley obtained a warrant the following morning, Monday, January 13, 1902, and he and the undersheriff found Horn at the Palace Hotel. Smalley walked up casually and said “Hello,” as he quickly yanked Horn’s pistol out of his waistband. The outlaw detective was immediately taken to the Laramie County Jail—where he would spend the remainder of his life, twenty-two months (Ball 2014, 282–309).
At Horn’s surprisingly short trial (October 10–24), Prosecutor Stoll introduced a blood-stained sweater Horn had accidentally left at a store in Laramie. He had ridden there hurriedly following the murder in an apparent attempt to give himself an alibi. In addition to the stenographically recorded admission of Horn to LeFors, there was testimony of a witness that Horn had bragged to him: “I am the main guy in that Nickell case. … That was the best God damned shot I ever made. …”
The jury returned its verdict on October 24: “Guilty of murder in the first degree.” On November 12, Judge Richard H. Scott, denying the defense’s motion for a new trial, sentenced Horn to death by hanging. Both the Wyoming Supreme Court and the governor (after a thorough review) denied Horn’s appeal. Horn had not helped his case by briefly escaping (on August 9, 1903). His head grazed by a bullet and surrounded by citizens, he gave up and was returned to jail (Ball 2014, 300, 332–398, 405).
On November 20, 1903, the court’s sentence was finally carried out, despite rumors that the prisoner would be sprung from jail. Horn’s last visitor had been John Coble who, the Denver Post had reported, had attempted to coerce his ranch hands into falsely testifying for Horn; his foreman resigned instead. Kels Nickell had been refused permission to witness the hanging, but he was wisely allowed to view the body afterward at the mortician’s to quench other rumors of a substitute having been hanged.
From the time of Willie Nickell’s murder, the fame—or infamy—of Tom Horn has attracted paranormal and other pseudoscientific claims. Some of his admirers were so desperate to set him free that they not only made false confessions—but also appeals to mystical thinking.
For example, Denver clairvoyant Frank D. Hinds sent the governor a copy of a “Psychometric test and Psychic message.” Hinds reported that he had received a visitation—not from a ghost but from some alleged psychic extension of the killer, described as “a dark complected youth … , age 22, height five feet seven and one-fourth inches, weight one hundred and forty-four pounds.” A skeptic observed at the time that the alleged specter suspiciously resembled a Nickell neighbor, one of the Miller boys—an obvious attempt to throw suspicion elsewhere.
Graphologists—purveyors of the pseudoscience of divining character from handwriting (Nickell 1996, 17–22)—have weighed in at various times. Perhaps the earliest was Louise Rice, who believed that Horn’s pen movements showed him “affectionate, loyal, and kind-hearted.” She was emphatic that “the hanging of such a man was unjust.” On the other hand (so to speak), a later analyst concluded that Horn’s script revealed he “acted on impulse, sometimes violently,” and was a “discontented man” who harbored considerable “resentment.” The diviner continued, “Horn had a conscience and knew right from wrong,” although his “urge to inflict injury was difficult to restrain” (qtd. in Ball 2014, 452).
The purely superstitious have called attention to the number 13, which supposedly influenced Horn’s fate. For example, it was observed that Judge Scott—in presenting instructions to jurors—provided fifteen points for the defense but, for the prosecution, a fateful thirteen. And newspapers claimed that Friday the 13ths were conspicuous in Tom Horn’s final days (Ball 2014, 360, 452). In fact, however, during 1901, 1902, and 1903, we discover there were just six such dates (respectively two, one, and three for those years), and none was associated with significant events in the case—not, for example, the murder of Willie, the wounding of his father, the secretly recorded confession, Horn’s arrest, jury selection, trial commencement, verdict, death sentence, Horn’s failed jailbreak, or his hanging. The closest Friday the 13th connection would appear to have been that of November 13, 1903, but it was only the day before the governor denied Horn’s appeal. Such attempts to fit evidence to a preconceived notion—typically involving counting the hits and ignoring the misses—is called confirmation bias (Nickell 2012, 12).
No doubt the most enduring superstitious belief involving Horn is that his ghost was unleashed by the gallows. Not long after the hanging, the Daily Leader hyped, “Ghostly sounds Disturb Prisoners in County Jail and suggest Phantom Hanging”; perhaps imagination simply got the best of prisoners, none of whom wanted “to live in a dead man’s quarters.” Iron Mountain folk reportedly saw the ghost of both Willie Nickell and Tom Horn, the latter reportedly “condemned by his misdeeds to ride his old range forever” (Ball 2014, 424, 452). These tales incorporate common folklore motifs (or story elements), including “gallows ghost,” “noises caused by ghost,” “murderer cannot rest in grave,” “murdered person cannot rest in grave,” and so on (Thompson 1989, 428, 439, 441, 442). Furthermore, the power of suggestion was employed in folk practice when mothers adopted Horn as a bogeyman, invoking his name against children’s misbehavior, as in “Hush, or Tom Horn will get you” (Ball 2014, 452).
More recent accounts are recorded. Cheyenne’s Wrangler Western Store—in a landmark three-story building dating from 1882—is allegedly one haunting site. According to Haunted Cheyenne (Pope 2013, 44), “a cowboy ghost” is seen there, coming up from the basement and wandering around the first and second floors. The specter “must be Tom,” says the manager, since Horn “apparently was held in the basement of the Wrangler while awaiting his trial …” (Landreth 2013). In fact, however, as penned in Sheriff Smalley’s record book, Horn was lodged in the Laramie County Jail on Monday, January 13, 1902—the day of his arrest—and (except for the brief jailbreak) remained there in an upper-level cell until he was hanged (Ball 2014, 309–310). The Wrangler’s ghost must be an impostor.
The hanged man’s gravesite—located in Columbia Cemetery in Boulder, Colorado (where his brother Charles lived)—has also been claimed to be haunted. According to a pre-Halloween article in Colorado Daily (Kale 1999), “Word has it that western-era Boulderite Tom Horn (who was hung for his crimes), can still be seen swinging from the trees of the cemetery.” Accompanying the text is a photo of the grave that shows a transparent cowboy ghost. Of course Horn was hanged not “hung,” and the photo was deliberately faked (its credit line acknowledges the “model” and the supplier of the “cowboy outfit”).
I visited the gravesite in 1998, taken there by some local Rocky Mountain Skeptics, including my old friend Bela Scheiber. I had been visiting the area, and we were having breakfast in an old mining-hall-turned-restaurant in the foothills of the Rockies. While eating my huevos rancheros, I was asked if I knew who Tom Horn was. Leaning across the table, I replied with mock intensity, “Tom Horn murdered my cousin!” “Oh, that’s right,” the startled skeptic responded. “He killed a Nickell boy!” And so we agreed to go to the cemetery so I could begin to investigate the alleged haunting site and carry out a little ritual. As it happened, I was still recovering from having badly broken my leg in Spain, so I could only manage a sort of hop and skip, but we all agreed I had “danced on Tom Horn’s grave.” It somehow seemed appropriate.
- William “Willie” Nickell was a son of Kels Nickell who was, in turn, a son of John Desha Nickell (himself a murder victim during the Civil War). Willie’s great-grandfather, Joseph, and my fourth-great-grandfather, John, were brothers (sons of Joseph Sr.). Willie was my third cousin twice removed.
- Ball, Larry D. 2014. Tom Horn in Life and Legend. Norman: University of Oklahoma.
- Horn, Tom. 1904. Life of Tom Horn: Government Scout and Interpreter. … Denver: Louthan Book Company (for John C. Coble).
- Kale, Wendy. 1999. Haunted Boulder. Colorado Daily (October 27).
- Landreth, Teri. 2013. Are there really any ghosts in Cheyenne? Available online at http:1063CowboyCountry.com/are-there-really-any-ghosts-in-Cheyenne/; accessed February 11, 2015.
- Nickell, Dennie, ed. 1977. Who were Tom Horn’s victims? Yesterday in Wyoming (October-November): 22–38.
- Nickell, Joe. 1996. Detecting Forgery. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.
- ———. 1998. Historical sketches: The murder of Willie Nickell, in three parts. Licking Valley Courier (West Liberty, Ky.) (June 25, August 13, and September 10). (This relies largely on Nickell 1977 and Patterson 1982.)
- ———. 2012. The Science of Ghosts. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
- Patterson, Richard. 1982. Wyoming’s Outlaw Days. Boulder, Colorado: Johnson Books, 37–43.
- Pope, Jill. 2013. Haunted Cheyenne. Charleston, SC: Haunted America.
- Raine, William MacLeod. 1949. Famous Sheriffs & Western Outlaws. Garden City, NY: Garden City Publishing Co.
- Siringo, Charles A. 1927. Riata and Spurs: The Story of a Lifetime Spent in the Saddle as a Cowboy Detective. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
- Thompson, Stith. 1989. Motif-Index of Folk-Literature, vol. 2 of 6 vols. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.