Being wrongly convicted of a crime is a nightmare that more than a few people have faced in their lifetime. As detective work and forensics have improved over the years, it happens less often, but that was not always the case. On July 18, 1901, Willie Nickell, the 14-year-old son of sheep ranchers Kels and Mary Nickell, was found murdered near their homestead gate near Iron Mountain, Wyoming. More violent incidents occurred during the period of the coroner’s inquest, which was expanded to investigate these incidents and lasted from July through September 1901. In the end investigation centered on a man named Tom Horn.
Thomas Horn Jr was born on November 21, 1860, to Thomas S Horn Sr and Mary Ann née Miller Maricha on their family farm in rural northeastern Scotland County, Missouri. Horn was an American scout, cowboy, soldier, range detective, and Pinkerton agent in the 19th-century and early 20th-century American Old West. It is believed that he committed 17 killings as a hired gunman throughout the West. Horn was convicted in 1902 of the murder of young Willie Nickell.
While Horn was convicted of the murder, it was a known fact that Willie’s dad, Kels Nickell was involved in a range feud with his neighbor and cattle rancher Jim Miller. To me, that would throw up an immediate red flag into the situation, but because Horn was a known hired gun, the jury convicted him of murder on October 24, 1901. Horn rigorously appealed the conviction, but he lost that battle, and on November 20, 1903, the infamous hired killer Tom Horn was hanged for having murdered Willie Nickell.
Looking back, a number of historians have questioned whether Horn really killed the boy. They have pointed 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 him, by refusing to take note 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. Nevertheless, he was not on trial for those other deaths. It’s quite possible that the people figured it was better to get a hired gun off the streets, even if it was for a crime he couldn’t possibly have committed…a public service of sorts, I suppose. Other historians suggest that Horn may have murdered Willie Nickell by accident, having mistaken the boy for his father. Still others 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. We will never know for sure.