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.
Today, Bob and I went on a hike called the Iron Mountain Loop. It is a 5.1 mile easy to moderate trail that we found to be quite pleasant…except for that one hill. I’ll go into that more later. We began our hike thinking what a lovely day it was and what a nice change it was from the 90 degree days we had been having. Our first fork in the road put us onto the actual trail we wanted as it split from the Centennial Trail, which is a trail that is much more used. I thought about that old Robert Frost poem I had always loved, called “The Road Less Traveled” and felt, as I always do on the trail, like the adventure was just beginning.
Our hike continued along beautifully, and we were very much enjoying ourselves. Then the trail came to an end. There was another trail…much less traveled, that went to the right and to the left. Looking again at our trail book, I determined that the trail to the left would meet up with the Iron Creek Trail so we…or should I say, I decided that we should go that way. As we started down the trail, we immediately hoped that we would come upon the other trail, because having to come back up this hill would not be fun. The further we went down the hill, the more I began to think this was a mistake.
Finally, I decided to consult the trail book again. At that point, I realized that the Iron Creek Trail was probably right near where we were, but that was not going to be the easy way back to our car. We were going to have to go back up that hill we had just come down. The big problem I see here is that while I am an experienced hiker…I am an out of shape experienced hiker. I had now just turned and easy to moderate trail into an easy to moderately strenuous trail, and one that an out of shape experienced hiker was going to find…well, difficult!!
With a sigh, I told Bob we needed to go back up. After about 30 minutes, we finally made it to the top of that hill, and back to the trail we had come in on. While it was still easy to moderate, it seemed strenuous to our tired bodies. Finally, we got our second wind, and the trail became easier to maneuver. I can’t tell you how glad I was that we are experienced enough to have plenty of water. When we finally got back to our car, we felt tired, hot, and yet good about ourselves. Even though we were out of shape, we had made it 6.5 miles instead of 5.1, and part of it was very strenuous. I think we did really good…except for that one hill!!