Tom Horn’s Mixed Record, and Steve McQueen
Cowboy Detectives and a Movie Star of the Open Range
BY DAVID S. LEWIS
We now set about delving into the life and times of the legendary Tom Horn (see next page), the famous (some say infamous) scout, interpreter, Indian fighter, stock detective and eventual Pinkerton detective tried for murder in Cheyenne County, Wyoming, in 1902 (our first installment spans Christmas of 1876, with Horn among the Apache, followed down the road with accounts from Charles Siringo’s Cowboy Detective, another Pinkerton telling his personal story).
Horn’s life inspires the Western mind and troubles the imagination, as he was by many accounts a courageous and honorable man (certainly courageous) and by others a hired killer involved in western range wars on behalf of cattle interests.
At the time, the concept of honor may have been somewhat less than honorable, carved from the mesas and arroyos of the rugged West—raw, hard and potentially lethal—or as determined by cattle barons. Horn, many say, earned his pay driving off or laying to waste cattle thieves, perhaps even sodbusters (though the latter is unproven) for $500 per execution, as cattle barons fought one another to control the open range, in grazing and water rights disputes, and against private property rights as homesteaders settled the land (a Tragedy of the Commons, in a Shakespearean sort of way).
Being a crack shot with an 1894 Winchester, accustomed to mortal combat, having battled (and befriended) his share of renegade Apaches and outlaws, and a man of the West starting at age 16 as a Cavalry scout and interpreter (a natural linguist), Horn purveyed his skills for hire among men of means, government agencies, and the Pinkerton Detective Agency.
In jail, in Cheyenne, awaiting trial and then a hangman’s noose for the murder of a 14-year-old boy of a range war clan, Horn penned his story at the urging, he said, of those who knew him, so that the record of his life might be set straight (yet he does not address the actual crime of which he was accused in his narra-tive, only through supple-mentary letters included in his life story (in which he offers means by which his innocence might be discovered).
We now indulge the man (see next page), letting him have his say all these years later, beginning with his childhood, two thousand words of which this editor thought to delete, cutting to the chase, until reflecting upon Wordsworth's axiom, the child is father to the man, for Horn’s upbringing and adolescent scrapes in Missouri post 1860—a place he described as being all he knew in those days, his universe (he says he heard of Iowa, but nowhere else)—his intimate love affair with gritty adventures upon the land, and fist fights, formed the foundation of the man he became, right down to the tragedy of his first (and only, he says) great loss in life (no spoliers, turn the page), words he wrote even though he would hang by the neck until dead, losing his life to the tide of range war interests, if not an act of justice, though many insist he was innocent of the crime with which he was charged.
It was Steve McQueen, of course, who played Horn in the film titled, simply, Tom Horn, and McQueen cannot be faulted for his portrayal (are you kidding?) except that, as a movie, his depiction amounts to a sketch of the man’s life, 120 minutes of celluloid, 120 pages as a screenplay, whichever you prefer, and as with all things cinematic attempts to create the illusion of reality. It is not McQueen’s best film, yet he should be commended for taking on the task, for appreciating the man Horn apparently was, a tough individual, to say the least, self-made, bold, a liver off the land, and perhaps more complex than we know, or so simple as to be extraordinary (as he comes across in his writings) and wholly self-contained, having refused to defend himself at trial, out of guilt, stubbornness, or for having been resigned to the fact that the fix was in.
Whether he was a murderer or not then is still a matter of debate, but he certainly killed his share of human beings, and that must be weighed in any treatment of his life.
Of note, McQueen turned up in Paradise Valley back in the day, as had quite a few movie types of that era (Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson, Jeff Bridges, Warren Oates, and Sam Peckinpah who resided in the valley and Livingston’s Murray Hotel). McQueen, the story goes, bellied up to the bar at Chico (perhaps elsewhere) in the days when Montana was still thought to be the middle of nowhere by most of America, and struck up a conversation with the fellow next to him, a rancher. After some discourse, McQueen asked the fellow his name, and the man told him. McQueen, addressing the man by name, then asked: What do you do? The fellow replied that he was a rancher, and followed with a telling question, directed to the then biggest movie star in the world—And what do you do, Steve?
The rancher’s response, when this story is told, comes as a pithy punch line, McQueen having been the rock star of his day beyond all rock stars of all days, and the rancher’s question amounting to commen-tary on the isolated nature of Montana. I was surprised then, after having told this story recently to newcomers, locally, that it fell flat. No response. The couple soon admitted they did not know who Steve McQueen was, owing to their years and generation, though people of mine, at their age, knew all about Cagney, Chaplin, Bogart, and so on (one wonders if they have heard of Elvis). Their remedial assignment: Watch The Getaway.
Punch it, baby.
McQueen, though, was not Tom Horn—he just played him in the movies (yet like Horn he died young after leading a remarkable life). Horn was one for the books, and McQueen presumably read the book we present here, Life of Tom Horn, Government Scout and Interpreter, penned by his own hand in that Cheyenne jail cell, where he sat awaiting trial, conviction and execution for the July 18, 1901 murder of 14-year-old Willie Nickell. The eternal jury is out though, certain members of which, guided by omnisci-ence, may lean toward a not guilty verdict.
Horn did not spend his entire career with the Pinkertons, and was not a Pinkerton at the time of the Nickell murder, yet he was a natural for the job, chasing down bad guys at the behest of private interests, usually related to cattle thieving, having cut his teeth in interactions with brutal warriors like the Chiracahua Apache. He spoke their language, Spanish too, which won him employment as an interpreter and scout, helped by the fact that he was conversant with Apache chiefs like Cochise and Geronimo.
We will later introduce Charles Siringo, a career Pinkerton detec-tive inspired by Chicago’s 1886 Haymarket Massacre (where policeman were blown to bits by a bomb) to take up the Pinkerton calling, infiltrating kidnappers, outlaws (including Billy the Kid’s Gang), union thugs, and anarchists.
We are open, by the way, to any eyewitness account of the legendary Paradise Valley Steve McQueen encounter, having merely repeated the story as commonly told, by any who were privy to the actual event.