by Larry D. Ball
(University of Oklahoma Press, $29.95)
Reviewed by Larry Cox
Tom Horn was born in rural Missouri in 1860, but it was in the American Southwest where he made his mark. Leaving home when he was 16, he worked as a lawman, soldier, hired gunman, detective, outlaw and assassin.
Documenting this complex man’s life has been difficult for historians, since so much misinformation appears in public records, including Horn’s autobiography, published in 1904. Although extremely popular, “Life of Tom Horn, Government Scout and Interpreter” is factually unreliable and triggered much of the legend surrounding him.
Larry D. Ball first became aware of Horn and the controversial nature of his colorful life as a young boy reading books and magazines about the Wild West. Later, while doing research about U.S. marshals and county sheriffs in the Arizona and New Mexico territories, he uncovered new source materials that revealed additional facts about Horn’s life. The problem Ball faced was separating fact from fiction.
The former history professor spent several years meticulously researching Horn at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and at numerous libraries and archives throughout the West. The result is a new biography that is as close to the truth as we’re likely to get.
While still in his 20s, Horn fought in the last major battle with the Apaches on U.S. soil and chased the Indians into Mexico with Gen. George Crook. He had a brief and controversial career as a Pinkerton detective, was a hired gun and often bragged about the murders he had committed.
While working in Iron Mountain, Wyoming, Horn was charged with the murder of a 14-year-old sheepherding rancher. Horn confessed to the crime, but later claimed he did so while intoxicated. A Wyoming jury found him guilty, and in 1903 he was hanged on the day before his 43rd birthday. His guilt is still debated today, more than a century later.