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History: Tom Horn’s Confession to Deputy Marshal Joe Lefors

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Whether it was good detective work, or a trap that Horn fell into because of his friendship with LeFors has been debated for over 100 years in Wyoming. There are still those today who are seeking for an acquittal. In fact, in 1993, there was a mock trial where Horn was acquitted of the crime.

But, in 1902, he gave this confession and was found guilty.

Cheyenne Daily Leader, October 16, 1902 – How Horn Was Trapped. The Clever Detective Work of Joe Lefor in Securing Confession of the Murder – The most important testimony on the part of the prosecution was reserved to the last and was presented yesterday afternoon with thrilling effect before a crowded room of deeply interested spectators The mean by which the clever detective, Joe Lefors, secured the confession of the defendant was clearly set forth by the following correspondence, which was supplemented by the graphic report of the admissions made by Tom Horn.

These were accurately reported by Stenographer Ohnbaus, who read his notes in court. The deft manner in which Lefors led the defendant on to tell his story of the killing of young Nlckell and other crimes shows a high order of detective skill. It is the most adroit and masterly piece of detective work it the annals of crime.

Joe Lefors held out to Horn the prospect of profitable employment In Montana which is explained in the following correspondence, in this way he secured the confidence of the unsuspecting man-killer, who claimed to be an expert In this line of business:

A “Wolfer” Wanted. Miles City. Mont, Dec. 26. 1901. Joe Lefors. Esq. Cheyenne Friend Joe: I want a good man to do home secret work, and I want a man that I can trust; and he will have to be a man not known in this country. The nature of the work is this. There is a gang over on the Big Mason River that are stealing cattle, and we propose to fit the man out as a wolfer and let him go into that country and wolf. And if he is the right kind of a man he can soon get in with the gang. He will have to be a man who can take care of himself in any kind of country. “The pay will be $125 per month, and t believe the man can make good wages besides.” Joe. If you know of any one who you think will fill the place, let me know. There will be several months’ work.” Yours truly, – W. D. Smith. P. S. Man will have to report in Helena.

Horn Is Willing. “Iron Mountain Ranch Company. Range. Iron Mountain and Laramie Plains. J. C. Coble. Manager. F. C. Bosler, Secretary. Duncan Clark, Foreman. Bosler. Wyo., Jan. 1. 1902. “Joe Lefors, Esq., Cheyenne. Wyo. “Dear Sir: Received yours from W. D. Smith. Miles City. Mont, by Johnny Coble today. I would like to take up that work and I feel sure I can give Mr. Smith satisfaction. I don’t care how big or how bad his men are, I can handle them. They can scarcely be any worse than the Brown’s Hole gang, and I stopped the cow stealing there in one summer. If Mr. Smith cares to give me the work I would like to meet him as soon as convenient so as to get into the country and get located before summer.

The wages, $125 per month will be all satisfactory to me. Put me in communication with Mr. Smith, whom I know well by reputation, and I can guarantee him the recommendation of every cow man in the state or Wyoming in this line of work.

“Joe, you know what my reputation is, although we have never been out together.” – Yours Truly, Tom Horn.

Terms Accepted. “Miles City, Mont., Jan. 3, 1902. “Joe Lefors. Esq., Cheyenne, Wyo. “Friend Joe: Yours of Dec. 31st received, and I have today wrote to Helena and by return mall expect to get my orders to send for your man, Tom Horn. “So that you can expect a definite answer within a week. “As ever, yours, etc. – W.D. Smith.

Horns Thanks For Job. “Bosler. Wyoming. Jan. 7. 1908. Joe Lefors. Esq. Cheyenne, Wyo. Friend Joe: Rec’d yours of Jan. 6th today and contents noted. “Joe I am much obliged to you for the trouble you have taken for me in this matter, and I will do my best to give satisfaction. “I will get the men sure for I have never yet let a cow thief get away from me unless he just got up and jumped clean out of the country. I am, yours truly – Tom Horn.

Horn’s Confession It is a little remarkable that the two interviews between Lefors and Tom Horn should have been held in the office of the United States Marshall. but Horn complained of publicity at the hotel and Deputy Marshal Lefors suggested they go to his office where they would not be interrupted. So the conferences were held there, arrangements having been made for the placing of Deputy Sheriff Snow and Stenographer Ohnhaus at the door of an adjourning room so they could hear the conversation.

But A Final Report. Tom said: “I don’t want to be making reports all the time. I will simply have one report to make, and that will be my final report. You know me when it comes to shooting. I will protect the people I am working for, but I have never got my employers into any trouble yet over anything that I have done. A man can’t be too careful, because you don’t want any officers to know what you are doing.” Joe said: “Tom, I know you are a good man for the place. You are the best man to cover up your trail I ever saw. In the Willie Nickell killing I could never find your trail, and I pride myself on being a trailer.”

Left No Trail. Tom sald: “No; I left no trail. The only way to cover up your trail is to go barefooted.” Joe said: “Where was your horse, Tom.” Tom sald: “He was a long ways off.” Joe said: “I would be afraid to leave my horse so far away. You might get cut off from him.” Tom said: “You don’t take much chances these people are unorganized, and anyway I depend on this gun of mine, The only thing that I was ever afraid of was that I would be compelled to kill an officer or a man I didn’t want to, but I would do everything to keep from being seen, but If he kept after me I would certainly kill him.” Joe said: “I never knew why Willie Nickell was killed. Was it because he was one of the victims named or was it compulsory?”

How Willie Was Killed Tom Horn said: “I think it was this way. Suppose a man was in a big draw that comes into the main creek below Nlckell’s house where Nlckell was shot. Well, suppose a man was in that and the kid came riding up on him from this way, and suppose the kid started to run for the house and the fellow headed him off at the gate and killed him to keep him from going to the house and raising a hell of a commotion. That is the way I think It occurred.” Joe Lefors said: “Tom, you had your boots on when you ran across there to cut the kid off, didn’t you?” “Tom said: “No, I was barefooted.” Joe said: “You didn’t run across there barefooted.” Tom Horn said: “Yes I did.” Joe Lefors said: “How did you get your boots on after cutting up your feet Tom Horn said: “I generally have ten days to rest after a job of that kind. “

His Dirtiest Trick. LaFors said: “What kind of a gun have you got?” Tom Horn said: “I use a .30-30 Winchester.” Joe LeFors said: “Tom do you think that will hold up as well as a .30-40?” Tom said: “No; but Ilike to get close to my men, the closer the better.” Joe said:

“How far was Willie Nickell killed?” Tom Horn said: “About 300 yards. It was the best shot that I ever made and the dirtiest trick that I ever done. I thought at one time he would get away.”

There was one side of the story that said that Tom Horn, who was known as a drinker, was drunk on the day the confession was taken down. And the defense argued that the confession should be thrown out.

Horn Was Drunk – During the afternoon session five witnesses were introduced all of whom swore that Tom Horn, on the day he made his confession to Deputy United States Marshal Joe Lefors had been drinking heavily and was quite drunk; that he was in a talkative mood and frequently told stories in which he figured prominently as a hero. It was also established that Horn is in the habit of talking in this manner while intoxicated.

Value Of Evidence. The value of this evidence is apparent. It tends to prove that when Tom Horn went up into the United States Marshal’s office he was well under the influence of liquor and that his statements to Lefors were probably made in a spirit of braggadocio, the same as were the stories told in the saloons of the city that same morning. If Horn was bragging then the confession of Horn, one of the principal facts upon which the state relies, falls to the ground, as there is insufficient evidence to connect him with the killing of Willie Nlckell.

Was Horn guilty or innocent of the murder? That is a question that is still debated. If he didn’t kill Willie Nickell, he did kill many other men, right or wrong, and some feel he was hanged as much for those killings as for the killing of the young boy. But, on the killing of Willie Nickell, one might say the jury is still out on that one.

Photos taken with permission, at the Jim Gatchell Memorial Museum, Buffalo

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