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The Saga of Tom Horn

Is the Hanged Man’s Ghost Still at Large?

Joe Nickell, PhD, is, like Tom Horn, a former Pinkerton detective. This is his fiftieth year as a paranormal investigator. He became CSI’s senior research fellow in 1995.

At the turn of the twentieth century in Wyoming, the “range wars” claimed many victims, among them fourteen-year-old Willie Nickell (yes, one of my distant cousins).1 This is the story of his murder and the hanging of his killer—a legendary lawman and now “ghost.” It begins over a quarter of a century ear-lier in my home county of Morgan in eastern Kentucky.

Tom Horn braiding a rope in the Laramie County jail office in Cheyenne, 1902.

The Range Wars

In 1875, Willie’s father Kelsey P. “Kels” (or “Kelse”) Nickell went west from his Kentucky home to join the U.S. Cavalry, spending much of his time there as an Indian fighter. In fact, his company was encamped just fifty miles south of the Little Big Horn River on June 26, 1876, when General George Armstrong Custer and his men were massacred. Kels Nickell was one of two troopers dispatched to reconnoiter the site, and he reported the overwhelming stench of dead men and horses. Following his discharge in 1880, he opened a blacksmith shop at Camp Carlin, Wyoming, and the next year married a young woman named Mary Mahoney, who, like her husband, was of Irish descent. They homesteaded a ranch at Iron Mountain where they eventually raised eight children (Nickell 1998).

In time, the Nickell family became embroiled in a range war between openrange cattlemen on the one hand and sheepherders and homesteaders on the other. The violence involved vigilante slayings of suspected cattle rustlers and altercations between individuals. In one such incident in 1890, Kels Nickell was charged with “cutting and wounding in attempt to kill” a cattle baron named John C. Coble. Coble’s cattle had overrun Nickell’s land, and the men quarreled. Another man and Coble, armed with a rock, pursued Nickell, who defended himself. He was jailed, but the charges were eventually dismissed and hard feelings continued. At a meeting of big ranchers, a proposal to lynch Nickell was voted down, but other plans were discussed. All the while Nickell, who knew of the meeting, sat inside the door of his cabin with his rifle across his knees (Nickell 1998; Ball 2014, 170–172).

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