November 21

This Day in History

Old West

Nov 21, 1860:

Tom Horn is born in Missouri

The notorious hired killer Tom Horn is born on this day in 1860, in Memphis, Missouri. "Killing is my specialty," Horn reportedly once said. "I look at it as a business proposition, and I think I have a corner on the market."

Horn was raised on a farm, and like many young farm boys, Horn loved to roam the woods with his dog and rifle, hunting for game and practicing his marksmanship. He was an unusually skilled rifleman, an ability that may have later encouraged him to gravitate towards a career as a professional killer. That his father was a violent man, who severely beat his son, might also explain how Horn came to be such a remorseless killer.

However, the young Horn did not immediately begin his adult life as a professional murderer. Fleeing his home in Memphis after a particularly savage beating from his father, the 14-year-old boy first worked as a teamster in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he demonstrated a quick intelligence and learned Spanish. Horn's packing and language skills later won him a job with the U.S. Army, where he served as an interpreter with the Apache Indians, learned to be a skilled scout and tracker, and tracked the cunning movements of the famous Apache warrior Geronimo.

Ironically, Horn's career as a hired gunman began legitimately when he signed up with the well-known Chicago-based Pinkerton Detective Agency, which supplied agents to serve as armed guards and private police forces. Though Pinkerton detectives generally stopped short of carrying out actual murders, they were sometimes called on to fight gun battles with everyone from striking miners to train robbers.

Horn's four-year stint with the Pinkertons doubtlessly impressed his next employer, the giant Wyoming ranching operation, Swan Land and Cattle Company. Swan and other big ranches funded Horn's reign of terror in Wyoming, where he assassinated many supposed rustlers and other troublemakers. To take only one example, a Wyoming homesteader named William Lewis had stubbornly claimed his right to farm on what had previously been open range for cattle. He openly bragged about stealing and eating the cattle he found there. The big ranchers warned Lewis to leave the territory, but he refused to back down. In August 1895, he was shot to death with three bullets fired from a distance of at least 300 yards. Few doubted that the sharpshooting Horn killed Lewis.

Horn's reign of terror ended in 1903, when he was hanged for killing a 14-year-old boy.

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