Wild West gunslinger’s slow 1903 execution led to end of hi-tech gallows

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Tom Horn, who killed several men in the late 1800s, met his death at the end of a noose that was part of a water-based gallows.

The execution of Tom Horn, the shady tin star who switched sides and killed more than a few men in the twilight years of the Wild West, commenced with the burble of running water.

The hooded Horn stood on new-fangled gallows in Cheyenne, Wyo., 113 years ago today, on Nov. 20, 1903. As a preacher moaned the gospel weeper “Life’s Railway to Heaven,” the cocky gunslinger needled a local official who was slow in applying the noose.

“What’s the matter, Joe?” Horn said. “Ain’t losing your nerve, are you?”

The twitchy fellow did his job, and Horn was inched forward until his weight rested squarely on the trap door.

At that instant, James Julian’s contraption — the Julian Gallows — began its first life-or-death test.

Even in olden days, America was searching for “humane” methods of execution — the firing squad, the rope, electrocution, hydrogen cyanide gas. Julian, a Cheyenne architect, invented an automated device that eliminated the hangman’s role — saving the executioner’s fee and shielding his tender heart from guilt.

How Horn became the guinea pig for its use is a story in itself.

Horn was a fabled western figure, with a reputation augmented by his own fibbing boasts. A good guy to some and bad guy to others, he probably was both.

Born in 1860 to holy-roller Missouri farmers with a dozen children, he split the crowded homestead at 16 and found work as a civilian scout for the U.S. Cavalry during the southwestern Apache Wars.

Horn was tall, strapping and shrewd. He learned to communicate in Spanish and Apache, although his claim that he interpreted at the surrender of Geronimo in 1886 was one of his whoppers.

He left government work and eventually found a lucrative career as a range detective, straddling the line between legal and criminal as an enforcer protecting clients’ cattle herds from rustlers and adversaries.

He was deputized by several sheriffs known for their enthusiastic protection of cattle barons, and he freelanced as a Pinkerton detective in 1890s.

As with most western icons, the legitimate number of notches in Horn’s revolver grips is debatable. Some put the number as high as 17 since reputed thieves had a habit of disappearing from his range. Modern sleuths suggest four might be more accurate.

Horn was cut loose by Pinkerton in 1894 as a high risk for lowdown behavior. He was suspected but never convicted in several range-war murders that decade. That changed in the new century, after a stint as an Army packmaster in Cuba during the Spanish-American War.

In 1901, Horn found a new patron in John Coble, a beef baron whose Iron Mountain Cattle Co. grazed huge herds on expansive tracts of southeastern Wyoming.

By that date, automobiles were jostling with electric trolleys for right of way in rapidly modernizing American cities.

But on the range, cattlemen like Coble were locked in primeval battles over fragile grazing lands with newly arrived interlopers: sheep ranchers.

A cattle/sheep feud between Wyoming neighbors in Chugwater Creek Valley was the first step toward the gallows for Horn. The cattle-grazing Miller family was angry when homesteader Kels Nickell introduced sheep to the range.

On July 18, 1901, Nickell’s 14-year-old son, Willie, was shot and killed by someone who apparently mistook him for his father.

According to Wyoming historian G.B. Dobson, Horn’s blabbermouth put him at risk. While on a bender in Denver three months after the murder, Horn saloon-bragged that he had killed the teen.

Back in Cheyenne in January 1902, Horn made a disputed confession to a U.S. marshal, allegedly saying he killed young Nickell as part of a $2,100 cattlemen’s contract to keep the range free of sheep and rustlers.

He faced trial for murder that October in Cheyenne, and his celebrity turned the proceedings into a raucous courtroom carnival.

Coble and his fellow cattlemen bankrolled Horn’s defense team of four ace attorneys. Alibi witnesses put him 20 miles from the murder scene, but his advocates couldn’t overcome Horn’s barroom blabbing and confession.

He was convicted and sentenced to hang. (Horn’s culpability has been explored in countless articles and a shelf-full of books, including two in the past three years. Most scribes believe he got railroaded.)

On that long-ago November day, Wyoming used Horn to try out the Julian Gallows, a chain-reaction device that seemed born of Rube Goldberg’s ink pen.

Horn’s weight on the trap door pushed down on a support post that depressed a spring which in turn opened a water valve. Flowing water gradually filled a can balanced on a support beam. Once full, the can toppled from the beam, which then knocked aside the support post, opening the trap and dropping the prisoner into eternity.

Denver journalist John Charles Thompson, who had a seat at the gallows, wrote that “the sinister sound of running water” persisted for 31 seconds before Horn fell.

“To the straining ears of the listeners,” Thompson wrote, “that little sound had the magnitude of that of a rushing torrent.”

Julian’s rig was supposed to offer a quick snap of the neck, the benchmark of a humane hanging. It didn’t work. Horn dangled for 17 minutes before his pulse ceased.

After a handful of further tests of the water-driven apparatus, the hangman got his job back.