This review first appeared in the Tally Sheet (Autumn 2014, Volume 61, Number 1)


By Larry D. Ball. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma, 2014. 554 pages, including notes, bibliography, index and photographs.

A new book by Professor Larry Ball is always eagerly anticipated. His earlier work on United States Marshals was groundbreaking in terms of the academic discipline that he introduced to this field, as well as the lucidity of his writing on the subject. So I was excited to learn that he was working on a single subject volume, an analysis of the life of Tom Horn, one of the enigmatic characters in western history.

Horn has had more than his fair share of biographers over the years including Monoghanís Last of the Bad Men (1946), Doyce Nunisí analysis of Hornís autobiography in The Life of Tom Horn Revisited (1992) and Chip Carlsonís Blood on the Moon (2001)

Therefore the obvious question must be: does Ballís book add anything new to the narrative of Hornís life?

The answer is yes. Ball not only deconstructs Hornís self-serving autobiography and then rebuilds the story of the manís life from the ground Ė or in this case the sources Ė up, but he attempts to analyse the rationale behind some of Hornís key decisions.

Ball concludes that Hornís worst enemy was his own mouth. The man could not resist embellishing at best, and fabricating at worst, many events in his life. And yet Ball concludes that in fact Horn had a respectable tale to tell, even without the embellishment, such as his role in the action surrounding the killing of Emmet Crawford in 1886. Horn displayed bravery under fire that did not need aggrandisement. Had Horn been more circumspect, in what turned out to be the last years of his life, he might have lived longer and passed into history as a respected frontier character.

Hornís early years remain shrouded in mystery, as they do for many frontier characters, because he made little impact upon the public consciousness or the press. Professor Ball is therefore obliged to rely upon Hornís memoir for much of this section of the book, but points us to Hornís most likely trajectory.

Once Horn arrived in Arizona he began to feature in the public records, and Professor Ball uses these sources to provide a robust analysis of Hornís early career as a packer and scout, pointing out that in later years, Horn would elevate himself to a front and centre status role that the record belies. He served well and diligently, but was not the leader he claimed to be. He did play an important role in the pursuit of Geronimo and was present at the final surrender, but inflates his importance in his autobiography. He played a brave role in the stand-off with Mexican forces after the death of Captain Emmet Crawford but could not simply rest on his record; he had to inflate and exaggerate. Professor Ball carefully leads us down the path of truth, in so far as he can so many decades after the events discussed, while pointing out the peaks of fiction that Horn regularly scaled.

Some of the newer material to me includes Professor Ballís analysis of Hornís role in the Graham-Tewksbury feud, the details of his time with the Pinkerton agency, and his role as a Deputy United States Marshal in the immediate aftermath of the Johnson County War, in which he used the alias Tom Hale.

Professor Ball also details Hornís role in the 1896 campaign against the Apaches, which is rarely examined as by that time Apache outbreaks were regarded as criminal activities rather than military resistance.

I enjoyed Ballís analysis of Hornís slide into pre-emptive violence and assassination. Ball concludes that Hornís brutalising experiences in the Apache campaigns, coupled with his disillusionment with the criminal justice system while working for the Pinkerton Agency contributed to a mind-set in which he justified to himself the assassination of settlers rather than recourse to the courts.

For a number of years his skills and willingness to adopt such tactics found a ready market among the cattle barons of the west. Until Horn confessed to the killing of Willie Nickel during a drunken conversation with Deputy U.S Marshal Joe Lefors. Or did he?

Hornís trial is examined in detail, with the strengths and weakness of his prosecution and defence being rigorously analysed. For example, Ball wonders why the defence did not do more to present character witnesses from Hornís service in the Apache wars. He points to the weakness of some of the evidence, even by contemporaneous standards, and questions the wisdom of putting Horn on the stand given his predilection to embellish the truth.

We all know the outcome and even though Hornís trial would probably not stand up to scrutiny against modern standards of jurisprudence, Ballís view is that Horn was probably guilty.

The final chapter is a fascinating essay that traces Hornís rise to mythical status, a journey that began even before his death. His own auto-biography, published in 1904 and almost continuously in print since then, contributed to his constant presence in the public eye, as did his portrayal in a number of films and in many works of fiction and non-fiction. I suspect that many people will first have come across Tom Horn through Steve McQueenís portrayal of the man in the eponymous film, released in 1980.

Overall, this is an excellent book, well-written, well-paced and well researched. I recommend it to all those with an interest in the Apache wars and the Wyoming cattle wars, as well as to anyone interested in the tragic rise and fall of a man who was never satisfied with his own achievements.

Mike Bell


English Westerners' Society  

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