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That’s right!

Tom Horn died for your sins

I know, Custer died for your sins.

I’m not so sure about Jesus.

But Tom Horn and George Armstrong Custer definitely died for your sins.

If you are American anyway.

Tom Horn definitely died for your sins.


I am, of course, talking about an old Steve McQueen movie. I might also be talking about the real Tom Horn whose life and death inspired the movie, but I’m definitely talking about the Tom Horn of that movie.

This is one of the last films that Steve McQueen did. He was reportedly short of breath during filming, a symptom of the cancer that would soon take his life. It’s hard to escape the parallel between this story about the final days of a frontier legend and the final days of a Hollywood legend. It may be hindsight, but something of the tone of this film suggests a sadness not entirely contained within the plot of the film itself.

The real Tom Horn was tried in 1902 and sentenced to death for the murder of a Willie Nickell, the 14-year old son of a sheep rancher. Questioned while drunk, Horn reportedly confessed to the murder, saying; “(it was) best shot that (he) ever made and the dirtiest trick that (he) had ever done.” Suffice to say that many have questioned the validity of the trial, and of Horn’s drunken confession. Suffice it also to say, that few have questioned whether or not Tom Horn was guilty of murder, but many do question whether or not Horn was guilty of THIS murder.

In his life, Horn had served as a scout in the Apache wars. An ill-fated attempt at ranching afterwards had left him broke and bitter. Cattle thieves had taken the bulk of his stock. Horn spent the much of his life in subsequent years serving as a cattle detective. By all accounts, his ‘detective work’ was often a cover for the hired murder. Whether or not Horn’s murders were restricted to cattle thieves or other criminals, we will never really know. The range wars of the old west claimed the lives of innocent and guilty alike, and Tom Horn had been a willing participant in several of them, yet THIS trial and THIS killing is still a controversy.

The question of whether or not Willie Nickell was one of those murdered by Horn is one of the great legends of the old west. That this question is framed in relation to the final days of the old western period (or perhaps even a little after that period had ended) makes the story a bit more poignant. It makes the story about Tom Horn’s execution for what may or may not have been his final crime a question about what the old west actually means in American history. It makes of his trial an occasion to ponder the significance of the frontier in American history.

(Apologies to Frederick Jackson Turner!)

McQueen’s version of Tom Horn has the confession reading a little different. He has Horn saying that IF, he had shot the McNickell boy, that WOULD HAVE BEEN the best shot he ever made, and the dirtiest trick he had ever done. The account provided in court is, according to this version of the story, a sleazy twist his actual words, one arranged in an effort to railroad Horn to the gallows. Like the actual controversy itself, however, McQueen’s Horn stops well short of saying he had never committed a murder.

McQueen’s Horn refuses to defend himself from the actual charge at the trial. Asked whether or not he committed the murder in question, Horn replies that he won’t give the court the satisfaction of a direct answer. He knows the fix is in, arranged by the same people who who had arranged for his services as a cattle detective, and he simply will not humor the court by pretending his answer matters.

Now, whether you shoot me, or hang me, or take my horse and rifle, one reason is as good as another. I believe that, I really do. That’s my last word on this matter.

The problem from the perspective of McQueen’s Horn isn’t whether or not he actually killed the child. It is that his trial is no more about justice for the murder sheep-herder’s son than the murder of the sheep-herder’s son had been in the first place. Both are about the needs of the cattle industry, and in a larger sense, the needs of the establishment now growing in the frontier he had once known. Horn’s coming execution is as much a function of financial interests as any of the killings he had carried out in the name of those very same interests. His killings had once been effective in removing obstacles to big ranchers, and now they were an embarrassment, even a scandal. In the larger story of the American west, by 1902, so had all the killings carried out by men like Horn.

Just as the sheep-herder’s son, Horn himself had to go. Whether he had killed the boy or not, his own execution was, in effect, a murder arranged by cattle interests.

Horn understood murder.

He was fine with murder.

Even his own.

In this account, Tom Horn, and so many like him, are the civilizing agents of the west. Their rough lives, their conflicts, even their outright murders, all committed on the mythic frontier, are what made present-day American society possible. We in the present-day share in their crimes to the extent that we enjoy the fruits of their violence, and while we may balk at this or that terrible act, we are who we are now and live how we live now because of those very acts. America is what it is because of murderers like him.

Horn’s execution is thus a kind of final, necessary crime, one carried out by faceless men, acting in concert to erase the violence which made their success possible, the violence which made America possible. Professional killers like Horn, once the rock-stars of their day, were now an uncomfortable presence, and a reminder of uncomfortable truths. Like Jesus going to the cross voluntarily, Horn accepts his hanging, because that is how it must be. His crimes were necessary, so to speak, but so is his execution.

We cannot have the likes of Tom Horn living on into the modern era, reminding us every day that cruel men once killed children on behalf of the upright citizens of our great country.

I know it seems odd to think of a hired murderer as a Christ-like figure, to think of him as the savior of the American people, but to me it seems a bit more fitting than the Prince of Peace. Time and again, it’s been murderers that saved our nation. They have saved us from real enemies, to be sure, and they have saved us from innocent people who merely stood in our way. We don’t always know the difference, because we really don’t want to, and that is why the Tom Horn of this movie has to die.

Confined to the frontiers of our nation, men like Tom Horn even save us from thinking too much about the whole thing.