Larry D. Ball,
Tom Horn: In Life & Legend
(University of Oklahoma Press, 2014)

Tom Horn lived a large enough life for a dozen men. As the author says in his introduction:

Some aficionados of the Wild West place Tom Horn among the top frontier gun wielders -- alongside such men as Wyatt Earp and Wild Bill Hickok -- but the dark cloud of his criminal conviction marred his reputation. Had he died in a shootout or even from a bullet in the back, Tom Horn might have earned a place among the most admired frontier notables.

Instead he had the poor fortune of being convicted of the murder of a 14-year-old boy and hanged, thereby ensuring he would always be a controversial figure in the history of the Western expansion. Still, controversial or not, he was and still is a legend. A packdriver and scout during the Apache wars, he rose to chief of scouts, was wounded in battle and was one of the men who convinced Geronimo to surrender. After the wars, he became a lawman, a detective for the Pinkerton Agency, a champion rodeo rider and a stock detective for the big ranchers, specializing in driving rustlers out of the territory and assassinating them if they refused to leave -- an act he justified by his irrational hatred of any kind of thievery. He also wrote a best-selling autobiography, which exaggerated his accomplishments -- in it, he claimed to be the person responsible for Geronimo's surrender, not one of them. That autobiography is still in print and still feeds his legend. And by all accounts, he was a chronic liar, always boasting of his many accomplishments, be they real or imaginary.

In this well-researched and very well-documented biography, historian Larry D. Ball tries to separate the truth from the legend, which is not an easy task. Ball combs through the various documents available and, when stories conflict -- as they often do when talking about Horn -- tries to find the accurate information. This is not a simple thing to do; it isn't a case where the actual man is the opposite of the myth: Horn actually was a brave man, capable of great heroism and intelligence. The problem seems to be that he spent 10 years in the Indian Wars, learning a savage brand of warfare that led to an inevitable lack of regard for human life. Later, he served honorably in the Spanish-American War, where he picked up a life-threatening illness that, according to some witnesses, twisted his mind so that during his years as an assassin, he might have been mentally ill.

So, was Tom Horn the braggart, the assassin or the hero? The answer appears to be yes. In this fascinating biography, we are given a rounded portrait of a complicated man whose life, distorted or not, has been the subject of movies, TV mini-series, books and articles ever since his death, and likely will continue to be.

In the movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, an old newspaper editor says, "When the legend gets bigger than the truth, print the legend." For more than a hundred years, we've been printing the legend of Tom Horn. It's nice to move closer to the truth.

book review by
Michael Scott Cain

26 July 2014

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