John W. Davis,
The Trial of Tom Horn
(University of Oklahoma Press, 2016)

Tom Horn was one character that was hard to figure out. Was he one of the true western heroes? He scouted for the army, fought in the Indian Wars and, if accounts can be trusted, talked Geronimo into surrendering. He served as a Pinkerton detective and later as a freelance stock detective hiring out to the big ranchers who held him responsible for driving rustlers out of the cattle country. He also went up San Juan Hill with Roosevelt during the Spanish-American War.

His adventures are recounted in Larry D. Ball's definitive biography, Tom Horn: In Life & Legend (which I reviewed in these pages on 26 July 26 2014.)

Horn might have become one of the great legendary figures of the West but the way his end played out ensured he would not. He was tried and convicted for the murder of a 14-year-old boy and was publicly hanged. In his biography, Ball tells the complete story of Horn's life, showing the man to be almost a Greek tragic hero, whose fall from grace was brought on by his love of a few strong drinks and his love of bragging; he had a strong need to put himself at the middle of every situation, of exaggerating his own role in the events of the West. In his best-selling autobiography, which most scholars read as a catalogue of lies and boasts, Horn claims to be the man who, operating by himself after the army failed, brought in Geronimo.

It was his need for attention that destroyed him. The legendary Pinkerton detective, Joe LeFors, a man whose career unfolded in the same questionable lines as Horn's, was hired to get a confession from Horn regarding the teenage boy's murder. He took the simple expedient of getting Horn drunk and talking. With the sheriff and a deputy in the next room taking notes, LeFors got Horn to confess.

In these pages, John W. Davis tells the story of the trial, from start to finish.

Davis, a trial lawyer himself, tells his story with the care of a prosecutor looking beyond the immediate trial to the appeal; he attempts to get every fact into the record, every piece of evidence on the table. This tactic is both his strength and his weakness. To oversimplify slightly, you can approach history from a narrative perspective or from an accumulation method. If you write narrative, the story guides what is included and what is left out. Write detail and you try to capture it all.

Davis is definitely a detail man, which slows his narrative down. Sometimes several pages are devoted to the introduction of a piece of evidence into the trial, so that very much later when that evidence becomes relevant, you wonder what the big deal with its introduction was.

The big deal with this book, though, is that an argument has raged ever since Horn's death; the question of his guilt had never been established to everyone's satisfaction. I know if you take me and ply me with whiskey for a solid week, I'm likely to say whatever you want to hear, and when what I say leads to my being arrested, I'm not going to worry about it because I am employed by and in the protection of the biggest money men in the state.

Davis might not settle the question of innocence or guilt but he gets all of the facts on the table, thereby changing the nature of the argument.

book review by
Michael Scott Cain

10 September 2016

Agree? Disagree?
Send us your opinions!

what's new