"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Saturday, March 15, 2014

I, Tom Horn by Will Henry

The other autobiography

When in Cheyenne Jail, on what we would these days call Death Row, Tom Horn (1860 – 1903) wrote an autobiography, Life of Tom Horn - Government Scout and Interpreter, which was amended by Horn’s friend John C Coble and published in 1904. This book makes a good read, especially for those interested in the Apache wars and the life of such figures as Al Sieber or Geronimo. It is succinct and relatively short and, because of Coble, polished in style. It’s in the public domain and available free here. But it deals with Horn’s youth and time in Arizona, and hardly at all with Wyoming.
Tom Horn
Will Henry was a very fine Western writer and in 1975 he published a novel, I, Tom Horn, in which he imagined that Horn had also written a parallel manuscript, longer, more original and unmediated by Coble (it is written in an ‘uneducated’ Western English of the time), more revealing and, crucially, covering the Nickell murder and taking Horn up to the last days of his life. The novel was clearly carefully researched. In effect it amplifies the true autobiography and fills in gaps with Henry’s imagination.
Read it. In German or whatever lang you want.
It is worth reading the books in tandem or one after the other. Taken together, they give us a fascinating picture of Tom Horn.

The novel paints a detailed portrait of Al Sieber. Clearly Sieber was Horn’s mentor, and Horn become known as ‘Sieber’s Boy’. Horn learned tracking and Indian fighting from the older German and much else besides. Horn evidently had a greater gift for languages than Sieber, quickly picking up Mexican Spanish and Apache with ease and fluency. Henry has Horn talk of Al’s “thick German tongue” and throughout the Arizona part of the book Sieber talks in a salty way, with much use of earthy epithets.
Al Sieber, chief of scouts
On page 80 Horn refers to his boss as ‘Aloysius Sieber’ but perhaps this is a joke. He was, of course, Albert. Henry’s Horn says that the Apache called Sieber ‘El Hombre Hierro’, the Iron Man. Others called him ‘Old Man Who Is Always Mad’ and others still called him Seebie. Arizonans called him “that g.d German son of a bitch”.

Horn first meets Sieber in 1874 when the latter is naked, passed out in a whorehouse. Henry’s Sieber is already crippled by the bronco Apache at that time (this happened in fact in 1887). Al limps throughout the book and his foot leaves him sometimes hors de combat. Sieber did in fact receive a severe war wound but there is no evidence that before the Apache Kid affair Al was lame. Maybe it makes better novelistic drama.
Will Henry (1912 - 1991)
Similarly, Al always rides “Sieber’s famous iron-gray mule”, which he calls Jenny. “Never a horse”, he says. “Mule man.” In reality, while General Crook loved mules and used them wherever he could, Sieber was more of a horseman, or so says Dan Thrapp anyway.

In Henry’s earlier novel, The Apache Kid, he has Sieber over six feet. In this book that is corrected. “Sieber was under six feet and I was over,” says Tom.

In any case, a real and realistic picture of Al Sieber comes through the novel.

Pages 30 through 185 are concerned with Arizona and the Apaches, nearly half the book, but in a way the most interesting part is Henry’s imagined account of Horn in Wyoming. A weakness in the book, possibly, is that Horn rather too suddenly, on page 186, seems to become a badman, a hired killer. All through the Apache years he is on the side of truth and light; once he leaves Arizona and works for Pinkerton’s (but Henry has little to say on this) and then as a stock detective in Wyoming (the last quarter of the book), Tom describes himself as a pretty ruthless gun for hire. It’s all a bit sudden and unexplained.
Horn's faithful friend, rancher John C Coble
Naturally, Henry’s Horn is innocent of the Willie Nickell murder.
Willie Nickell, 14
Although he doesn’t say so directly, Henry's Horn lays that killing pretty certainly at the door of the Millers, Nickell neighbors who had a blood feud with them.
Joe Lefors, incompetent and perjured lawman
Tom Horn seems to have had three fatal weaknesses: he was a drunk, a braggart and not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Reading the account of the interview between Horn and the odious Joe Lefors is painful. You want to cry out to Tom, 'Shut the hell up!' He just blurts out stupidities which put a noose round his own neck. It’s true that Lefors gained 'evidence' under false pretences, almost certainly lied in court and at best twisted the truth but if only Tom had been able to keep quiet, all would have been well. There was no actual evidence for Horn’s supposed crime. It was all circumstantial and hearsay. But Horn couldn’t resist (especially under the influence) running his mouth, and blurting out enough to hang him.

In the epilogue Will Henry writes:

Any history of a man who actually lived will come up short in its telling. Wherever the writer ends his story, he will have ridden over landmarks more significant than those he thought to include.

True, of course, and modest. But in fact Henry did a very good job with the life of this man. The account rings true, and that’s saying a lot. I, Tom Horn is a much better book than the earlier The Apache Kid: more accurate, ‘truer’, and better from a literary point of view too. I would even put it in the must-read category for a Western fan.

And the cover illustration on my edition is magnificent. It’s by the great Western artist William Matthews and captures the essence of Tom Horn, tracker.



  1. One of the most important novels of my youth. That turn to hired killer? I think the key passage is where Tom reflects that there is nothing like hunting down a man that needs to by killed, doing the job and enjoying a smoke afterwards. I think Henry accurately captures the need for combat that pulled Horn into sketchy territory after the "legitimate" outlet was closed off by the end of the Apache Wars.

    Jim Cornelius

  2. Yes, I see your point. I just think the change needed to have been telegraphed somehow in the early part of the book. Perhaps he should have ruthlessly hunted and killed more Apaches. But we don't see the darkness in him.

  3. Jeff, as I am exploring a little more your encyclopedia every day, I am stumbling on this Henry Wilson Allen who appears to be the real name of Will Henry whose first book is No Survivors I have mentioned somewhere else in the blog labyrinth. No Survivors tells the story of a confederate officer who meets Custer in Appomatox, decommissioned after the war between the states he will go west crossing the path of Wild Bill and villains, becoming a scout for the US Army. Then adopted by the Sioux after Fetterman massacre he falls in love with an indian priestess, meets Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull to follow his fate at Little Big Horn after a run - not of the arrow but close... All the ingredients are included for a great film ! Funny to notice that Henry Wilson has worked with Tex Avery which would deserve a chapter in your "oeuvre" in my opinion with many excellent cartoonesques but genuine westerns. Happy trails. JM