Almost 100 years ago today, the good folks of Cheyenne, Wyo., gave cattle rustler buster Tom Horn a birthday present.
The gift: A noose around the neck.
In 1903, Horn was executed for the murder of a 14-year old Wyoming boy but today there are many that believe Horn didn't do it. Some even say they know that he didn't do it.
Historian Chip Carlson is one of the latter. In a Saturday presentation at the Museum of Northwest Colorado, Carlson, author of "Tom Horn: Killing Men is My Specialty . . . ", assumed Horn's identity and spoke in his voice, thereby giving the dead man a late opportunity to vindicate himself.
"My friends say I was a quiet, respectful type, except when I'd been drinking," Horn said, as he poured a mysterious brown fluid from an unlabeled bottle at the beginning of his talk.
Carlson, dressed in a felt cowboy hat, paisley shirt and tasseled boots, told an audience of about a dozen that Horn was born in 1860 in Missouri. He had a hard childhood and left home in his early teens. He lived in the Southwest for about 20 years, working as an Army scout and packer.
Hold quit the Army then and moved to Denver where he signed on with a Pinkerton security agency. The job took him as far as California, but he spent most of his time in Wyoming.
"In 1892, Wyoming wasn't a very happy place," Carlson said.
Indeed, going to Wyoming is what got Hold killed.
The Wyoming countryside was overrun with cattle rustlers, and it was Hold's job to arrest them. But the task was often frustrating. There were so many cattle rustlers in Wyoming at that time that they made for a powerful voting demographic. Hold would no sooner arrest someone, than the judge or an elected prosecutor would turn him loose.
But Hold, who was six feet tall and weighed 200 pounds during an era when most men were five and a half feet tall and weighed 160 pounds, made himself an intimidating law enforcement presence all the same.
"My reputation was pretty widespread. Rustlers never knew when I might stop by to say hello," Carlson said, while pouring himself another glass of the brown drink.
Indeed, Hold chased cattle rustlers all over the West. He eventually ended up in nearby Ladore Canyon, where he reportedly shot and killed two rustlers.
Carlson doesn't dispute that Hold killed men. But he insists that he didn't shoot 14-year-old Willy Miller.
Miller's family was caught up in an intense feud with the Nickel family. The boys in both families went everywhere with their guns. And eventually the patriarch of the Miller family decided to herd a flock of sheep onto Nickel's land, bragging that by the time he was done, "there wouldn't be enough grass left for a grasshopper."
Willy Miller was killed as a result of all this feuding, and Carlson believes that the cattle rustlers, who wanted to get rid of Hold badly, figured it was the perfect murder to pin on him.
So despite a lack of motive and in the face of the fact that Hold was 40 miles away when the murder occurred, a Cheyenne, Wyo., jury convicted Hold of homicide and condemned him to death by hanging. He was hung a day before he turned 43 years old.
Twenty years ago Carlson found himself reading the transcript of the trial, and he couldn't help but ask himself, how did they convict this man?
He became so convinced that Hold was innocent that in 1993, he organized a retrial in Cheyenne, complete with folks to portray all the same officials and witnesses that filled the courtroom the first time around. Only this time, the odds were stacked in Hold's favor.
Hold was acquitted of the murder.
"It was the most momentous day of my life, except for the birth of my children," Carlson, a.k.a. Tom Hold, said.
Rob Gebhart can be reached at 824-7031 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.