Visiting author discusses Moffat County history
Craig — Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and seeing the past as close to the way it actually unfolded is an important step.
Moffat County residents received a look at one of the notorious names of the Old West when author Larry Ball dropped by the Museum of Northwest Colorado on Tuesday afternoon to discuss and sign copies of his book, “Tom Horn: In Life and Legend.”
Horn became a prominent figure in Colorado and Wyoming in the 1890s as a detective in different capacities, though historians debate how legitimate much of Horn’s employment was, often functioning as a hired gun for cattle barons.
Ball formulates that the amount of violence Horn wrought in Northwest Colorado’s Browns Park and other areas helped lead to the formation of Moffat County, as officials in Routt County — which split into the two entities Moffat and Routt in 1911 — showed little interest in investigating activities in the westernmost precincts.
Horn was well known for having killed men he saw as thieves and often was cleared legally of any wrongdoing, mainly because so many were willing to turn a blind eye.
That attitude eventually changed.
“Some writers have contended that Tom Horn’s primary problem was that he outlived his time,” Ball said. “In the 1800s, frontiersmen sometimes had to resort to vigilante justice to defend their property and community, but his misfortune was to live into the 20th century.”
In 1901 Wyoming, 14-year-old Willie Nickell was murdered, with Horn the primary suspect. A confession by Horn was obtained through methods that wouldn’t pass muster in a modern court of law, Ball said.
Indeed, a mock trial of the scenario was recreated in Cheyenne in 1993 and resulted in Horn’s acquittal. In actuality, he was found guilty and hanged in 1903.
Ball admits that the evidence from both sides was circumstantial, but based on his research into Horn’s life from regional historical societies, the Wyoming State Archives and the United States National Archives, he maintains Horn probably was guilty, though the matter is still speculative.
Less questionable is Horn’s demeanor, which was that of a larger-than-life braggart who painted himself as a hero in his memoirs, according to Ball, stating that were Horn alive today, he would be diagnosed with any number of psychological issues, ranging from an inferiority complex to narcissism to sociopathic tendencies stemming from an abusive childhood. Some even think the Western lawman may have been completely insane.
“He was a loose cannon,” Ball said.
Ball, an emeritus professor of history associated with Arkansas State University, in Jonesboro, first took interest in Horn’s story many years ago, but it wasn’t until 1999 that he chose to compile a book. Day-to-day life and family matters prevented him from working on it full-time, but that may have worked out in his favor, Ball said.
“I had more time to think about it, and I hope it came out better because of that,” he said.
Craig resident Delaine Voloshin was among the crowd in attendance at the museum to hear Ball’s presentation. Voloshin said she has read multiple accounts about Horn’s life, including viewing a 1980 film starring Steve McQueen.
She also has visited sites he was known to have frequented, including the cabin of Matt Rash, a small-time cattle rustler whom Horn slew in 1900.
“It’s pretty interesting knowing that he was here in this area,” she said. “It makes you think about the kind of people that used to live here and what it was like for the ranchers to know there was someone who would just shoot you.”
Voloshin added that Ball’s presentation left her wanting to read more by buying his book.
“I want to see what he has to say,” she said.
Contact Andy Bockelman at 970-875-1793 or abockelman@CraigDailyPress.com.