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'tom horn in life and legend'
Story by Mike Overall • Photo by Shaila Creekmore

In Dr. Larry D. Ball’s new book, “Tom Horn in Life and Legend,” the Arkansas State University professor emeritus explores the myths and legends that for years have shrouded in mystery one of the Old West’s most enigmatic and dark figures.

Ball, who taught history for 31 years before his retirement in 2001, has devoted his writing career to uncovering the factual, or real-life, side of the Old West. In his Tom Horn biography, he reveals both the good and evil sides of the fearsome gunslinger. Horn’s life was one of wild and disparate extremes, and veteran
historian Ball explores each of them – law officer, soldier, scout, hired gunman, detective, outlaw and assassin – with deft analyses.

“Among frontier characters, Horn ranks just below such men as Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid in popularity,” said Ball. “He is also one of the most controversial personalities, largely because of his association with the cattle barons of Wyoming.”

Ball said Horn’s dismal end on the scaffold in Cheyenne, Wyo. in 1903 for the murder of a 14-year-old boy remains very controversial. Some do not believe that he killed the boy but that politicians and legal authorities railroaded him to the hangman’s noose as a means to punish him for previous murders.

Ball tracked Horn’s checkered and often violent past to libraries in Arizona, New Mexico, Wyoming and the National Archives and Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Suffice it to say, he was the antithesis of the silver screen’s stereotypical Western good guy.

“The popular conception of the Old West is largely the product of dime novelists, pulp writers and especially Hollywood and television,” said Ball. “It is an uncomfortable fact that many Americans believe that John Wayne wa a real frontier hero. We should always remember that the purpose of Hollywood is to entertain. … We have almost come to the point in the popular imagination that Kurt Russell is Wyatt Earp and Val Kilmer is Doc Holliday.”

Ball said Horn did good service as a civilian packer (a conveyor of goods on pack animals) and scout for the army in the campaigns against Geronimo and other renegade Apaches in Arizona and New Mexico.

“He had also done some good service as a Pinkerton detective in the pursuit of train robbers,” he said. “... Only when he went to Wyoming did his career go downhill when he became a ruthless hit man for cattle barons and assassinated alleged rustlers for money.”

The author also said that Horn, whose violent nature sometimes terrified fellow gunmen, burnished his own reputation throughout his life. He said Horn’s historically questionable autobiography is rife with untruths and distortions.

A native of Wynne, Ball said his book on Horn took much more time than he originally anticipated. He began serious research in 1999 but had to halt the project when both of his parents became very ill. Upon completing the full-length manuscript, Ball said it was far too lengthy.

“I had to make two major revisions in which I cut more than half of the manuscript,” he said. “I am grateful to my publisher, the University of Oklahoma Press, for agreeing to publish the present rather lengthy version.”

Prior to writing “Tom Horn in Life and Legend,” Ball had already written and published six books, five of them focused on the American West. The 532-page paperback should be available for purchase in late May.

Ball credits his grandfather, a longtime schoolteacher, with stimulating his interest in history and reading.

“I became an avid reader, especially of Wild West magazines and novels,” said Ball. “… When I finally reached graduate school, I was able to gain access to first-hand documents and original newspaper, which opened my eyes to the authentic West.”

When asked to comment on many citizens’ lack of interest in or woeful grasp of their own country’s history, Ball answered with impassioned concern.

“The public interest in history seems to be in abject decline,” said the author. “In its place, there is a growing interest in the occult and related matters where faith can play a bigger role. ... Not only does knowledge of history help promote a sense of patriotism, but knowing where we come from is essential to
knowing where we are going.”

The Horn biography will soon be available at bookstores, including Barnes & Noble at The Mall at Turtle Creek, where Ball will sign copies on June 14 from 1-4 p.m. To order online, visit Amazon.com or oupress.com.

Ball and his wife, Ida Ruth, have one son, Durwood, who edits the New Mexico Historical Review at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.