Killer’s DIY execution
Did the cowboy Tom Horn really execute himself in a water-trap device? AMERICA’S Western Frontier was declared closed by the U.S. Government in 1890, but to many the Old West, with its rough justice, only truly died with the execution of Tom Horn in 1903.
Born in Memphis, Missouri, in 1860, by the age of 16, Horn had made his way to the wilds of the South-West. A skilled marksman and hunter, his jobs included cowboy, miner, army scout, deputy sheriff and packer for Cuban rough riders.
In 1890, the Pinkerton Detective Agency hired him to apprehend outlaws preying on banks and railways. He then became a hired killer for the Wyoming Cattlemen’s Association, which fought a vigilante war in Johnson County against a group of farmers, ranchers and rustlers.
Horn killed using his 30-30 Winchester carbine, often from more than 200 yards away. On July 18, 1901, in the Iron Mountain region of Colorado, his target was Kels B. Nickell, a rancher who had brought sheep onto the range. But he killed Nickell’s son, 14-year-old Willie. There were no witnesses, but lawman Joe LeFors tricked Horn into confessing.
Horn was sentenced to death on October 24, 1902, and was hanged at Cheyenne Jail, Wyoming, on November 20, 1903. He was hanged on a gallows on which the prisoner effectively hanged himself, with no need for an executioner. These were invented in 1892 by architect James P. Julian and were called the Julian gallows. Wearing a noose, the condemned man’s weight on the trapdoor pushed down on a support post that, in turn, opened a valve to allow water to fill a can on a support beam. Once full, the can toppled from the beam, which knocked the post away, opening the trapdoor.
Denver journalist John Charles Thompson wrote that ‘the sinister sound of running water persisted for 31 seconds before Horn fell. To the ears of the listeners, that sound had the magnitude of a torrent’.
Julian’s rig was meant to offer a quick snap of the neck, but Horn dangled for 17 minutes before he died. After another victim took more than half an hour to die, the apparatus was discarded.
Terry Munn, Edinburgh.
When someone is hypocritical, we tend to say ‘that’s rich!’ What is the origin of this phrase? ‘RICH’ in this sense is related to the idea of something being entertaining or preposterous. The root sense is the familiar one of abundant. Its first recorded use is in the satirical play The Rehearsal (1671) by George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham, which mocked the heroic dramas popular at the time.
It concerns a writer named Bayes trying to stage a play made up of excerpts of heroic dramas. While explaining his vision to two men, Johnson and Smith, Bayes says that when speaking French and making grammatical changes, one can make a proper statement sexually suggestive. Smith says: ‘This is one of the richest stories that ever I heard of.’
Over time, its use became more ironic. Perhaps its most famous modern use is at the start of the Stephen Sondheim song Send In The Clowns (1973) which begins ‘Isn’t it rich’, meaning ‘catch this irony’ or ‘isn’t this something to make you shake your head in amused dismay’.
Benjamin Wright, Belper, Derbys.
Living in Eccles made me think: what other towns are known for one item? FURTHER to earlier answers, I am proud to say that here in Devon, Axminster carpets are still manufactured in the town of that name.
The Axminster weave can be used by any manufacturer, but was originated in 1755 by Thomas Whitty, who named it after the town where he produced the first Axminster carpet. Church bells rang to mark the occasion as the carpet was carried through the streets.
The bells don’t ring every time a carpet comes off the looms now, but we think that an Axminster carpet from Axminster is always a cause for celebration. Ralph Ford, Axminster Carpets Ltd,
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Hanged: Cowboy Tom Horn and a water-operated Julian gallows