Robert J. Horton – Western Author, Journalist

Another prolific author from Western Story, and the mentor of Walt Coburn. This is the first detailed biography of him online.

Author Robert J. Horton c. 1924
Author Robert J. Horton c. 1924

Robert J. Horton was born in Coudersport, Pennsylvania on 6 October, 1885. He was the son of LaDrue and Elizabeth McCormick Horton. His father was a local masonry contractor, who built the county courthouse, and the family seems to have been well-off. He seems to have been their second child, an elder brother died in infancy. His parents had 3 other children after him, only one lived to be older than 2 years. His sister Marion was born in 1895. His mother died in 1902, his father remarried some time after that.

He studied in the Coudersport schools and did his high school at Peddie Prep School, Hightstown. N. J. He did not go to college, but instead went to work as an advertising copywriter in a New York department store.
Around 1908, he decided to take a trip to the American West on the Southern Pacific Railroad. The eastern end of the Southern Pacific Railroad’s trans-continental railroad was in New Orleans, Louisiana. To connect between New York City and the railroad’s routes through the Southwest and the Pacific coast, the railroad created the Southern Pacific Steamship Company to offer passenger and freight trans-continental service. Horton travelled on the S. S. Momus. He ended up travelling through Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California on that trip.
He moved west, to Great Falls, Montana as an advertising man, later becoming a journalist.
I’ve worked from Park Row to Market Street and from Houston, Texas, to Great Falls, Montana. I’ve been out with Roosevelt, Hughes and McAdoo; I was a “war” correspondent on the Border; I was a correspondent for one of our greatest newsgathering agencies at a number of Texas cantonments and just missed going across during the war by a hair; I’ve “covered” State political conventions, legislatures, speeches, celebrations, floods, wrecks, forest fires, murders, baseball games, fights and most everything else that falls to the lot of news writers and gatherers.
My newspaper experience convinced me of three things
1.                   It’s a great game and a thankless one;
2.                   We’ve got the greatest country on earth and one to be thankful for;
3.                   People are pretty much the same everywhere and mostly good.
I HAVEN’T always been engaged in white-collar occupations, either. As a matter of fact, I don’t lean to white collars at all. I’m quite a bit of a roughneck, old tops; and if any of you boys happen along on my camp sometime you’ll hear anything but book-talk and see anything but a highbrow.
I’ve unloaded bricks in Pennsylvania, hopped bells in New Jersey, piled linens in New York, jumped lunch-counter in Kansas, seeded wheat and shocked it and loaded it onto bundleracks and helped thresh it in Montana; I’ve picked peaches and tomatoes in Utah, cut corn in Idaho, gloomed apples in Washington, and thrown slabs out of a sawmill in Oregon. These are not hard jobs, but if you understood the combination of circumstances which brought them about you would also understand why they are among my most treasured and interesting reminiscences. I mention them merely so you can know that my viewpoint of life in general is not framed by mingling solely in stiff-collar sections.
Once when my eyes went back on me I beat my way—tramped, hoboed, bummed or whatever you want to call it—from Ogden, Utah, to Seattle, back across the Cascades and down the Columbia to Portland, from Portland to San Francisco, from the Golden Gate to Los Angeles, across the San Bernardino Mountains and Desert to the Imperial Valley and Yuma, across southern Arizona and New Mexico to El Paso, and from there on a cattle train to Kansas City.
For a time he was the sports editor of the Great Falls Tribune, with his own column under the byline of “Sporticus”. It was in Montana that he met Walt Coburn, when Coburn was working as a cowhand. The two were drinking buddies, which was to be significant later on.
Supposedly, he was not above hoaxing his friends to get money.
Horton, then sports editor for the Tribune, tubercular looking to start with, had come down with a touch of pneumonia that had left him with a racking cough. Bob quietly spread the word that he was dying of quick consumption, a deadly disease, with the result that the newspaper took up a collection. Alex Warden, the owner and editor donated a hundred bucks. Others kicked in. Sid Willis, owner of the Mint Saloon, and Billy Ranee of the Silver Dollar, Cut Bank Brown and Highnote of the Maverick, generously fed the kitty. Other saloon men and gamblers sweetened the pot. Abe Nathan of Nathan’s Clothing Store and Mose Kaufman of the Red Front Clothing Store vied with one another in their generosity.

When Alex Warden, with a fitting speech, presented the surprised (? ) Horton with a ticket to California and a fat bank account sufficient to last the winter in the balmy south, Sporticus wept and sobbed aloud, coughing into his handkerchief that came away from his mouth with tell-tale crimson spots.

Later Horton confided to Steve Doyle that the crimson stains came from a small vial of red ink palmed in the white linen handkerchief.

Thus Sporticus, wetting his cigarette cough with Tia Juana liquor, lived it up in San Diego, supplementing his depleting T. B. grubstake with money earned as waterfront reporter for the San Diego Sun, a Scripps-Howard newspaper.

News of the costly hoax trickled back to the owner of the Great Falls Tribune in devious and sundry ways from time to time. Alex Warden was wont to relate it often in later years as a good joke on himself.

 In 1917, Horton decided to write a story and sent it to Munsey publications.
I was a correspondent on the Border. I got an idea for a story in Southern California, wrote it in Tucson, Arizona, mailed it in El Paso, Texas. I remember the envelope I used was about three sizes too large, the last page of the manuscript was tom, and there were many corrections in ink and some in pencil. (I do not send manuscripts like this anymore, however.) I addressed the whole thing to “Editorial Department, The Munsey Co., New York City,” dumped in a few stamps, and away she went.

I forgot about it for about six weeks and then wrote the Munsey company asking what had become of the manuscript.
You see, this was my first story!

Within a week I had a friendly and courteous letter from Robert H. Davis containing the carbon of another letter written a week after I sent the manuscript, accepting the story, and which had not been forwarded to me. (I was then in Kansas City.) Mr. Davis bought the yarn. (The Luck That Grows in the Ground, Argosy All-Story, November 3rd, 1917)

He didn’t sell any stories in 1918, and only 3 in 1919, all to Munsey Publications. In 1919, he broke into Adventure, and sold another 2 stories to Munsey. 1920 was the first year that he sold a large number of stories, 15 in total. It was one of these stories that Walt Coburn read, as an injured cowhand, that convinced him that he could be a writer. Here is the story in Coburn’s own words from his autobiography, Western Word Wrangler:
ON THIS SUNDAY afternoon I (Coburn) was lazing around in my tent with a beat-up copy of Adventure Magazine, reading a western fiction story with a critical eye. There were enough mistakes to convince me the writer did not savvy anything about cowpunching. It was only after I had finished the yarn, which had enough plot and character delineation to make good reading in spite of my biased opinion, that I looked to find the name of the author. The story was written by Robert J. Horton, and this surely rang a bell.

The author was the same old friend and drinking companion I had known back in Great Falls, Montana. The same Bob Horton who was sports editor for the Great Falls Tribune, with a daily column under the by-line of “Sporticus. ” I had been completely out of touch with Bob for a number of years, and had no idea he had started writing western fiction.

According to my boneheaded cowhand way of thinking, if an Eastern tenderfoot like my old friend Horton could bat out a fiction story about my own cow country, I certainly could do the same. I spent the rest of that afternoon writing a lengthy letter to Bob in care of Adventure, asking his advice regarding my tackling writing a western fiction yarn, informing him that my cowpunching days were over.

The following week I received a lengthy letter from Bob, now living in New York, encouraging me to start writing without delay. When Bob Horton was enthusiastic about anything he was like a prairie fire backed by a forty mile wind. He said the only way to start was to get at it; borrow or steal a typewriter, buy a ream of good bond paper, a ream of second sheets and a box of carbon paper. He enclosed the carbon copy of one of his stories he had just sold, to give me a working example.

I was instructed to send him a copy of my manuscript for his criticism and blue-penciling, informing me in no uncertain terms that I was his protege from then on, that it was the interesting letters I wrote him from the Circle C Ranch which gave him the idea of writing western stories, and it was because of those letters and our talks in the Mint Saloon that he was now sitting on top of the world. He told me that I was a natural storyteller, and that I had a way with words, predicting in his outgoing exuberance that someday, if I could weather the storm of rejection slips, I would climb the rungs to the top of the ladder of success.

It was this first letter from Robert J. Horton which launched me on the rough and rocky road as a writer of western fiction for the pulp magazines. Something of his absolute confidence in my unproven ability as a writer, along with his buoyant enthusiasm, must have rubbed off on me because it has lasted throughout many long years.

After this, Horton visited Coburn in Santa Barbara, coming to him from a log cabin at Logging Creek, Belts, Montana, where he had gone to “get atmosphere” when the first snow fell for a story he was writing entitled “Till the Wolves Come Home. ” Another passage from Coburn’s biography tells the story of this visit:
About a month before, Bob Horton had sent me a wire announcing his arrival, with instructions to reserve a suite of front rooms for him at the expensive Samarkand Hotel, but he had failed to put in an appearance. Now here he was a month later. It was a chilly day in November when I took him to my small rented one-bedroom cottage. I built up the fire in the fireplace and broke the seal on the pint of whiskey. Horton had the habit of walking the floor when he related one of his colorful stories. I was in the kitchen peeling spuds for pan frying, and now and then I’d come into the living room and we’d have a drink.

As Bob paced the floor he would toss something into the fireplace and a blaze would flare up, but I paid no attention until in passing the bookcase I saw his gesturing long arm flick out and toss one of the correspondence school paper- bound books into the fire.

“What the hell are you doing, Bob? I still owe $50 on those books! ”
“Trash! ” Bob spoke contemptuously for he consigned the rest of the unpaid for pamphlets to the flames. “Trash! ” he repeated. “You don’t need any damnfool books to teach you how to write. That correspondence school outfit’s got you on the sucker list. ”
“I still owe them fifty bucks. I signed some sort of an agreement. I’ve already paid them fifty bucks. ”
“And how many of their corrected manuscripts have you sold? ” Bob quirked a lifted eyebrow, in my direction.
“They all came back to roost. ”
“You’re out fifty bucks. ” Bob put on a crooked grin. “As P. T. Barnum once remarked. ‘There’s a sucker born every minute. ’ ” He tossed down a shot of liquor.

I GOT Bob Horton a room at a good rooming house. Went good for his meal tickets at a restaurant where I was acquainted. I rented him a typewriter in my name, and in three weeks time he had finished writing a 35,000 word story. When he mailed it out he instructed the editor to wire him the money.

During those three weeks he wore the same outlandish lumberjack mackinaw and high-laced boots and wool cap with the flaps tied up. One afternoon when I went over to his rooming house the landlady informed me that Mr. Horton had paid his rent and moved out. A strange man of eccentric habits, the good woman confided as she told how she had accompanied him to the Western Union office to identify him so he could obtain the money the editor had wired him. In return for the favor Mr. Horton had had two dozen American Beauty roses and a five pound box of candy delivered to the house by special messenger. She proudly showed me the card signed Robert J. Horton, Author of “Outlaw Code. ” It was the title of the story he had written in three weeks.

Bob Horton had paid his bill at the restaurant, returned the typewriter and squared his account for rental and stationery, and boarded the train. It was typical of old Sporticus that he left without bidding me goodbye.

A month or two later, Horton returned to Coburn’s place with no prior notice. It would be their last meeting in person:
BOB HORTON brought me up to date as we drank and ate. He said he’d spent the money he had gotten for the novelette on several suits of tailor-made clothes and bootleg whiskey. Broke and in debt from his stay at the Los Angeles Ambassador, he’d wound up in jail, in company with Willie Giles, the bellhop and bootlegger at the hotel. He had served five of his ten days before his Hollywood agent finally located him, the bearer of good tidings that he’d sold two of Bob’s stories to the studios for a handsome figure. Bob had bailed out Willie Giles, bought a second-hand Packard and fitted Giles out with a chauffeur’s uniform at a place where they rented costumes. Giles was his valet and chauffeur and traveling companion.

Bob said he was going on to San Luis Obispo to utilize the hot mineral baths, to boil out the nicotine, alcohol and jail stink. Then he’d go back to Los Angeles, sell the car and board the train for New York. From there he was going on a trip to Europe, and propositioned me to go along. We could write our stories abroad and live the life of Riley. Bob Horton was in the chips and, while it was whiskey talk, he meant every word he said. He sure made a tempting offer, but while I had less than fifty bucks in my bank account I wasn’t about to live off any man.

But with us both well into our cups and enjoying a celebration, I wasn’t going to spoil it by any drunken argument. Nor did I make mention of the fact that I was moving to Carmel, California, right away.

Bob Horton departed the following day. The day after, I climbed aboard Calamity Jane and headed for Carmel. On the way I stopped at San Luis Obispo and left a letter for Bob at the hotel, and drove on north.

For the next two years, Horton would correspond with Coburn, giving him guidance on how to write and boosting his morale, telling him to keep writing. In 1922, Coburn made his first sale, also to Robert H. Davis. The Peace Treaty of the Seven Up appeared in Argosy All-Story, July 8, 1922.
I was handed a letter with “Munsey Publications” stamped on the left-hand comer of the envelope. It was from the then famous editor, Bob Davis, acknowledging receipt of a short story I’d sent to Argosy entitled “The Peace Treaty of the Seven Up. ” The letter stated that Argosy had accepted the story and would pay me $25 for it, but being an unknown author they would require some identification.

The reason Argosy needed identification was because frustrated writers had been known to copy verbatim another author’s published story. Suddenly I remembered Bob Horton who had sold stories to Munsey and could identify me. I loped back to the power house and knocked out a letter to Bob on the old second-hand Oliver.

The following is quoted from the letter Bob Horton wrote to Robert H. Davis of Munsey’s, dated Great Falls, Montana, March 25, 1922:

“My friend, Walter J. Coburn, of Del Mar, California writes me that he has sold you people a story and given me as reference. All I can say is that he’s been trying for a year and a half and I’m surprised he didn’t break in before. He’s O. K. His father owned the largest cattle outfit in Montana in the days when it was a cattle state. Walter rode the range when it was good—and he’s still young. I’ve read some of his stuff and when his characters talk range talk they spill the genuine thing. If anybody is entitled to write western stories he is, and I hope he climbs to the top of the grade. ”

Back on the East Coast, Horton kept writing and travelling. By 1925, he was writing exclusively for Street and Smith’s Western Story Magazine.
On 15 April 1930, he married Dora I. Campbell. The 1930s were productive but tragic years – he lost his entire family – his father passed away in June 1932, in April 1933, his sister Marian died; and in August 1933, his wife Dora passed away . He continued working till he died on 26 January, 1934. Four of his stories appeared in Western Story after his death.


  1. I see that Horton wrote a lot for WESTERN STORY and was writing right up to his death. I wonder what was the cause of death. He certainly was right about Coburn and his western range dialog. Coburn's characters talked and acted like real cowboys.

  2. It is amazing how badly the writers were paid, even worse than writers today. After years of trying, Coburn sold a story for $25 – I doubt that is even $300 in today's money. Another website has copies of checks from the 1930s made out to Cornell Woolrich paying him around $200 for quite long stories. You would have to sell a lot of stories to make a decent living at that rate.
    Many of these pulp writers died very young – maybe they just wanted to cover short-term living expenses, because they had no expectation of retiring.

  3. Payment was definitely low when a writer was starting out, sometimes as low as a fraction of a cent a word, especially in the Depression.

    However, if you consider this as a supplement to a regular income, it's a good amount. That explains the large number of writers who did a few stories and stopped writing.

    If you kept going and became an established writer, depending on your consistency of production and negotiating ability, you could go up to 2-3 cents a word. That's about $120-180 for a 6,000 word story, or $800-1200 for a 40,000 word novella. Good money there.

    Horton himself, at the time he was mentoring Coburn, was one of the highest paid writers in Western Story, along with Max Brand and Robert Ormond Case. Coburn himself went on to earn $750 each month with Fiction House, and he didn't limit himself to that publisher.

    The earning structure was like athletes today; the top few take the cream, the middle-tier takes the filling, and the rest get the crumbs.

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