4/26/1901 - The short and suicidal criminal career of 37-year-old Texas outlaw, Thomas Edward "Black Jack" Ketchum ends in Union County, New Mexico, at the town of Clayton, with one of the most horrific executions in the history of the Old West.
Born in San Saba County, Texas, in 1863, Ketchum begins as many criminals do, getting little valid parenting (the youngest of five children, two brothers and two sisters, his father, Green Berry Ketchum, dies at the age of 48, when Tom is only 5, and his blind mother, Temperance Katherine Wydick Ketchum, dies when Tom is only 10) and grows up having a negative personality with extremely low levels of patience, a very evil temper, contempt for authorities, a love of whiskey benders, and a decided wild streak (one of his first run-ins with the law is for chasing a dog through church while a religious service is in progress) ... attributes coupled to an almost six-foot tall frame of 180 pounds of muscle, and talents for roping, riding, and firing a pistol or rifle with deadly accuracy. Even before he becomes a gunman, Ketchum looks the part ... olive skin darkened by his work as a cowboy, piercing dark brown eyes, an unsmiling countenance, black hair, thick black eyebrows, and a heavy, dark mustache. Two events seem to push Ketchum into a life of crime ... his older brother, Berry, kicks him off the family homestead in Texas in 1889 (after the older brother marries the local sheriff's sister), and a short time thereafter while cowboying in New Mexico, he receives a breakup letter from his girlfriend Cora (experiencing a meltdown before the term enters the lexicon as a description of a triggered mental issue, Ketchum reads the letter to his fellow cowpunchers, engages in an out-loud dialogue with himself in which he rants, "You will, will you?" and "Take that, and that!" as he beats himself over the head with his own six-shooter).
Not caring about much of anything or for anyone, except maybe his older brother Sam, who joins Tom in his criminal activities after his marriage falls apart, Ketchum soon puts together a shifting group of similar souls that begin looting the southwest, a Wild Bunch satellite gang that includes Elza Lay (Butch Cassidy's best friend, though the men do not see eye-to-eye on Ketchum ... Cassidy does not like the man's many mood shifts and will have nothing to do with him), Dave Atkins (he kills merchant Tom Hardin when the man complains about the amount of noise Atkins is making in the Kickerbocker saloon), Texan gunman Will Carver (whose marriage in 1900 sparks the celebration that results in the taking of the famous Fort Worth Five photograph of the Wild Bunch), outlaw Edward H. Cullen, bandit Red Weaver, Ben Kilpatrick (a friend from San Saba, Texas and future Wild Bunch member known as The Tall Texan), and Harvey Logan (alias Kid Curry, a double-digit killer).
Sam Ketchum & Dave Atkins
Will Carver & Ben Kilpatrick
Elza Lay & Harvey Logan
In the crime spree that follows, Ketchum (misidentified after one robbery as the bandit "Black Jack" Christian, the nickname sticks) and associates rob the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe Railroad of over $20,000 at a water station 20 miles north of the town of Deming, murder rancher John N. "Jap" Powers (for a fee from the man's widow), hit the combined post office and mercantile store of Liberty, New Mexico, kills two members of a Liberty posse, Levi Herzstein (the owner of the robbed store) and Hermenejildo Gallegos, murders rancher Albert Jennings Fountain, and his son, Henry, of Las Cruces, New Mexico, and take $20,000 in gold and $40,000 in silver from a train near Folsom, New Mexico.
Santa Fe Train - 1900
Ketchum Hiding Place Near Raton, New Mexico -
Now Known As Black Jack Canyon
Despite several nice paydays, by 1899 the gang has tired of Ketchum's mood swings and continuing arguments about loot splits, and kicks the unstable outlaw out of the group he put together, including his brother Sam's vote that Tom leaves. In action again without Tom, the gang makes a big mistake in hitting the Santa Fe line for a second time near Folsom (they get away with over $3,000, some jewelry, and a consignment of silver spoons) ... and then, in being too casual in their escape (it also might be construed a major mistake to rob trains in a state that allows the death penalty for that crime). Discovered hiding in a wilderness area called Turkey Creek Canyon, a series of gun fights takes place between local authorities and the gang that sees three lawmen killed (Huerfano County, Colorado Sheriff Edward J. Farr, Colfax County Deputy Henry Love, and Dona Ana County Deputy Kent Kearney), railroad agent W. H. Reno is wounded, Sam Ketchum is mortally wounded in the shoulder, and Elza Lay is struck in the shoulder and chest, but survives to be arrested a few weeks later while recovering near Carlsbad, New Mexico (he lives to be 65 and eventually dies in Los Angeles, California in 1934).
Dead Sam Ketchum
Unaware of what has taken place, after robbing a store in Camp Verde, Arizona, and killing its proprietors, Mack Rogers and Clint Wingfield, Ketchum returns to New Mexico from his vacation away from the boys, wanting to make amends and rejoin his gang, but then angers when he can't locate the men at any of their hiding places in the territory, and decides he doesn't need any of them after all, they can all go to Hell, which he'll show them by robbing a train all by his lonesome. Unfortunately, the train he selects to rob on the evening of 8/16/1899 is the same Colorado & Southern train his brother and associates have robbed twice before, and at the same spot, the Twin Mountains Bend near the border of New Mexico and Colorado. Not enough men for the job, plus robbing the same train and people for a third time proves to be a recipe for disaster. Trying to position the train for car uncoupling and robbery (the old fashioned "Miller Hook" coupling won't release on a curve), Ketchum shoots mail clerk Fred Bartlett in the jaw when the man sticks his head outside his car to see why the train has stopped; incidents that distract the outlaw just enough that thrice-robbed train conductor, now equipped for trouble, is able to grab a shotgun and fire at Ketchum (he is rewarded by being hit in the neck by a bullet the outlaw fires at the same time, but survives the wound), almost blowing off the bandit's right arm (shredded above the elbow, the arm will be amputated days later at medical facilities in Trinidad, Colorado).
Car With Miller Hook
Robbery instantly over with the shooting, the train pulls away in one direction to report the robbery, while Ketchum staggers off the other way to where his horse is waiting. Reaching his horse, unable to mount due to his arm and the loss of blood (he will state later that he tries to pull himself up on to his horse 12 different times without success), Ketchum reconciles himself to what is coming and simply sits down under a tree, next to the tracks, to await the first posse to arrive on the scene (the next morning a freight train passes the crime scene and stops when they see an injured man waving his hat ... after first pulling his gun on the brakeman and conductor who walk up to the wounded man, the men then threaten to leave the bandit beside the tracks, Ketchum hands over his pistol stating, "No boys, I'm all done, take me in," as he picks pieces of buckshot out of his chest). Arrested and then patched up minus an arm, Ketchum is sent to Clayton, New Mexico, for trial.
Posed Postcard Photo After Arrest
Verdict a forgone conclusion, Ketchum nevertheless pleads innocent to the crime of "felonious assault upon a railway train." Found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging (he will be the only person ever hanged in Union County, New Mexico ... and the only person ever for robbing a train ... too late for Black Jack, the law will later be ruled unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court). Behind bars and awaiting his ending (he will be in the local jail for 21 months), Ketchum tries to escape once, attempts to commit suicide twice, and talks and talks and talks and talks ... ranting against a host of enemies, concocting adventures and escapades, claiming he is actually a merchant named George Stevens, and sometimes actually telling the truth. And he is still talking on the morning of his execution ... almost to the very end!
Ticket To The Big Execution
Appeals used up, when authorities get wind of a Wild Bunch plot to free Ketchum (there is no such plot and by 1901, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid are planning their relocation to South America, while Kid Curry is putting together a robbery of a Great Northern train near Wagner, Montana), the outlaw's hanging is scheduled for the morning of 4/26/1901. Big goings on, businesses in the town of Clayton close for the event (except the saloons!) and the local police department makes a tidy profit selling tickets to the hanging, and souvenir toys of a little Ketchum doll hanging from a stick. The only potential problem is that Clayton has never put on an execution before ... a difficulty Sheriff Salome Garcia believes he has put to bed by consulting with experts on the topic of hemped necks (the territorial governor sends lawyer Lewis C. Fort to Garcia to help with the arrangements).
Clayton, New Mexico
Whatever advice the sheriff is given, it is either not heard correctly, or is horribly misinterpreted ... a drop of seven feet is at least 18 inches too much for Ketchum's weight and frame, a 200 pound bag used for testing is left on the rope overnight and takes all its give from the line, the rope is lubricated with soap so it "slips properly) and turns cordlike, no compensations are made for Ketchum gaining weight while in jail, and no compensations are made for the outlaw being slightly lop-sided due to the loss of his arm. Gory disaster ensues!
On his Kingdom Come day, Ketchum refuses to confess to a visiting priest (I'm going to die as I lived, and you ain't gonna change me in a few minutes."), asks the warden to "Have someone play fiddle while I swing off," shouts loudly to newspapermen covering the event, "I'll be in Hell before you start breakfast boys," asks that the stockade be taken down so more people could watch the event, and almost dances up the 13 steps to the gallows. Black hood affixed to his shoulders with pins ("Hurry up boys, get this over with!"), rope around his neck, a split second before his drop, Ketchum shouts his last words, "Let her rip!"
Let her rip indeed! Prophetic words, Sheriff Garcia takes two tries with his hatchet to part the rope that sets off the release that sends Ketchum on his way, but instead of simply breaking the man's neck, the torque and energy from the outlaw's drop tears off Black Jack's head (the only thing that prevents it from rolling away are the pins keeping the hood connected to the corpse's shoulders) to the screams and fainting of many in the crowd as the body pumps a pool of blood under the gallows (some of the front row observers are speckled with the bandit's blood). Not really necessary, a doctor a few minutes later proclaims Ketchum dead, and after his head is sewn back on his body, he is buried later that day in the local Clayton cemetery, where the desperado resides to this day (after, the idiot sheriff will cluelessly declare, "Nothing out of the ordinary happened. No bungling whatsoever. Everything worked nicely and in perfect order.").
Over and out, but maybe not ... Ketchum's unfriendly ghost is said to haunt the wilds near a former hideout outside of Cimarron, New Mexico (according to a Boy Scout unit that has their camping trip wrecked by Black Jack) ... BEWARE!
Thomas "Black Jack" Ketchum
October 31, 1863 - 4/26/1901