Monday, August 12, 2013

An Outlaw Meets a Grisly End

"Black Jack" Ketchum as a young man.
(Image: University of New Mexico)
“Can’t you hurry this up a bit? I hear they eat dinner in Hades at twelve sharp, and I don’t aim to be late.” —Black Jack Ketchum

Whether or not he aimed to be late, Thomas Edward “Black Jack” Ketchum missed the dinner bell by more than an hour on April 26, 1901. In fact, his original 9 a.m. appointment on the gallows was delayed by more than four hours while authorities tried to ensure Ketchum’s execution was both humane and permanent.

They got the permanent part right.

The youngest of five children, Ketchum was born in San Saba County, Texas, on Halloween 1863. His father, a prosperous farmer and rancher, died when Black Jack was five years old; his mother when he was ten. Because the family’s property went to the eldest son, Black Jack and his other brother, Sam, made their living cowboying in Texas. The work never suited either of them. By 1890, both had left the state.

By 1892, they were robbing trains.

Between 1892 and 1899 the Ketchum gang liberated payrolls and other large sums of cash from trains passing through the Four Corners region of the Southwest. Black Jack and Sam led a group of other young men, some of whom were frequent denizens of the infamous Hole in the Wall. All of them were described as well-mannered and well-dressed, riding good horses, and flashing plenty of money. In 1895 and 1896, the gang included Wild Bunch regulars Kid Curry and his brother Lonnie Curry, who reportedly departed after a dispute over the division of proceeds from a holdup.

(Image: Herzstein Memorial Museum,
Union County, New Mexico)
In 1897 alone, the Ketchums heisted more than $100,000: $42,000 from a Wells Fargo safe outside Langtry, Texas, in May and another $60,000 in gold and silver at Twin Mountain, New Mexico Territory, in September.

Two years later, in July 1899, Sam Ketchum partnered with Wild Bunch members Will Carver and William Ellsworth “Elza” Lay to rob the Twin Mountain train a second time. A posse chased the outlaws into Turkey Creek Canyon near Cimarron, New Mexico, where Sam was wounded in a shootout. He died of his wounds in the Santa Fe Territorial prison a few weeks later.

In August 1899, unaware of his older brother’s fate, Black Jack lost his right arm to a shotgun blast fired by the conductor of a train he attempted to rob alone. “The handsome train robber” didn’t resist when either a posse or a railroad crew (there’s a dispute) found him near the tracks the following morning.

At trial, Black Jack was sentenced to hang, but the date of the execution was delayed more than once by arguments about where final justice should take place, since several towns wanted the honor. Finally, reacting to a rumor that the old gang planned to break Black Jack out of jail, the hanging became the center of a carnival in Clayton, Union County, New Mexico. Despite an extended debate about the length and strength of the rope necessary for the deed, something went horribly wrong.

"Black Jack" Ketchum, center. (Image: National Archives)
Shortly after 1 p.m., the scaffold's trapdoor opened and Ketchum, 37, plunged through. He died immediately, decapitated by the fall.

Black Jack Ketchum bears the dubious distinction of being the only man sentenced to die in New Mexico for “felonious assault upon a railway train.” Apparently his botched execution set the residents of Union County back a mite, because Black Jack also was the only man ever hanged in Union County. Until serial murderer Eva Dugan suffered the same fate at the Pinal County, Arizona, prison in 1930, Black Jack Ketchum was the only person in the U.S. who literally lost his head to a hangman’s noose ordered by a court.

A journalist in real life, Kathleen Rice Adams also is an editor and ghostwriter of non-fiction books. A rabble-rousing Texan to the bone, she much prefers romancing fictional western antiheros one protagonist at a time.


  1. Ahh, Kathleen...again, you've put me smack dab in the middle of this event. Such vivid explanations --such an amazing way with words. Yes, another interesting article, as ALL of your articles always are...Thank you. ♥

    ~ Cindy

    Cindy Nord
    NO GREATER GLORY/Samhain Publishing
    Always Romance. Nothing Less.

  2. **blush** Owl, you're too kind. I seem overly interested in the gruesome lately, but honestly, it's how these folks ended up the way they did that fascinates me. For many of them, life was one long series of unfortunate events.

  3. How in the world can a rope decapitate a hangee? or is there another word -- the criminal or the "victim" of such a grisly hanging... You're right about the permanent part. Ugh.

  4. Boy, that is a grizzly story. I can't understand how people of the time found hangings so entertaining, even brought their children.

    Sure was a handsome fella to come to such a bitter end. Great post, Kathleen!

  5. That's the big question, Meg. According to the sheriff, the folks in charge of the execution did everything right. (Of course, who's going to admit to doing something wrong in a case like this?)

    The photographer sure didn't miss a beat. Moments after he snapped the gallows picture in this post, he snapped another, much more gruesome, image of Black Jack's body on the ground, neck facing the camera. The feed sack that slipped over Ketchum's head before the noose slipped around his neck is lying in front. **shudder**

  6. As always a great article, Tex! Unlike, your other rabblerousers I've heard of Black Jack from my time at the Hole in the Wall...**clears throat** I mean studying the Hole in the Wall. But what gets me about most of these guys is the way they faced the noose. No remorse, no pleas for clemency and often with an off colored joke. I do have say, poor Jack though really lost his head at the end. (I'm so very sorry)

  7. Kathleen, I didn't know part of Ketchum's information, and enjoyed your post. You are a treasure of information and I always enjoy your posts on blogs and Facebook. Keep 'em coming.

  8. Loved this post, Kathleen, as I always do enjoy what you share. There've always been colorful characters throughout history and none more so than in the west. Keep the tales coming, I always learn something I didn't know!

  9. It doesn't seem possible to decapitate a person by hanging. I've never heard of such a thing. I read it over twice to make sure that's what I read. Gruesome!
    And those hangings...the practice always makes me shudder and cringe. But it certainly has happened a lot during the time of the Old West.
    I guess I've heard of this outlaw, but certainly knew nothing about him. Very intriguing, if you ask me.
    Excellent post and photos, as usual. Thanks.

  10. I wonder if it's because he was so relaxed that the rope snapped off his head. Whatever the reason, what an ugly way to die. Fascinating information on one of our bad guys. Thanks so much for sharing.

  11. Thanks for all the comments, y'all! Sorry I've been MIA. Mondays are always loads of fun at the day job. :-D

    Linda, I've always thought that was the weirdest custom -- taking children to an execution like it was some kind of carnival sideshow. What were those parents thinking? I'm an adult, and I don't want to see stuff like that! Yeesh.

    Freudian slip there, eh, Rustler (Kirsten)? ;-) I've noticed the same thing you have about the attitudes of the really bad guys, but I've often wondered whether they really were that unrepentant. Or were they scared to death (no pun intended) and trying to hide their fear with flippancy? There were probably some of both kinds, I guess.

    Caroline, you're such a sweetheart. Thank you for the vote of confidence. :-) Hope your move went well!

    Carra, one of the things I have always loved about this group is that the Sweethearts are a diverse bunch with a whole lot of information, collectively. I learn something from each post everyone makes. That's such a blessing for a history nerd! :-D

    Celia, apparently decapitation wasn't a common occurrence, at least during "official" hangings, because to the best of my knowledge Black Jack and the "black widow" Dugan are the only two who've suffered that fate in the U.S. (Dugan was hanged for the murder of a former landlord, but for years prior to the discovery of his body, she'd lived under suspicion for the disappearance of her FIVE husbands.)

    Ciarra, one of the reasons it took officials so long to figure out the logistics of hanging Ketchum reportedly was that he gained a bunch of weight while behind bars for almost two years. (Another was that the locals really didn't know what they were doing because they'd never hanged anybody before.) The executioners wanted to make sure the rope wouldn't break. Evidently they solved that potential problem. I suppose if Ketchum had gotten really heavy and the drop was longer than it needed to be ... well, let's just say the laws of physics are fairly inescapable. **shudder**


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