|"Black Jack" Ketchum as a young man.|
(Image: University of New Mexico)
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)
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)|
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.