Thomas “Black Jack” Ketchum was a famous outlaw in the late 1800s who, along with his brother Sam and their gang, was responsible for a number of high-profile robberies and murders. While his criminal career achieved great notoriety, it was Ketchum’s eventual hanging, which was badly botched by New Mexico sheriffs and resulted in his decapitation, that garnered the most attention and elevated his life to the status of near-myth. Today, Ketchum’s legacy lives on in dozens of sordid accounts of his activities in newspapers and the cinema.
The crimes of the famed James gang were prominently reported in the national press of the 1870s and 1880s. Among those exposed to Frank and Jesse James and their contemporaries could have been Tom and Sam Ketchum, impressionable young men growing up in the 1870s near San Angelo, Texas. Tom, the youngest of three brothers, and Sam, the middle boy, tried ranching but soon realized that there were easier ways to make money. The boys initially were given over to mischief and petty thievery. But while their eldest brother, Berry, became one of the wealthy stockmen of Texas, Sam and Tom became robbers. Their thieving spanned only five or six years. It cannot be determined how many jobs the Ketchum brothers pulled because they were charged in conjunction with only a few holdups. However, other crimes were attributed to them.
Tom’s first flirtation at accosting a train came in 1890 in Clayton, New Mexico, some forty miles south of the Colorado border. Having just arrived there with a northbound trail herd from Roswell, Ketchum hid behind a pile of railroad ties and peppered the seat of a railroad engineer’s overalls with a peashooter as the trainman bent over to oil the drive wheels. When the trainman went for his gun, Tom fled. That would be the most innocent prank that Tom would perpetrate. His first criminal act apparently came on December 12, 1895, when he was in on the shooting of John N. Powers on Powers’s ranch south of Knickerbocker, Texas. It was probably a murder for hire contracted by Powers’s wife, who was arrested. Tom, Dave Atkins, and Bud Upshaw were indicted by a grand jury, but they could not be found; when Tom heard about the indictments, he struck out for New Mexico as Atkins and Upshaw headed for Arizona.
On June 11, 1896, Tom and Sam Ketchum looted the Liberty, New Mexico, general store and post office operated by Levi and Morris Herzstein. Soon, Levi and four other men began following the brothers’ trail. The Ketchums were finishing a meal when Herzstein’s posse came thundering down on them. When the shooting was over, Herzstein was dead and the Ketchums fled, never to be charged in the killing. Tom was given the sobriquet “Black Jack” after southern Arizona highwayman Will “Black Jack” Christian, who was killed in April 1897, even though the pair had only met once. Tom later tried to disown the “Black Jack” label because he felt that some of Christian’s crimes would be blamed on his gang. Tom, Will Carver, and Atkins began their train-robbing adventures two hours after midnight on May 14, 1897, just outside the southwest Texas crossroads of Lozier.
Ketchum and Carver scrambled across the coal tender and at gunpoint ordered the train’s engineer, George Freese, to stop the train a mile ahead. There, Atkins was waiting with dynamite and had already cut the telegraph wire. The stalwart safe required three charges of explosives to blow, and the job took two hours; but the trio soon galloped toward New Mexico and their favorite Turkey Creek hideout with a loot bag bulging with a reported $42,000. They settled into their hideaway cave, making occasional trips to Cimarron or Trinidad, in Colorado. At the cave, the boys spent a leisurely summer, resting and planning their next move.
Robbing the Texas Express, Part I
On the night of September 2, 1897, the Ketchum brothers, Carver, and Atkins camped alongside the Union Pacific, Denver & Gulf tracks just south of the village of Folsom in northeastern New Mexico. At 10 am the next day, train Number 1, the Texas Express, pulled out of Denver’s Union Station on its usual thirty-one-hour run to Fort Worth. At 9:10 pm the Express stopped briefly in Folsom, where two of the outlaws boarded the coal car undetected. The train resumed its trip, and in its lamplighted cars, passengers prepared to retire. As the little train slowed to make the grade at Twin Mountain, the two men descended into the cab and ordered the engineer to stop on a sweeping curve two miles ahead.
The two remaining robbers came aboard and set off their dynamite, but the strong safe refused to open. Frustrated, one robber placed fourteen sticks of dynamite on the safe and put a side of beef on top of it to dampen the concussion. The huge explosion finally busted the box open. The bandits disappeared into the dark, but this time, their take was something between $2,000 and $3,000 and a shipment of silver spoons. As soon as word of the holdup reached Folsom, posses from Clayton and Trinidad started out in pursuit. Northeast New Mexico, previously a quiet place, was now crawling with lawmen. The gang at this point appears to have quietly disbanded and scattered, with Black Jack remaining in southern New Mexico, pulling off a few post office stickups for pocket change and amusing himself with the occasional cattle roundup.
The quiet could only last so long. On December 7, 1897, the Ketchum boys and their “chummies”—Ed Cullen, Atkins, “Broncho Bill” Walters, and Carver—targeted a job at Stein’s Pass along the New Mexico-Arizona border. They first accosted the Southern Pacific depot at the pass for a paltry take of twelve dollars and twenty-five cents and a .44 Winchester. Tom and Broncho Bill cut the telegraph wires and proceeded down the right-of-way a mile, where they built a bonfire on both sides of the tracks and secured the horses while Sam and the others waited at the station to commandeer the train. Anticipating a stickup, the railroad had placed numerous guards on the train. The two sides exchanged gunfire for nearly half an hour and Cullen died, his final exclamations being, “Boys, I’m gone! Boys, I’m dead!”
The gang limped to retreat without having gained access to even one train car. Leaving Arizona and crossing New Mexico, the Ketchums, Carver, and Atkins made for Val Verde County, Texas, where the Bud Newman gang had made a good haul from Southern Pacific train Number 20 some sixteen months earlier. As was sometimes the practice in train robbery, once a vulnerable location had been established, other gangs would strike there, and that was precisely what the Ketchum gang sought to do. On April 28, 1898, as Number 20 pulled out of the Comstock station, two of the Ketchum gang crawled across the coal tender to the cab, forced the train to stop, uncoupled the express car, and applied dynamite and fuse. The mammoth explosion was so large that it blew a barrel-sized hole in the roof and splintered one side of the car. The thieves rummaged around in the wreckage, found the loot they were after, and disappeared—with no posse in sight.
Robbing the Texas Express, Part 2
In summer 1899, Tom’s moods and temper finally resulted in the breakup of the gang. Atkins decided to reform, and even Sam Ketchum abandoned his brother. Carver threw in with Sam to form a new gang. Following a string of largely unsuccessful robberies as a new gang, Carver died in a shootout with Sheriff E. S. Briant of Sonora, Texas, on April 2, 1901. Sam and his gang attempted to rob the Texas Express out of Folsom for a second time on July 11, 1899. While the robbery itself proved marginally successful, a posse tracked down the gang and Sam suffered a gunshot wound to the arm. After he refused the amputation of his arm, he succumbed to blood poisoning and died on July 24, 1899.
Robbing the Texas Express, Part 3
Meanwhile, Tom remained out on his own and unaware of the July 11 robbery and the death of his brother. Now he planned a third holdup of the Texas Express—the third time a Ketchum would attempt such a robbery at the same location. Tom camped at Twin Mountain the night of August 16, 1899, awaiting the southbound Express. He hid on the coal tender during the train’s brief stop in Folsom. About halfway to the Twin Mountain grade, Black Jack held up the engineer and fireman, asking them “if they would kindly stop when he told them to.”
In the baggage and mail car, postal clerk Fred Bartlett knew something was amiss and stuck his head out of the door to take a look. Tom fired his rifle, taking off one side of Bartlett’s jaw. Bartlett staggered to the day coach and gasped to conductor Frank Harrington, “Frank, I’m killed. They’re robbing the train again.” Bartlett actually survived his wounds and Harrington, who had been on the train for both robbery attempts and vowed to fight back if it happened again, fired a shotgun at Tom, striking him with eleven buckshot pellets just above the right elbow.
The End of Black Jack Ketchum
The train proceeded to Clayton, where the sheriff deputized a posse and started for the robbery scene. The next day, the posse found Ketchum, weakened from blood loss. He was transported to the Mt. San Rafael Hospital in Trinidad. There, doctors determined that his arm was shredded beyond repair and recommended amputation. Tom attempted suicide by wrapping bandages around his neck, so he was transferred to the Santa Fe prison, where Dr. Desmarias performed the amputation several days later without the benefit of anesthesia of any kind. Ketchum stood trial in Clayton on September 6, 1900. On September 10, the jury handed down a guilty verdict, and Judge William J. Mills scheduled the hanging date for October 5, 1900.
Despite their total take—estimated today at $100,000 to $180,000—their links through shared personnel with Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch, and the fact that the Ketchums were feared from Colorado throughout the Southwest, they are remembered today less for their criminal accomplishments than for how Tom Ketchum finally died. Indeed, Ketchum’s hanging would prove to garner more attention in the press than any other act in his criminal career. A fifteen-foot rope had been received from the police chief at Kansas City, who suggested a drop of seven feet at the gallows. Detective H. J. Chambers of Denver, who had been recruited to help Sheriff Salome Garcia as executioner, strongly argued that four feet six inches would be ample for a man of 193 pounds. Lewis Fort, representing the governor’s office, lengthened the rope to five feet six inches, prompting Garcia to lengthen it again to six feet, before the whole party agreed at five feet nine inches.
Black Jack’s left arm was chained to his thigh, and his right sleeve hung loose. The executioners removed his bow tie and unbuttoned his collar, placing the black hood over his head and positioning the rope. Black Jack allegedly said, “Let ’er go, boys,” and Sheriff Garcia, who some in the crowd alleged to be drunk, swung his hatchet at the trap door’s release, missing badly. He swung again, and Ketchum’s body swung down seven full feet to the ground. The Denver Times wrote the next day:
Every one of the large crowd within and without the stockade held their breath and their hearts gave a bound of horror when it was seen that his head had been severed from his body by the fall. His body alighted squarely upon its feet, stood for a moment, swayed, and fell, and then great streams of red, red blood spurted from his severed neck, as if to shame the very ground upon which it poured. Every face turned pale. . . . The head rolled aside and the rope, released, bounded high in the air and fell with a thud on the scaffold. The head was sewn back on the trunk and the body immediately prepared for burial.
Adapted from Clark Secrest, “‘Black Jack Died Game’: The Bandit Career of Thomas E. Ketchum,” Colorado Heritage Magazine 20, no. 4 (2000).