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Thomas Edward Ketchum
Thomas Edward Ketchum, known as Black Jack Ketchum (October 31 1863April 26 1901), was a cowboy and cattle driver who later turned to a life of crime. He was hanged in 1901 for attempted train robbery.

First train robberies and murders

Tom Ketchum was born in San Saba Countymarker, Texasmarker. He left Texas in 1890, possibly after committing a crime. He worked as a cowboy in the Pecos River Valley of New Mexicomarker, where by 1894, his older brother, Sam Ketchum, had joined him. Black Jack and a group of others were named as the robbers of an Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway train that was en route to Demingmarker, New Mexico Territory in 1892 with a large payroll aboard. The gang supposedly robbed the train just outside of Nutt, New Mexico Territory, a water station twenty miles north of Deming. Black Jack and his gang would often visit the ranch of Herb Bassett, near Brown's Park, who was known to have done business with several outlaws of the day, having supplied them with beef and fresh horses. Herb Bassett was the father of female outlaws Josie Bassett and Ann Bassett, who were girlfriends to several members of Butch Cassidy's Wild Bunch gang. One of Ann Bassett's boyfriends and future Wild Bunch gang member, Ben Kilpatrick, began riding with Black Jack's gang about that time. Outlaw "Bronco Bill" Walters, later noted for the legend of his "hidden loot" near Solomonville, Arizonamarker, is also believed to have begun riding with the gang at this time.

The second major crime attributed to Tom was the murder of a neighbor, John N. "Jap" Powers, in Tom Green County, Texasmarker, on December 12, 1895. However, information at the Sutton Historical Society in Texas, says that Will Carver and Sam Ketchum were the ones actually accused of killing Powers in Knickerbockermarker, Texas. Fearing the law, they closed their joint saloon and gambling venture in San Angelomarker, and hit the outlaw trail. Within six months, Mrs. Powers and her lover, J. E. Wright, were arrested for the murder, but it was too late for Carver and the Ketchums.

By late 1895, outlaw Kid Curry and his brother Lonnie Curry were members of Black Jack's gang. However, in early 1896, a dispute concerning their share of robbery loot prompted the Currys to leave the gang.

It is alleged that Ketchum was involved with the February 1, 1896, disappearances and murders of Albert Jennings Fountain and his son Henry Fountain of Las Crucesmarker, New Mexico. In early June 1896, after working for the famed Bell Ranchmarker in New Mexico, Tom and Sam Ketchum, and possibly others robbed a store and post office at Liberty, New Mexico, northwest of present-day Tucumcarimarker. According to contemporary histories, the two Ketchums arrived in Liberty on June 12 and purchased a few supplies. Later in the evening, a thunderstorm began so the two men returned to the store of Morris and Levi Herzstein where they were invited to take shelter.

Arriving in the morning to open the store on June 13, 1896, Levi Herzstein found that both the store and post office had been burglarized. After gathering a posse Herzstein set out on the outlaws' trail. The posse, composed of four men, took the two outlaws by surprise in the Plaza Largo arroyo where a shootout occurred. It was only a matter of seconds before Levi Herzstein and Hermenejildo Gallegos lay dead in the arroyo. After seeing his two comrades fall to the ground, Anastacio Borgue shifted his horse and rode out of the arroyo. Placido Gurulé, the fourth member of the posse, gave an account of the shooting. In the exchange of gunfire, Gurulé said he had been struck with a 30-30 bullet that knocked him from his horse. He hit the ground with a blow that knocked the wind out of him. He lay in a semiconscious state as Black Jack emptied his shells into the bodies of Levi Herzstein and Hermenejildo Gallegos. In relating the story to his children and grandchildren, Gurulé added, "I knew if I moved a muscle I would be a dead man." Black Jack and Sam Ketchum were never caught or tried for the murders at the Plaza Largo, but according to stories, Morris Herzstein was present in Clayton, New Mexico Territory on April 26, 1901, for the hanging of Black Jack Ketchum.

Morris Herzstein moved to Clayton shortly after the killing in Liberty, and ultimately into the "Texas panhandlemarker" area. This business expansion is memorialized by the inscription on a shoe brush: Herzstein's Clayton, New Mexico -- Dalhart, Texas. If it's from Herzstein's it's correct. Morris was the father of Albert Herzstein, who became one of the founders of Big 3 Industries in Houstonmarker, and is the man who helped the museum in Clayton to become a reality years later.

Joining the Hole-In-The-Wall gang

Following this event, Thomas Ketchum joined other outlaws of the Hole in the Wall Gang and continued a life of crime, focusing on train robberies, although when not robbing trains they worked for several ranches in New Mexico and Texas. Several other notable outlaws operated out of Hole In The Wall, which was a hideout for numerous outlaw gangs which operated separately. The famous Wild Bunch gang, led by Butch Cassidy and Elzy Lay, operated out of there. One Wild Bunch gang member, Kid Curry, along with his brother Lonny Curry, had previously ridden with Black Jack Ketchum and his gang. He and Ketchum did not like each other, and Ketchum avoided Curry as much as possible, as Curry was well known to be the most dangerous of the Wild Bunch gang, and would kill nine lawmen over the course of the next eight years.

During this time, "Black Jack" Tom Ketchum was once identified mistakenly as "Black Jack" Christian, another outlaw, and that became his nickname as well. Three of the train robberies that the gang committed were near the same location, between Folsom and Des Moines, New Mexico Territory. This was at the point where the old Fort Union wagon road crossed the Colorado and Southern Rail Road tracks near Twin Mountain.

On September 3 1897, they committed their first robbery at Twin Mountain. Then, on July 11 1899, the gang, without Black Jack, robbed the train again at Twin Mountain. After the robbery, Sam and several unknown gang members, in addition to Wild Bunch gang members Will Carver and William Ellsworth "Elza" Lay, headed for the mountains southwest of Raton, New Mexicomarker Territory. The next day, a posse consisting of Sheriff Ed Farr of Huerfano County, Coloradomarker, special Agent W.H. Reno of the Colorado & Southern Railroad, and five deputies found their trail and tracked them into Turkey Creek Canyon near Cimarronmarker, New Mexico. There, the posse engaged them in a gun battle. Sam Ketchum and two deputies were wounded seriously, and the gang escaped.

Sam Ketchum's wounds slowed the intended escape, and they made it only a short distance from the initial shootout. Several members of the posse cornered the Ketchum gang a few days later, still in the same area of the Territory. Deputy W.H. Love and Sheriff Ed Farr engaged the outlaws in another gun battle, resulting in both Farr and Love being killed, while the posse wounded at least two unknown members of the gang. Sam Ketchum escaped, but was found a few days later by Agent Reno at the home of a rancher, where he was arrested.

Sam Ketchum was taken to the Santa Fe Territorial Prison, where he died from his gunshot wounds. He was buried in the Odd Fellows Cemetery, now the Fairview Cemetery on Cerrillos Rd. in Santa Fe.

"Elzy" or "Elza" (William Ellsworth) Lay was born November 25 1868, Mt Pleasant, Ohio. Lay had come out west to Denver, and became an outlaw after mistakenly believing he had killed a man. Jailed for life after the killing of Sheriff Farr after the Folsom robbery, he was released in 1906. He returned to Alma, New Mexicomarker Territory and lived there for two years. He stayed with Louis and Walter Jones, who in 1904 had built a large merchandise store at Alma. Elzy died aged 65 in Los Angelesmarker, on November 10, 1934.

Capture and death

Ketchum on the Scaffold Before Hanging, April 26, 1901, Clayton, New Mexico
Sepia-tone photo from a contemporary postcard showing Tom Ketchum's decapitated body.
Caption reads "Body of Black Jack after the hanging showing head snapped off."
On August 16, 1899, Tom Ketchum, supposedly knowing nothing of the July 11 hold-up which ended in the death of his brother Sam, single-handedly attempted to rob the same train again at the same place and in the same way that he and Sam and others had robbed it just a few weeks earlier. The train conductor, Frank Harrington, saw Tom approaching the moving train. He recognized him, grabbed a shotgun, and shot Tom in the arm, knocking him off his horse. The train continued, and the next day a posse came out and found Tom beside the tracks, badly wounded. He was transported to medical facilities at Trinidadmarker, Coloradomarker, and his right arm had to be amputated. He was nursed back to health and then sent to Claytonmarker, New Mexico Territory, for trial.

At the trial, Ketchum was convicted and sentenced to death. He was the only person ever hanged in Union County, New Mexico Territory (now Union Co., NM). He was also the only person who suffered capital punishment for the offense of "felonious assault upon a railway train" in New Mexico Territory (which did not become a state until 1912). Later, the law was found to be unconstitutional.

Ketchum was executed by hanging in Clayton. The rope was too long, and Ketchum had gained a significant amount of weight during his time in jail. Additionally nobody in Clayton had any experience in conducting hangings. Hence Ketchum was decapitated when he dropped through the trap door.

His last words were: "I'll be in Hell before you start breakfast, boys. Let it Rip"

A popular postcard was made showing the body. Afterwards his head was sewn back onto the body for viewing, and he was interred at the Clayton Cemetery.

Western actor Jack Elam portrayed Ketchum in an episode of the 1954-1955 syndicated television series Stories of the Century, tales of the American West starring and narrated by Jim Davis.

See also

Jeff Burton, Dynamite and Six-Shooter: The Story of Thomas E. 'Black Jack' Ketchum, Sunstone Press, Box 2321, Santa Fe, NM 87504-2321, 2007


  2. San Francisco Chronicle, 27 April 1901 - Digital Copy
  3. San Francisco Chronicle, 27 April 1901 - Digital Copy

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