Black Jack Ketchum: An Outlaw Meets a Gruesome End

Kathleen Rice Adams header

“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

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

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.

Ketchum, the youngest of five children, was born in San Saba County, Texas, on Halloween 1863. His father, a prosperous farmer, 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.

Together with a gang of other young men—all of whom were described as well-mannered and well-dressed, riding good horses, and flashing plenty of money—between 1892 and 1899 the Ketchum gang liberated payrolls and other large sums of cash from trains passing through the Four Corners area of the Southwest. In 1895 and 1896, the gang included 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)

(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 near 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 “Elzy” 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 Santa Fe Territorial Prison a few weeks later.

In August 1899, unaware of his elder 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, Ketchum was sentenced to hang, but the date of execution was delayed several times 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, center. (Image: National Archives)

Shortly after 1 p.m., the scaffold’s trapdoor opened and Ketchum, 37, plunged through. He died instantly, 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.

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No train robberies or grisly executions take place in the Civil War-era duet The Dumont Brand, although the hanging of a cattle rustler in her past plays a role in one heroine’s present. The book, which contains two stories about two brothers, debuted July 24. It’s the first in a trilogy about a Southeast Texas ranching dynasty with more skeletons than you can shake a stick at in its closets. Links and excerpts are on my website.

Here’s the blurb, and below that is a video trailer.

The Dumont BrandThe Civil War burned Texas…and fanned the flames of love.

On the eve of the Civil War, family secrets threaten everything a ranching dynasty has built…until one son finds salvation in the wrong woman’s love. In the aftermath of battle, a woman destroyed by betrayal brings peace to his brother’s wounded soul.

The Big Uneasy: To escape the unthinkable with a man about whom she knows too much, New Orleans belle Josephine LaPierre agrees to marry a Texan about whom she knows nothing. Falling in love with his brother was not part of her plan.

Making Peace: After four long years in hell, Confederate cavalry officer Bennett Collier just wants to go home—assuming home still exists. Widowed Jayhawker Maggie Fannin will hold onto her home at any cost…even if she must face down the imposing Rebel soldier who accuses her of squatting.

Kathleen Rice Adams
A Texan to the bone, award-winning author Kathleen Rice Adams spends her days chasing news stories and her nights and weekends shooting it out with Wild West desperados. Leave the upstanding, law-abiding heroes to other folks. In Kathleen's tales, even the good guys wear black hats.

Her short story “The Second-Best Ranger in Texas” won the Peacemaker Award for Best Western Short Fiction. Her novel Prodigal Gun won the EPIC Award for Historical Romance and is the only western historical romance ever to final for a Peacemaker in a book-length category.

Visit her at the Hole in the Web Gang's hideout, KathleenRiceAdams.com. Or, connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest. Her Amazon author page is here.

12 Comments

  1. How awful. It makes one wonder just how they made such a mess of his execution. You didn’t mention anything about murders. He and his brother were no saints for all the robbing they did, but it doesn’t sound like they were as blood thirsty as some of the other outlaws were.

    THE DUMONT BRAND sounds like it will be a good book. War and family is hard on everyone. Large ranches and farms took a family to run, but as in this case, not all those who worked them got equal rewards for it. The West was a good place for a fresh start. I am curious to see how these ladies made theirs.

    1. Patricia, I’m not sure about whether the Ketchum brothers murdered anyone. However, it seems likely they killed at least one or two people over the course of their careers. Not everyone was eager to sit idly by while being robbed. Some fought back and paid the ultimate price.

      I think THE DUMONT BRAND is a good book — but I wrote it, so my opinion is biased. 😉 I’m looking forward to following the Collier family for two more books. They wrapped me up in their lives so thoroughly, I just couldn’t quit with two stories. I hope the Colliers and their ranch will capture readers, too.

      Thanks for stopping by! 🙂

  2. Black Jack — the loss of his parents at such a young age had to be hard on him and then to know that his oldest brother got the property in totality. We are all so shaped by things happening in our youth. (It doesn’t excuse his lifestye…)

    Kathleen I LOVED your book trailer! The music, the scenes, and the storyline. The Dumont Brand sounds like such a good book (and series!) I love stories where you get to know brothers…

    1. Kathryn, it struck me not too long ago that one of the themes I return to over and over again in my stories is the damage families do to one another without intending to. I certainly didn’t set out to establish a recurring theme, but it happened anyway. Does that happen to anybody else?

      I’m glad you enjoyed the trailer! I’ve discovered I enjoy making trailers almost as much as I enjoy writing books. Video is a different kind of creativity, and it gives me a break when my brain starts hurting because fictional characters won’t behave. 😀

      The Dumont stories represent the first time I’ve attempted a series. We’ll see how it goes…

      HUGS, filly sister!

  3. Always interesting to read about the bank robbers of the past. Love that you focus on one area or state. Kim

    1. Thanks, Kim. I have to focus on Texas. It’s the only state I know anything about! 😀

      1. My maternal grandparents lived in San Antonio for 25 Years.

  4. What a read this post was, Kathleen! A neat trailer for the The Dumont Brand, too (love the bluebonnets). Best wishes for the series!

    1. Thank you on both counts, Nancy! I’m glad you stopped by. 🙂

  5. Hi Kathleen, what a great blog and I love the blurb and trailer on your new book. I have a lot of interest in Ketchum because my husband was born in Clayton.His grandfather was mayor there and also a statesman. He told tales to my D/H and his four brothers about the hanging. I thought I knew a lot but didn’t realize Ketchum had lost an arm in an earlier shooting. I’ll add that to my file on him. Now here is where I have to add a disclaimer … this part came straight from my mother-in-law (father was the mayor). Turn your heads if you don’t want to read this, but when they moved Ketchum from his original grave in the old cemetery to the new one, my mother-in-law was about five or six and she and her BFF stole Ketchum’s little finger … now because of your research, I know it had to be his left little finger. Nobody knows where it ended up! We still have some family trunks that haven’t been opened in years, so now I sure don’t want to open them. Thanks for a great story that really brought back family memories. Big hugs and best of luck on your new book…not that you need luck. Phyliss

    1. PHYLISS!!!! It’s so good to “see” you, dear lady!

      Your mother-in-law was a brave little girl, wasn’t she? I’d be worried to death — but insanely curious — about what’s in those trunks. What else might that little mischief-maker have made off with and hidden? You’re simply going to have to open those trunks and tell us what you find!

      BIG HUGS!!!!

  6. This looks like a great book. Thanks for sharing.

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