Tag: hangings

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.

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