Phyliss Miranda Asks…Hangin’ or Jury?



In the Old West, the terms rustling and rustler had several meanings. Livestock who forged well were called rustlers by cowmen; meaning the animals could graze or “rustle up” nourishment on marginal land. A horse wrangler or camp cook was also a rustler, but the most widespread and notorious use of the word referred to a cattle thief.

On the vast open ranges of yesteryear, rustling was a serious problem and punishable by hanging. At its peak, one of the largest ranches in the Texas Panhandle had over 150,000 head of cattle and a thousand horses. Obviously, thieves could drive stolen livestock miles away before a rancher learned he had animals missing.

cattle-rustlersThe vast distances to town, hence law enforcement, often prompted ranchers to take actions of their own. Court convictions for rustling were difficult because of the animosity of small ranchers and settlers toward big cattle outfits. Many times, “vigilante justice,” hang ‘um first…ask questions later, was handed down by organized stockmen. Like horse thieves, cattle rustlers could be hanged without benefit of trial, judge or jury.

Today, even with detailed brands logged in books, registering with state officials, inspectors, and the meticulous paperwork involving transportation, not to mention a new era of branding technology to keep track of animals, ranches still face cattle rustlers…those dishonest people who want to profit from selling cattle without the bother of raising them.

cowsNo longer is a single head of beef stolen for food or an occasional Native American slipping off the reservation to provide for his family… it is big business. Modern day rustlers often sneak onto rural ranches at night, or on weekends when the owners are away, steal and sell cattle. An average calf can bring thousands of dollars on the open market; so multiply that by a trailer, or even a truck load, of cattle and you can see why it’s a profitable business for thieves.

Amid warnings that cattle rustling is on the rise in Texas, recently the state Senate passed a measure that would stiffen penalties for stealing farm animals, making theft of even one head of livestock a third-degree felony drawing up to a ten year prison sentence and a fine. Until the proposal is signed into law, a rustler can steal ten or more head of livestock and the punishment is a drop in the bucket in comparison to the law of the Old West … hang ‘um high and fast.


But was hanging always fast and efficient?

I delved into the subject of cattle rustling and the methods of rustlers while researching for Give Me a Cowboy where my Pinkerton Agent comes to the Panhandle to break up an outfit of rustlers. But I became interested in “vigilante justice” from my mother-in-law, who recently passed on at the age of 92. A story teller, she was reared in Clayton, New Mexico. One of her favorite tales was about the outlaw Black Jack Ketchum, the first man hanged in the town. His execution turned into a big town event, with the lawmen actually selling tickets to the hangin’. As history has it, the sheriff had to use two blows of the hatchet before the rope broke. Probably because of their lack of experience in “structured” hangings, coupled with the lawmen misjudging Ketchum’s weight and stretching the rope during testing, he was beheaded.  Ketchum was buried at Clayton’s Boot Hill on April 26, 1901.


But my mother-in-law’s story only began there. Three decades later, when she was in grade school, Ketchum’s grave was moved to the new cemetery. Because her father was Clayton’s mayor, she witnessed the reburial. According to her, they opened the grave and she and her cousin touched the bones of Ketchum’s little finger. I’m sure in those days a casket did not weather well.

To me it’s so fascinating when history bridges time and touches our lives. Do you have a family story where history inserted itself into reality?

I’m giving away your choice of either hardback or paperback of either Give Me a Texan or Give Me a Cowboy to one of the commenters.

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45 thoughts on “Phyliss Miranda Asks…Hangin’ or Jury?”

  1. Welcome, Phyllis, what a fantastic post! I saw a 20/20 type show on modern-day cattle rustling…I had no idea. Dang, the nerve. One gang even drove up in a semi!

    I just realized I read about Black Jack Ketchum doing research for my blog tomorrow. Apparently he was the only person ever hanged in NM for a crime other than murder!

    I guess my tie-in to history would be my great-great grandpa marching with General Sherman to the sea. He didn’t burn Atlanta though; he got released due to dysentery right before. He did not die from the illness, fortunately for me as I wouldn’t be here 🙂 Well, I guess half of me would have.

    Thanks for a wonderful blog.

  2. Hi “Early Bird” Tanya. Thanks for stopping by and your kind post. I originally planned to do my blog on branding and ol’ fashioned rustling, creating artificial mavericks and the like, but when I realized that modern day cattle rustling is such a problem, I changed my focus a bit. To be honest with you, I really had to reign myself in and stay away from politics when my research revealed that a freshman lawmaker, from Cowtown of all places, thought the new law was too severe and “the punishment doesn’t fit the crime”.

    As I drank my coffee, I visualized your great-great grandpa marching with General Sherman then the dysentery thoughts came to mind. LOL I’ve visited Andersonville Prison on two occasions to watch reenactments of Civil War battles, so I really let my mind run wild this morning. I think my mother-in-law’s story is about the most interesting family story we have. Your story is way more cool.

    Thanks for inviting me back to P&P. It’s always a joy and I never fail to get ideas from you girls. Hugs, Phyliss

  3. Your article really brought back some memories for me, Phyliss. I met a Texas Ranger who spoke at a writing conference and he said that one of his recent duties was as a brand inspector investigating some rustling that was going on locally. That brought home to me how alive the “Old West” still is. Oh, and if you haven’t done this already…a good book to read about vigilante justice is The Oxbow Incident. It will stick with you long after you finish the read. –DeWanna Pace

  4. Morning Phyliss,

    Thank you so much for filling in for me today. You’re indeed a godsend! I’ll return the favor some day.

    Interesting blog! Cattle rustling is indeed big business here in Texas. I remember a case a few years ago in Montague County. They arrested this guy and sent him to prison for stealing thousands of head of cattle. Actually, the Texas Rangers broke the case. That’s when I realized that it’s not something that existed only in the old days.

    Hope you have an enjoyable day. Thanks a bunch.

  5. Beheaded?


    A different world back then, huh? Imagine a hanging as an event worthy of ticket sales. “m not sure if things are better or worse now. There’s something about that rough justice and people’s acceptance of swift and brutal punishment for a crime that I think helped keep the difference between good and evil very clear in the minds of both good guys and bad guys.

    I can’t imagine that no mistakes were ever made, no innocent men and women punished. But then that might happen still today with all our achingly slow, monstrously expensive trails.

  6. Thanks, DeWanna, for the the book reference. Yep, Texas Rangers are still alive and well in Texas, and are much involved with cattle rustling. Since you, Linda and I are up to our ears in our new anthology, Give Me a Texas Ranger, guess I’ll get that book to add to the others to read. There is so much rich history with the Rangers that it’s hard to keep focused. Linda, I’m always pleased to help you out, friend. I love sharing the tidbits of the old west with the P&P crew, and learning from you all. Mary, I couldn’t agree more about the swift justice of yesteryear drawing the lines between the good guy and the bad guy pretty clear. No doubt there were injustices, as there are in any system. It also came to mind today…why would stealing even one head of cattle be any different than walking into a jewelry store and taking a little diamond ring vs a big one? Holding up a bank and taking “just a few dollars”. Of course, bank robbers were shot on the spot in those days too! Such food for thought. Thanks for sharing ladies.

  7. Good morning, Phyliss, and welcome! This is a great blog. The first time I heard a report, I couldn’t believe rustling still goes on in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.

    As far as my family history – I’m a descendant of the Hatfields (of Hatfield & McCoy fame). And, if you’ve heard me talk about this before, my dh is a McCoy. 😀

  8. Great blog, Phyliss! Wow, I didn’t know about Black Jack. What a gruesome story. Maybe if they brought back hanging that would cut back on the cattle rustling today (just kidding).
    Have a lot of family stories but nothing I can think of that ties into anything famous. Does it count that the governor of Utah who was just named Ambassador to China is my second cousin, whom I’ve never met?? Really reaching here.

  9. The only infamous family story that I know is on my husband’s side. His great-grandfather was shot by his “best” friend through the store window where he worked. It was a dispute over money.

    The idea of public executions being entertainment just appalls me. We just returned from a trip to London. At the Tower of London, beheadings were held in a carnival-like atmosphere with children present!

  10. We had a family…oh, sort of myth, about my father’s … maybe grandfather. He moved into whatever small town, married, had one child then one day he just vanished.

    No one knew where he’d come from, his family tree was a complete dead end.

    That was always kind of fun (I’m sure not for his wife and child) but to have this mystery man in our heritage. But my sister is a geneology fan and she actually found the guy, she said it wasn’t that hard and no doubt the whole ‘myth’ was just that and people did know where he came from and where he went.

    So the truth came out but it sort of killed that little bit of mystery.

  11. Great post, Phyliss! Was insteresting to read about the cattle rustling and about the outlaw Black Jack Ketchum. Wish I had a story to share.

  12. My mother in law can trace her family history back to the revolutionary war, her paternal grandmother was a proud member of the DAR and we have all the paperwork verifying the births and military service.

    And my father’s mother’s family, the Babbitts can trace their family back to 1638, that’s 18 years after the pilgrims.

  13. Hello Phyliss,

    Glad you came to P&P today. Truly enjoyed your post. We had some storytellers in our family but nothing that comes to mind that is that interesting. Love the cover of your book. Have a great day.

  14. Hi Phyliss. Great post. I didn’t know cattle rustling was still going on. I am sure it was interesting hearing your mother in law tell her story about Black Jack Ketchum.

  15. I don’t have any “hanging” stories from the old west. My people all came from Ireland and Scotland, but I am sure that there was a few hanging stories somewhere way, way back in history, especially on the Campbell side of the family. They were notorious trouble makers. I am sure they have rustled a few head of cattle in there time.

  16. On a much smaller scale my uncle/grandpa had a cow stolen from the field where they were grazing(out to pasture) and it was traced to the deep freeze of the guy who did it(cut, wrapped and frozen).

    Very interesting that Jack got hung for cattle rustling.

  17. Hi Phyliss, what a story. About 15 years ago we were on vacation in San Antonio and had to rush back home to Minneapolis because my husband’s mother had become sick. We drove from about 5:00 am till about 8:00 pm and knew we had to stop for the night. We could not find a room anywhere. We were in Nebraska somewhere and couldn’t figure out what was going on that all the hotels were filled. Finally we stopped at one place and they told us they were digging up the body of Jesse James to do DNA and prove his body was really buried in the grave that was marked with his name. There were reporters from all over the world. Some helpful soul finally found us a hotel and I never did hear what the results of the tests were.

  18. Phyliss interesting post today… thanks for sharing. It is sad that in all this time, people are still so dirty as to steal cattle…
    I wish I knew more of my family history… I am sure there are a few great stories that could have been interesting to pass on…

  19. The only family story I can recall I’m not sure of
    the details and if it really is true. ( Mom is
    gone and I can’t ask her.) It includes an aunt in my Dad’s family in her younger days, an erring spouse, a dead erring spouse, and no resolution to
    the case. I’m not going to go asking the only
    remaining relatives who might have any information
    about it!!

    Pat Cochran

  20. Some things just never change, do they?
    Family history… Well, I have heard, that one of my ancestors would have been the bastard of a Swedish king. And evidently he wasn’t all that bad for a king, since he had a marriage arranged for her, so that she didn’t end up as an unwed mother. And couple of hundred years ago such a thing really might not have been a good thing.

  21. My uncle through marriage does geneaology and apparently there was a horse thief among my husband’s relatives!

    The cattle rustlers reminds me of the current day pirates – just not something you think is still going on.

    Sometimes I wish our justice system was more like the old days – not of course the hanging but things sure were settled a lot faster!

  22. Tracy, WOW Hatfields & McCoys! I bet you have some wing-dinger stories to tell. And, Elizabeth, I’m totally impressedwith the governor of Utah and Ambassador to China being your second cousin. Let’s hope you can meet some day, and tell us all about it. Do you remember Dan Blocker who played Hoss Cartright on Bonanza? Probably too young, huh? He was my aunt’s cousin, although I told everyone he was my cousin. Well technically an aunt’s by marriage cousin would be mine. LOL Talking about reaching far. I agree with you, Cheryl. Public executions being entertainment appalls me, too. I’d never heard of hangin’s being festive until I read about Black Jack Ketchum. The accounts I’d read where pretty much everyone gathered around, but never buying tickets! Yuck. Distasteful. I can see a story about your great-grandfather being shot by his “best” friend. I might have to steel your comment, Mary, about life being a livin’ breathin’ romance novel, darlin’! Too good!

  23. 🙂 I really enjoyed today’s post.

    I was just sworn into the Daughters of the American Revolution two days ago! How awesome is that?? I love family history and thrive on it…I enjoy hearing family stories and kind of get to know my past ancestors.

    So far I have 8 full generations on all branches of my family researched..but it’s never done! 😀

    Enjoyed the post today, keep up the awesomeness!

  24. Phyliss, I’m trying to figure out what in all that I wrote is worth stealing. 🙂 But go for it, darlin’. In case no one has noticed, I have a very weird bend and if you took the exact same story idea and even outline as me and wrote it, I promise the books would come out all different.

    Much to your relief, I’m sure.

  25. I have a great-grandfather (or great, great, hummmmmmmmm) who died under odd circumstances. He was NOT a beloved man by all accounts.

    He was walking in the woods and a dead tree branch ‘fell’ on him.

    No one was ever arrested but I’ve always wondered if that branch had a little help ‘falling’.
    If half of what I’ve heard about him is true, the tree itself may have decided to take the guy out, just to make the world a better place.

  26. Good Morning and Happy Birthday Phyliss.After this blog and being agenology researcher I mus go further back inthe family and see what my grandmother always said that half the family of past were horse thieves and the other the judges that hung em!

  27. I love family stories!! 🙂 Some of the best stories I know are about how wild my grandma and grandfather were in the 20’s. Love ’em!

    Such a neat post today! lyoness2009 AT

  28. Hi Phyliss! I enjoyed your post, especially since I’m researching vigilantes for my next book. You can’t blame people for wanting to protect their stuff, but things could sure get out of hand. Your grandmother’s story made my hair curl! I’ve read about that particular hanging, but touching his bony finger? Yikes!

    My own brush with history concerns my grandmother. She lived in Chicago in 1920-30s. Al Capone used to buy flowers from her at a little shop. Family lore has it that he was quite taken with her.

  29. Mary, you’re too funny! Everyone’s family stories are so much fun to read. I don’t know if I favor your great-grandmother being robbed and locked in the vault by Jesse James over your grandfather moving into the town and vanishing. And, tracing your family back to 1638, WOW! Man, your family is your plot in themselves. So much fun.

    Becky, I bet if you go back there’s some family stories that didn’t come to mind. Ketchum was hanged for bank robbery, but his story just seemed to blend in with the cattle rustling theme. I bet he did his share of rustling, if the truth were known.

    Roberta, thanks for the compliment on the cover. If you like “Cowboy” you outta see “Give Me a Texan”. Same model, different views…and how. Now we’re eagerly anticipating seeing what Kensington’s art department comes up with for “Give Me a Texas Ranger” a Ranger badge on bare skin? Ouch! Thanks for stopping by. Fun day. Hugs, P

  30. Okay, Tracy, there has to be a story in you not having a “choice of what to write”. Fess up time. Kathleen, we all have troublemakers in our families. Robyn, love the story about finding a rustled cow in the freezer. That still happens.

    Judy, I recall the story about Jesse James but don’t remember the outcome, but somewhere along the line I believe they thought another outlaw had been killed and buried, James could go about his business. I believe he was also an outlaw that was kinda “likeable”, well for an outlaw. I remember when I wrote my January P&P blog about The Pinkerton Agency and the James Gang, that Jesse was killed by one his own gang. A fellow, I think, joined the outfit but was kinda put on bedside duty, so to speak. He wanted to be an outlaw, but Jesse didn’t make him into one. Too much research between then and now, but that’s what I’m thinkin’.

    And, Pat definitely ask your living relative about your Dad’s family. One day it’ll be too late. That is really what happened to me. Now they are all gone, and I have questions that I’d love to have answered.

    Also, funny Mary about your not so “beloved” great-grandfather. Linda Broday and I found a grave at the Texas Ranger Museum graveyard that had the woman’s name on the stone and below written “consort of XYZ”. Hum? We figured she wasn’t all that beloved…at least not in the Old West.

  31. Vicky, thank you for dropping by and reminding everyone I’m another year older! LOL I had a wonderful surprise for lunch. Seven of my friends (all writers, thanks to the terrific writing community in Amarillo)surprised me with a luncheon. There was even a singing waiter…well, he was the cook but “waiter” sure sounds more creative than a singing cook! Thanks for the birthday wishes.

  32. I don’t have too much exciting stuff to say, but this is awesome reading after my visit to Tombstone, AZ yesterday. I have never been much of a writer, but I sure love the research part.
    If you want to see my pics from Tombstone you can visit my blog! I toured an 1880s bordello that has remained untouched for over 100 years!
    Thanks Phyliss for an interesting post today!

  33. Hi Phyliss, I really enjoy your post! I don’t have any exciting stuff in my family history that I know of! Sorry I don’t have any famous outlaws or bank robbers in my family! I wish I had a great stroy to tell you, we must of all been good or no one told the tales, when I was growing up!

  34. Hi, Phyliss, it’s so good to see you here online! You’ve shared a lot of interesting info.

    I need to write a creative non-fiction book about my grandmother who moved to Old Tascosa by covered wagon when she was 8 years old, in about 1881. Her story includes a baby buried in that Boot Hill cemetery, a gambler husband who wandered off while the children were sick with smallpox, her brother who was to become the father of Mimi Farley, Cal’s wife, later marriage to my grandfather, one of the first law-enforcement officers in Amarillo, her killing an intruder with a shotgun, etc., etc. I think there is an interesting story waiting to be told.

    Give me a kick and get me started!


  35. Research is my favorite part of writing; however, I get way too involved in the process then want to put it all in my story. I think just about everyone has the tendency to do that. It’s those seeds from research that germinate into a story, and ladies, there’s a ton of seeds in your comments. Wow, we covered just about every era and some major events. From Al Capone to Jesse James and Black Jack Ketchum, even touching on some not so much “fun” family members … as if the above three were “fun” people. I guess bandits and outlaws had their moments, huh? Oh yeah, Quilt Lady, I’m sure “everyone” was good! LOL Tombstone is one place I’ve not visited, but after your post, Stephanie, I’m adding it to my list. I’m fixin’ to check out your blog.

  36. Welcome, Phyliss! Great blogpost. Very interesting information, and I always enjoy family stories too.

  37. Thanks to everyone who stopped by today and shared their family stories. Janda, it’s exciting to know about your family connection to Old Tascosa and Cal Farley. My new anthology takes place in Farley Springs, Texas, in the Panhandle. Guess where that name came from.

    Thank you, each of you fillies from Wildflower Junction, for allowing me to drop by and yabber a spell. I love blogging at P&P and hope to see everyone soon. Hugs and lots of love to all you all, Phyliss

  38. Welcome, Phyliss. It is hard to picture the scope of the large cattle ranches either in the 1800’s or today. It would be almost impossible to tell if a few head of cattle were missing out of 150,000 or a few head missing from a herd of 1,000 horses. The lack if real justice for many in that time is sad. You can understand what might push someone to vigilante justice. But so often the wrong person was punished and people used it to settle personal scores. I really can’t fathom the thought process that considers public execution family entertainment.
    The only outlaw in our family (that I know of) was my grandfather- he was a rum runner from Canada to New York City during prohibition.

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