Friday, April 8, 2016

Black Jack Ketchum Scourge of the West, or Bumbling Bandit? Even His Hanging Went Badly

Tom Ketchum was the second Black Jack to terrorize the Arizona territory. The first was a fellow by the name of Worthington, and according to lawman Les Dowe, they were the “very image” of each other. Dowe said Ketchum was “an absolutely dead shot with rifle or revolver. His nerve was past all question.”

Tom "Black Jack" Ketchum
Tom Ketchum hooked up with his first partner in crime, Tom Sanders, while he was working for the Chiricahua Cattle Company in the Sulphur Spring Valley on the western slope of the Chiricahua Mountains. The pay was a hundred dollars a month, and to earn it, a man needed to be “as handy with a gun as with a rope or a branding iron.

Tom Sanders was a real-bad ass. Tom and his brother Charlie got shot up by a posse in Montana. His brother, Charlie, took a bullet and was killed in the shootout. Tom had no way out except to cut off his dead brother’s hand.

Ketchum and Sanders began their robbery streak around Sonora, Mexico, sometime in 1891. They moved from town-to-town robbing stores, and any place else that looked like it might net them a few bucks. That got the locals riled up, and they soon found themselves racing out of town with a dozen Rurales hot on their ass, chasing them high up into the mountains. The boys killed five of the Rurales in the fighting that day.

Not long after, that Ketchum formed his first outlaw band with Billy Carver, Tom Sanders, Bronco Bill, and Ezra Lay. They called themselves the High-Five Gang and operated all over Texas and New Mexico. They robbed their first train at Stein’s Pass in northern Arizona. That one went sour from the start. The gang intended to rob the Wells Fargo Express car, but cut off the mail car instead. Needless to say, the take was nowhere near what they expected.

They robbed another train in Stein’s Pass in 1895. Not long after this, they formed the Black Jack Gang, adding Sam Ketchum (Tom’s brother), Harry Longbow, Gus Cassidy, Ben Kilpatrick, Jimmy Low, and Harvey Logan.

In 1897, they robbed an express train headed to Helena, Montana, and netted a cool $100,000 in banknotes. The only problem was, the notes weren’t signed, so the boys had to turn into forgers before they could spend their booty.

Bad luck seemed to dog Black Jack’s gang. Harvey Logan was captured not long after the Helena robbery. Tom Sanders disappeared after the second robbery at Stein’s Pass. No one was sure if he was killed, or just decided it was time to move on.

The gang’s next major job was a train robbery in Folsom, New Mexico. Their take was small, and their problems were large. In no time at all, a posse was hot on their trail. The boys were resting up in the Cimmaron country when Ezra Lay got up to get some water. That’s when all hell busted loose. Sheriff Farr’s posse had worked their way in behind the gang and opened fire from behind a clump of rocks and trees. Ezra Lay was the first to go down. He was shot in the back and lay there swearing and mad. The boys probably would have laughed at his predicament, if it wasn’t for all the lead flying over their heads. Sam Ketchum didn’t fare much better. He took a bullet in the arm that led to his eventual undoing.

In the end, the posse got the worst of it. Sheriff Farr and all of his men were killed. The lone survivor was a newspaper reporter who tagged along with the posse. The outlaws held a short parley and decided to let him live, but only because he’d hidden away during the fighting and had been too scared to fire a shot at them.

Black Jack Ketchum on the gallows, just before he was hung
After that fiasco, the gang split up into small groups to make their getaway. Sam Ketchum was captured, and cashed in his chips in prison not much later. Billy Carver, Ben Kilpatrick, Gus Cassidy, and Harry Longbow got together to rob a bank in Sonora. Unfortunately, several of the boys were recognized during a scouting trip into the town. Billy Carver was shot at least six times and killed. Ben Kilpatrick got shot in the head and was never right again. He turned into a “driveling lunatic,” and spent the rest of his days wandering aimlessly throughout Texas.

In 1899, Black Jack rushed off on a fool’s errand. He got it into his head to rob a train all on his own, in Roswell, New Mexico. He flagged the train down and forced the engineer to bring it to a complete stop. Then he had the engineer and fireman uncouple the Express car, and move it away from the train. Things went downhill fast. Conductor Harrington, who’d been robbed twice before by Black Jack’s gang decided he’d had enough. He grabbed a sawed-off shotgun he’d stashed away—just in case and snuck up behind Black Jack. As soon as he had a clear shot, Harrington let loose and fired a charge of buckshot into Black Jack’s arm and side. Harrington didn’t bother to check whether Black Jack was dead or alive. When he saw the bandit go down, he signaled the engineer to get a move on, and the train hightailed it out of there.

Black Jack made his way to his horse, but couldn’t stay on his mount. He fell off his horse and spent the night in the rocks by the side of the track, all bloody and in pain. The next day he managed to signal a passing train and hitched a ride into Trinidad, New Mexico. After the doctor had amputated his arm, the sheriff hauled him off to the hoosegow. At his trial, Black Jack told Harrington, “You’ve done me up. They’re going to hang me.” There was no escaping it. New Mexico didn’t look kindly upon train robbers. Ketchum was sentenced to hang and locked away in the penitentiary at Santa Fe to await his fate.

The execution took place in Clayton, Union County, New Mexico on April 26th, 1901. Like everything else in Black Jack’s career, his hanging wound up a hot mess.

He was brave enough.

On the gallows, Black Jack stopped to offer some advice to aspiring robbers. “Never steal cattle or horses, but stick to banks and trains and, whenever anybody interferes, shoot to kill, and a lot of bother would be saved.” Before the hangman finished him off, Ketchum got in one last jab. He told his executioners, “I’ll be in hell before you start breakfast boys. Let her rip!”

And, let her rip, they did.

150 spectators crowded around as Sheriff Salom Garcia chopped the rope twice with his hatchet. The trap door on the gallows swung open. The crowd heard a nasty pop as Ketchum’s head was ripped from his body. The doctor pronounced Ketchum dead five minutes later. Before they laid him to rest in Clayton’s Boot Hill cemetery, the doctor stitched the head back on the body.

An article published in the Topeka State Journal on April 26, 1901, said, “The rope broke, but the fall jerked his head off.” The San Francisco Chronicle dated April 27th, 1901, was more graphic. It said, “When the body dropped through the trap the half-inch rope severed the head as cleanly as if a knife had cut it. The body pitched forward, with blood spurting from the headless trunk. The head remained in the black sack and flew down into the pit…for a few seconds the body was allowed to lie there, half doubled up on its right side, with the blood issuing in an intermittent pattern from the severed neck.”

That was the end of Black Jack Ketchum.

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