Our New Mexico Heritage: The train robber who lost his head over his execution

Thomas Black Jack KetchumThomas Edward Ketchum, who became know as the outlaw “Black Jack,” was born in 1863 in San Saba, Texas, the youngest of eight children. An older brother, Green Berry, Jr., established a successful cattle and horse ranch. Samuel, another brother, married, but abandoned his family.

Thomas and Samuel worked as cowboys on ranches from west Texas to northern and eastern New Mexico, learning it was easier to get rich faster by robbing than by pushing horn and eating dust.

In 1892, they learned the Santa Fe railroad stopped at a watering station just outside Nutt, about halfway from Deming and Rincon. The Ketchums, along with Harvey “Kid Curry” Logan, his brother, Lonnie Curry, and William Ellsworth “Elza” Lay, held up the train, getting away with a payroll of $20,000. Shortly thereafter, a posse from Lake Valley arrived, but the Ketchum gang by then was safely ensconced.

When not engaged in robbery, the Ketchum brothers worked for the Bell Ranch, north of Tucumcari. On June 10, 1896, they went to Liberty to buy supplies from the local store and post office operated by Morris and Levi Herzstein. That evening a thunderstorm struck the area, and the Herzsteins invited them to take shelter.

When Levi opened his store the next morning, he found they had been burglarized. Herzstein and four others chased the Ketchums, catching them by surprise in Plaza Largo arroyo near the Pecos River. A gun battle commenced and, when the smoke cleared, Levi Herzstein and Hermenejildo Gallegos lay dead. The Ketchums were never tried for the murders.

Now marked as outlaws, the Ketchum gang decided to rob the Colorado and Southern Railroad near Twin Mountain between Folsom and Des Moines. They would wait until the train slowed for a hairpin curve just east of Folsom, making it easy to board. They planned to leave the passenger cars stalled while the engine and mail and express car continued down the track, safe from intervention by any heroic riders.

The Ketchum gang hit the train on September 3, 1897. Ketchum clubbed Charles Drew, the express messenger, and blew the safe, taking $20,000 in cash and $10,000 in silver.

The hangman’s noose is draped over Black Jack Ketchum’s head. Photo courtesy National Archives.
The hangman’s noose is draped over Black Jack Ketchum’s head. Photo courtesy National Archives.

Ten months later, on July 11, 1899, the Ketchum gang repeated their robbery of the train, making off with $50,000. This time, Black Jack wasn’t in on the “fun.” History doesn’t make clear exactly where he was, but brother, Sam, and the rest of the gang headed into Cimarron Canyon, nearly 100 miles west of the robbery site.

George W. Titsworth, a law enforcement officer from Trinidad, Colorado, formed a posse consisting of Sheriff Ed Farr of Huerfano County, Colorado, Special Agent W.H. Reno of the Colorado & Southern Railroad, and five deputies. They found their trail and tracked them into Turkey Creek Canyon near Cimarron.

Posse and outlaws engaged in a gun battle. Sam Ketchum and two deputies were wounded seriously, but the gang escaped. Ketchum’s wounds slowed them, and they made it only a short distance before being cornered again. In another gun battle. Sheriff Ed Farr was killed and H.M. Love was struck by a softnose bullet that shattered his hip. He died a few days later.

Sam Ketchum escaped but was found a few days later and arrested by Special Agent Reno. He developed gangrene from his wound and died two weeks later in the Santa Fe penitentiary. The Ketchum gang essentially was broken up.

Meanwhile, Black Jack, unaware of his brother’s fate, decided to make a solo robbery attempt on August 16. He planned to stop the train where he could disconnect the mail and express cars, but he’d miscalculated. Where the train stopped was a four-foot fill making it nearly impossible for the engineer to uncouple the train from the passenger cars.

Being robbed the third time was the last straw for Conductor Frank Harrington. He recognized Ketchum, grabbed his shotgun, and approached the baggage car. He slid the door open and poked his gun through. Black Jack saw Harrington and shot at him with his rifle. Ketchum’s bullet went through the door, barely missing the conductor. At the same time, Harrington discharged his shotgun, hitting Ketchum in the right elbow and nearly severing his arm. Ketchum fell backwards off the train and down the bank of fill, momentarily escaping.

Harrington ordered the engineer and fireman back to the engine and instructed them to get the train moving as fast as possible. They stopped at each station, reporting what had happened and sending word for law officers to look out for a badly wounded man near the scene of the hold up.

At sunrise the next morning, a freight train passed by the robbery scene. They spied Ketchum sitting about 100 yards away. He had his hat on the end of his gun, waving it as a signal. The train stopped and the conductor and brakeman approached. Ketchum drew a gun on them. The conductor said, “We just came to help you but if this is the way you feel, we will go and leave you.”

“No, boys,” Ketchum said, “I am all done, take me in.”

They carried him to the train and took him to Folsom, where a local doctor treated his wound. When he was able to travel, he was transported to Trinidad. At the San Rafael Hospital, Ketchum’s arm amputated. He was later taken to
Clayton where he was tried and convicted.

His execution was scheduled for 8 a.m. on April 26, 1901. People came from all over the area to see the big event. However, Clayton had no experience in hanging a man, and there was a debate about how to do it properly. The night before the execution, the rope was tested by attaching a 200-pound sandbag to the noose and dropping it through the trap. The men testing the rope left the sandbag attached until morning, pulling it as tight and rigid as a steel wire.

Finally, hours late, at 1:13 p.m., Black Jack Ketchum was led to the scaffold. The executioner placed over his head a hood that was pinned to his shirt. While they were adjusting the hood, Ketchum said, “Hurry up, boys, get this over with.”

Sheriff Garcia tripped the trap door. When Ketchum dropped to the end of the rope, there wasn’t any resiliency or bounce to soften his halt. Instead, the sudden stop yanked his head from his body. The black hood pinned to his shirt was the only thing that kept his head from rolling away.

A few minutes later, the attending physician pronounced him dead. The doctor then sewed Ketchum’s head to his torso prior to burial.

Black Jack Ketchum was the only person ever hanged in Union County. He was also the only person who suffered capital punishment for the offense of “felonious assault upon a railway train” in New Mexico. Later, that law was found to be unconstitutional, a ruling of no use to Thomas Ketchum.

According the annals of American Jurisprudence, Thomas Ketchum was, at the time, the only criminal decapitated during a judicial hanging in the U.S. The only other recorded example was in England in 1601.