Tom Ketchum

Tom Ketchum

Thomas Edward Ketchum (October 31 1863–April 26 1901), also known as "Black Jack", was at first an ordinary cowboy and cattle driver who later turned to a life of crime. He was hanged in 1901 for attempted train robbery.

First train robberies and murders

Black Jack and a group of others were named as the robbers of an Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway train that was en route to Deming, New Mexico Territory with a large payroll in 1892. The gang supposedly robbed the train just outside Nutt, New Mexico Territory, a water station about 20 miles north of Deming. During that time, Black Jack and his gang would often visit the ranch of Herb Bassett, near Browns Park, who was known to have done business with several outlaws of the day, supplying them with beef and fresh horses. Herb Bassett was the father of female outlaws Josie Bassett and Ann Bassett, who were girlfriends to several members of Butch Cassidy's Wild Bunch gang. One of Ann Bassett's boyfriends and future Wild Bunch gang member, Ben Kilpatrick, began riding with Black Jack's gang around that time. Outlaw "Bronco Bill" Walters, later noted for the legend of his "hidden loot" near Solomonville, Arizona, is also believed to have began riding with the gang at this time.

The second major crime attributed to Tom was the murder of a neighbor, John N. "Jap" Powers, in Tom Green County, Texas, on December 12, 1895. However, information at the Sutton Historical Society in Texas, says that Will Carver and Sam Ketchum were the ones actually accused of killing Powers in Knickerbocker, Texas. Fearing the law, they closed their joint saloon and gambling venture in San Angelo, and hit the outlaw trail. Within six months, Mrs. Powers and her lover J. E. Wright were arrested for the murder, but it was too late for Carver and the Ketchums.

By late 1895, outlaw Kid Curry and his brother Lonnie Curry were riding with Black Jack's gang. However, in early 1896, a dispute over their take in a robbery prompted the Currys to leave the gang.

It is alleged that Ketchum was involved in the Feb 1, 1896 disappearances and murders of Albert Jennings Fountain and his son Henry Fountain of Las Cruces, New Mexico. In early June of 1896, after working for the famed Bell Ranch, NM, Tom and Sam Ketchum, and maybe others robbed a store and post office at Liberty, New Mexico, northwest of present-day Tucumcari. According to contemporary histories, the two Ketchums arrived in Liberty on June 12. They purchased a few supplies in town. Later in the evening a thunderstorm came up so the two men returned to the store of Morris and Levi Herzstein where they were invited to take shelter.

Arriving in the morning to open the store on June 13, 1896, Levi Herzstein found that both the store and post office had been robbed. After gathering a posse Herzstein set out on the outlaws' trail. The posse, made up of four men, took the two outlaws by surprise in the Plaza Largo arroyo where a shootout occurred. It was only a matter of seconds before Levi Herzstein and Hermenejildo Gallegos lay dead in the arroyo. After seeing his two compadres fall to the ground in a midst of gunfire, Anastacio Borgue shifted his horse and rode out of the arroyo. Placido Gurulé, the fourth member of the posse, gave his account of the shooting later: In the exchange of gunfire, Gurulé had been struck with a 30-30 slug that knocked him from his horse. He hit the ground with a blow that knocked the wind out of him for a few seconds. Gurulé lay in a semiconscious state as Black Jack emptied his shells into the bodies of Levi Herzstein and Hermenejildo Gallegos. In relating the story to his children and grandchildren in later years Placido Gurulé said, "I knew if I moved a muscle I would be a dead man." Black Jack and Sam Ketchum were never caught or tried for the murders at the Plaza Largo that day, but according to stories handed down, Morris Herzstein was present in Clayton, New Mexico Territory on April 26, 1901 for the hanging of Black Jack Ketchum.

Morris Herzstein moved to Clayton shortly after the killing in Liberty, and ultimately into the Texas panhandle. This business expansion is captured by the inscription on a shoe brush: "Herzstein's Clayton, New Mexico -- Dalhart, Texas. If it's from Herzstein's it's correct." Morris was the father of Albert Herzstein, who became one of the founders of Big 3 Industries in Houston, and is the gentleman who helped the museum in Clayton become a reality years later.

Joining the Hole-In-The-Wall gang

Following this event, Thomas Ketchum joined other outlaws of the Hole in the Wall Gang and pursued a life of crime, focusing on train robberies, although when not robbing trains they worked on several ranches in New Mexico and Texas. Several other notable outlaws operated out of Hole In The Wall, which was basically a hideout for numerous outlaw gangs, who operated separately. The famous Wild Bunch gang, led by Butch Cassidy and Elzy Lay, operated out of there. One Wild Bunch gang member, Kid Curry, along with his brother Lonny Curry, had previously ridden with Black Jack Ketchum and his gang. He and Ketchum did not get along at all, and Ketchum avoided Curry as much as possible, as Curry was well known to be the most dangerous of the Wild Bunch gang, and would go on to kill nine lawmen over the course of the next eight years.

During this time, "Black Jack" Tom Ketchum was once mistakenly identified as "Black Jack" Christian, another outlaw, and that nickname stuck with him. Three of the train robberies that the gang committed were near the same location, between Folsom and Des Moines, New Mexico Territory. This was at the point where the old Fort Union wagon road crossed the Colorado and Southern Rail Road tracks near Twin Mountain.

On September 3 1897, they pulled their first robbery at Twin Mountain. Then, on July 11 1899, the gang, without Black Jack, robbed the train again at Twin Mountain. After the robbery, Sam and several unknown gang members, in addition to Wild Bunch gang members Will Carver and William Ellsworth "Elza" Lay, headed for the mountains southwest of Raton, New Mexico Territory. The next day, a posse consisting of Sheriff Ed Farr of Huerfano County, Colorado, special Agent W.H. Reno of the Colorado & Southern RR, and five deputies found their trail and tracked them into Turkey Creek Canyon. There, the posse engaged them in a gun battle, during which Sam Ketchum was badly wounded, along with two of the deputies.

Sam Ketchum's wounds slowed the gangs' intended escape, and they made it only a short distance from the initial shootout. Several members of the posse then cornered the Ketchums' gang a few days later, still in the same area of the Territory. Deputy [ W.H. Love] and Sheriff [ Ed Farr] engaged the outlaws in another gun battle, resulting in both Farr and Love being killed, while they wounded at least two unknown members of the gang. Sam Ketchum made his escape, but was found a few days later by Agent Reno at the home of a rancher, where he was arrested.

Sam Ketchum was taken to Santa Fe Territorial Prison where he died from his gunshot wounds. He was buried in the Odd Fellows Cemetery, now the Fairview Cemetery on Cerritos Rd. in Santa Fe.

"Elzy" or "Elza" (William Ellsworth) Lay was born November 25 1868, Mt Pleasant, Ohio. Elzy had come out west to Denver, and became an outlaw after mistakenly believing he had killed a man. Jailed for life after the killing of Sheriff Farr after the Folsom robbery, he was released in 1906. He returned to Alma, New Mexico Territory and lived there for two years. He stayed with Louis and Walter Jones, who in 1904 had built a large merchandise store at Alma. Elzy died aged 65 in Los Angeles, on November 10, 1934.

Capture and death

On August 16, 1899, Tom Ketchum, supposedly knowing nothing of the July 11 hold-up which ended in the death of his brother Sam, single-handedly attempted to rob the same train again at the same place and in the same way that he and Sam and others of the gang had robbed it just a few weeks earlier. The train conductor, Mr. Frank Harrington, saw Tom approaching the moving train. He recognized him, grabbed a shotgun, and shot Tom in the arm, knocking him off his horse. The train continued, and the next day a posse came out and found Tom beside the tracks, badly wounded. He was transported to medical facilities at Trinidad, Colorado and his right arm had to be amputated. He was nursed back to health and then sent to Clayton, New Mexico Territory, for trial.

At the trial, Ketchum was convicted and sentenced to death. He was the only person ever hanged in Union County, New Mexico Territory (now Union Co., NM). He was also the only person who suffered capital punishment for the offense of "felonious assault upon a railway train" in New Mexico Territory (which did not become a state until 1912). Later, the law was found to be unconstitutional.

Ketchum was executed by hanging in Clayton, New Mexico Territory, on April 26, 1901. The rope was too long, and Ketchum had gained a significant amount of weight during his time in jail. Additionally nobody in Clayton had any experience in hanging people. Because of these factors Ketchum was decapitated when he dropped through the trap door.

His last words were: "I'll be in hell before you start breakfast, boys! Let her rip!"

A popular postcard was made showing the body. Afterwards his head was sewn back onto the body for viewing, and he was buried in the Clayton Cemetery.

External links

* [ Mainpage ] at
* [ Biography]
* [ Clayton, New Mexico]

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