The Eastern New Mexico News - Serving Clovis, Portales and the Surrounding Communities

By David Stevens

Black Jack's life, death were scary

It all started on Halloween in 1863


Last updated 10/31/2018 at 12:46am

Thomas “Black Jack” Ketchum failed in his attempt to rob the Colorado and Southern Railway on Aug. 16, 1899. That happened near Folsom in northeast New Mexico. He ultimately got himself killed over it.

Newspapers of the day reported a railroad employee’s bullet hit him in the right elbow, knocking him backward off the train. Law officers found him nearly unconscious beside the tracks the next day; they transported him to a hospital where his injured arm was amputated.

Things got worse for Ketchum after that. He was jailed and charged with train robbery. He pleaded innocent — he was not successful, no matter his intention — but a judge in Clayton found him guilty and sentenced him to die.

Today is a good day to remember Black Jack Ketchum because he was born on Halloween day in 1863 and his death on April 26, 1901, was a little scary for the 150 cowboys who came out to watch. Twenty months after he didn’t rob a train, the good people of Clayton hung him so hard his head came off.

“His head was severed from his body by the rope, as if by a guillotine,” The Salt Lake Tribune reported the next day.

“The headless trunk pitched forward toward the spectators and blood spurted upon those nearest the scaffold.”

Ketchum’s head remained in the black sack that had been pulled over his face just prior to the hanging. It was sewn back on his body before he was buried.

The reason for the decapitation remains unclear more than a century later, but all sources from the time agreed the hangmen were inexperienced.

Justine Ritter, a great-great niece of Ketchum, wrote that “the rope was probably stretched while testing and they probably misjudged Tom’s weight.”

The website reported, “The hangman had improperly fixed the rope around the outlaw’s neck and put too much weight on his legs, such that the outlaw went through the trap with terrific force and was decapitated.”

Ketchum, a one-time ranch hand in Tucumcari and throughout eastern New Mexico and west Texas, was widely known as a gang-affiliated, dangerous outlaw near the end of his 37th year, so news of his execution was widely reported.

By all accounts, he was chatty to the end.

He talked with visitors, including news reporters, for an hour while awaiting the noose, according to The Galveston Daily News in Texas.

“He ate a hearty breakfast, took a bath, and said he was ready to die at any hour,” the paper reported under the headlines “End of Black Jack” and “Head Was Jerked Off.”

“At 11:30 a.m. he called for music. A violin and a guitar were sent for.”

During his final hours, Ketchum confessed to robbing trains, but insisted he’d never killed anyone and only shot three.

Newspapers reported he sent a letter that morning to President William McKinley, claiming responsibility for crimes in which innocent men had been accused.

The Post-Standard newspaper in Syracuse, New York, reported Ketchum was “cooler than any who met him,” in his final hours. “He declared death preferable to imprisonment.”

He mounted the hanging scaffold at 1:17 p.m. His last words were “Goodbye. Please dig my grave very deep,” and he shouted, “Let her go,” as the black sack was pulled over his head.

David Stevens is editor for Clovis Media Inc. Contact him at: [email protected]

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