"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Black Jack Ketchum


One of the outlaws of the old West with an especially good name was Black Jack Ketchum. Those Ks roll off the tongue, don’t they. Finally hanged in 1901 for attempted train robbery (which seems a bit harsh), he had for decades before then led a life of crime which included robbery and murder, so it’s a bit like when I was punished at school for something I didn’t do; my high dudgeon at this cruel injustice was tempered by the knowledge that I had got away with huge numbers of misdemeanors that had gone totally undetected.
Ketchum on the scaffold
Thomas E Ketchum was a Texan, born in San Saba County in 1863, but he departed the state in nefarious circumstances in 1895. Very little is known of these first twenty-seven years of his life but in December of 1895 he and some accomplices shot and killed John ‘Jap’ Powers, a rancher living near Knickerbocker, Texas. Mrs. Powers and her lover were in on the murder and went to jail. Tom (as he was still known) and his pals lit out for the Pecos valley and became cowpunchers.

A bandit named Black Jack Christian (really Will Christian) operated along the Arizona/New Mexico border and in what Mr. Dylan has described as a twist of fate, Christian and Ketchum became confused by law officers, not always Einsteinian in mental acuity. The good news for Ketchum was that many of his crimes (for he had hardly gone straight in New Mexico) were laid at Christian’s door and when Christian was finally shot and killed in Graham County, AZ, the authorities ID’d the corpse as that of Tom Ketchum. But the real Ketchum continued his marauding, accepting the soubriquet 'Black Jack' with resignation.
Thomas E Ketchum, known as Black Jack
There were rumors that Ketchum was involved in the murder of Albert Fountain and his young son Henry in White Sands in February 1896 but no hard evidence exists. Leon Metz, in his detailed study of the Fountain killings in his biography of Pat Garrett doesn’t even mention Ketchum.

In June 1896 Black Jack and his fellow ne’er-do-wells visited the post office in Liberty, NM and made an unofficial withdrawal. The booty turned out to be the princely sum of $44.69 but that didn’t stop the furious postmaster, Levi Hertzstein, raising a posse and pursuing the gang. The surprised outlaws shot Mr. Hertzstein dead, however, and sent the rest of his posse scurrying home.

The gang then rode over the state line into Texas and promptly held up a train in Terrell County. This time it was a more profitable enterprise. They blew the safe and got away with several thousand dollars. The famous Texas Ranger Captain John R Hughes (said by some to be the model for the Lone Ranger)pursued them back over the line into New Mexico before giving up.

A few months later the renegades had another go at a Texas train, but used too much dynamite and in a Butch Cassidy-ish moment blew the whole baggage car to pieces as three thousand dollars was scattered over the area.

Ketchum and his gang would often visit the ranch of Herb Bassett, near Brown's Park, Colorado. Bassett was known to do business with several outlaws of the day, supplying them with beef and fresh horses. 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 member, Ben Kilpatrick, began riding with Black Jack. By late 1895, outlaw Harvey 'Kid Curry' Logan and his brother Lonnie Curry were also members of Black Jack's gang. However, in early 1896, a dispute concerning their share of robbery loot prompted the Currys to go off in a sulk.

Black Jack's next railway victim was the Southern Pacific at Stein’s Pass, near the NM/AZ line, in December 1896. However, this time the railroad company had the train packed with armed Wells, Fargo agents. One gang member, Ed Cullen, was hit by a shotgun blast and cried, “Boys, I’m dead!” which turned out to be true. The gang withdrew.

This fiasco was followed by a putsch in which Black Jack was deposed by his brother Sam Ketchum, and the gang splintered. Sam proved as inept as his brother, for after a train hold-up in Colfax County, in which he and his followers netted a few thousand dollars and a box of peaches, he was caught by lawmen in a box canyon, shot, and he surrendered. He was sentenced to prison but in July died of blood poisoning from his wound.
Black Jack looks rather distinguished
Meanwhile Black Jack became the prime suspect in the bloody massacre in Yavapai County, AZ. Two men were killed and one wounded, so it depends on your definition of a massacre but in any case Black Jack denied all involvement.

What he certainly did do, however, was hold up a train at Folsom, NM in August. He acted alone and when a surprised mail clerk poked his head in, Ketchum shot him in the jaw. Brave conductor Frank Harrington now let go with a shotgun and Ketchum’s rifle fired at the same moment. The rifle slug grazed Harrington’s arm but the shotgun was a better weapon at close quarters and the shot ripped into Ketchum’s arm and side. He reeled off into the darkness but found himself too weak to ride. He surrendered to a train crew the next morning and was sent to the territorial prison in Santa Fe, where a surgeon amputated his mangled right arm.

In September 1901 Ketchum was pronounced fit for trial in Clayton, NM. In an odd legal quirk, the court would not accept his plea of guilty to felonious assault on a railroad since this carried the mandatory death sentence, but as in his testimony Ketchum frankly admitted to his robberies (though not the Yavapai massacre, and indeed said he had never killed anyone) the outcome was a foregone conclusion. No one had ever been executed for robbing a train (as opposed to murder during such an action) or ever would be again but his appeal was denied. He was bitter that none of those whose lives he had spared spoke up for him.
A hot ticket
On the day of his execution, August 26, 1901, Ketchum wrote:

My advice to the boys of the country is not to steal horses or sheep, but either to rob a train or a bank when you have got to be an outlaw, and every man who comes in your way, kill him; spare him no mercy, for he will show you none. This is the way I feel, and I think I feel right about it.

His hanging was bungled. Sheriff Garcia was supposed to cut a rope with an axe, thus releasing the trap door, but he was drunk. He missed and buried the blade in the timber. It took several minutes to extract it and have another go. Then the force of the fall severed the head from the body, in the way that Saddam Hussein’s did in more recent times. A grisly end. A postcard of his headless body was made and proved very popular.
As far as I know (and please correct me if you know of others) Black Jack Ketchum has only made two appearances on the screen, one on the big silver one and one on the ‘telly’, as the Brits call it. In 1954 he was the subject of a Stories of the Century episode. These were historically misleading and often very silly shows but the good news is that in this one Mr. Ketchum is played by none other than Jack Elam the Great. You can watch it here on YouTube. It’s some hogwash about Jack organizing an extortion scheme and of course it’s railroad detective Matt Clark who captures Jack (it is he who shoots Jack in the arm) as he captured every single famous outlaw of the old West.
50s movie
I haven’t seen the 1956 Earl Bellamy-directed Columbia movie. The trailer is here. It’s a 76-minute black & white, with Howard Duff as Black Jack Ketchum. I’d like to see it, though, because Victor Jory is (surprise, surprise) a crooked town boss. Probably Ketchum is the good-badguy of legend. It’s  said to be based on the 1954 Louis L’Amour novel Kilkenny, which I will read one day and then tell you all about it.


There are a few books on Black Jack, such as the 1955 Black Jack Ketchum: Last of the Hold-Up Kings by Ed Bartholomew and No Tears for Black Jack Ketchum by F Stanley (2008).

So long, e-pards.


  1. Ben Kilpatrick went on to pose for that famous photo where he is sitting between Butch and Sundance. Although he also met a violent end trynig to rob a train, at least he got to keep his head.


  2. Blackjack should've known there were better ways to get ahead.

    Now that that's out of my system..... fascinating article. I've been reading about the West for 30 years and never heard of him, so thanks very much for this!

  3. I just found your site and am so excited. Westerns are my favorite. Now I have a place to get all the info I want or need. Thanks

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  5. A relative of mine. Along with Clay Allison.