But first things first, my good friend Don in Montana spotted another error in my writing. And to make it worse, it was in an article about how careful we need to be with writing style. I apparently inserted a semi-colon in place of an apostrophe in the word “it’s.” I blame my fat fingers and deteriorating fine motor skills for the error. Or maybe it was spell check. Anyway, thanks Don, for the catch. At least someone is reading my drivel.
And now to the real story, which is about Tom “Black Jack” Ketchum, the notorious train robber outlaw hanged on April 26, 1901, in the only public hanging ever held in the northeastern New Mexico town of Clayton.
I occasionally dig through newspaper clippings available to me through Newspapers.com about interesting and oddball events happening in our state. I was looking up “bungled robberies” when several stories about Black Jack Ketchum popped up. I decided to pursue the story about this man.
Ketchum was born in San Saba, Texas, in 1863. He moved to New Mexico in 1890 as a cowboy working on ranches in the Pecos Valley. By 1892, he and his older brother Sam apparently became bored with the cowboy life and poor pay and turned to more lucrative but dangerous train robberies. His first job was the heist of a train near Nutt, NM, carrying a fat payroll to nearby Deming.
He associated himself with such nefarious figures as “Bronco Bill” and “Kid Curry” and ended up being a member of the “Hole in the Wall Gang,” made famous in the movie “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” He continued his lawless ways and participated in many train robberies and other acts of general badness. His last attempt at a train robbery occurred on Aug. 16, 1899, when he was shot off his horse when attempting to rob a train in northeastern New Mexico between Folsom and Des Moines, where his brother had been killed in an attempted robbery about a month earlier. Ketchum was found badly wounded the next day lying next to the railroad tracks and was taken to a hospital Trinidad, CO, where his arm was amputated.
When he recovered, he was taken to Clayton, NM, where he was convicted “for felonious assault on a railroad train” and sentenced to hang. That law, apparently pushed through the New Mexico Legislature by the all powerful railroad industry, was later found to be unconstitutional.
While in prison, Ketchum apparently porked up as a result of not having much excercise. He tipped the scales at 215 pounds on the day of his hanging.
Clayton had never conducted a public hanging before, so the gallows were something new. The person in charge of the hanging only had a spindly rope for the noose that likely had seen better days and was rotten. He apparently didn’t think through the implications of a puny rope and a rotund soon-to-be victim.
As he was led to the gallows, Ketchum’s last words were “Bury me deep, boys, so the coyotes don’t get me.”
When the trap door was opened, Ketchum’s body was so heavy that his head snapped off. The headless body plummeted to the ground and stood straight up for a few ghoulish moments, then toppled to the ground. Ketchum’s head rolled out of the noose that also had also given way because of the body’s weight. It fell on the ground, drawing gasps from a horrified crowd of observers. Thankfully, by the time he was buried, the undertaker had sewn Ketchum’s head back on his body.
A story written by a New York newspaper reporter who had traveled to witness the hanging described Ketchum as being extremely handsome and impeccably dressed.
“Black Jack Ketchum was a handsome man, they say, the best looking outlaw ever to terrorize New Mexico,” wrote Edfrid A. Bingham of the New York Express.
Bingham said Ketchum, at six feet, two inches tall, had penetrating dark eyes and always insisted on being photographed in the finest of clothing. Even after his arm was amputated, he insisted on having his final photo taken before his hanging with his hair perfectly coiffed and his suit being fashionably impeccable.
“He was dressed in the most picturesque clothes his keepers could find,” noted Bingham.
“Nature is fond of choosing the saddest occasions for her most gracious beneficiaries,” wrote Bingman about the day of the hanging. “The breeze across the green-brown levels was Sebean (reference to areas of the Middle East), the sky was a benediction in blue, the sun was a gentle as a baby’s smile.”
“A great stillness fell upon the town and rough men talked in whispers,” said Bingham of the moments before the hanging. “…they gazed at the thing that in two minutes more would be blotted off the map of life…”
We just don’t write ’em like that any more.