The Story of Black Jack Ketchum
Whenever anyone has absolutely nothing to call their own, and they happen upon someone else’s property, particularly when no one is looking, they find in this an opportunity for self-enrichment that cost them nothing — except the possibility of being discovered and labeled a thief. Americans began their thieving ways very early in the colonial period when they “found” unattended land and claimed it for their own.
We generally attribute the development of rail transportation to the period around the year 1810, but “wagonways” actually started this evolution in the 1720s. It progressed to a mechanized gravity system in the mid-1700s near Niagara (its British engineers called it a tramway), but railroad mania started in 1827 when the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad began carrying passengers and freight. The freight cars were filled with primarily unprotected goods, and these goods invited the escapades of dishonest men who viewed them as an opportunity to enrich themselves.
Necessity is the mother of invention. Since railroads were primary targets for dishonest men, whose horses could overtake slow-moving locomotives, railroad theft became a widespread problem. To protect their goods while in shipment, shippers and rail companies turned to Mr. Allan Pinkerton. Railroad security was the foundation of the Pinkerton Detective Agency. It was a lucrative arrangement because it not only made Pinkerton a wealthy man, the security Pinkerton provided also facilitated the wealth of railroad barons who pushed their lines westward.
Railroad security evolved into something more than placing armed men inside freight cars. It also helped facilitate the development of hardened safes to protect gold, silver, and cash shipments. It was Pinkerton who came up with the idea of installing “burglarproof” safes inside express cars. Dishonest men took this innovation as a personal challenge to their abilities. When they discovered that the express car attendant didn’t have the combination to the safe, they began using explosives to get inside. Safe manufacturers responded to the challenge by making heavier, more secure safes. Railroad thieves began using more explosives. At some point, thieves learned how to blow the entire railroad car (and themselves) to smithereens, but the blue ribbon went to the safe manufacturers because, while the railway care was disintegrated, their safes remained intact.
Pinkerton’s railway agents did give pause to would-be train robbers because the Pinkerton boys, as recognized law enforcement officers, established a reputation for their willingness to shoot-to-kill robbers and thieves. But there were a few thieves who accepted Pinkerton’s challenge. Butch Cassidy began his career as a bank robber in 1889, adding train robbery to his resume in 1899. Bill Downing also started robbing trains in 1899, but he was a short-lived career having run into famed lawman Jeff Milton. The Dalton Gang began their spree in 1891 when they robbed the Southern Pacific Railroad, and we’ve all heard about the James-Younger gang, who, while mainly focusing their attentions on banks, carried out the first train robbery west of the Mississippi River in July 1873.
None of these fellows had what one might call a long and illustrious career, but one fellow among them, Thomas Edward Ketchum, came to a particularly inglorious end in Clayton, New Mexico in 1901. He was born in San Saba, Texas, in 1863.
The Ketchum family migrated from Alabama to Illinois in 1825. Patriarch Peter Reasor Ketchum, two brothers, their families, and his sons Green Berry Ketchum and James moved to Texas in 1848. At first, the family moved to Limestone County, then to Caldwell County, where Peter and his brothers set down their roots. Green Berry moved on to San Saba around 1855.
Green Berry Ketchum (called Berry) married Temperance Katherine Widick, a daughter of Samuel Widick and Nancy Malina Le Masters Widick from Macon County, Illinois. Berry and Temperance had eight children: James (b.1842), Joseph (b.1845), Elizabeth (b.1848), Green Berry Jr. (b.1850), Samuel Wesley (b.1854), Abner (b. 1856, Nancy (b.1860), Thomas Edward (b.1863).
Berry Ketchum passed away, age 47 when Tom was five years old. Temperance died five years after that, leaving the surviving children in the care of Elizabeth and Berry Jr. In 1873, Texas was going through rough times associated with post-Civil War Reconstruction. There were not many opportunities for youngsters in San Saba County.
In the 1700s, present-day San Saba County was part of the Comancheria, owned (lock, stock, and barrel) by American Indians. Later, Spanish missionaries established the Santa Cruz de San Saba Mission there, and the region eventually became part of Stephen F. Austin’s colony when 28 settlers considered settling there in 1828. The first white settlers included the Harkey and Matsler families around 1853. The county was organized from Béxar County in 1856. In 1860, the county population was 913 (including 98 slaves). The economy of San Saba County relied on cattle ranching and growing pecans, so, it makes sense that Tom ended up working as a stockman like almost every other young Texan at the time.
Historians believe Tom Ketchum left Texas in 1890, around 26-27 years of age, after an incident that may have involved criminal misconduct of some sort. He eventually made his way to the Pecos River Valley in New Mexico, where he presumably worked as a ranch hand. Within two years, however, Tom and his pals participated in the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway train robbery near the Deming, New Mexico watering station.
In these early days, Ketchum frequented the Colorado ranch of Herb Bassett, who was known to provide a haven, fresh horses, and supplies to men who were running from the law. Bassett’s two daughters, Josie, and Ann became outlaw women affiliated with the Butch Cassidy group, calling themselves the Wild Bunch. One of Ann Bassett’s lovers was Ben Kilpatrick. Ben and Tom began riding together around 1893-94, later joined by Bronco Bill Walters (the source of rumors about hidden loot around Solomonville, Arizona).
Tom (and his cohorts) must have had a lot of saddle time because, from every account, they were constantly moving between Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, and Arizona. Tom’s older brother, Sam, joined him in New Mexico in 1894.
In 1895, someone murdered John Powers in Green County, Texas. Accounts of the murder vary, but it seems that the initial suspect was Tom Ketchum. However, this information appears to conflict with the records of local historical society. They claim that the primary suspect in the Powers murder was always Sam Ketchum and his pal, famed outlaw gunman Will “News” Carver. While details remain sketchy, some historians argue that the Powers murder prompted Sam and News to fold their San Angelo saloon and run for the hills — but closing up the saloon may have been a mere coincidence. Ultimately, though, Texas lawmen arrested John Powers’ wife and her lover, Mr. J. E. Wright, for John’s murder.
It’s hard to know when Tom started his outlaw gang — but it appears to have been one of those accordion arrangements that were popular back then: a situation where outlaw gang members “came and went” as they pleased. Both Kid Curry and his brother Lonnie may serve as an example of this, having joined Ketchum in 1895 and departing a year later.
In 1896, Colonel Albert Jennings Fountain disappeared while traveling with his 8-year old son near Las Cruces, New Mexico. Authorities believe that Fountain and his son were murdered, but the only thing recovered was a blood-soaked wagon. No bodies were ever found; no arrests were ever made, and even though there was never any evidence connecting him to the Fountain disappearance, Tom Ketchum was always a suspect in this case.
In June 1896, during a storm in the dark of night, Sam and Tom Ketchum robbed a general store/post office in Liberty, New Mexico. When a posse tracked the robbers to their hiding place, a gunfight erupted. The Ketchum’s killed two of the four posse members and wounded another. The wounded man was fortunate “playing dead” because Tom emptied his rifle into the bodies of the other two men.
Afterward, Tom & Sam joined the so-called “Hole in the Wall Gang,” participating in train robberies while working as cowboys on surrounding ranches. This gang was a consortium of several outlaw groups, including Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch, the Curry gang, and Ketchum. It was about this time when someone mistakenly identified Tom Ketchum as another man named “Black Jack” Christian. Afterward, everyone began referring to Tom Ketchum as “Black Jack,” and the moniker stuck.
The Ketchum gang committed its first train robbery at Twin Mountain on 3 September 1897. A second robbery took place at the same location on 11 July 1899, but Black Jack wasn’t present. After the hit, Sam Ketchum, Will Carver, and William “Elzy” Ellsworth Lay (along with several other gang members) headed for the mountains southwest of Raton, New Mexico.
The next day, Sheriff Ed Farr (Huerfano County, Colorado) led Special Agent W. H. Reno (Colorado & Southern Railroad) and a five deputy possé after the train robbers, tracking them into Turkey Creek Canyon (near Cimarron, New Mexico). In the ensuing gunfight, Sam and two deputies received severe wounds. The gang did escape, but Sam’s injuries slowed them down and they only managed to get a short distance away before finding themselves cornered once again.
Ed Farr, Deputy W. H. Love, and other posse members engaged the outlaws in another shootout. Gang members killed both Farr and Love, and two additional members of the gang received gunshot wounds. Sam Ketchum again escaped, but Reno tracked him down to the home of a nearby rancher and took him into custody. Sam died of his injuries while in custody at the Santa Fe Territorial Prison a few days later.
On 16 August, lawmen arrested Elzy Lay. After conviction, a New Mexico judge sentenced him to life in prison. News Carver escaped and returned to ride with the Wild Bunch. Tom, unaware of the fate of his brother Sam, attempted to rob a train on the same day Elzy went into custody. However, Tom didn’t play it right, and the train conductor, Mr. Frank Harrington, grabbed a shotgun, proceeded to the express car, and shot Tom in the right arm, nearly severing it.
When taken into custody, Ketchum claimed to be George Stevens. After doctors amputated his arm, they turned “Mr. Stevens” over to authorities at the Santa Fe Prison. Having by then identified him by his correct name, prison officials transferred Ketchum to the Sheriff at Clayton, New Mexico, for trial. It wasn’t a lengthy trial and Black Jack was found “guilty as charged.”
At 8:00 a.m. on 26 April 1901, Black Jack Ketchum climbed the gallows in Clayton, New Mexico. Stores closed, saloons cut their prices, everyone in town and half the county showed up to watch Ketchum’s final moment. That final moment came when the hangman released the trap door, Ketchum fell through the trap, and the rope, which was too long by far, decapitated him.
Tom “Black Jack” Ketchum died at the age of 37-years. His head lived a few seconds longer.
- Cox, R. J. The Texas Rangers and the San Saba Mob (two volumes). Self-published, 2005.
- Culley, J. H. Cattle, Horses, and Men of the Western Range. Ritchie Press, 1940.
- Sonnichsen, C. L., and Berry Spradley. “The Ketchum Boys,” Texas State Historical Association, online.
- Taylor, A. W. The Story of Early Clayton, New Mexico. Clayton News, 1933.
 Also, the birthplace of actor Tommy Lee Jones.
 In the 1850s, citizens in San Saba formed vigilante committees to protect themselves from outlaws and other low critters who preyed on county residents. In time, however, these committees turned into a murdering society, terrorizing the people they were supposed to protect. Eventually called the San Saba Mob (also, Buzzards), the group included judges, attorneys, county officials, lawmen, business owners, and religious leaders. Texas Ranger Bill McDonald eventually cleaned out this mob around 1899-1900.
 Fountain, a native New Yorker, migrated to California before the Civil War. He worked as a reporter, soldier, lawyer, and politician. At the time of his disappearance, he was pursuing allegations of corruption among several highly placed New Mexico landowners and politicians — one of which was a US Senator (Albert Fall).
 Elzy Lay was one of a very few murderers and train robbers who lived a full life. While in prison, he helped to foil a prison break. New Mexico’s governor pardoned him and he lived out his life in Southern California.