Notorious Criminals: Thomas. E. Ketchum, the Cowboy Turned Criminal

Thomas E. Ketchum was born October 31st 1863 in San Saba County, Texas and known as Black Jack, a cowboy who later turned to a life of crime. Tom was born the youngest child of Green Berry and Temperance Ketchum. His father died when Tom was five, and his mother by the time he was ten. Early on, Tom showed a bent towards trouble. 

He left Texas in 1890, and worked as a cowboy in the Pecos River Valley of New Mexico, where by 1894, his older brother, Sam Ketchum, had joined him. 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, in 1892 with a large payroll aboard. The gang supposedly robbed the train just outside Nutt, New Mexico Territory. 

The second major crime attributed to Tom was the murder of a neighbour, John N. ‘Jap’ Powers, in Tom Green County, Texas, on December 12th, 1895. Jap was entering his horse pasture when unknown persons put three bullets into his back and one in his head. Initially, Tom was indicted along with four others who had fled town, but as the investigation continued, it was determined that Mrs. Powers had colluded with her lover, the ranch foreman to end her husband’s life and the charges against Ketchum were dropped. 

The gangs first major robbery took place in Liberty, New Mexico, where they robbed a general store and post office. They got away only after killing two members of the pursuing posse. Following this event, Thomas Ketchum joined other outlaws of the 'Hole in the Wall Gang' and continued a life of crime, focusing on train robberies. During this crime spree, Tom was mistakenly identified as Will ‘Black Jack’ Christian and the misnomer stuck. 

Tom, with two others, robbed his first known train, the westbound No. 20, on May 14th, 1897 outside of Lozier, Texas. The men took control of the cab and uncoupled the mail and express cars. These cars were then moved about a mile down the tracks where the safe was then subjected to dynamite. According to Wells Fargo, the loss was $42,000 

A perfect spot for a train heist, was a section of the tracks called the Twin Mountains Bend between Folsom and Des Moines, New Mexico. Train robbery is a risky venture, but unlike Texas, in the Territory it was punishable by death. On September 3rd, 1897, they pulled off a nearly identical heist to the Lozier robbery, the southbound No. 1, but this time the haul was a disappointing $2,000 to $3,000 in cash and some silver spoons. 

Tom was prone to wild mood swings and by 1898 his brother Sam had tired of Tom, so they parted ways. Tom went to Arizona (where he subsequently shot two shopkeepers, one in the back, at Camp Verde, Arizona Territory, July 2nd, 1899) and Sam carried through with a plan that Tom had thought up, a second robbery of the No. 1 train. 

However, the gang was not the tightest lipped and had been bragging about what they planned to do in the saloons of Cimarron, New Mexico. This time the lawmen were expecting a holdup, and tracked them to their hideout. A gunfight erupted and most of the gang was killed or captured. Sam Ketchum was mortally wounded and died in custody at Santa Fe Territorial Prison. 

On August 16th, 1899, Tom Ketchum, knowing nothing of the July 11th hold-up and 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 had robbed it just a few weeks earlier. The train conductor, Frank Harrington, saw Tom approaching the moving train. He recognised 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. He was also the only person who suffered capital punishment for the offence of ‘felonious assault upon a railway train’ in New Mexico Territory. 

April 26th, 1901 at 8:00 am was the selected time for execution. Tickets to the hanging were sold to an eager public, shops were closed, and people rode in from miles around. Ketchum was executed by hanging in Clayton. He announced, “I’ll be in Hell before you start breakfast, boys.” A black hood was placed over his head and attached to his shirt with pins. He then prophetically uttered his final words, “Let ‘er rip!”  

Nobody in Clayton had any experience in conducting hangings; the rope was too long, and since Ketchum had gained a significant amount of weight during his time in jail, the rope severed his head and he was instantly decapitated when he dropped through the trap door. A popular postcard was made showing the body. Afterwards his head was sewn back onto the body for viewing, and he was interred at the Clayton Cemetery.