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Historically Speaking: The Ketchum brothers and their crimes — ‘Black Jack’ Tom Ketchum

Photo Courtesy of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives The caption reads, "Black Jack Ketchum, as he appeared just before his execution at Clayton, New Mexico, April 1, 1901."

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

By Janice Dunnahoo

Special to the Daily Record

Sam Ketchum’s story was told last week. Today, I am sharing with you the follow-up story about the other brother, Thomas Edward Ketchum, known as “Black Jack.” Black Jack Ketchum had a story of his own. As stated last week, both these brothers were caught and paid dearly for their crimes — this was real life, it happened here in our state. They did have another brother, G.B. (Green Berry) Ketchum, who tried to help, but I guess the “bad blood” was too strong for the other brothers to change their ways. Their stories read like a Western movie dialog, but it is a part of the true history and happenings of this state.

I start Black Jack Ketchum’s story with an interesting side note, shared by Joan Citty Taylor to include in my column. This story is an excerpt from her master’s degree thesis, which included true stories about New Mexico. It was told to her by her good friend Grace Carrington Burleson, (1897-1909) about her father’s experience with Black Jack Ketchum. Grace was the last of the Carrington children. Here is that interesting story, then a continuation of the articles about Black Jack Ketchum.

Grace Carrington Burleson’s story:

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“My father, Jason Carrington, ran a saloon in Elizabethtown, New Mexico, for several months. Then he decided that wasn’t what he wanted to do and sold it. But while he was running it, he had the following experience: One night, pretty early in the evening when the saloon was full of men, a tall handsome man came in and walked up to the bar. One by one the other men left the saloon. My father realized with alarm that the stranger was ‘Black Jack’ Ketchum, a well-known outlaw. ‘Black Jack’ had a terrible reputation. He robbed and burned and killed. There was my father alone in the room with him and, under the counter, there was a cash box with about $200 in it. ‘Black Jack’ ordered a drink and paid for it and began to talk with Dad. They visited and visited. Dad became more and more restless as it got later and later. Finally, at about three in the morning, Dad told ‘Black Jack’ that he must go home because my mother would be worried about him.

“‘Black Jack’ kept on talking while Dad closed up the bottles and cleaned the tables. He kept talking while Dad took the money out of the cash box and put it into his bank sack. Dad expected to be robbed and maybe shot, at any time. The two men left the saloon together. Dad locked the door and stood in the street with the bank sack in his hand. ‘Black Jack’ continued to visit. Dad began the walk home. ‘Black Jack’ walked along still visiting. When they reached the porch of the house, the two men stood there and talked for some time. At last, Dad invited him into the house.

“Snow had begun to fall and it was very cold. Dad knew that my mother was up and moving about. He knew that she was very worried about him. It was so late for him to be coming home, and so strange for him to be standing on the porch in the snow. The two men came into the house and sat down at the table. My mother made coffee and fixed eggs and biscuits. Then, Dad told her to go back to bed. She lay there awake and frightened as she had recognized ‘Black Jack,’ too.

“As the sun came up over Baldy Mountain, ‘Black Jack’ stood up and said, “I don’t know when I have enjoyed an evening more. Thank your lady for the good food, goodnight.” And he left. Dad stood in the door and watched him go. The money sack was still on the table where he had set it. Only the dirty dishes showed that ‘Black Jack’ had really been there.

“Several years later, Dad was deputized to go to Copper Park and pick up ‘Black Jack’ who had been arrested there. Dad took him to Springer to jail. Dad told me that they visited all the way to Springer. He said that ‘Black Jack’ was a very intelligent man and very interesting to talk to.”

Las Vegas Daily Optic

August 29, 1899

Tom Ketchum Better

He Is Visited By Several Relatives From Texas

“Tom Ketchum, the train robber, is in somewhat better condition today and the penitentiary thinks he will recover, says the New Mexican. His wounded arm will not be amputated as he objects to having it removed. His brother G.B. Ketchum, was accompanied by Jay. D. Minnit of San Angelo, Texas, Saturday evening to identify the prisoner. He came a few weeks ago upon a similar errand to see Sam Ketchum, who died in the prison from a wound in the arm. The San Angelo man is wealthy and has several times aided his outlaw brothers with funds upon their promise to reform.

“While here, he offered to pay any debts incurred by the prisoner and to provide for burial in case of death, as he did when Sam Ketchum died. Mr. Ketchum returned to Texas last night but Sheriff Shield of San Angelo, and P. Duncan, brother-in-law of the prisoner, are here today to see Ketchum. When the latter was being brought to Santa Fe, he asked that if he died his body should not be given to G.B. Ketchum, but should be buried beside that of Sam Ketchum, whom the prisoner declared ‘was best of all the family.’”

Santa Fe New Mexican

Aug. 31, 1899

The Ketchum Brothers

Tom is Improving and a Murder Charge Now Confronts Him

“Tom Ketchum at the penitentiary is improving slowly from the injuries to his arm, and the physician now believes that the wound will heal without blood poisoning setting in.

“A telegram from Jerome, Arizona, says that the prisoner, a few months ago, killed a merchant near that place in an attempt to hold him up. One other man assisted in the affair. Rewards of $1,750 were offered for the pair and $500 was to be given for the bodies ‘dead or alive.’ Most of the rewards offered for the train robbers or for arrests and convictions.

“There was a very marked resemblance between the two Ketchum outlaws. Tom says he planned nearly all the train robberies that were committed by the gang, but hardly ever took an active part in any of them. He left the execution of his plans up to his brother Sam, who seldom failed to carry them out to the letter.

“According to Tom’s story, he would go over the ground of a proposed robbery, noting minutely the lay of the land, and figure about the rate of speed the train would be going at certain points on the road; or where the gang could go on certain trails that would lead them to safety.

“Then he made his report to his brother Sam, and in a few days the paper would record another successful train robbery, in Colorado or New Mexico, wherever it chanced to happen, and tell all about the ‘Black Jack’ gang.

“Sam Ketchum was considered a much deeper thinker than Tom, and that’s the reason he always took charge of the holdups himself. Tom was vicious, and would rather shoot at a man than at a target, while Sam was cool and avoided killing men as much as he could, only shooting when he thought it was absolutely necessary for his own safety, while Tom would shoot at the slightest provocation.

“It is alleged that the original ‘Black Jack’ was Jack Anderson, a cowboy of very dark complexion, who was known as ‘Black Jack’ long before he committed any robberies. Anderson first started out by robbing post offices in 1893, and then went to holding up stages, and trains. He kept this up until about one and a half years ago, when he dropped out of sight, and is supposed to be dead. When any member of the gang got killed, his place would be filled by someone else who was called ‘Black Jack,’ the title descending to each successive leader. In this way Ketchum obtained it and he had been piloting the gang successfully for the past six months. Before Sam Ketchum died from his injuries he received in a train hold-up, he said that the original ‘Black Jack’ had been killed long ago.

“McGinnis, the other prisoner, is sulky and does little talking. There is no sign given when the two men meet that they have previously known each other.”

Las Vegas Daily Optic

April 26, 1901

A Letter to McKinley

“Denver, Colo. April 26 — A special to the Denver Post from Clayton, N.M. says:

“Thomas E. Ketchum who is to be hanged there at noon today, mailed the following letter to President McKinley this morning:

“… Sir: Being now at the town of Clayton, N.M., awaiting my execution set for this day, and realizing the importance to the liberty of other men and the duty I conceive to be incumbent upon myself, standing in the presence of death, and whose human aid cannot reach me, I desire to communicate to you by means of this letter, facts that I deem would be of interest to the people through their president and perhaps be the means of liberating innocent men.

“There are now three men in the Santa Fe penitentiary serving sentence for robbery of the United States mail at Stein’s Pass, Ariz. 1899. viz: Leonard Albertson, Walter Huffman, Bill Waterman, and they are as innocent of the crime as an unborn babe. The names of the men who committed the crime are Dave Atkins, Ed Cullin, Will Curver, Sam Ketchum, Bronco Bill and myself. I’ve given my attorney in Clayton means by which articles taken in said robbery may be found where we hid them: Also the names of witnesses who live in that vicinity, who will testify that myself and gang were in the vicinity both before and after the robbery.

“The fact that these men are innocent and suffering impels me to make this confession. While you cannot help and while I realize that all efforts to secure me a commutation of sentence have signally failed, I wish to do this much in the interest of innocent men, who, so far as I know, never committed a crime in their lives. I make this statement fully realizing that my end is fast approaching and I must very soon meet my Maker.

“Very respectfully, your servant,

“T. E. Ketchum”


Managing Editor’s Note: Due to the graphic nature of the articles included with this historical column, the content of two articles below has been edited and paraphrased, with portions removed, denoted by ellipses. In the April 26, 1901 edition of the Las Vegas Daily Optic, the details of Black Jack Thomas Ketchum’s punishment for his crimes were described in great detail. Thomas Ketchum was hung by rope, suffering a quick execution on the gallows, and being pronounced “life extinct in five minutes by Dr. Stack,” according to a bulletin from Clayton, N.M. An excerpt of one of the articles with the following headlines reads: 

“Jerked Into Eternity Today

“Black Jack Expiates His Crime On the Gallows At Clayton, New Mexico Today

“Facts in the Organization of a Notorious Gang That Terrorized the Southwest”

“Clayton, N.M., April 26 — Ketchum was very pale as he mounted the platform but showed no fear. A priest stood at his side. He declined to make a speech, merely muttering, ‘Goodbye, please dig my grave very deep,’ and finally ‘all right, hurry up.’ His legs trembled, but his nerve did not fail. …”

According to another account with the same date, from a “Special Telegram to The Optic — Tom Ketchum said: ‘Let her go.’ Sheriff Garcia cut the rope with a hatchet. … It required but a few minutes for him to die.” … The body’s remains were placed in a coffin immediately, according to the telegram.

Such was the fate of the two train-robbing brothers, in the state of New Mexico.

Janice Dunnahoo of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives can be reached at 575-622-1176 or at jdunna@hotmail.com.

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