Society of the Old West

From early westward expansion through the early 20th Century.

Thomas Edward Ketchum was born on October 31,1863 in San Saba County, Texas, son of Green Berry Sr.Ketchum and Temperance Katherine Wydick Ketchum. Thomas Edward Ketchum had four siblings two brothers and two sisters His father died when he was only five years old and his mother was blind several years before she died in 1873.

Tom's oldest brother, Berry Jr., became a wealthy and noted cowman and horse breeder. Sam his other brother got married and had two children, but left his wife when their son was only three. Tom and Sam were both cow boys working on ranches throughout west Texas and northern and eastern New Mexico. They were in many trail drives and got to know the territory, settlers and ranchers very well.

Tom Ketchum's first major crime was the murder of John N. "Jap" Powers, a neighbor in Tom Green County, Texas. Powers was shot down on December 12, 1895, by several men including Black Jack. He later admitted that he took part in the murder, but was paid to do it. Later he left , and his brother Sam joined him later in New Mexico.

The brothers worked on the Bell Ranch, until early June, 1896, when they quit their jobs and stole some supplies. On June 10, they came to the small settlement of Liberty, north of present-day Tucumcari, where there was a store and post office operated by Levi and Morris Herstein. Tom and Sam robbed the store at night and then rode to the Pecos River. Levi and some 3 or 4 men went after the Ketchums and after a short gun battle most of the posse formed by Levi were dead.

After the Herztein killing, Tom and Sam joined friends in Arizona and they went on a killing and robbery spree in the Four Corners states, they also rode with members of Butch Cassidy's Hole in the Wall Gang. Will Christian was known as "Black Jack" and when he was killed in 1879 someone mistakenly identified Thomas as "Black Jack" only after Christian's death that people started calling Thomas "Black Jack" but people who knew him never called him that.

After many train robberies a posse of law men hunted down the Ketchum gang after a short gun battle at Turkey Creek the outlaws escaped, but Sam was wounded so badly he was taken to a hospital and was turned in by a nurse. He later died of his wounds in the Santa Fe penitentiary and was buried in the Odd Fellows cemetery which is now covered by a road.


On August 16, 1899, Black Jack attempted to single-handedly rob the same train, unaware that his brother was recently dead from a similar idea. Black Jack boarded the engine, but mistakenly forced it to stop on a sharp turn where the cars with the loot could not be uncoupled. Meanwhile, the conductor, Frank Harrington, was getting sick of being robbed. He crept through the cars and shot at Black Jack, who returned fire. Black Jack missed; Harrington nearly severed Black Jack’s arm at the elbow. Black Jack fell off the train but was unable to get back on his horse.

The train quickly got moving again, leaving Black Jack to lie out all night until “help” arrived in the form of another train. He raised his gun as the conductor and brakeman approached him. They offered to shoot him right then if he wanted a fight, but he replied, "No boys, I am all done. Take me in." His arm was amputated in Trinidad, Colorado and then, restored to relative health, he was sent back to Clayton for trial. Convicted of “felonious assault upon a railway train,” Black Jack became the only person sentenced to death under the law, which was later overturned by the Supreme Court as carrying too severe a sentence.

He pled innocent to most of the crimes he was charged with but, the judge found him guilty and he was sentenced to death by hanging. The hanging was delayed several times until law men heard about rumors that old gang members were going to free Black Jack, so they pushed up his hanging to April 26 1901. His hanging turned out to be a big town event. People from the towns around Clayton came, the law men sold tickets to see Black Jack get hung and they sold little dolls of Black Jack hanging on a stick.

The law men felt better about pushing up his sentence, but were still a little nervous about the rumors about somebody saving Black Jack. Someone remembered a tall stranger... He and Black Jack exchanged several glances, but the stranger left before any one could find out who he was. Finally the sheriff took two blows with an hatchet before the rope was cut then Black Jack fell to the ground, he had been beheaded. It was the first time any one was ever hung in Clayton, so many mistakes were probably made like the rope was probably stretched while testing and the probably misjudged Black Jack's weight. Black Jack was buried at Clayton's Boot Hill ,but was moved to the new cemetery in the 30's.

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