Black Jack Ketchum: The Jilted Outlaw

by Jay Robert Nash

Outlaw Black Jack Ketchum was so unlucky at love that he turned to crime to solve his emotional problems. Such a decision was deadly in that he brought him to a grisly death within three years. Born in San Saba County, Texas, Thomas Ketchum (1866-1901) was raised in New Mexico and became a cowboy at an early age. He had little education and was emotionally unstable. A crack shot with a short temper, Ketchum became a notorious outlaw in the late 1890s.

The outlaw's miserable love life was a source of constant vexation to him. Ketchum was jilted by a young woman named Cora who was two-timing him. She later wrote a letter to Ketchum rejecting him, a cruel missive which Ketchum read in front of a number of other cowboys at a ranch where he was working.

Ketchum reacted to this letter by taking his six-gun from its holster and beating his own head with the butt until blood ran from the scalp. In between the vicious blows he administered to himself, Ketchum shouted self-chastisement for being so foolish as to trust his emotions to another. "You will, will you?" he yelled. Then he struck himself again and again, yelling: "Take that! And that!"

The hanging of western outlaw Black Jack Ketchum on April 25, 1901, on
The hanging of western outlaw Black Jack Ketchum on April 25, 1901, one of the most gruesome executions on record. (image from the Jay Robert Nash Collection)

The rejection of his love so unhinged Ketchum that he immediately launched into a vindictive criminal career. He went out of his way to punish anyone who even mildly disagreed with him. He organized a gang of desperadoes in 1898, hardened outlaws that included his brother Sam Ketchum, G. W. Franks, and William Ellsworth "Elza" Lay (alias Bill McGinnis), who had been one of Butch Cassidy's most trusted riders in the old Wild Bunch.

The gang robbed a number of small banks and stagecoaches in 1898. Lawmen tracking this gang soon realized that Ketchum and his men would return time and again to the same spot to stop the same stagecoach. Ketchum's predictable habits almost ended in his capture on several occasions, and he escaped hard-riding posses by only several minutes. It was as if he was daring the lawmen to apprehend him.

Black Jack also dared anyone to ridicule him as was the case on July 2, 1899, when he arrived in Cape Verde, Arizona, and immediately got drunk in a saloon. He then sat down to a poker game with several miners. When two burly miners made fun of his drunken conduct, Ketchum suddenly sobered.

Jumping to his feet, the outlaw swept back his long black coat so that his two guns showed and then ordered the miners to go for their guns. He was a fearsome sight, with dark, piercing eyes, heavy, dark eyebrows and a thick, black handlebar mustache. The miners reached for their guns and Ketchum fatally shot them both. He then fled the town.

The following year, Black Jack's brother and all of his gang members had been arrested, jailed or killed. He was now alone but, undaunted. Single-handedly, he stopped a Colorado & Southern train near Folsom, Arizona, on August 16, 1899. As Ketchum was scooping up a few hundred dollars in cash from the baggage car safe, the guard reached for a gun and Ketchum shot him in the jaw. He then leaped from the car and began to run toward his horse when conductor Frank Harrington jumped down from a passenger car, firing at him with a shotgun.

Ketchum turned and faced Harrington and both men advanced upon each other, blazing away. Ketchum shot Harrington, but not before the conductor unloaded a blast of buckshot into Ketchum. The outlaw escaped under the cover of darkness. A train crew found him the next day a short distance down the line. He was propped against a tree, painfully picking the buckshot out of his chest.

Taken to Santa Fe, Ketchum was tried and convicted of train robbery and was sentenced to death. (Train robbery was by then a capital offense in certain western states, although Ketchum seems to be the only outlaw who was ever executed for this crime.) Jailed at Clayton, N. M., Ketchum watched from his cell window as workmen erected his gallows. As carpenters finished their task, Ketchum shouted to them from the window of his cell: "You did a fine job, boys, but why not tear down the stockade so the fellows can see a man hang who never killed anyone?"

On the day of his execution, April 25, 1901, Ketchum refused to confess to a visiting priest. "I'm gonna die as I've lived," he told the clergyman, "and you ain't gonna change me in a few minutes." The warden asked Black Jack if he had any last requests. The celebrated outlaw smiled and then said: "Have someone play a fiddle when I swing off." Many newspaper men were present to record the outlaw's last moments and he played to them with great bravado.

When he was led into the courtyard, Black Jack saw the scaffold and suddenly increased his gait, almost sprinting up the steps of the gallows. Standing beneath the noose of the hangman's rope, Ketchum said loudly to the many witnesses standing at the foot of the gallows: "I'll be in hell before you start breakfast, boys!" The noose was affixed around his neck and a black hood was placed over his head and face.

A moment before the trap door was flung wide, Black Jack Ketchum's last words roared out from beneath the darkly sinister shroud: "Let her rip!" The executioner pulled the lever, the trap door shot backward and Ketchum plummeted to his death.

The outlaw's last words were gruesomely prophetic. The hangman had improperly fixed the rope around the outlaw's neck and put too much weight on his legs, such that the outlaw went through the trap with terrific force and was decapitated. The spouting gore from his headless torso soaked the front ranks of the visitors at the foot of the scaffold. It was one of the most horrific executions on record.