Train Robber – Black Jack Ketchum

Resuming the run, the train stopped at each station, reporting the would-be robbery and sending word for law officers to look out for a badly wounded man near the scene of the hold up.

Ketchum later reported, “I tried a dozen times to mount my horse but was too weak to do it.” Weary and dizzy from the pain, he sat down to wait for the posse. Early the next morning as the sun was coming up, a freight train heading from Folsom passed by the robbery scene. A man was seen about 100 yards from the train, waving his hat on the end of his gun, as a signal. When the train was stopped and the conductor and brakeman approached, Black Jack drew a gun on them. The conductor said, “We just came to help you but if this is the way you feel, we will go and leave you.” Black Jack responded, “No boys, I am all done, take me in.” (In other accounts, Sheriff Saturinino Pinard is credited with the arrest). Black Jack was carried to the train, placed in the caboose and taken into Folsom.

At first, Black Jack stated that his name was George Stevens and that the would-be robbery was his first attempt at a hold up and a mighty poor one. He was taken on the first passenger train to Trinidad, Colorado and placed in San Rafael Hospital, where his arm was amputated. When he was able to travel, he was taken to Santa Fe for safekeeping. Later, he was transferred to Clayton, New Mexico for trial, where he plead innocent, but the judge found him guilty and sentenced him to death by hanging.

Getting ready to hang Black Jack Ketchum

Getting ready to hang Black Jack Ketchum

The hanging was delayed several times until lawmen heard rumors that the old gang was going to attempt to free Tom. Therefore, a decision was finally made and the hanging was scheduled on April 26, 1901 at 8:00 a.m. The hanging was a big attraction with stores closing and saloons remaining open, doing a brisk business. People came from all over the area to see the big event, where the local lawmen were selling tickets to view the hanging, as well as little dolls of Tom  hanging on a stick.

However, the town of Clayton had no experience in hanging a man and there was a debate concerning the length of rope. The night before the scheduled hanging, the rope was tested by attaching a 200-pound sandbag to the noose and dropping it through the trap. Finally, at 1:13 p.m. Thomas “Black Jack” Ketchum was taken to the scaffold. While they were adjusting the hood, Ketchum stated, “Hurry up boys, get this over with.” Finally, Sheriff Garcia took two blows with a hatchet, cutting the rope and Tom fell through the trap.

Black Jack Ketchum getting ready to be hanged

Black Jack Ketchum getting ready to be hanged

Unfortunately, the inexperienced hangmen had forgotten about the sandbag they had used to test the rope and the weight of it caused the rope to be as rigid as wire. When Black Jack fell through the drop, he was immediately decapitated. The black hood pinned to his shirt was the only thing that kept his head from rolling away. A few minutes later the doctor pronounced him dead, then sewed his head to his torso prior to the burial at the Clayton’s Boothill at 2:30 P.M. In the 1930’s his body was moved to the new cemetery in Clayton, where it remains today.

Black Jack Ketchum was the only person ever hanged in Union County, New Mexico. He was also the only person who suffered capital punishment for the offence of “felonious assault upon a railway train” in the State of New Mexico. Later, the law was found to be unconstitutional, but way too late for Thomas Ketchum. According the annals of American Jurisprudence at the time, he was the only criminal decapitated during a judicial hanging in the U.S. The only other recorded example was in England in 1601. Later, the same thing occurred at the hanging of one Eva Dugan at the Pinal County, Arizona prison in 1930.

Black Jack Ketchum beheaded during hanging

Black Jack Ketchum beheaded during hanging

© Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated June, 2017.

Also See:

Black Jack Ketchum Lives On – A Ghost Story


5 thoughts on “Train Robber – Black Jack Ketchum”

  1. I am related to Blackjack on my Mothers side. Moser was my grandpa, Girvan is also a family name. From what I understand I’m a distant niece.

  2. Great story. My Grandad Rentfro homesteaded a ranch about 20 miles south of Clayton so I am familiar with the town. I always liked the tale of Blackjack. BTW, have you ever heard of “Skull Mesa”, its southwest of Clayton. Grandad said it was a mesa that a party of Indians trapped a cavalry patrol on top of the mesa and either starved them or killed them there. I’ve always wondered if this is true or just one of Grandad’s tall tales.

    Thanks from Burney, Ca

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