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Tom Ketchum and His Gang

Originally published by Wild West magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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At almost 1:15 on the afternoon of Friday, April 26, 1901, a one-armed man in a black suit hurried up the 13 steps of the gallows at Clayton, Union County, New Mexico Territory. Tom Ketchum, an attested but unconvicted killer and the most notorious outlaw in the Southwest, was soon to become the first person to suffer public judicial execution for merely attempting to rob a railroad train. A bad life was about to end for a bad reason. And the ending would be worse, for he would not die in the officially approved fashion-from breakage of the neck vertebrae-but from decapitation at the rope's end.

At 17 minutes past the hour, and at the second attempt, Sheriff Salome Garcia's hatchet sliced through the control rope, the trap was sprung, and in a moment or two Tom Ketchum had made history-twice. The clicking cameras mounted beside the stockade snapped again and the ghastly scene was captured for all time: There, held on its side by a doctor and a deputy sheriff, was the body of Thomas Ketchum, and there, in the bloodied black hood held in place by horse-blanket pins, was Ketchum's severed head.

'Nothing out of the ordinary happened,' Sheriff Garcia declared. 'No bungling whatever. Everything worked nicely and in perfect order.' Like many of the others present, the sheriff probably was not lastingly discomforted by the horrifying spectacle of butchery that had been enacted before his eyes. It was a bad and hard way to die, but Ketchum, manifestly, had been a bad and hard man.

Thus, at age 37, Tom Ketchum-popularly, but erroneously, known as 'Black Jack' today-took leave of life. But what were his origins, what made him what he became, and how did he earn his reputation?

The story opens in 1849, when several wagonloads of Ketchums migrated to Caldwell County, Texas, to raise cattle. Head of the party was Peter Ketchum, 50 years old and originally from Virginia but successively a resident of Tennessee, Alabama and Illinois.

By 1860, Green Berry Ketchum, Peter's eldest son, and his wife, Temperance Katherine (Wydick) Ketchum, had acquired personal property worth $4,500. They also acquired a sizable household. Their first child, Elizabeth, was born about a year before the family left Illinois. Next came two boys, both born in Caldwell County-Green Berry, Jr., in October 1850, and Samuel W. on January 4, 1854. Their second daughter, Nancy B. arrived in January of 1860, a year or so after Green and his brother James had taken their families to San Saba County.

The family was working hard and doing well, but their fortunes began to dip not long after the birth of the last addition to the family, Thomas Edward, on October 31,1863. San Saba County was tough frontier country, where life expectancy was commensurately short. James Ketchum and a kinsman were among a party robbed and murdered by Kickapoo Indians in 1867. A year later, Green Berry Ketchum, Sr., died at age 46. His widow, 'Tempa,' followed him to the grave in 1873. Meanwhile, the family estate had shrunk to less than half its 1860 value. But now the head of the household was Green Berry Ketchum, Jr., (known always by his middle name). This was of great importance not only to Berry himself, but to both Sam, who was now 19, and the 10-year-old Tom, because, as was commonly the way in those days, the great bulk of the estate passed to the eldest son, and not much to the younger boys or to the daughters. Berry, at any rate, seems never to have looked back. But Sam and Tom?

Sam's recent service as a Minuteman-a kind of Home Guard for defense against possible Indian outbreaks-gave no foretaste of the criminal career he would embrace in middle age. In 1875, soon after his 21st birthday, he married Louisa J. Greenlee, six years his junior. The union produced a boy and a girl, but it did not endure. In 1878 the couple sold some land, and by 1880 the marriage was definitely over. Sam, now landless and homeless, was taken in by his sister Nancy and her husband, Abijah E. 'Bige' Duncan. Louisa remarried, but Sam never did; his life for the most of the next 16 years was that of an itinerant cowhand.

Tom was with Berry. In the light of Berry's secure position and the disparity in their ages, it is not surprising that Tom was treated as a dependent, rather than as someone who would emerge as an equal. Tom's resentment is a matter of record; whether, or how far, his attitude was justified is something we cannot know.

On March 17, 1880, Tom Ketchum fell athwart the path of legal process. It seems he was summoned for contempt of court, arising from his failure to appear as a witness in an earlier case. Already, at 16, he was becoming set in defiance of authority.

But Berry was doing well. In the early 1880s, his search for a bigger and better cattle range took him to Tom Green County, 70 miles farther west. Tom went with him, but his role would still have been more that of employee than associate. Sam was with Berry on and off. From June to December 1885, Sam was on the payroll of the big Half Circle Six outfit, with headquarters near Knickerbocker, and he is said to have worked for Richard Tankersley, of San Angelo, and other local cattlemen. As Tom grew into young manhood, he, too, began hiring out to these and other ranchers. Soon he was well known in, and well acquainted with, all the country between San Angelo and the Rio Grande. In January 1889, Tom Green County had a new sheriff, Gerome W. ('Rome') Shields. The first man he arrested was Tom Ketchum. Tom's offense had been to pursue a dog into a church and then down the aisle while a religious service was in progress.

Many people would not have been amused. One of them was Berry Ketchum, who had a very particular reason fro keeping on good terms with the new sheriff. On May 23, 1889, at the sensible age of 48, Berry married Barsha Ola Shields, the sheriff's daughter. This duality of circumstance adds weight to a family anecdote, retold by author Barbara Barton. Before setting off for San Saba County, where the woman still lived and where the wedding was to take place, Berry had a few words for Tom: 'Be out of the house for good when I return.' Tom went, and Sam went with him.

In later years, Berry and his youngest brother were partly reconciled, largely through Berry's regard for Sam and, possibly, the intercession of other kinfolk. Tom later implied that Berry's change of front sprang from self-interest, aroused by the financial success of Tom's earliest ventures into banditry.

Seen together, the two younger brothers were an impressive, even an imposing, presence. Tom stood 5 foot 11 (nearly 6 inches taller than the average male of that era) and, in prime condition, weighed 180 pounds. 'Every inch seemed brawn and muscle,' noted one observer; another, years later, drew attention to his 'wonderful physique.' He was dark skinned and black haired, with small, piercing eyes that were 'indefinably swift and menacing' and 'obsessed of an extraordinary alertness.' Opinion was divided as to whether he looked intelligent, but intelligent he certainly was, whether he looked it or not.

Many Western outlaws were falsely accredited with prodigious shooting skill. But Tom Ketchum was the real thing; a true marksman. He was also, in the judgment of Dave Atkins, who rode and robbed with Tom and Sam in the 1890s, and who was himself a murderer, 'a very brutal man.'

Sam, quite unlike his brother, was fair complexioned and freckled, with reddish-blond hair. He lacked no more than an inch of Tom's height and was, to cattleman Jack Culley, 'the finest figure of a man in my recollection.' He was, said Atkins, 'as fine a man as could be.'

The years passed. Sometimes together, sometimes apart, Sam and Tom worked at the roundup and on the trail throughout the Southwest. Occasionally they were seen in southern Colorado and, at least once, as far north as Hole-in-the-Wall, Wyoming. They seemed to have harbored no thoughts of'settling down.' Marriage, which Sam had tried without much success, was something that Tom-so gossip charged-avoided by the traditional means, as in the instance where (it was alleged) he impregnated one woman who was already married to someone else. Truth? Slander? We can only report that the story circulated in Tom's own lifetime.

During those years the brothers drew closer to two young men whose appetite for travel and adventure resembled theirs. Tom and Sam had known both of them for years in Tom Green County. They were William Richard Carver and David Atkins.

Will Carver was born in Comanche County, Texas, in September 1868, but was hardly more than a baby when he lost his father through desertion. His mother, Martha, became Mrs. Walter Causey in 1872, and Will's intermittent adoption of his stepfather's name may have been the basis for the later belief among detectives that he used 'Will Casey' as an alias. The Causeys, including Will Craver and his sister, moved to Pipe Creek, in Bandera County. So did Will's uncle, Richard T. Carver, most lately a resident of Uvalde County but originally from Missouri. Uncle Dick Carver was another footloose character. He it was who introduced Will to life as a cowboy in the Devil's River County, not far from the town of Sonora, in Sutton County.

Will Carver was a popular young man but never readily companionable-affable rather than sociable. Most of him many have been below the surface. Such people are often slow to commit themselves, but uncompromising when they do.

In 1891, when Will was a cowboy for the Half Circle Six in Tom Green County, he fell in love with 17-year-old Viana Byler; the following February, he married her; and before July was out, he was a widower-Viana had suddenly taken sick and died. Carver took her death hard and never got over it. Romance, of a sort, was provided by Viana's niece, Laura Bullion, a precocious 15-year-old; but Carver never proposed and probably never considered marriage to her, though their association did not end when Laura became an inmate of one of San Antonio's many brothels. Laura herself had been badly let down by the selfish promiscuity of a mother, Fereby Bullion, who had twice thrown Laura and her brother upon the goodwill of Fereby's own parents, the Bylers. Carver, meanwhile, went into partnership with Sam Ketchum to open a saloon and gambling hall in San Angelo.

At the turn of 1895-96, Sam, Tom, Will and Dave Atkins were standing at the critical juncture of their earthly careers. Only Atkins would live out a full span of years. Unlike his friends, he was a native of Tom Green County-born in the spring of 1874, the fifth child of a farmer. Like the other three, he worked as a cowboy, both locally and in New Mexico; unlike them, he never minded labor in the fields: sowing, reaping, and gathering crops or mowing hay.

In an age of venturesome people, Atkins went beyond the norm; he seems to have been afflicted with a severe case of wanderlust. Just before Christmas, 1894, he married Saba Banner, a neighbor's daughter. But Dave did not turn out to be a very good husband, or much of a father to the baby girl who soon came along. The event that broke the precarious marital harmony was as sordid as it was sensational.

John N. 'Jap' Powers lived near the Atkinses. He was also a neighbor of Berry Ketchum. In falling out with some of his fellow citizens, Jap incurred the enmity of Tom Ketchum. Also, it was said, his gambling had put him in debt to Sam and Carver. These factors created a situation that Mrs. Powers and their foreman, John Wright, exploited to accomplish a plan for the removal of Mr. Powers.

The two schemers, making the most of Jap's unpopularity, commissioned Tom and his friends to do away with him. The task was discharged with efficiency on Thursday, December 12, 1895. As Powers entered his horse pasture, several men with rifles used his back for target practice. He was felled by three bullets; a fourth was fired into his head, probably from short range. The killers got clean away, aided by the widow's failure to report the crime until dusk.

Much later, a grand jury indicted Tom, Atkins and a young man named Upshaw; but they were gone. Also missing were Sam Carver, and one W.H. Kelley, who may have had nothing to do with the case beyond unwillingness to be dragged into the investigation. But when, on May 25, 1896, that investigation at last reached Mrs. Powers, Sheriff Shields decided that Tom, Dave, and Upshaw were innocent of collusion and concentrated all his interest on Wright and the Powers woman. He was wrong. Five years later, in court, Tom Ketchum himself said so, absolving Upshaw but admitting his own part and implicating others.

In the spring of 1896, Carver and Atkins were in Arizona. The two Ketchums were hired as line riders for the Bell ranch, with headquarters near the site of Fort Bascom, N. M. Tom soon quarreled with the wagon boss, collected his pay, and rode off with Sam. On the night of June 8, they stole supplies from the bell storehouse, and early on the 11th they burglarized the nearby Liberty post office and store, operated by Levi and Marris Herzstein. Commendably, but rashly, Levi elected to be his own thief-catcher. Accounts differ over whether the fugitives were taken by surprise, or whether they expected pursuit and were lying in wait for it. The result was beyond controversy: Levi and a companion, Merejildo Gallegos, were killed. Tom and Sam faded into Arizona Territory, where they may have rejoined Carver and Atkins. The brothers definitely spent much of the winter of 1896-97 in Graham County, Ariz.

Upon learning that he had been cleared of the Powers killing, Atkins returned to Tom Green County. He did not tread carefully. On March 20, 1897, he drank himself into a jealous rage against Tom Hardin, a young storekeeper who had once bested him in a fight. When Hardin laid hands on Atkins to calm or restrain him, the younger man drew his gun and shot him in the head. Chillingly sober the next morning, he narrowly evaded capture. Soon he was back in the company of Tom Ketchum and Will Carver. For Tom and Dave, murderers both, the road ahead was clearly marked and led one way, inexorably toward crime as a profession. Carver, however, had done no great wrong; perhaps he was merely sickened by adversity and desperate for a change of luck.

Their common purpose took them south, through Sutton County and the Devil's River country, thence westward through Val Verde County to the tracks of the Galveston, Harrisburg & San Antonio Railroad (in all but name the Texas division of the Southern Pacific). At 1:50 a.m. on Friday, May 14, 1897, as westbound train No. 20 was pulling out of Lozier, a depot and water stop 15 miles west of Langtry, Tom Ketchum and Will Carver scrambled over the coal tender and took charge of the cab from engineer George Freese and fireman Jim Bochat. The train was stopped at the next cut, where Atkins had snipped the telegraph wires and was waiting with the horses and dynamite. Using Freese and Bochat as shields and mouthpieces, the bandits were soon admitted to the express car. First, they blew open messenger W.H. Joyce's allegedly empty way safe and extracted some money from it. Three charges were needed to crack the big through safe, but the rewards justified the delay; at 3:15 a.m. the marauders had enriched themselves with three sackfuls of plunder.

Years later, Joyce maintained that the booty amounted to only $6,000, mostly in Mexican silver. Untrue-some Mexican silver was aboard the train, but the road agents left it on the floor because they could not be bothered with the extra weight. On the eventual admission of the company's own officials, the robbery cost Wells, Fargo $42,000.

An assortment of sheriff's posses, deputy U.S. marshals and Texas Rangers took the trail and stuck to it. The trio had to ride hard to keep ahead, but eventually, and separately, they made it back to Tom Green County.

Their spectacular success ought to have made them rich, but it did not. They had to pay highly for food, shelter and secrecy, and they may also have fallen into the common error of trusting the wrong people to act as their bankers.

Soon afterward Sam Ketchum arrived from New Mexico to visit Berry. The three train robbers may have left already to rob another train-this time in New Mexico, where, since 1887, train robbery (actual or attempted) had carried the death penalty. Anyone who got himself caught after holding up a train in New Mexico had to hope that the United States would assert its primacy by prosecuting him for offenses connected with the passage of the U.S. mail, and that the Territorial authorities would let it go at that. Although the federal law book was severe on mail robbers, it stopped short of the death penalty.

Finally legend has it that Berry asked Sam to dissuade Tom from venturing further down the pathways of crime. Sam soon found Tom, but when they talked the younger brother proved the more persuasive. The outcome was that Sam joined Tom, Will, Dave and possibly a man known as 'Charles Collings' in holding up a train on Twin Mountains bend, between Folsom and Des Moines, New Mexico Territory. The subject of the assault was train No.1, southbound, of the Union Pacific, Denver & Gulf (formerly the Fort Worth & Denver); the date, Friday night, September 3, 1897. Here the messenger, Charles P. Drew, was viciously assaulted by one of the gang, supposedly Sam Ketchum. As at Lozier, three detonations were needed before the through safe burst open. Estimates of the booty varied as usual. The likely gain to the robbers was something between $2,000 and $3,500 in cash, plus jewelry and a consignment of silver spoons. Ketchum, Ketchum & Co., would not have trifled with tableware had the cash receipts been more substantial. Only Collings was arrested; his trial late in 1898 produced an acquittal. He was probably Bruce 'Red' Weaver, who hailed from the same section of Texas as the rest of the gang. Tom and Sam, et al., were the others indicted; behind the et al., would have been Carver and Atkins.

The gang hid first in Turkey Creek Canyon, a remote spot a dozen miles northwest of Cimarron, well screened by brush and timber. After a few days they headed for the southeasternmost corner of Arizona. Before September ended Carver was guiding the others into Texas Canyon, in what the ranchman Jess Benton portrayed as 'a wild and beautiful locality at the south end of the [Chiricahua] range, a wooded region with a pretty spring and a chinked log house in a clearing.'

Early in December 1897, the U.S. marshals of New Mexico and Arizona territories heard that a train would be held up at Stein's Pass within the next 10 days. The pass overlooked the territorial boundary and was within easy riding distance of 'Tex Canyon.'

Shortly after 6 p.m. on Thursday, December 9, 1897, Dave Atkins and a man known locally as Edward H. Cullen held up the post office in the nearby village of Stein's. Their take was $9. They and Sam then grabbed the station agent, Charles E. St. John, and ransacked the premises of express and railroad company funds, inflating their haul by a further $2.20. Tom relieved the telegraph operator of his Winchester .44. He and Carver then took the horses two miles down the line and built a bonfire on each side of the track.

Toward 9 p.m. the westbound flyer, No. 20, came toiling up the grade to Stein's station. The gang stopped it by ordering St. John to show a red light, seized control of the engine and told engineer Thomas W. North to pull ahead as far as the two bonfires.

The train was halted and the outlaws approached the express car. A terrific battle then ensued between the bandits and the three men in the car-messenger Charles Jennings and two guards. Four of the gang were wounded and the fifth, Cullen, killed when he picked the wrong moment to raise his head. That ended the affray. Leaving Cullen where he lay, the band slunk back to Texas Canyon to patch themselves up and exchange recriminations. Tom blamed Atkins; he had got drunk, said Tom, and spilled word of their plans into too many and too receptive ears.

Six men were arrested in or near Texas Canyon in connection with the Stein's Pass case. Three finally were cleared, while the other three-Leonard Alverson, Walter Hovey, alias Hoffman, and William Warderman, alias Fatty Ryan-were jointly indicted by a federal grand jury and eventually convicted of post office robbery. They were all thieves and smugglers, but none had participated in the holdup of the post office, station or train.

On the other hand, not only had they been sheltering the Ketchum Gang, they knew exactly who they were, what they were, and what they were going to do. Knowingly or not, they were accessories before the fact. That made them all equal in guilt to the principals, if the jury chose to believe that even one of them was at the scene of the crime. The jury believed that a flesh wound in Hovey's leg had been sustained during the holdup. Hovey's explanation sounded implausible, but it was almost certainly true. Anyway, despite the confessions of both Tom and Sam Ketchum, the three men stayed in prison until 1904, when President Theodore Roosevelt pardoned them.

Cullen, the man killed in the holdup, is sometimes said to have been Ed Bullion, Laura's brother. But Laura had no brother named Ed. Her only brother was Daniel, born in 1879, and he was still living long after 1897.

After the debacle at Stein's Pass, the outlaws were short of money. But, since trains were still running and express cars were still carrying money, there was an obvious remedy. Once again, westbound train No. 20 was the object of their attentions, but the spotlight had shifted back to Texas and the Galveston, Harrisonburg & San Antonio.

Midway between Langtry and Del Rio, and 30 miles east of Loxier, was Comstock station, where the Newman gang had held up a train in 1896. They had obtained little loot, and were soon caught. The Ketchums would do better.

At 11:30 local time on Thursday, April 28, 1898, as the train was picking up speed out of Comstock, two intruders entered the locomotive cab and ordered engineer Walter Jordan to bring her to a halt. Two more men then appeared and detached the passenger coaches. At 11:50 p.m. the mail and express cars were taken ahead to a place called Helmet, where messenger Richard Hayes surrendered when the cartridges jammed in his Winchester. The bandits emptied the way safe, placed dynamite on the time-locked through safe, put the way safe on the dynamite and lit the fuse. The ensuing explosion sent the way safe soaring through the roof of the car and into the night sky.

'Big Booty for Texans,' roared a headline in the faraway San Francisco Chronicle, leading a report from El Paso that the bandits had netted $20,000. At the opposite end of the scale was the figure of $4.80 cited by a correspondent in Del Rio. About all that can be warranted is that the higher figure was much too high, and the lower much too low.

The descriptions of the robbers, such as they were-a large man with a German accent and three small men-were nothing like those of the known members of the Ketchum Gang. But the men were heavily masked, it was dark and the witnesses were too rattled to agree on whether there were four robbers or six.

Whatever their haul, the men had a seven-hour start on their pursuers and stayed clear of them. Special officer Fred Dodge was sent from Houston to lead Wells, Fargo's investigation into the case, but without tangible result.

The Comstock robbery is not mentioned in Barbara Barton's new book, Den of Outlaws, on the Ketchums and their associates. But she does point to the recent discovery of a cave near Pandale, Texas, one of whose walls bears the inscription 'Tom Ketchum' beside the date 4-26-98. Pandale and Comstock are just 25 miles apart.

Proof that the robber gang had struck no lode at Comstock was forthcoming two months later, when the gang of four stuck up westbound train No. 3 near Stanton, Texas. In crow's flight terms, Stanton was 180 miles almost due north of Comstock, but in practice the Ketchum Gang would have traveled by way of Tom Green County, spending several weeks there before pushing on to intercept the Texas & Pacific train on Mustang Creek at 10 p.m., Friday, July 1, 1898. They reverted to the methods tried at Stein's Pass, stopping the train with a red light signal and track where the passenger coaches were unhooked, the express car pulled ahead and the safe blown.

There followed the usual seesaw speculations about the extent of the booty-perhaps $50,000; perhaps $10,000; perhaps no more than $1,000. The fact that a number of $10 bills were left behind, along with some jewelry, suggests that the last figure is too low. A couple of days later a report came that a posse was on the rail of four men-two on horseback, one on a bicycle and one on foot. It doesn't sound much like the Ketchum Gang, who, moreover, were well mounted on fresh horses obtained from a ranch in Sterling County not long before the robbery.

Another posse scoured the hills and hollows of Tom Green County. If the officers didn't know where the road agents were going, at least they had a pretty good idea where they had been.

It was another easy getaway. But, though none could have guessed it at the time, it was also the end of the Ketchum Gang, as such.Dave Atkins may have left already. If he was absent from one or both of the 1898 robberies, the fourth member of the team may well have been Benjamin Kilpatrick, third of the six sons (there were three daughters besides) of George and Mary Kilpatrick, of Concho County. Ben, born in 1874, had known the Ketchums, Carver and Atkins from his teens and had worked alongside some or all of them on various ranches.

Sam and Will broke with Tom in New Mexico in the spring of 1899. The exact precipitant is unknown, but the causes were cumulative. Tom's mood swings were becoming wilder and ever more unpredictable, until the day arrived when even Sam could stand no more of him.

Butch Cassidy and his closest friend and ally, William Ellsworth 'Elzy' Lay, came down from Wyoming late in 1898 and, as Jim Lowe and Beill McGinnis, were hired by Bob Johnson, foreman of the Erie outfit in Cochise County, Ariz. Early in 1899 they and others were taken on by the WS ranch of Alma, N.M., which desperately needed hands for special roundup, prior to partial sell-up and partial removal to Springer. Also present were Red Weaver and Ben Kilpatrick, who was calling himself Johnny Ward. It is likely that the Ketchums, Kilpatrick and perhaps Carver had found sanctuary in Hole-in-the-Wall in the late summer or early fall of 1898. They could then have recommended the Erie and its knowledgeable but uninquisitive foreman to Cassidy and Lay. Cassidy got along nicely with Carver, only half-trusted Weaver and had no use or time for the Ketchums. He advised Lay to keep clear of all three of the latter. The advice was ignored, though Tom Ketchum's departure may have removed much of its point. In any event, Lay agreed to join Sam, Will and Red in a repeat hold up at Twin Mountains, on the Colorado & Southern Railway (the recently renamed Union Pacific, Denver & Gulf).

Sam and Will set up camp in Turkey Canyon during May 1899. Lay and Weaver quit the WS at about that same time, their last service being to oversee the transfer of a trainload of cattle to Springer, the railhead close to the WS's new northern headquarters. Once there, Weaver was carted off to the local pesthouse as a smallpox suspect. He was soon released, however, and was seen with Lay in Cimarron toward mid-June. Later that month, Lay and Carver were together in the same town for nearly a week. While there, Carver, giving his name as 'G.W. Franks' and 'Simerone' as his address, wrote to a Springer storekeeper for two 40-inch rifle scabbards. He also ordered a .30-40 carbine and 1,000 rounds of ammunition from a supplier in Denver.

During this period Tom Ketchum was nearly 400 miles away, in Yavapai County, in central Arizona. As night was falling on Sunday, July 2, 1899, he entered a store at Camp Verde and shot dead the proprietors, Mack Rogers and Clint Wingfield.

Whatever the motive, it was not robbery. Rogers certainly recognized Tom. It might also be relevant that he had once lived in Texas, though that is rather like saying that the needle was somewhere in the haystack. But on this slenderest of evidence rests the only plausible explanation for the murder of Roger: that it sprang from some prior difficulty between the two men. Possibly Ketchum's intention was merely to approach Rogers for provisions and an olive branch, until this course was preempted by the storekeeper's dash for the counter. If Rogers meant to arm himself, he came nowhere near doing it, for Ketchum shot him in the back. Wingfield was killed because he happened to be there; he was working upstairs on the company books and rushed down to inquire into the cause of the commotion. Ketchum responded by killing him.

Outside the store, Tom scattered the by-standers and hurried to his horse, a mile away. The pursuit was directed more by anger than by thought, making it easier for Ketchum to escape into New Mexico.

Sam Ketchum heard nothing of this. On the evening of July 7, he and Carver bought supplies in Cimarron and cached them in Turkey Canyon. Next day, Lay and Weaver also left Cimarron. Red headed northeast; Lay, at first, northwest. The four would have been mortified had they known that their activities had aroused suspicion in Cimarron, and that warnings had been passed to the U.S. marshal, Creighton M. Foraker (though not to the county sheriff). But before Foraker could do anything about the warnings, the Colorado & Southern No. 1 southbound train was robbed, at almost the same spot and in almost the same fashion as in 1897.

At 10:10 p.m. on Tuesday, July 11, Sam Ketchum and Elzy Lay slipped aboard the blind end of the baggage car while the engine was taking on water at Folsom. Will Carver had a fire blazing beside the track two miles into the 'S' bend at Twin Mountains. There, engineer J.A. Tubbs was told to stop the train. At Carver's urging, emphasized by a few shots from his carbine, messenger Hamil Scott opened the car door. The first explosion miscued; the second, in the words of the conductor, Frank Harrington, blew a hole in the safe 'about as big as a common soup bowl,' pulling back the roof of the car 'just like you peel a banana.'

Watched by Harrington and two sheriffs, the three men attached many packages and bundles to the saddles of three horses. In the light of the messenger's sturdy insistence that the robbers had taken only a saddletree and some fruit from the train, one might wonder where else the packages and bundles could have come from. Marshal Foraker, whose information would have included at least a modicum of fact, stated not long afterward that the loot amounted to $30,000. The information that eventually found its way to Governor Miguel Otero may have been as authoritative as any audit. It placed a whopping $70,000 to the credit of the robbers' account.

Most onlookers reported the presence of a fourth bandit, and the posses found four sets of hoof prints, though the conductor and sheriffs had seen only three men and horses. Some witnesses said one of the horses was carrying two men when the robbers left. Weaver evidently was on guard duty near the train, having left his own mount some distance away.

Some 45 miles southwest of the scene of the robbery, Weaver left the others. He intended to lay over on the WS, then travel to Silver City by train, and thence to Alma. Evidently his first duty was to place the stolen money in a temporary cache: after the posses had given up and gone home, he would rendezvous with the trio from Turkey Canyon, and the plunder would be divided.

That, at any rate, is likely to have been what was meant to happen. But events supervened. Weaver secreted the swag but was arrested soon after ward; while the other three, far from being secure in Turkey Canyon, were trapped there without knowing it.

Ketchum, Carver and Lay were grossly overconfident. First, they made themselves too conspicuous in Cimarron. Then, after the robbery, they rode blithely into the canyon without checking to see whether anyone nearby was watching for them.

Someone was.

Among the residents of Cimarron who had been suspicious of the four strangers was freighter James Morgan, nicknamed 'Billy,' who saw the three men turn into Turkey Canyon on July 15. Early the next evening, the 16th, a seven-man federal posse, guided by the rising smoke of the bandits' campfire, came up unnoticed to within easy shooting range.

Early the next evening, a Sunday, a seven-man federal posse, guided by the rising smoke of the bandits' campfire, and further assisted by the crowning folly of the hunted men in not posting a lookout, came up unnoticed to within easy shooting range.

Nominal leader of the posse was Deputy U.S. Marshal Wilson 'Memphis' Elliott, but two of its other member behaved at times as though they were in charge. One of them was Edward J. Farr, sheriff of Huerfano County, Colo., who was closely allied with the railroad and industrial interests of southern Colorado. The other was William Hiram Reno, special officer of the Colorado & Southern Railway. While neither of them had a shred of independent jurisdiction authority in New Mexico Territory, it is fair to say also that Elliott-who had known Sam Ketchum in San Angelo-showed no evidence of effective leadership.

Even so, Farr's initiative was more pragmatic than legal. Seeing Lay, disheveled and unarmed, near a pool 100 yards distant but far below him, Farr opened fire. If the sheriff-or Deputy Marshal Elliott, who fired a few moments later from another angle-shouted any command to surrender, they gave Lay no time to react to it. Farr's bullet dropped Lay 'just the same as if I had been hit with a club.' As he was falling, he was shot in the back by either Elliott or Morgan.

Ketchum seized his rifle and got into the action, inviting the possemen to 'come down here.' A bullet from Elliott broke Sam's left arm, putting him out of the fight.

Carver, from above and invisible to the posse, kept up a vigorous fire, wounding one man and forcing the others to keep close cover. Lay, reviving, crawled back to his rifle, fainted again and regained consciousness while Carver was single-handedly holding the posse at bay. (Some researchers say that it was another outlaw, Harvey Logan, who did the shooting and that Carver had left the canyon earlier-see 'Gunfighters and Lawmen' in the June 1999 Wild West.) Carver located Farr trying to take cover behind a small tree and fired at his protruding south end just as the sheriff withdrew it from the bullet's path. Well knowing the penetrative force of the .30-40 bullet, he aimed next at the center of Farr's tree and 'blew splinters clear through the officer.' The wound was fatal.

Reno, who was close to the slain sheriff, and F.H. Smith, the wounded posseman, then departed to summon help from Cimarron. He left his horse where it was picketed and took the safer way out-over the top of the mountain, and perforce afoot. He was undoubtedly frightened, and with good cause. So were the other surviving members of the posse. Elliot and Morgan, who had been bold enough when the advantage rested with them, were utterly unnerved by the abrupt change of fortunes. Henry Love, the second posseman to be wounded by Carver, was in great pain; the bullet had driven Love's skinning knife deep into his thigh. Eliott waited until morning and then ordered a retreat.

The bandits had left during the night, headed southwest. Sam Ketchum could not go beyond Ute Park and had to be abandoned. He was captured and taken to Santa Fe, where his wound was treated. Too late-gangrene had taken over, and he died on July 24. Henry Love had died in agony four days earlier. Lay, despite the severity of his wounds, needed only a week's care and immobility before he was fit to travel.

Fortunately for him, his wounds, though they had cost him a lot of blood, were 'clean through and through.' They had almost healed when-over breakfast on the morning of August 16-he was captured on Lusk's ranch at Chimney Wells, near Carlsbad, N.M. Carver eluded the posse.

Tom Ketchum, too, had kept clear of the posses. But as he had avoided most other human contact after his flight from Camp Verde, he had heard nothing of the recent train robbery, the fight in the canyon, and Sam's death. He was counting on reconciliation with Sam and Carver as he rode to Wagon Mound, New Mexico Territory, where he hoped they would be in camp. When he saw they were not, he decided to hold up a train unaided. On the night of August 10 or 11, he was about to slip aboard the baggage wagon at Wagon Mound when he spotted an armed guard at the open door of the express car. Tom carried on walking, mounted the horse he had left downtrack and headed for Folsom 70 miles to the northeast. His mind had reverted to the gang's old plan for a second hold up at Twin Mountains. Sam and the others, he assumed, had dropped the idea; very well, he would carry it through-alone.

In the first robbery at Twin Mountains-and, as he would learn, in the second-the gang had not uncoupled the express car from the passenger coaches, because a man or two could be spared to prevent interference from the coaches. But Tom, acting alone, could not be in two places at once. He would have to cut the train behind the express car, which could then be drawn ahead to the spot where he had left his horse and the dynamite.

Ketchum was ignorant of one crucial operational detail: The 'Miller hook,' the old-fashioned coupling device still in use with the Colorado & Southern, would lock whenever the train entered a curve, thus binding the cars together.

It was 10:20 p.m. on August 16-some 16 hours after Elzy Lay's arrest near Carlsbad-when Tom Ketchum sneaked onto the blind baggage of train No. 1 at Folsom station. Under the urging of Ketchum's Winchester, engineer Joseph Kirchgrabber halted the train on the bend, some four miles south of Folsom. Tom's horse was two miles downtrack, close to the scene of the two earlier robberies. The conductor of the train was Frank Harrington, who had played a spectator's role during both of them; the difference was that, this time, he had a shotgun for company. Charles Drew, whom the gang had manhandled in the 1897 robbery, was the express messenger. In his charge was well over $5,000 in currency-enough, Tom reckoned, to see him aboard a ship for South America.

Drew was ordered to the ground and told to hold a lantern while fireman Tom Scanlon struggled with the locked couplings. Scalon knew that he was being asked to do what was next to impossible, but the robber's curtness and impatience made him disinclined to say so. Yet, clearly, the man with the Winchester was on the edge of his temper. Somehow the deadlock would have to be resolved.

The tension snapped when Fred Bartlett, the mail clerk, stuck his head out. Ketchum fired what was meant to be a warning shot, a deliberate near miss; but the bullet ricocheted from a steel projection and struck Barlett's jaw, tearing out two teeth.

After a further bout of furious effort, Scanlon told Ketchum that he had at last got the cars unhooked. He lied, or was mistaken; he had done better, better, except from Ketchum's viewpoint-he had cut the airhose, thereby locking the brakes on all the passenger coaches and irretrievably wrecking the bandit's plan. But Ketchum was still determined not to give up. His obstinacy was to cost him his liberty and his life.

Ketchum ordered Kirchgrabber to take over from Scanlon. The engineer was toiling over the couplings with a jackbar when conductor Harrington, shotgun cocked and at the ready, half opened the front-end door of the leading coach. As soon as he had a clear sight of the bandit, he flung the door wide open and fired.

Even before the loads tore into hi right arm, just above the elbow, Tom was throwing his aim from Drew to Harrington, but he was an instant too slow. As he explained later, 'The buckshot jiggled my aim,' and the bullet from his rifle merely grazed the conductor's left arm.

Ketchum reeled away into the night, turning for a few moments only to send a couple of shots toward Drew's lantern. He managed to reach his picketed horse, but lacked the strength to mount. he lay down by the track to wait for the first northbound train and for the posse that would be on it. He and his career were done for.

The essence of the rest is soon told. On October 10, 1899, under his assumed name of William H. McGinnis, Elzy Lay was sentenced to life imprisonment for second-degree murder. Governor Otero commuted the life term to one of 10 years' imprisonment. He believed, rightly, that Lay's trial had been handled unfairly; and, wrongly, that Lay had fired no shots in the Turkey Canyon fight. Deduction for good behavior and 17 days' further remission earned by road-building labor gave Lay his freedom on December 24, 1905.

Marshal Foraker had released Red Weaver on July 20, 1899, evidently concluding that Red's demonstrable absence from the Turkey Canyon affray proved he had nothing to do with train robbery. Red took leave with a fine show of injured innocence. Some while later, he recovered the Folsom loot, took it south and reburied it near Alma, New Mexico. Loyalty, or more probably a due sense of self-preservation, constrained him from helping himself to more than his share. He lived for some months in a style to which he had never been accustomed, but spoiled the picture for himself by losing a gunfight he should have won, with results that were fatal for him. The winner was William 'Pad' Holomon. The date was April 8, 1901.

Fifty-eight thousand dollars of Folsom loot remained underground. But Lay had been told where to find the hoard, and it passed into his possession shortly after his reappearance in Alma in the last days of 1905. It must have considerably eased his journey through the next few years, but at the time of his death in 1934 he was not well off.

Will Carver helped Butch Cassidy and Harry Longabaugh, the Sundance Kid, rob the bank at Winnemucca, Nev., on September 19,1900, but on April 2, 1901, Carver was shot and killed in Sonora, Texas. With him at the time was George Kilpatrick, a younger brother of Ben. George recovered from his wounds and joined Harvey Logan, alias Kid Curry, after the latter's escape from jail in 1903. Logan committed suicide in 1904. George's later history is unknown.

After Carver's death, Laura Bullion transferred her affections to Ben Kilpatrick. Ben had cast his lot with Curry in 1898 and taken part in two or three train robberies alongside him. After the last of these, Ben and Laura were imprisoned for forging signatures on incomplete bank notes. She served 3 1/2 years. He served 9 1/2. On March 13, 1912, nine months after his release, Ben was killed by an express messenger near Sanderson, Texas. Laura lived under an assumed name until 1961, mainly in Tennessee.

After breaking with the Ketchum Gang in 1898, David Atkins went north. His friend, Joseph 'Mack' Axford, received one letter from him, mailed from Idaho, and never knew what happened to him thereafter.

Plenty happened. In March 1900, Atkins was arrested in Montana and subsequently collected by Rome Shields, who was still sheriff of Tom Green County, Texas. On his return to Texas, Dave was bailed out to await trial for the murder of Tom Hardin. Those who had trusted him were left holding the bag. Atkins absconded early in 1901, intending to join the British army in South Africa for the war against the Boer Republics of Transvaal and Orange Free State. He sailed from New Orleans as a muleteer, disembarked at East London late in March 1901 and enlisted as a mounted rifleman in a force of Cape Colony Volunteers. He saw much action over the next year or so, mostly against Cape Dutch insurgents.

A few weeks after the war ended on May 31, 1902, Atkins took ship for Southampton, England. After an interval of sightseeing, he returned to the United States. Nine peripatetic years followed, during which he lived in Mexico, British Honduras, and various other countries in Central and South America. Finally, in 1911, he was caught on one of his periodic trips to Tom Green County. He was convicted of the Hardin killing and sentenced to five years' imprisonment. Otherwise, the state of Texas had no argument with him.

For a man of his record, that was light treatment indeed. But Dave Atkins had outlived his own fleeting notoriety. No one was interested in blowing the dust off the case papers for the Powers murder or the Lozier robbery, or establishing a link between Atkins and any robbery in New Mexico. He died in 1964, having spent his last 32 years in a mental institution. Even in his worst moments, though, he could not have envied Tom Ketchum his fate.

Governor Otero and the legal-politico establishment of New Mexico were set on making an example of Thomas Edward Ketchum. The Territory of Arizona believed it had an irrefragable case against Ketchum for the Camp Verde murders, but Otero, with the help of his attorney general, produced a serviceable excuse for denying a writ of requisition. In Otero's submission, a botched train hold up in New Mexico was a greater crime than a double murder in Arizona. As he put it in a letter to Governor Nathan O. Murphy of Arizona, 'Train robberies have been entirely too frequent in our territory to permit this one to go by unnoticed, and I am determined that it must be stopped.'

Ketchum's damaged right forearm was amputated on September 3. Subsequently he made one escape attempt and two suicide attempts. He was first tried in federal court for delaying the passage of the U.S. mails, and answered the charge with a plea of guilty. The authorities in Union County, New Mexico Territory, were not ready to deal with him until September 1900-more than a year after his arrest. He was convicted with superlative ease and sentenced to death on September 11. In January 1901, the Supreme Court of the Territory rejected his appeal. Ketchum was sentenced to hang on March 22, but two postponements pushed the date to April 26.

During his 21 months in captivity, Tom talked a great deal about himself, his career and other people. Some of what he said about himself and his career was true, some half true, some wholly untrue. Much of what he said about others was malicious. On the morning of Friday, April 26, he was still talking. He denied being Black Jack and said that a dozen men in Arizona could testify that he was not. Actually, many more than a dozen could have borne him out, had they thought him worth the trouble. Almost at the last he made a sworn statement, admitting the Stein's Pass holdups and exculpating Alverson, Hoffman and Warderman.

Salome Garcia, sheriff of Union County, would be in charge of the hanging. Lacking prior experience in this field, he consulted widely, but not wisely. Others tendered advice without being asked for it. Governor Otero sent Lewis C. Fort to oversee the arrangements; he had a lot of faith in Fort, who had assisted in the prosecution of Ketchum and Lay.

It was decided that a drop of 5 feet 9 inches would suit a man of Ketchum's weight-193 pounds. But matters did not end there. Someone-presumably Garcia-lengthened the drop still further, to 7 feet. This was a dire error, for even 5 feet 9 would have been several inches too long. And a Clayton newspaperman who was not noticeably hostile to Salome Garcia later wrote that the sheriff doctored the rope with soap 'to make sure that it slipped properly.'

Since 7 feet was a good 18 inches more drop than was needed, and the lubricated rope was too thin and cordlike, Ketchum was beheaded by the noose. Thus a cruel and unusual man was put to death in a cruel and unusual manner.

Much of the material for the above article was used in the author's Dynamite and Six-shooter, but it has been supplemented by research done in Texas and elsewhere since that book was published in 1970. Particular thanks are due to Berry Spradley, great-grandson of Samuel Ketchum, for many details of Ketchum family history, and to John Tanner for sharing information that definitely establishes Ben Clark's role as creator of the myth that Tom Ketchum was called 'Black Jack.'



This article was written by Jeffrey Burton and originally appeared in the February 2002 issue of Wild West.

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2 Responses to “Tom Ketchum and His Gang”


  1. 1
    Tyeka says:

    ii love the Ketchum Gang !

  2. 2
    The Smoking Man says:

    Sheriff Garcia gave Ketchum exactly what he had coming. I know the Ketchum family of today likes to claim injustice here, but they never seem to mention how much of a tyrant Black Jack was. He was a murderer…a pillager. He had no regard for others, & he was hung in accordance. No, he didn't deserve to die for that particular train robbery, but the man terrorized that region for many years. Sheriff Garcia had him arrested & ensued to punish him for all his past bad deeds as well. In fact, Ketchum was such a tyrant, from what I have read, I wouldn't be at all surprised if Garcia left the rope too long on purpose. Why do you think Ketchum was trying to commit suicide? He knew death at his own hands would be better than the one Sheriff Garcia had in store for him.
    Sheriff Garcia was simply another in a long line of bad@$$ sheriffs that policed the American Southwest during that era. Ketchum foolishly poked the wrong bear in Sheriff Garcia. And Garcia finally had enough. You can find quite a bit of history on Ketchum & how he died, but to me, the real story is how he crossed the wrong man in the wrong way. Anybody who knows anything about Sheriff Salome Garcia knows he was one man you did not cross. And Ketchum paid for it with his head.



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