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The Deadliest Outlaws: The Ketchum Gang and the Wild Bunch

by Jeffrey Burton, University of North Texas Press, Denton, 2009, $34.95.

 For more than 30 years, English author Jeffrey Burton has been researching hard case Tom Ketchum, his gentler brother Sam, their associates in crime and other late-19th-century outlaws. Burton’s latest book is an expanded, rewritten, renamed version of his 1970 offering Dynamite and Six-Shooter. A first edition of The Deadliest Outlaws came out in 2006, but the relentless researcher’s two subsequent visits to San Angelo, Texas, yielded so much new information that he decided put together this second edition. Tom Ketchum is well known in New Mexico, as he was sentenced to hang for train robbery (not murder) in Clayton, New Mexico Territory, and quite literally lost his head at the gallows on April 29, 1901. Burton considers those Land of Enchantment moments in fine detail, but he’ll not let you forget that Tom and Sam and many of their confederates were Texas bad boys first.

Burton frowns on the publications and people who still refer to Tom Ketchum as “Black Jack” or don’t at least refer to him as “the second Black Jack.” As early as 1915, someone wrote that Tom Ketchum was never called that nickname by those who knew him or those who knew of the original “Black Jack,” William Christian. Burton’s own 1984 book, Bureaucracy, Blood Money and Black Jack’s Gang, dealt specifically with Black Jack Christian (who, like Tom Ketchum, rode alongside a brother for a while). The confusion between the Black Jacks might be bothersome, but if offers an intriguing story within a story, one covered well in The Deadliest Outlaws. The Black Jack Gang, or High Five Gang, was completely different from the Ketchum Gang—well, almost completely. Tom Ketchum later said he once met Black Jack and was asked to join that crew, but Burton writes, “It is likelier that Ketchum offered to join Black Jack and was turned down.” Outlaw identities and deeds were often confusing, given all the aliases and false information flying about. But Burton seems to relish helping us sort it all out. While countless books seek to separate fact from fiction in the Wild West, his 504-page book delivers on that count better than most.

Some readers might wonder at first why the Wild Bunch, anchored by Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid and Harvey Logan, share space with the Ketchums and company. Well, there are plenty of ties there, too, even though the two gangs are thought to have done their dirty deeds at different ends of the Rockies in the late 1890s and early 1900s. Some of the Texas boys went up to Hole in the Wall, while many Wild Bunch members came down to New Mexico Territory ranches. Most of these outlaws weren’t one big happy family, but they were acquainted. “Will Carver stood well with both Cassidy and [Elzy] Lay,” Burton writes. “But Cassidy’s perspective on the Ketchums differed from Lay’s. Butch had no use for either brother and counseled his friend to have no dealing with them; Lay evidently thought well of Sam— most people did—and would have been prepared to work with Tom. Lay, against Cassidy’s advice, agreed to join the Ketchums, Carver, and [“Red”] Weaver in robbing a train.” Great stuff. It’s almost as if Burton knew them all.


Originally published in the February 2010 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here