Tom Ketchum was a native Texan having been born in San Saba County in central Texas in 1863 to Green Berry and Temperance Katherine Wydick Ketchum, who had been living in Texas at least since about 1850. Green Berry Ketchum was originally from Alabama and Katherine Wydick was from Illinois. Tom was one of eight children.
After starting out as a cowboy, Tom moved west to New Mexico around 1890 where he is believed to have taken part in a train robbery as early as 1892. The Atcheson, Topeka and Santa Fe train heading to Deming, New Mexico was held up at a water station outside of town. He then was accused of shooting “Jap” Powers during a card game. From that point on, he was associated with numerous criminals and criminal activity until his death. He and his associates were accused of robberies and holdups. He became known as “Black Jack” Ketchum and was accused of various crimes, including murder, in New Mexico and Texas.
In 1896, Judge A. J. Fountain and his son Henry, then 9 years old, were returning by buckboard from Lincoln, New Mexico to Las Cruces when they disappeared, presumably the result of foul play. The judge had been holding a midwinter court at the old Lincoln jail and court house.
The last person to see the Judge and his son alive (other than the alleged killer) was a mail carrier, who had said that he had come across them near White Sands. The Judge had told the mail carrier that he had observed three men on horseback trailing them. When he sped up, they would speed up. When he slowed, they would also slow down. The mail carrier suggested that the Judge and his son return to Alamogordo with him, but the Judge declined, saying that he wanted to get back to Las Cruces to be with his family. The mail carrier and the father and son parted ways and the two were never seen again.
Lawman Pat Garrett was brought in to investigate and he announced that a local rancher by the name of Oliver Lee was his chief suspect. This was some time after the death of Billy the Kid, and Lee made it be known that he would never surrender to Garrett. Eventually, Lee was apprehended and hired Lawyer James Fall (later to be appointed Secretary of the Interior under Pres. Warren G. Harding) to handle his defense. A trial was held, but Lee was found not guilty.
Years later, it would be reported that Ketchum’s brother Sam would tell a New Mexico police officer that Tom Ketchum claimed to have killed the pair and burned their bodies because Fountain had successfully prosecuted cases against Tom’s outlaw friends, and also Oliver Lee.
Also in 1896, Black Jack and his brother Sam were accused of burglarizing a store and killing Levi Herzstein and Hermenejildo Gallegos in Liberty, New Mexico, but they were never tried for the crime. They were at various times members of the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang and the Wild Bunch as they allegedly committed more crimes.
He and others were accused of hold up a Colorado and Southern train just south of Folsom in Union County in early September 1897. Then in July 1898, the crew minus Black Jack held up the train on the same route. Black Jack had said that he’d had a premonition that things would not go well, and he was right. His brother Sam was shot during the gun battle with a posse near Cimmaron, New Mexico. He initially escaped but was later captured and died of his wounds. Sam was interred in an old cemetery in Santa Fe.
Black Jack went on to attempt a solo train robbery near Trinidad, Colorado in August 1899 and was wounded by the conductor Frank Harrington’s shotgun blast. It was a fitting end between the two, as Harrington had been part of the railroad crew in two earlier train robberies. A posse located Ketchum the following day, and turned him over to New Mexico authorities. He regained his health, though an arm had to be amputated, was tried and found guilty of felonious assault on a railway train. Ketchum was sentenced to be hanged. An improperly tied noose caused Ketchum to be decapitated. He is interred in a cemetery in Clayton, New Mexico.
Genealogy records indicate that Black Jack Ketchum never married. His parents died within a few years of 1870, and would not have known of his outlaw career. His oldest brother Green Berry Ketchum, Jr. was a horse trainer out in or near Tom Green County, Texas. He married and had three daughters. Black Jack has been the subject of several fiction and nonfiction books. One of them was written by western genre author Louis L’Amour whose book was the basis for the screenplay of the 1957 film of the same name, Black Jack Ketchum, Desperado. Not an account of the real outlaw, the fictional character kills a man in self defense and then must defend himself against the vengeful brother of the deceased character. In the end, L’Amour’s character tries to go straight, in contrast to the real outlaw’s life.
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