Black Jack Lives
Reenactors bring Clayton history to life for Black Jack Ketchum Centennial
This year marks the wild life and surprising death of Tom “Black Jack” Ketchum, northeast New Mexico’s favorite outlaw hung in Clayton, NM, April 26, 1901. Clayton will celebrate the occasion with the Black Jack Ketchum Centennial Festival June 1-2. Black Jack was the only person ever put to death for an assault on a train and his execution, during which he was decapitated, was the first and only official hanging in Clayton.
After a surprisingly brief career as a train robber and the death of his brother Sam at the hands of a posse, Tom himself was wounded, captured, and brought to trial. Arriving under heavy guard for his execution in Clayton, he calmly climbed to the gallows shortly after 1 p.m. The rope was severed and he plunged to his death. As the body landed on it’s feet for an instant before tumbling forward, spectators saw blood flowing under the black hood that covered his heard. He had been beheaded by the noose.
Clayton has invited the Society of Outlaws and Gunfighters from Pueblo, CO, to perform a reenactment of this event a the Centennial. This group of gunfighters, actors, and historians has taken newspaper accounts of that day in Clayton and worked them into a scenario that will accurately represent the people involved and the dialogue they must have used at the time.
Says Society member Chris Ball, “When we do ’em, we do ’em right!’.
The Society as been together for 10 years performing 10-12 events a season all over the Southwest. They call this business a hobby, but they approach it as pure professionals in their drive to capture a moment in time and bring it to their audience. They have just completed the filming of several Buckskin Joe episodes for the History Channel and look forward to an appearance at Angel Fire’s Mountain Man Rendezvous this coming Labor Day. Ball himself is something of a shooter, hates to leave home without his pistols and does a Wild Bill Hickok piece that involves some dazzling gunplay.
Reenactors bring the Old West to life for us and they do it through research and painstaking attention to detail. Many Society members make their own costumes and they pride themselves on their authenticity. Being 100 percent period correct is critical to performances that reflect the years between 1840 and the turn of the last century.
“When you look at us, you look at people as they would have appeared in the 1870s or thereabouts,” says Ball. Their thorough knowledge of the period and fierce, engaging action sequences take observers back to those rowdy times so completely that it is hard to believe it’s not the real thing. The emotional involvement, the illusion is total.
This is a first-time event for Clayton and they plan to do it up right. Other activities at the centennial will include an Old Settlers Potluck Picnic with games and entertainment; performances by the Clayton Players drama group and the Kwahadi Indian dancers Boy Scout troup from Amarillo, TS, an historical presentation of the life and times of Black Jack Ketchum at the Herzstein Memorial Museum as well as booths, food vendors, and demonstrations throughout the weekend.
Tom “Black Jack” Ketchum grew up in Texas, wild and undisciplined- his father died when he was five and his mother was blind when she passed way in 1873. Tom was 10 years old then with two brothers and two sisters to look out for. After scrapes with the law in Texas, he came to New Mexico where he cowboyed with his brother Sam, trailing herds from the south up to the railhead at Clayton.
In 1896, the brothers were suspected of looting a small store and post office northwest of Tucumcari and subsequently shooting up the posse that came after them. Their first official train robbery was in 1897 when they hit the Colorado and Southern Flyer just south of Folsam. The outlaws escaped a hurriedly assembled posse of local lawmen, their trail obliterated by a rainstorm.
Other train robberies followed in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas but sometime after the summer of 1898 the brothers split up. Sam and several others went after the Colorado and Southern Flyer again on July 11, 1899. this time lawmen tracked them back to Turkey Canyon, northwest of Cimarron and in the ensuing gun battle a sheriff from Colorado was killed and several others, both outlaws and posse members were wounded. Sam Ketchum was captured a day or two later and taken to the penitentiary at Santa Fe, where he died of his wounds.
Shortly thereafter, unaware of the aborted holdup and his brother’s death, Black Jack attempted to hold up the same train singlehandedly. He was wounded by a blast from the conductor’s shotgun, staggered away into the night and was captured without resistance the next morning at a waterhole near the railroad tracks.
Taken for interrogation to Trinidad, CO. Ketchum was later moved to the penitentiary at Santa Fe where his gangrenous arm was amputated. After a trial in Las Vegas for the federal charge of delaying the US mail, he was tried in Clayton nearly a year later for felonious assault upon a railroad train, a newly enacted law that carried the death penalty. He was found guilty and sentenced to hanging.
This article appeared in HighCountry 2001