Black Jack Ketchum Plays His Last Hand

On July 16, 1899, bullets began raining down on Black Jack Ketchum’s Turkey Creek Canyon hideout west of Cimarron, New Mexico Territory, and the outlaw began the last hand in his life’s game of cards.

Two years earlier, Ketchum and his gang had barricaded a cave in the upper reaches of the canyon with logs and built a corral nearby for their horses, in case they needed a hideout, which seemed highly likely. Black Jack had been a brutal teenager with a penchant for malicious activities like burning Hispano sheepherders’ camps and he’d grown into an outlaw with a taste for theft, women, and gambling, hence the name “Black Jack.”  In fact, shortly after they’d constructed their Turkey Creek Canyon hideout in 1897, Black Jack and his buddies hit Cimarron’s gambling halls, with Black Jack losing heavily the night before they ventured out to hold up their first Colorado and Southern train near Folsum, New Mexico.

Two years later, Ketchum and his gang robbed another Colorado and Southern train near Folsum, then made a run for Turkey Creek Canyon. But a sheriff’s posse tracked them down and opened fire the morning of July 16. In the ensuing conflict, the sheriff and two posse members were killed, Black Jack’s brother Sam was fatally wounded, and gang member William McGinnis was injured.

Black Jack escaped, but not for long.  He was arrested the following month in Union County, New Mexico. The trial and then the plans for the hanging took a while, but in April 1901, when his hand was truly up.

July 16.illustration.Ketchum hanging photo

However, Ketchum’s death didn’t come easily. Today, he’s remembered in New Mexico as the man who lost his head in a hanging. The Clayton, NM executioner didn’t calculate the rope weight and length correctly and Ketchum had been indulging during his prison stay, adding extra pounds. When the trap door opened, his body swung through but his head was cut off by the rope: A truly grisly way to die.

Sources: Stephen Zimmer, For Good or Bad, People of the Cimarron Country, Sunstone Press, 1999;  Stephen Zimmer and Steve Lewis, It Happened in Cimarron Country, Eagle Trail Press, 2013.