The Amarillo Pioneer

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Rosser's Ramblings: Hang Em' High

by Trent Rosser

Thomas was born in San Saba County, Texas in late 1863.  In 1896 he already had a his own gang of outlaws, but due to a dispute of the share of a recent robbery, the gang split up and facing a murder charge, Thomas high tailed it to New Mexico. He ended up joining another gang called “Hole-in-the-Wall” gang. It consisted of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The gang also consisted of a man by the name of “Kid Curry”. Thomas rode with Lonny Curry, “Kid Curry” brother, but he did not like “Kid” and they avoided each other as much as possible.  “Kid Curry” would go on and kill nine lawmen in the next eight years.

Thomas had a brother also, named Sam. Sam rode with the gang and on July 11,1899 the gang (without Thomas) robbed a train for a second time. The next day, a posse of sheriff Ed Farr and 6 other men took off to apprehend the outlaws. Near Cimarron, NM a gun battle ensued and Sam along with two of the deputies were seriously wounded. Being wounded slowed the escape of the outlaws. In the same area a few days later, the outlaws were cornered again, and another gun battle broke out, this time the Sheriff and another deputy was killed. Sam escaped again, but he was found a few days later at a rancher’s home. He was taken to the Santa Fe Territorial Prison where he died from his gunshot wounds.

Now, on August 16, 1899 Thomas tried to rob the same train at the same place at the same time of day. Not knowing that his own gang did it just a month prior and not knowing that his brother had died. The train conductor, saw Thomas coming in the same way as before and grabbed his shotgun. He had Thomas in his sights and pulled the trigger. He watched as Thomas went down off of his horse and did not move. The next day, a posse, alarmed by the train conductor, rode out to retrieve a body, but to their surprise, Thomas was alive.

Thomas had been shot in the arm and he was wounded. Asked about it later he was quoted as saying “ I tried to get back on my horse, but I was too weak.” He was transported to Trinidad, Co and his right arm had to be amputated. He was then nursed back to health. He was then notified of his brother’s death and was transported to Clayton, NM to stand trial. At the trial, he was convicted and sentenced to death. He was the only person who suffered capital punishment for the offense of “Felonious Assault upon a railway train” in New Mexico Territory. He was also the only person to be hanged in Union County, New Mexico.

No one in Clayton, NM had any experience in hanging a person. So it was natural that something could go wrong. Unfortunately for Thomas, he had also gained a little weight while being detained in jail for so long and the rope for the hanging was too long. The sheriff, hearing that there could be an attempted jail break from some of his old gang members, calls for a reinforcement of deputies. They also sold tickets to the hanging.. As he walked up to the gallows, he said to the sheriff, “I am Tom Ketchum, but I am not the “Blackjack” you are looking for.”  When asked for his last words, Thomas looked straight ahead and said “Good-bye. Please dig my grave very deep. All right; hurry up.”

They placed the rope around his neck, and as he looked out towards the crowd, everything became dark as they slipped the hood over his head.  It became deathly silence and then the thud of the axe hitting the rope to drop the trap door. One thud and nothing happened, the second thud and the door spat open and Thomas fell. With a quick jerk it was over, but then the unexpected happened. His body jerked and then dropped to the ground. The women screamed in horror and the men gasp as his head, still covered in the black hood, started to roll away from his body. Thomas had botched a train robbery and now the sheriff had botched his hanging. Thomas “Blackjack” Ketchum was not only hung, but he was decapitated. April 26, 1901 was the end of Thomas. He was photographed with him holding his own head. His head was then sewn back on and he was buried in the Clayton Cemetery.

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