Stranger than fiction: the stupidest outlaw in the West

By Michael Williams

“Black Jack” Tom Ketchum emerges from the pages of history as something of an enigma. Little is known of his life and his crimes were unspectacular and incompetent. His bumbling efforts at robbery inspired some newspapers to begin referring to him as the “Stupidest outlaw in the West.” It was his stranger than fiction death that earned him a place in history.

He was born Thomas Edward Ketchum on October 31, 1863 in San Saba County, Texas. He was the youngest of eight children. His parents died when he was young; he was raised by his older siblings.

BlackJack-2He had a volatile temper and suffered from severe lack of intelligence. These two notable qualities tended to often make him the butt of jokes. In addition, his bizarre manner, by which he vented his frustration when things went badly, made others question his sanity. During fits of rage, he would pull out his guns and pound himself over the head while cursing himself.

In the 1890s, Ketchum was involved in a series of unsuccessful robberies, including a post office in which he made off with $44.69. Following a failed attempt to rob the Texas Flyer, which resulted in the deaths of at least one gang member, Ketchum fled the scene and was later kicked out of the gang. He was left to his own devices, surviving off his own wits.

In August of 1899, Ketchum held up the Folsom New Mexico Train. He believed the train was carrying a large cash shipment. Upon boarding the train, he pulled a gun on the engineer. When he was told there was no money on board, he became agitated, took his guns out and began pounding himself over the head as he called himself names. “Stupid! Stupid! Stupid,” he ranted.  He robbed the engineer and made off with $500.

The next day he robbed the same train in the same location. Again, he robbed the employees of the train making off with approximately $500.

On August 16, 1899, Ketchum attempted to rob the same train at the same location at the same time for a third day in a row. This time the engineer had set a trap for him. As Ketchum rode alongside the train, the engineer brought it to a slow stop. Ketchum boarded the train and the engineer shot him at point blank-range with a shotgun, shattering Ketchum’s right arm. Ketchum staggered off the train, mounted his horse and rode away. The train moved on. A posse found Ketchum, near death, the next day. He was taken back to town where a doctor amputated what was left of his arm. When he was fit for travel, he was taken to Santa Fe and put on trial.

The trial took an odd turn and made legal history. Ketchum denied ever killing anyone. In fact, there was no proof he had killed anyone. He claimed his other gang members did the killing. He admitted to the robberies, thinking it would spare him the death penalty, but soon found out he was dead wrong. Judge Mills, desiring to rid society of the bandit, sentenced Ketchum to hang for train robbery. It was the first and only time anyone was sentenced to die for the crime.

His execution was scheduled for April 26, 1901. Ketchum’s executioners proved to be every bit as incompetent as he and his inept gang. The executioner adjusted the weights on the gallows to accommodate a much smaller man.BlackJackKetchumHanging

Ketchum was led outside to the gallows. He stood with his arm tied to his waist and listened as the death warrant was read. The noose was slipped over his head and tightened. A preacher said a brief prayer. Then Ketchum was asked, “Do you have any last words?”

Ketchum smiled a cocky grin and, in an effort to remain defiant to the end, he retorted, “Let ‘er rip!” How ironic he should say that. Garcia cut the rope to the trap door and Ketchum fell through the hatch. Then there was a sickening sound of flesh being torn. The audience stared in shocked horror as “Black Jack” Ketchum’s body hit the ground and a nanosecond later his head hit the ground. The incompetent executioner had decapitated the outlaw. “Let ‘er rip” indeed.

(This is an excerpt from a new book written by Michael Williams. The book is titled, “Stranger than Fiction: The Lincoln Curse.” The 50 strange but true stories will leave the reader convinced that perhaps Mark Twain was right when he said “truth is stranger than fiction.”

It is 187 pages in a softbound edition with numerous photos. The book can be purchased from for $19.95 plus shipping and handling or one can save shipping costs and $2 on the purchase price by ordering a signed copy directly from the author. Send $17.95 to 269 Palmer Road Gatlinburg, TN 37738. For more information visit

Leave a Reply