Monday, July 11, 2011

New Mexico Ghosts: Black Jack Ketchum

In my state, near Cimarron, New Mexico is the Philmont Scout Ranch. Men from all around the United States have very fond memories of their Boy Scout experiences at Philmont. 

Hiking at Philmont Scout Ranch

This ranch is located in the rugged Sangre de Cristo Rocky Mountains in the northern part of the state. It is the largest youth camp in the world. 

This story is about one scout who while camping at Philmont encountered the ghost of Black Jack Ketchum.

Thomas Ketchum, later known as Black Jack, worked as a cowboy in the Pecos River Valley in New Mexico. Turning to a life of crime, with his brother Sam Ketchum, they robbed a store and post office near Tucumcari, New Mexico, along the way they formed a gang and murdered several people. 

They joined forces with Butch Cassidy’s Hole in the Wall Gang, where they turned their attention to train robberies. The Ketchum brothers in September of 1897 robbed their first train at Twin Mountain.

Sam and the gang in July of 1899, without Black Jack, robbed this same train again. A posse took after Sam. They caught up to him in Turkey Creek Canyon near Cimarron. 

There they engaged in a gun battle when Sam was seriously wounded. His injuries slowed him down and, he was captured and sent to the Santa Fe Territorial Prison where he died of his gunshot wounds. 

In August of the same year, Black Jack hearing of his brother’s death tried to rob the same train at the same place single-handedly. The train conductor recognized him and shot him off his horse. 

Severely wounded, he was captured and transported to a medical facility in Trinidad, Colorado. His right arm had to be amputated. He was nursed back to health and sent to Clayton, New Mexico where he was tried in April of 1901, for attempted train robbery. He was found guilty.

Hanging of Black Jack Ketchum
People came from miles around to view the execution, but the town of Clayton had no experience with hanging a man. 

They forgot to remove a sandbag that had been used to test the rope—which caused the rope to be as rigid as a wire. So when Black Jack fell through the drop, he was immediately decapitated. 

The black hood tied around him was the only thing that prevented his head from rolling away. A photograph was taken that became a favorite postcard. His head was sewn back on his body for viewing, and then he was buried, in three pieces as people said, in Clayton’s boot hill.

Ketchum was the only person ever to be hanged in Union County, New Mexico, a territory at the time, for “felonious assault upon a train.” 

It was later determined, once New Mexico became a state in 1912, that this law was unconstitutional. But considering Thomas Ketchum was a murderer—justice was done.

Rock overhang.
Years later, a group of boy scouts was backpacking across Philmont Ranch. They visited a large rock overhang that was known to be one of Black Jack’s hideouts. They decided to camp there for the night. 

Their leaders pitched their tents several yards away at a designated campsite. The boys built a fire, and one of their group told stories about Black Jack and his gang of outlaws. As the fire turned to red coals, the campers one by one zipped themselves into sleeping bags, by the light of the full moon, and fell asleep.

One scout was startled awake by a noise in the bushes. He was too frightened to move or even call out to his companions. 

He watched as a cowboy, dressed all in black, came running out of the bushes. Part of his body was solid, and part appeared to be translucent. 

The boy cringed as the man neared. He was dirty all over, wore a tattered hat, his clothes were old-fashioned, and his teeth were yellowed. His face was unshaven, very red, and glistened with sweat—he held a revolver.

He appeared to be unaware of the campers as he turned and faced the small stream. 

The scout heard many men shouting, and then he heard guns fire. The cowboy shot six times into the trees and then ran toward the scout. 

He slowed as a shot rang out; he gripped his arm and stopped, towering over where the scout lay. Blood dripped from a gaping hole in his shoulder as he opened his gun and dropped the spent shell casings. They hit the boy’s sleeping bag and rolled to the sides.

He reloaded his gun and continued to fire into the trees. The cowboy turned back to the boy, and the expression on his face told the scout he had finally noticed him. 

The cowboy stepped back, confused and confounded he un-cocked his revolver. He looked at the scout intently and stated, “You are not supposed to be here,” he then disappeared into thin air.

The scout too frightened to fall back asleep, kept vigil. Early the next morning, he shook his fellow scouts awake. As they broke camp, he told them about what he had seen. 

The group amused replied he must have been dreaming. But as he rolled up his sleeping bag, he found six shell casings in the dirt.

When the boys returned to base camp, they visited an old saloon in town. There was a photograph of Black Jack Ketchum hanging on the wall. 

The scout went pale as he realized that it was the man he had seen at the hideout. When he tried to explain this to his friends, they brushed him off again. 

After the scout returned home, he had a gun expert check the castings. This man told him they were from the late 1800s, but he had never seen any in such mint condition before.

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