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The Deadliest Outlaws

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After Tom Ketchum had been sentenced to death for attempting to hold up a railway train, his attorneys argued that the penalty was "cruel and unusual" for the offense charged. The appeal failed and he became the first individual—and the last—ever to be executed for a crime of this sort. He was hanged in 1901; in a macabre ending to his life of crime, his head was torn away by the rope as he fell from the gallows. Tom Ketchum was born in 1863 on a farm near the fringe of the Texas frontier. At the age of nine, he found himself an orphan and was raised by his older brothers. In his mid-twenties he left home for the life of an itinerant trail driver and ranch hand. He returned to Texas, murdered a man, and fled. Soon afterwards, he and his brother Sam killed two men in New Mexico. A year later, he and two other former cowboys robbed a train in Texas. The career of the Ketchum Gang was under way. In their day, these men were the most daring of their kind, and the most feared. They were accused of crimes that were not theirs, but their proven record is long and lurid. Their downfall was brought about by what one editor called "the magic of the telephone and telegraph," by quarrels between themselves, and by their reckless defiance of ever-mounting odds. Jeffrey Burton has been researching the story of the Ketchum Gang and related outlaws for more than forty years. He has mined unpublished sources, family records, personal reminiscences, trial transcripts and other court papers, official correspondence and reports, census returns, and contemporary newspapers to sort fact from fiction and provide the definitive truth about Ketchum and numerous other outlaws, including Will Carver, Ben Kilpatrick, and Butch Cassidy.

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1. Meet the Gang

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MEET THE GANG

and ballad was fading in Tom

Ketchum’s own lifetime. He will never be one of those folklore villains whose violent and lawless ways have been burnished with an illusive romance. If he is remembered at all, it is mostly for the peculiar circumstances that attended the curtailment of his earthly career. Yet, as a man much noted in his day, who stood out above most others in his profession, he deserves more than passing mention. He and his companions were the boldest and deadliest outlaws ever to ride the Southwest.

Tom Ketchum and his older brother Sam were on the dodge in Texas, New

Mexico, and Arizona for less than four years, and their career in serious outlawry lasted only from the spring of 1897 to the summer of 1899. When it ended, the gang had notched up seven killings—five of them murders in cold blood—and seven train holdups, five of which yielded a dividend. Their story did not end with the death of

Sam and the capture of Tom, for their associates continued to ride, rob, and kill for several years more, usually in the company of some of the principal outlaws from the

 

2. “I Could Kill a Buzzard a-Flying”

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“I COULD KILL A BUZZARD

A-FLYING”

If the early direction of a life is resolved by the character-shap-

ing coalescence of ancestry, environment, and upbringing, its ultimate course must still depend upon choice, subject only to the random interference of mere chance. The actions of maturity are not ruled by the lottery of heredity and childhood. Somewhere a choice has to be made and, like all who reach their middle years, Sam and Tom Ketchum made theirs. A study of what is known of their formative influences furnishes some insight into the character of these men without explaining what it was that led them, in their prime years, to stake their lives on their six-shooters.

They came of old Anglo-American stock. The first of the line is believed to have been Edward Ketcham, from Cambridge, England, who brought his wife, the former

Mary Hall, and their four children to Ipswich, Massachusetts, circa 1630. It is definitely known that an Edward Ketchum, who was born in 1758 and lived in North Carolina, where he married Mary Reasor in 1791, was a direct ancestor of the outlaw brothers.

 

3. Vagrant Years

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VAGRANT YEARS

Among the pertinacious but unsubstantiated stories about Tom

Ketchum is the one in which he is said to have gone to Arizona and gambled away an inheritance of $1500. One form of this yarn would have it that Ketchum hailed from

New Jersey and came into the money upon the death of a relative there.1 Since this is palpably absurd the rest of the tale scarcely commands heed. What may have happened with the Ketchums is that Sam and Tom arrived at some sort of a settlement with Berry. But this is no better than a reasoned conjecture, and it would be vain to attempt to fit it into a chronological framework. All we know is that the definitive break between Berry and Tom occurred in 1889, four years after their departure from

San Saba County.

Probably, too, Sam and Tom spent most of that period in and around Tom Green

County, with one or two sorties into New Mexico and possibly as far afield as Arizona and Colorado. But the tale that they operated a so-called “ranch”—in reality, a thieves’ holdout—in Snake Valley, a tract of desert forty miles west of Milford, in southwestern Utah, during the late 1880s, can now be seen as a canard. A Sam

 

4. Will, Laura, and Ben; The Course of True Love?

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WILL, LAURA, AND BEN; THE

COURSE OF TRUE LOVE?

Tom Green and the counties surrounding it were big range country in the 1890s. The 23-acre section (13,720 acre) pasture, with nearly two thousand cattle which the Ellis Brothers of Schleicher County sold to Godfrey Miller for $20,000, was a pocket-handkerchief size compared with some of the other spreads. John Loomis, whose ranch headquarters were eight miles west of Paint Rock,

Concho County, could offer to rent out “130,000 acres in a body,” and men like

Charles B. Metcalfe, of the XQZ, with enough of a home range near San Angelo to support several thousand head, could take up the lease. Loomis could also lease out the “pecan privilege”—the right to collect the product of every pecan tree in a twenty-seven mile belt alongside the Concho River.1

West of Loomis’s headquarters were the holdings of J. Willis Johnson. With his

Crows’ Nest and Door Key ranches, located respectively to the east and south of San

Angelo and embracing between them well over 100,000 acres, and with a variety of interests elsewhere, Johnson would become the county’s leading landowner before the end of the decade. Unlike some of his neighbors, he had come to Tom Green

 

5. Three Murders and a Dead Ringer

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THREE MURDERS AND

A DEAD RINGER

to do what I did, and then he came over and took it from me. It was Wright’s intention to take Old

Lady Powers and leave the country with her. That was his intention . . . Old Man

Powers was killed . . . There were four or five implicated in it.”1

In those laconic and impersonal terms, and with only minor variations in the reporting of his exact words, Tom Ketchum described the murder of Jasper N. “Jap”

Powers, “one of the first crimes that I was ever implicated in.” There must have been a great deal more to it than that. If, as he implied, he was hired to assassinate Powers,

Tom would have wanted more from Wright than the gift or loan of a horse. Tom had never killed a man up to this time. It stands to reason that he would not have murdered Powers merely to indulge a whim or oblige a friend. Mrs. Sallie E. Powers may have connived at the murder, and Dave Atkins may have been as deeply involved in it as Tom himself. So, according to the authorities, was George W. “Bud” Upshaw, although Tom later maintained that Bud “knew nothing about it.”2

 

6. Easy Money and Hard Riding

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EASY MONEY AND

HARD RIDING

Before he left Arizona late in 1896, Will Carver told Leonard

Alverson that he was going to put a monument over the grave of his wife and did not know what he would do afterwards.1 It would have chafed him that Viana’s parents had already marked her resting place with a stone from which his family name was conspicuously absent. Perhaps, therefore, he really intended to plant his own token of remembrance at the graveside, though nothing survives to show that he did it. He also intended to visit his mother and her family in Bandera County, and did.2

But Carver’s homeward journey was more than a sentimental one. Before he pulled out of the Chiricahuas, he struck a deal with Tom Ketchum. He would sit through the winter in Texas and wait for Tom to join him. When spring came they, with the help of one or two other fortune-hunters, would rob a train.

Through choice or circumstance, Sam Ketchum took no part in the episode that set the pattern for the remainder of all their lives. The two brothers left Arizona together in February 1897, but parted in southern New Mexico, where Sam remained for at least some of the spring and summer. Tom went on to his fateful meeting with

 

7. Crossed Trails

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CROSSED TRAILS

none of the Ketchum gang, except Will Carver, had visited Texas Canyon before the September of 1897, when

Carver led the party thither following the Folsom robbery.1 Aside from the likelihood that they showed up early in October, rather than September, there is no cause to dispute this, even though Alverson, in general, may have understated his dealings with the outlaws. Tom and Sam had seen something of Cochise County during late 1896 and early 1897, but many with a far more thorough knowledge of the country would not have been able to locate the canyon. Atkins’s detailed account of their long ride shows clearly that he had never been there before.

In the fall of 1897, Walter Hovey, alias Hoffman, was fresh from a killing. Walter, commonly described as a cowboy or “farm laborer,” had fallen afoul of a ranchman named Joe Richards. Each threatened to kill the other, and one night someone tried to ambush Hovey near his home in Hunt Canyon. The conclusion followed swiftly.

On the morning of Saturday, August 14, Hovey ran Richards to earth at the John

 

8. The Steins Pass Imbroglio

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THE STEINS PASS IMBROGLIO

A widely publicized statement by Tom Ketchum, in which Ed

Cullen’s surname was sometimes printed as “Bullin” or “Bullen,” gave rise to a belief in some quarters that he was Ed Bullion, a brother of Laura. This theory ought not to have reached the printed page. Recent research has shown that Laura Bullion’s only brother was named Daniel, and that he was living in Brewster County, Texas in 1900, more than two years after Ed Cullen’s premature demise, and in Lincoln County, New

Mexico, when he registered for military service in 1917.1

This much is known. Edwin H. Cullen’s parents, Theodore J. and Nancy Cullen, had been neighbors of Sam and Tom Ketchum in San Saba County, where Ed was born on December 4, 1872. By 1880, the family had moved to Bandera County, close to the farm on which Will and Frances Carver were living with their mother and stepfather. The Cullen household then comprised Theodore, (51); Nancy (36): James O.

(9): Edwin H. (6); Lucy (5): Nellie (4); and Callie (2).2

 

9. Framed

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FRAMED

Besides John N. Thacker, a detective of national note and second only to Chief of Detectives Jim Hume in the hierarchy of Wells, Fargo’s force of investigators, the posse raised by Foraker, Griffith, and Wells, Fargo included nine men from Arizona and five from New Mexico. In the New Mexico squad were Cipriano Baca, Ben Williams, Tom McElroy, George Scarborough, and

George’s son Edgar. The Arizona nine were Jeff Milton, his nephew Jim Gamble,

Sam Webb, Sam Finley, Charles Hood, Billy Hildreth, Severiano Bonito, Jesse [or

Jesus?] Limon, and Lee Matney. Two others who cannot be named with certainty brought the number up to sixteen, plus Thacker and the two marshals. Only

Milton, Baca, McElroy, and Finley held commissions as deputy U.S. marshals.

Milton, Gamble, and Webb had been engaged by Wells, Fargo on December 6, when Milton was also sworn in as a deputy. All the rest were either put into the field by the express and railroad companies, or volunteered their services in the expectation of securing employment from them or the marshals. Presumably those who were not commissioned were sworn in as posse comitatus, doubtless without much formality. Some, or all, would have been drawn in by the lure of reward money.

 

10. Dynamite and Six-Shooter

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DYNAMITE AND SIX-SHOOTER

Though the Snaky Four took cover in Mexico after their discomfiture at Steins Pass, they did not remain there for long. The posse that had joined forces with the rurales to hunt them through northern Sonora and Chihuahua returned to the United States in mid-January. The Ketchum gang may not have been far behind them. For the last six or eight weeks of the winter they loitered in and around Cochise County. They hid out mostly in the Swisshelm Mountains or in the Wildcat. Outwardly, at least, they were still welcome with the cowpunchers, prospectors, and small ranchers. The Milton-Scarborough expedition which hauled in John Vinnedge made them steer clear of Tex Canyon and the Wildcat for much of

February, but never came close to rounding them up.

One man whom they regarded as a menace was John Slaughter, owner of the San

Bernardino ranch and sometime sheriff. One day, while the gang were passing the time of day at a cabin near Mud Springs, in Sulphur Spring Valley, the conversation touched upon Slaughter. Tom Ketchum glared balefully.

 

11. Separate Ways

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SEPARATE WAYS

On or about May 3, 1899, one of the three men was seen on the TX pastures, some thirty miles east of Roswell. His partners must have been close at hand for, barely a day later, three mounts were stolen from the nearby LFD horse camp, and the three Erie animals left in their place. Then, on May 6, the outlaws swapped the LFD horses for three from the—V (Bar V) ranch of the Cass Land and Cattle

Company, north of Roswell. W.G. Urton, manager and part owner of the company and a former employer of the Ketchums, was particularly incensed because the thieves had killed one of his horses: when caught, it broke away with the rope and the outlaw, in a fit of irrational fury, had shot the animal. Sheriff Fred Higgins and his deputy, Will Rainbolt, were reported to have trailed the thieves closely; but they were never close enough to be seen by them.1

This is the last occasion on which the three outlaws were together. Very soon afterwards Tom Ketchum was either thrown out or deserted by the others. His sullen moods, charged with sudden paroxysms of savage rage, had become intolerable to them; even to Sam, who knew him best. Will Carver and Sam Ketchum were outlaws and desperadoes; if either of them were pressed to the point where he felt he had to kill a man, he would kill him and suffer few qualms or none. But neither would kill upon impulse, and neither was inclined to destructive tantrums. Dave Atkins had quit the gang because he could take no more of Tom Ketchum’s brutal and quarrelsome nature. When Carver spoke to Axford some months afterwards, he explained his and Sam’s decision to “divide blankets” with Tom in the same terms.2

 

12. Another Incident at Twin Mountains

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ANOTHER INCIDENT

AT TWIN MOUNTAINS

By the end of the first week of July, 1899, Sam Ketchum and party were almost ready to leave Cimarron. On Friday, the seventh, Sam and Carver bought supplies at Jim Hunt’s store and stashed them away in Turkey Creek Canyon.

Hunt, all eyes and ears, learned they had gone in the direction of Dean Canyon; in effect, the back door of their hideout. Lay and Weaver spent Friday night at Duran’s and whiled away Saturday forenoon in the bar of “Lambert’s saloon”—the name commonly given to the St. James Hotel. Early in the afternoon, Weaver settled up with Duran and rode off northeast. He had told Duran that he was going to pick up his “traps” from the WS ranch, but did not call there. Lay left at the same time, heading northwest for Ponil Park. This may have been a feint; he had plenty of time to change course and join the others in time for the planned robbery.

On Monday, July 10, the gang camped in the mountains, eighteen miles west of the railroad. Thomas Owen, of Folsom, writing many years later, identified the site as

 

13. Bullets in Turkey Creek Canyon

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BULLETS IN TURKEY

CREEK CANYON

Posses led by Sheriff Saturnino Pinard and Special

Officer Reno were in the saddle by mid-afternoon on the 12th. From the spot along the railroad right-of-way where the robbers had tethered their four horses, the posses followed the gang’s westerly line of retreat. For a while the trail was blotted out because “there had been sheep all over the country,” but when it reappeared it was still pointing “pretty due west.” The posses had followed it for more than fifteen miles when, at 6 p.m., a driving rain extinguished all sign and forced them to seek shelter.

Reno and the men with him passed the night in a ranch house.

There, or nearby, they learned that on Monday evening the gang had set up camp at Daugherty Spring. In the morning the officers inspected the campsite; then, having found “nothing of consequence,” they moved on towards Johnson Mesa, a further ten miles west.

The downpour that had washed out the robbers’ original trail now ensured that the softened ground would preserve the tracks they made on the morning after the rainfall. Farr and two other Colorado men—probably Reno and Titsworth—ran onto the tracks and were approaching Stockbridge’s camp when the trail vanished under a chaos of XL hoofmarks.

 

Photo Section

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14. The Sixteenth of August

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THE SIXTEENTH OF AUGUST

Sam Ketchum would have little information for the law, despite the pressing efforts of his official invigilators. Although much weakened by pain and the loss of blood, he “rested easily” the following afternoon, complaining only that his swollen arm “seemed to weigh about three hundred pounds.” At one point he told

Foraker that he was sure that “Bill McGinnis” was dead, “as his wound was dangerous and only his pluck kept him from dropping.”1 It is unlikely that Sam believed

Lay’s wounds to be mortal; his object may have been less to inform than to mislead.

In the cell next to is was an old acquaintance and fellow bandit, William Walters, commonly called “Bronco Bill,” who had recovered from a severe wound suffered in the fight that ended with his capture and the death of his partner, Bill Johnson. Now, almost a year later, he still awaited trial. In a legal sense, their two cases were analogous: both Ketchum and Walters had committed train robbery, and both had been in battles in which pursuing possemen were killed.2 In the medical sense, their cases were drastically different. Sam’s wound, in itself, was less serious than Bronco Bill’s: given prompt attention, he would have recuperated quite quickly. But gangrene had set in before he was captured. By the time he reached Santa Fe his condition was critical.

 

15. Dead to Rights

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DEAD TO RIGHTS

The removal of Thomas Edward Ketchum from

Union County, New Mexico, to the most easily accessible hospital—which happened to be in Colorado—did not spring spontaneously from the exercise of plain common sense.

Sheriff Pinard had understood that the southbound special from Trinidad would be at his disposal; he would put himself and his prisoner aboard, and the train would continue south to Clayton. But when the northbound freight reached Folsom, soon after the special from Trinidad, Webb and Reno pounced on the wounded desperado. They exhibited a piece of paper which gave them authority to take the prisoner to Trinidad for interrogation. It also stated that a deputy U.S. marshal was on his way from Albuquerque to take official charge of the outlaw (though, in the event, the marshal had decided to send himself). This order was signed by Jeremiah Leahy, district attorney of Colfax and Union counties, and Chief Justice Mills, in his capacity as justice of the Fourth Judicial District. Pinard, disgusted by the palaver, had then led several newly-arrived Colorado deputies across country in search of the bandit’s horses, dynamite, and presumed companions. Marshal Foraker was obliged to travel into Colorado to question a man who had been arrested in New Mexico. But at least the would-be train robber had been given the best chance to pull through and so become available for disposal by the courts.1

 

16. Points of Law

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POINTS OF LAW

by Lewis C. Fort and Elisha V. Long in the preparation of the case against Lay for the murder of

Edward Farr. Leahy and Fort were two of the ablest and most energetic prosecutors in the Territory. Moreover, they and Chief Justice Mills were of one mind: the mysterious prisoner was an outlaw, a pre-convicted train robber, and a salutary example was going to be made of him.1

No chances were to be taken. When rumor reached official ears that friends of the prisoner in El Paso were collecting money to bail him out, recourse was had to another section of the Post Office act of 1872. So, on September 15, Chief Deputy

Marshal J.J. Sheridan presented additional charges of unlawfully detaining and attempting to rob the United States mail. Section 287 of the act might have been designed with a mind to flexibility.2

The purpose of this maneuver was wholly preemptive. Each charge would keep the defendant in custody pending an appearance before the U.S. commissioner, and after each hearing a further bond of $1,000 would be set. These were well-worn procedures, intended to ensure that the prisoner could not legally regain his liberty during the preparation of the substantive charges—in this instance, territorial charges of train robbery and murder.

 

17. Atkins Saddles the Ocean

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ATKINS SADDLES THE OCEAN

at Chimney Wlls, Tom Capehart rode hard across country until he reached the WS ranch in western Socorro County.

At the horse camp, twenty miles from the ranch headquarters, he met Butch Cassidy, who was still in the employ of the WS. Red Weaver was also in the locality, having reappeared in Alma shortly after parting from Marshal Foraker.

For this phase of the story, we are entirely in the hands of William French, uncorroborated but uncontradicted. Since what he has to say is not inherently unlikely, we may reasonably accept it as true in outline.

French states that he left Cimarron to return to Alma several days after the

Turkey Canyon affray. Some three or four weeks afterwards—not quite French’s

“more than a month later”—Cassidy and Capehart came to him with the news that

“Mac” was a prisoner. Capehart gave French a quite extensive but purposely incomplete account of the capture, which the rancher related in his memoirs thirty years after hearing it. Whether errors in French’s version came from failings of memory, or from misunderstanding or misstatement on Capehart’s part, becomes unimportant once we have elected to believe that some such conversation did take place.

 

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