Ghosts of the Wild West: Black Jack Ketchum

Even if he never became a ghost, the tale of Thomas "Black Jack" Ketchum would be a hell of a good story with a hell of a bad end. He had been a Texas-born, Pecos River Valley cowboy who turned to crime in the 1890s, sometimes with his brother Sam. He robbed a few trains, traveled with a few desperadoes, possibly murdered a neighbor, and eventually joined the Hole in the Wall Gang, making him a contemporary of Butch Cassidy.

Most of the gang was captured or killed in a botched train robbery, which Ketchum supposedly had no involvement in, and then, shortly afterward, Ketchum attempted to rob exactly the same train at exactly the same time in exactly the same place using exactly the same methods that had earlier spelled disaster.

Things went poorly. The conductor saw Ketchum approaching om horseback and shot him in the arm with a shotgun. The next day a posse found the wounded Ketchum alongside the tracks. His arm was amputated and was then tried and sentenced to death.

As sometimes happened, the execution was a travesty. Either the rope was too long or Ketchum was too heavy or both, but when he was hanged in Union County in the New Mexico territory, his head came off. A grisly postcard was made of his headless corpse, and then his head was sewn back on and he was buried.

Ketchum's last words were reportedly "Good-bye. Please dig my grave very deep. All right; hurry up." Either the grave wasn't deep enough or Ketchum was just too ornery to stay dead; perhaps the latter, as the Denver Post ran a story on April 28, 1901, claiming that Black Jack has sworn revenge on his killers. He was explicit: The engineer who shot him would be dead in six months, and the two lawmen would be dead in a year.

He doesn't seem to have been successful in his revenge scheme — perhaps he was counting on desperado friends to be his executioners and they just didn't care enough. But Legends of America published the account of a former boy scout while at the Philmont Scout Ranch in  Cimarron, New Mexico. Late at night, he witnessed a vicious gunfight involving a ghostly figure dressed in black and partially translucent. The spirit eventually saw the scout, declared "you're not supposed to be here," and disappeared, but left behind shell casings in the boy's sleeping bag, ejected from the ghost's revolver.

Soon after, touring ghost towns and historical sites with his troop, they visited a Wild West saloon that had a photo of Black Jack Ketchum on its wall. The scout immediately recognized the man as being the same one whose ghost he had recently seen.


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