by Nancy Christofferson
SOUTHERN COLORADO/NORTHERN NEW MEXICO — One hundred and seventeen years ago, a man from Huerfano County unfortunately made the national news. He did this by being murdered by train robbers, at a time when the frontier west was wild and mostly lawless. Eastern readers ate up the news of robberies, murders, and other mayhem devised by the excitingly independent “cowboys” of the open range.
Outlawry was nothing new, of course, but the “invention” of train robbery was. After the Civil War, this grew increasingly popular among the dishonest as company payrolls and government currency being transported by train also grew in popularity. Trains were vulnerable on their single tracks, unable to escape ambushes contrived to disable the engines and leave passengers and possessions vulnerable. Train robbery became common enough by 1890 that the crime had been made legally a capital offense with death the punishment.
In 1888, a new railroad was completed between Colorado and Texas, called the Denver, Texas and Fort Worth. It ran through Trinidad, across southern Las Animas County to today’s Branson, through Emery’s Gap to Folsom, NM, and thence southeast. In 1889 this railroad became known as the Colorado and Southern, or C&S.
Enter two cowboys from Texas, brothers named Ketchum. Sam and Tom Ketchum left Texas about 1890 for New Mexico, one step ahead of the law. New Mexico was still a territory and relatively unsettled. In 1892 they were suspected of being party to a robbery of a Santa Fe Railway that was said to be carrying a large payroll.
After they returned to Texas, the Ketchums murdered a man and ran back to New Mexico. They worked as hands for several large ranches in the northeast counties and became well known in various saloons and dance halls around Cimarron and nearby towns.
At some point, Tom made a life decision to favor outlawry as his profession. To prove it, he joined the Hole in the Wall gang, aka the Wild Bunch, under Butch Cassidy when operating in Arizona. He met, though did not befriend, fellow gang member William Ellsworth “Elza” or “Elzy” Lay, as well as his friends Harvey “Kid Curry” Logan and Will Carver of the Wild Bunch. Lay and Logan were known killers. Somewhere along the way, Tom had been mistaken for a bad guy known as Black Jack, and he liked the name so well he adopted it for his own.
Elza, using the alias William McGinnis, led Logan (or someone else entirely. Sources vary) and Carver, one of them riding as G.W. or J.B. Franks, and Sam Ketchum on July 11, 1899 to a favorite ambush site between Folsom and Des Moines, where they brought a C&S train to a halt in the dead of night. The site had been proven successful on Sept. 3, 1897 when some of the same bandits (with Black Jack) stopped a train, blew up the pay car with dynamite and got some $30,000 in gold and silver coins for their efforts.
Even though the July 11 robbery had been committed in Union County, N.M., posses were immediately formed in Colfax, Las Animas and Huerfano counties. C&S head of security, W.H. Reno, came down from Denver, as did five men from Trinidad, including Deputy Lewis Kreeger. More lawmen, including Colfax County Sheriff’s Deputy Henry Love, joined the effort from Raton, Springer and Cimarron. Huerfano Sheriff Edward Farr came and was named leader. Even a visitor from New York named Smith joined. In all, it was said some 100 men were combing the hills west of Raton for the escaped bandits and their take.
A tip was received by the lawmen that the bandits were hiding in Turkey Creek Canyon, northwest of Cimarron. There, on Sunday, July 16, a blistering shootout occurred, with both sides scoring hits. Both Elzy and Sam were shot, though Elzy continued fighting. Sam was hors de combat, and was left by his fleeing cohorts when he could not keep up with them. He was taken to a nearby ranch, then to the territorial prison in Santa Fe where he died. The others dispersed.
Western writers have ever since used this shootout as the example of the superiority of smokeless powder. The lawmen were using their old powder while the bad men were using smokeless, with obvious advantages.
Edward Farr, for four years Huerfano County Sheriff, was shot three times. His first wound, in his hand, he ignored, and he continued firing. Then he received wounds in his chest and hip, fell onto Smith, and died. He was 34. Deputy Love of Springer was shot and badly wounded in the thigh. However, the bullet struck a knife in his pocket. It was believed he had used the knife to treat cattle with anthrax. The knife caused an infection that ended Love’s life four days later. The man Smith, riding along “for the fun of it” was wounded but recovered.
Farr and Love were honored by their neighbors with fine and well attended funerals – they had died heroes. Farr’s brother David of Walsenburg joined the hunt for Elzy and his fellow killers in New Mexico.
The bandits had disappeared except for the dying Sam. The posses were called off July 24, and the men went home.
Meanwhile Black Jack, blissfully unaware of the crime and ensuing manhunt, decided to rob a train. He chose the same train and the same mode of operation at the same site. It is no wonder Black Jack was recognized and shot by the long-suffering Frank Harrington who had twice turned over the precious cash cargo to the gang. The date was August 16, one month after the shootout that killed Farr and Love, and also the day Elza Lay was captured in Carlsbad.
Black Jack, like his brother, was wounded badly in the arm, with the elbow reportedly shattered. He was taken to Mount San Rafael Hospital in Trinidad where the arm was amputated, then after recovering, he was sent to jail in Clayton, seat of Union County, to await trial.
His day in court was not one he would have wished. While he languished in jail waiting for his execution to be carried out, he was fed well, too well, it seems, because he gained quite a bit of weight. On April 26, 1901, he climbed the scaffold. Evidently, he had last words. All kinds of utterances have been attributed to him, with one being “I’ll be in hell before you start breakfast, boys,” then, at the very last, “Let ‘er rip.” Another was “Good-bye. Please dig my grave very deep. All right; hurry up.”
Alas, the rope was too long, the condemned too heavy, and Black Jack was decapitated on his way to hell. His tombstone reads, “And How His Audit Stands Who Knows Save Heaven.” The postcard featuring his headless body was a best seller.
Black Jack Ketchum remains the only person ever executed in New Mexico for train robbery.
Elza Lay was imprisoned in the New Mexico State Penitentiary after conviction. His wife divorced him. He led an exemplary life there and in 1905 interceded in a hostage situation of the warden’s wife and daughter, resulting in their release. As a consequence, Governor Manuel Otero pardoned him on Jan. 10, 1906. He moved to Wyoming, found work and a new wife, and then moved to the Imperial Valley in California. He died in Los Angeles in 1934 and is buried with other “celebrities” in Forest Lawn Cemetery. He was the last of the Wild Bunch to die.