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The Deadliest Outlaws
The Ketchum Gang and the Wild Bunch
By Jeffrey Burton
University of North Texas Press Copyright © 2012 Jeffrey Burton
All rights reserved.
MEET THE GANG
The oral tradition of fable 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 Northern Plains—Harvey Logan ("Kid Curry"), Robert Leroy Parker ("Butch Cassidy"), and Harry Longabaugh ("the Sundance Kid").
During most of its short but crowded life, the Ketchum gang had only four members: Tom and Sam Ketchum, Will Carver, and Dave Atkins. As long as this combination held together, Tom was leader, although, as he once stated, "everybody was consulted in most things." Cassidy's close ally William Ellsworth "Elzy" Lay, Bruce "Red" Weaver, and Edwin Cullen all rode briefly with the Ketchums. Also associated with the gang were Ben Kilpatrick, of Concho County, Texas, and his brothers George and Ed. Ben may have ridden alongside the Ketchums in 1898 before going north to join Logan, Cassidy, Longabaugh, and George Currie.
Tom's was always the gang's dominant personality, until the others found at last that they could stand no more of him and told him so. "Billy" Reno, a railroad detective who earned the right to judge the traits that made Tom Ketchum so dangerous a criminal, needed only five words: "a tiger in human form."
Dark skinned and black haired, he stood about an inch above six feet and weighed 180 to 190 pounds. "At close range," wrote the rancher Jack Culley, recalling his journey in the train which carried the convicted bandit to the penitentiary, "Tom Ketchum struck me as being one of the most powerful men I've ever seen, with corresponding activity. I had a feeling he could have taken the two sheriffs and everyone else on the coach and thrown us out onto the track ... Every inch ... seemed to me brawn and muscle." Leonard Alverson, who was wrongfully accused of taking part in one of the gang's holdups, also spoke of Tom's "wonderful physique."
Walter Hovey, whose connection with the Ketchum gang was similar to Alverson's, may have met Tom only twice, but remembered him as "a very fine looking specimen of a man."
Bob Lewis, who knew the Ketchums in both Texas and New Mexico, maintained that Tom was "a coward at heart." Lewis's neighbor William French condemned Tom and Sam even more damningly as "sneak-thieves and murderers ... nothing but dirty thieves and murderers," whom the likes of Butch Cassidy "always despised;" but French affected an authority that he ought to have possessed but did not. He lived many years in New Mexico as manager of a ranch that ran cattle in two sections of the territory where the Ketchums were well known, yet never met either of them. Nor had he heard so much as a word about their background in Texas, the scene of their more successful criminal exploits.
Gerome Shield disagreed. Unlike French, he knew what he was talking about. He also knew Tom better than Lewis did. Shield had grown up alongside Tom in San Saba County, Texas, and, like him, moved to Tom Green County, where he served eight years as sheriff. He paid tribute to Tom's wonderful nerve," though he thought Sam "had better." On this question, the weight of informed testimony from elsewhere supports Shield against Lewis. Walter Hovey, for example, who went to prison on the Ketchums' account and hence had no reason to speak fawningly of them, described Tom as "utterly devoid of fear." A host of witnesses swore that he died game. The preponderance of evidence affirms that he lived game, too.
But Lewis's assessment of Tom as "the most cold-blooded individual I have ever met" has many an echo. John Loomis, a Concho County rancher well acquainted with the Ketchum family in Texas, characterized him as "undoubtedly one of the cruellest and most cold blooded killers in the whole history of the frontier." Joseph "Mack" Axford's succinct comment, "a very brutal man," derived from his talks with Dave Atkins, covers the whole range. But brutality need not imply cowardice. Ketchum was both brave and brutal.
He was devious and cunning, too; his instinct for concealment when in flight was as sharp as that of the wolverine. Loomis believed that, once Tom became an outlaw, he never slept in a house, but "lived in the wilds like a wolf." Though not much given to laughter, he sometimes showed a dry, sardonic twist of humor; while the childishness in him was as apt to manifest itself in a practical joke as in a swirl of rage.
Opinions differed over whether his features connoted the intelligence he undoubtedly possessed. "Tom Ketchum's face," commented Culley, "did not impress me as being that of a particularly intelligent man; it was the face essentially of a manof action. The small black eyes were the most notable feature of it, shining and piercing, and possessed of an extraordinary alertness, like that you see in the eyes of some wild animals. This feature it was doubtless that accounted for his ability to detect, and draw a bead on, an object simultaneously." According to one newspaperman, they were "marvelous eyes ... small, brown or greenish gray as his mood changed and indefinably swift and menacing." Another reporter noted that Ketchum had "an intelligent face and a pair of bright, piercing eyes." Gerrit Taft, a senior official of the Wells, Fargo express company, describing the outlaw for purposes of identification, drew attention to the "dark flashing eyes." Miguel Otero, the governor of New Mexico who declined to mitigate the death sentence pronounced upon Ketchum, likened them to "black coals of fire ... piercing and radiant." Jack Potter, portraying Tom as "a big, handsome fellow with raven black hair and a swarthy complexion," confirmed that "his eyes were flashing black." Albert Thompson, who interviewed him when he was being held for trial, and again on the eve of his execution, observed that, when talking, Ketchum looked one straight in the face through eyes that were "dark, small, and piercing."
Behind those eyes lay a nimble mind, an uncertain temper, and a sullen and malevolent disposition. Tom's "natural capacity for leadership," which, Thompson declared, "was obvious upon a moment's acquaintance," holds much of the explanation for his success in crime before this quality was undermined by the destructive side of his character, until no one was willing to be led by him. A newspaper editor in San Angelo, Texas, perhaps quoting or paraphrasing Gerome Shield, commented with more than a hint of understatement that Tom "was known [as] a most overbearing man." John Wright, a significant but enigmatical figure at the outset of Ketchum's criminal history, told Loomis that "he had never seen a man with such an insane temper as Tom." "Human emotions seemed entirely foreign to his nature," observed one press correspondent; "An unloved leader, too heartless even for their [his fellow outlaws'] turbulent spirits," another declared; "Ignorant and brutish," was the dismissively terse verdict of a third. These were the pronouncements of newspaper reporters with nothing to draw upon beyond a single meeting with their subject, in his last hours or minutes of life, and a stock of hearsay, some of it created or elaborated by the newspapers themselves. Even so, they tallied with the views or judgments of people who had known Tom for years, before he became a hopeless and doomed convict. Most of the Western outlaws, like most of the criminals of any time or place, were quickly caught or killed because they liked or trusted too many people. Tom Ketchum was taken because he liked or trusted practically no one. Both his unbounded nerve and his bouts of wanton cruelty may be set down to his lack of regard for anything that breathed, not excluding himself.
In 1955, Elton Cunningham, a storekeeper in Alma and Mogollon, New Mexico, at the end of the nineteenth century, claimed that his friend Elzy Lay called Tom Ketchum (though not to his face) "the dirtiest bastard that ever lived." Cunningham, who apparently never met Tom or Sam, may or may not have been over-quoting Lay.
Whether or not Lay (or Cunningham) overdrew the picture, others did. Accusations that Tom Ketchum tortured animals, birds, and even insects were current in his own time and were repeated later, but they were always reported from hearsay, never from direct observation. They are not borne out by the direct recollections of people who had known him before he turned to crime. While we cannot be certain that they were untrue, a measure of skepticism would be in order. Such charges were conventionally leveled at individuals characterized in the public mind as villainy personified. After his capture in New Mexico, some of his old neighbors in Knickerbocker, Texas, who knew only too well just how dangerous an enemy he could be, still declared that Tom Ketchum was not nearly as bad as the more sensational newspapers portrayed him.
These unnamed people might have played down Tom's delinquencies to diminish their own culpability in cooperating with the gang; as Loomis recalled, "although the ranchmen in the region where they had their [Texas] hideout, feared them, they more or less protected them, and let them have horses. They realized that their own lives and property were at their mercy." Loomis did not add, but others did, that those who helped the gang were not always or solely motivated by fear; they were often paid for their trouble, and doubtless well paid. These standards applied in southwest and northeast New Mexico, as well as in their home territory of southwest Texas.
Sam Ketchum, nearly ten years Tom's elder, and for that reason sometimes called "Dad" by his friends, was different in nearly every aspect of character. He was a big man, more than six feet tall but a shade shorter than his brother. He was fair skinned, with reddish-blond hair, blue eyes, and heavily freckled face and arms. "I picture him vividly," wrote Culley, "as the finest figure of a man in my recollection." Bob Lewis, whose loathing of Tom we have mentioned, said of his brother: "Sam Ketchum was a brave and courageous man and if his brother hadn't been such a bad influence he would have been all right." Tom Chaney (or Cheney), a Texas neighbor who confessedly knew outlaws "about as well as anyone not to have been one myself," had this to say: "Sam Ketchum was a mighty good man to die an outlaw. He was a very good friend of mine. He never would have been into anything, but got into trouble trying to save Tom." Axford also thought him "a fine man." Sam was always popular and his later career mystified many people who had known him on the range. Only Albert Thompson dissented; he called Sam "as irresponsible as his younger and more cunning relative." But Thompson never met Sam Ketchum, and it is not clear whether his opinion was guided by persons who had known Sam in Texas and disliked him for unstated reasons, or by his own imagination. Still, Sam's decision to take the left-hand trail cannot be attributed wholly to Tom's "bad influence." After Tom and several companions had murdered a rancher in Texas, Sam followed them west, presumably in order to avoid having to answer questions. To that extent, Tom Ketchum was the cause of his brother's outlawry. What was more significant, however, was that Sam was forty-two years old at this time, and he had nothing to show for a life which had been chiefly devoted to honest toil. This may go far towards explaining why, in the spring of 1896, he threw in with Tom. Thereafter, one thing followed another until soon there could be no turning back. Eventually he assumed leadership of the gang, only to demonstrate that there was little point in pulling a successful outlaw coup unless the getaway could be handled as skillfully as the robbery itself.
The third member of the gang, and the only one of the original four to venture into the far more dangerous field of bank robbery, was Will Carver. Lighthaired and fair-complexioned, but deeply sun-tanned, he was just below medium height for the times—no more than five foot six or seven out of his boots—and rather stocky build, weighing from 150 to 160 pounds.
The fullest description we have of him was published in the summer of 1899, when his notoriety was at its peak:
Age about 35; height 5 feet 8 inches; weight 170 pounds; medium dark complexion; full face, but not round; heavy dark brown mustache and dark beard, which shows red tint; square build; heavy body; broad across the eyes; eyelids open far back; when walking throws his body back with his feet forward; appearance of a cowboy gambler.
This is impressive as a summary of Carver's telltale characteristics, but less secure on the closer details of his physical features. Two years later, when he was still only thirty-two, his age was judged to be between thirty-five and forty. He was then said to be only five foot six in height, and 150 pounds in weight, with brown hair showing traces of dye. The reference to dye is significant; at different times he used different tints, including red and black.
Leonard Alverson, who was well acquainted with the outlaws and their ways, characterized Carver as "a nice fellow but very melancholy over the death of his wife." Seaton Keith, a neighbor of the Ketchums in Texas, employed Carver and thought him "a good, quiet, steady boy" who "seemed to go all to pieces" when his wife and baby daughter died. Keith's friend and fellow-rancher John Loomis said much the same: the outlaw "had a nice personality and everybody liked him" during his cowboy years; he was "devoted to his wife," and, after her death, he "fell to pieces," and "got in with a wrong crowd." James H. Yardley, the long-serving foreman of Fayette Tankersley's 7D outfit in Irion County, Texas, adjudged him "one of the best hands I ever saw," and added: "We all liked him and was sorry to hear of his death ... his name got worse than his ways."
Thompson, who never met Carver but collected a miscellany of anecdotal material on the gang from first hand, depicted him in much harsher terms: "cold, fiendish, calculating and a dead shot." There is plenty of corroboration for Thompson's last assertion, but otherwise the judgment is a poor one. Whatever else he may have been, William Carver was not "fiendish." Although cool-tempered and usually levelheaded, he seems not to have possessed the shrewdness of the "calculating" man. Amiable on the surface, with a quick turn of wit, he was inwardly reticent—apparently unable or unwilling to enter into close friendships—rather than "cold."
Until the last weeks of his life, he avoided controversy and gunplay whenever he could; up to then, he seemed to have nothing of the firebrand in him. But when he was forced into a position when he really had to fight he was as game and deadly a gunman as ever looked down the sights of a Winchester. Reported opinion is unanimous in one respect: he was absolutely without fear. In the phrase of Tom Chaney, "he wasn't scared of the old Devil." An article in the San Angelo Standard sums him up best.
Will Carver ... was a plain, unassuming, quiet sort of desperado, of a very retiring disposition, and rather shunned than courted notoriety. He was adverse to society, and preferred to dwell in the solitudes of the great southwestern plains, with a few choice spirits ...
That newspaper story was, in effect, Carver's obituary notice, and it was written because, a few months earlier, the bandit, throwing aside his customary reserve, had taken to deserting the "solitudes of the plains" for the hurly-burly of the red light districts, consequently to become either contemptuous of danger or merely careless in his movements. The death of Sam Ketchum, the capture of Elzy Lay and Tom Ketchum, his own narrow escapes, and his final flush of success with Cassidy and Longabaugh, loosened his grip on the realities of a life on the run. Finally, he began to hunt for trouble and to throw his reputation about, like a celebrity convinced of his own impregnability. Survival, for an outlaw, depended upon constant watchfulness. That is why few survived for long. Will Carver grew casual to the point of recklessness, and walked into trouble, with the usual result.
Excerpted from The Deadliest Outlaws by Jeffrey Burton. Copyright © 2012 Jeffrey Burton. Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
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