Some New Mexico Nicknames.
Sobriquets attached to characters in the American West of the late 19th century are an interesting, and sometimes conflicting, collection of names…
Most famous among them is “Buffalo Bill” Cody. There is little confusion about him. His name was William F. Cody, and he was responsible for killing untold hundreds of buffalo on the American plains before he went into show business and really became famous. But others are not so obvious. “Wild Bill” Hickok is a case in point. His name was not William, but James Butler Hickok. Dime novelists made much of his exploits, as Wild Bill, and it is not clear where the sobriquet came from, although it is catchier than “Wild Jim.”
In New Mexico, the most famous nicknames were, of course, “Billy the Kid” and “Black Jack.” Anyone who has been in New Mexico long enough to eat two bowls of green chile stew will be quick to acknowledge that if New Mexico had an official outlaw, like it has an official cookie (the biscochito), it would be William H. Bonney, or Billy the Kid, and in general that would be correct. But was Bonney really known widely as Billy the Kid? One modern source indicates that he was not known as such until the last year of his life. Earlier, he had been known simply as “The Kid,” or even just “Kid,” but that description could be applied to numerous youths, on both sides of the law. And, too, Bonney was earlier known as “Kid Antrim,” Antrim being his step-father’s name, and as Henry McCarty, McCarty being his mother’s name. Another observer has noted that there were probably ten young men known as Billy the Kid in late 19th century New Mexico. One of them, Billy Wilson, actually rode with Billy Bonney. The name “Black Jack” is no exception. Just the name conjures up all kinds of things. A Black Jack is a kind of a small club carried by good guys and bad in years past. It is also a card game otherwise called Twenty-one. In that game, the black jacks have no more significance than any other face card. Black Jack was also the brand name of a licorice-flavored chewing gum in years long gone by. So whence the name?
In New Mexico, especially among Old West history buffs, the name “Black Jack” might apply to several people: Tom Ketchum, Sam Ketchum, Will Christian and John Pershing.
Thomas Edward Ketchum is probably the best known Black Jack. He certainly got the most attention, for a couple of reasons. For one thing, he was sufficiently annoying that even his own brother, Sam, disassociated himself, leaving Tom to act alone. On August 16, 1899, Tom undertook to rob the same train that brother Sam had robbed a month before. It didn’t work out. The train’s conductor, Frank Herrington, shot and severely wounded Ketchum, who was captured the next day. What sets Tom apart is that he was charged with assaulting a train; a crime that had been made a capital offense in New Mexico back in 1887. He was sentenced to death by hanging, the only person in the history of the territory to be so punished for train robbery.
What focused even more attention on Tom was the way in which his execution was botched. As a result of a miscalculation, the rope was too long and his head was separated from his body at the end of the drop. Photos of the gristly event were taken, so the public had little opportunity to forget this Black Jack.
Tom’s older brother, Sam, it should be noted, was also occasionally referred to as Black Jack. Odd that neither of these Black Jacks was named Jack. And neither was yet a third. His name was William T. Christian.
While many western writers have referred to Ketchum as the original Black Jack, modern researchers believe that infamy actually belongs to Will Christian. He was born in Texas in the early 1870s and after a long string of crimes, from robbery to murder, he and his brother, Bob, arrived in New Mexico in the middle 1890s. They continued their criminal ways until “Black Jack” Christian was shot to death by lawmen, led by Deputy U. S. Marshal Fred Higgins of Roswell, in April 1897 at Cole Creek Canyon in eastern Arizona.
One story goes that Ketchum adopted the name for himself after Christian was killed when a hanger-on in an Arizona saloon noted that the two men looked alike. According to this version, Ketchum and Christian never met. Other tales suggest that they were acquainted, and actually committed crimes together. Membership in the outlaw gangs of the time changed with a high degree of regularity, as did gang leadership.
Before he went to the gallows, Thomas E. “Black Jack” Ketchum declared that he was not the “real” Black Jack, and that the other one, presumably Will Christian, was still alive and well (Brother Tom was already dead and buried in Santa Fe). Ketchum refused to say where the original Black Jack might be found.
The final New Mexico Black Jack was General John Pershing. There is no mystery about how he acquired the nickname. For about ten years, as a young officer in the late 1890s, in New Mexico and elsewhere, Pershing was the commanding officer of a company of the 10th Cavalry, which was made up entirely of Black troopers, known as Buffalo Soldiers. Pershing later wrote, “It has been an honor which I am proud to claim to have been at one time a member of that intrepid organization of the Army which has always added glory to the military history of the United States — the 10th Cavalry.” n