During the 19th century New Mexico’s most common form of capital punishment was death by hanging. That form of punishment was rooted in 12th century Europe. It became prevalent in Colonial America during the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. In New Mexico the Spanish colonists routinely hung Pueblo Indians who retaliated against their forced servitude. A surge of hangings followed the Gold Rush of 1840. Thousands of people ventured through the west with little, if any, law enforcement available. Violence became the order of the day.
An Execution Never Forgotten
In Clayton, NM the bungled execution of outlaw Black Jack Ketchum in 1901 received national attention. Death by hanging was mandatory punishment for murderers but Ketchum’s only crime was holding up a railroad train. Legend has it that on the morning of his execution he told the sheriff after he ate breakfast, “Let’s get this thing over with, I want to get to hell in time for dinner.” One hundred and fifty tickets had been issued for people to witness his death in a turn of events that no one could have ever imagined. As the trap door of the scaffold opened the hangman’s noose jolted back severing Ketchum’s head from his body. His headless body lay beneath the scaffold, while his head was still hanging in the noose. Black Jack Ketchum’s hanging continues to be one of the most horrific examples of capital punishment in this country.