Vagneur: The tale of ‘Hanging Tree’ |

Vagneur: The tale of ‘Hanging Tree’

“How do you hang a man,” he might have wondered? Likely there weren’t any available books on the subject. If you were a prosperous town, you might hire a professional “hang man” from somewhere else who knew how to go about such an ordeal and who always rode into town looking dark and deathly with spooky music playing in the background. But that may be more a western dime-novel idea than reality, so in the end, if you were the sheriff and had never hanged a man before, just how the hell would you go about it? Screw up and the results might be quite ugly.

The little town of Clayton, New Mexico Territory, had such a problem on its hands in 1901. Thomas “Black Jack” Ketchum had been arrested for “molesting a train,” which in real terms meant it was a botched robbery attempt which cost Ketchum an arm. One of Ketchum’s ricocheted bullets had knocked out a couple of teeth of one of the good guys. Hardly what you’d call a hanging offense, but Ketchum had enough alleged killing in his background to justify such an event.

Now by some stretch of serendipity (hang with me here), a couple of guys from the early 1970s Aspen Mountain ski patrol threw a rather thick rope into my lap and asked me to tie a hangman’s knot. Being a ranch kid, I guess they figured I’d know how to tie one since we had probably hung a few cattle rustlers over the years.

Also, being a rookie, I took it as an honor to contribute in a meaningful way to the task at hand, and being a sometime aficionado of knots, actually did know how to tie such a unique loop. Fold it up and back above the circle and then 13 wraps around the outside, pulling it through itself at the top to finish it off.

Lucky 13 for good or bad luck, I reckon, depending on which end of the rope you were on. Those 13 wraps are designed to solidly break your neck when the noose tightens with full force, saving the agony of suffocation.

It’s more of a guessing game at this point, but I think Steve Stratford, Mike Schaller, Erik Peltonen and I hung that noose up in a beautiful, gnarled dead tree near the top of Bell Mountain, which for those who don’t know, became the origin of the name “Hanging Tree” on behalf of the slope that falls steeply away below and comes out at the bottom of No. 3 (Ajax Express).

Hanging is serious business and should be conducted with some manner of decorum, like tying the hands of the condemned behind his back (Ketchum only had one arm), asking if there were any final words to be said, and then solemnly placing the ever-required black hood over the head of the doomed.

It’s only speculation, but more than likely the star of the show will hear the trap door spring open beneath his boots, giving him at least a second to anticipate what happens when the rope becomes taut. “Let ’er rip boys,” were Ketchum’s last words.

If you’re going to conduct a public hanging, you also should know what length of rope is necessary, what the appropriate thickness might be, how high the scaffold should be off the ground and other niggling details that if not properly addressed, may lead to profound embarrassment during a public hanging.

By the way, many years ago a tour through Virginia City, Montana, let us examine the gallows and hanging apparatus used in several western movies. The unique sounds and the effective quickness with which it operated ran a cold chill up my spine.

Sheriff Salome Garcia, in charge of the hanging in Clayton, nervously wiped the sweat from his brow in anticipation of how the whole thing was going to play out. He either hadn’t gotten the information he sorely needed, or didn’t fully understand it, and was more or less operating in the dark.

The spring-loaded trap door rapidly released and Ketchum’s body fell through the opening beneath his feet, and almost immediately, a shriek and loud murmur went up from the large crowd. To those standing on the gallows, it was clear something was not right.

Maybe the rope was too thin, definitely it was too long, and who knows what kind of a knot was used, but whatever it was, or wasn’t, a quick look through the hole revealed the headless body of Ketchum, lying in the dirt below the scaffold.

The ski patrol never suffered such public embarrassment, but around 1977 the same group of patrolmen mentioned above suffered the ignominy of removing the hangman’s noose at the unreasonable insistence of a woman whose husband had hung himself. Shortly thereafter, the faithful tree crumbled.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at

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