up to the end of his life, mule skinner Lucius Hightower had only
one thing in common with one of the Old West's most notorious outlaws,
"Black Jack" Ketchum -- both men hailed from the Lone Star state.
But early one spring morning in 1916, that would change. What had
happened to Ketchum in 1901 happened to him. Even so, Ketchum got
most of the ink. "Black Jack's" legend lives on while Hightower
and his claim to fame has long sense been forgotten.
Whether Lucius and wife Hallie left Texas for a new start on their
marriage or simply to afford him a better paying job, their relocation
to the high country of southwestern New Mexico definitely offered
better scenery. Tall pines forested the higher elevations, crowning
mountains hiding rich veins of silver. That aspect of the area's
geology had made picking a name for the Grant County seat a no-brainer
-- Silver City.
The couple had moved from Colorado
City in West Texas to the then-booming mining town of Tyrone,
NM around 1915. A classic company town, Tyrone had been designed
and built by the mining company whose employees lived there. While
Tyrone amounted to a state-of-the-art environment, the effect of
ethyl alcohol on human behavior could not be influenced by a change
Lucius and Hallie had been married 24 years and had five children.
No matter the common bond of parenthood, in today's relationship
speak they "had issues." On the night of Sept.30, 1915, a next-door
neighbor busily cooking supper for her family saw Lucius approaching
his house. Even at a distance, Mrs. Bailey (newspapers didn't mention
her first name) could tell by the way the 50-year-old man walked
that he was badly drunk.
Hallie had been cooking as well. After they ate, the couple got
into an argument. The neighbor heard Lucius yell that if they didn't
quit their constant fighting, he'd kill himself.
"I'll go get Bailey's Winchester and save you the trouble," Hallie
replied. As she walked toward the door of their bedroom, Lucius
grabbed a shotgun and charged after her. The frightened woman ran
to the Bailey family's tent and rushed inside, her husband close
behind. Seeing Lucius raising the weapon to fire, Mrs. Bailey tried
to push Hallie out of the way, but the blast caught the woman on
her left side and she fell mortally wounded.
At that, Lucius yelled, "Now I shoot myself," and walked outside
the tent. As she tried to comfort Hallie, Mrs. Bailey heard the
scattergun go off again, but when she looked outside, Lucius was
nowhere to be seen.
A few moments later, Lucius -- clearly uninjured -- returned to
the tent, bent down to kiss his dying wife, and ran off into the
hills. Hallie took her last breath two hours later. Grant County
law enforcement officers arrested her husband later that night and
a grand jury went on to indict him for murder. His case went to
trial on March 20, 1916 in Silver City and to the jury the next
day. It took the panel only 22 minutes to find Lucius guilty of
killing his wife. For that crime, they further concluded, he should
The judge sentenced Lucius to hang on May 5 "between the hours of
6 o'clock in the forenoon and 6 o'clock in the afternoon...in an
enclosure to be erected by the [sheriff] on the courthouse grounds...."
Already having another condemned man in his jail, the sheriff ordered
construction of a gallows and began planning for two consecutive
executions. Back then, hangings always drew a crowd, but to shield
the public from too gruesome a sight, courts usually ordered that
the execution be carried out in a relatively discreet manner.
To this point,
the Hightower murder had merely been a tragic example of domestic
violence in a Southwestern mining town. Unfortunately for all concerned,
when the sheriff sprang the trap door, the 200-plus-pound Hightower
reached the end of the rope and kept going. Rather than humanely
snapping his neck, to the horror of the onlookers the new rope jerked
the man's head off.
what Lucius Hightower came to share with "Black Jack" Ketchum. Fifteen
years earlier, San
Saba County native Thomas E. Ketchum had gone to the gallows
in Clayton, NM for train robbery, then a capital offense in New
Mexico. He, too, suffered decapitation when they tried to hang him.
Given his reputation and ample press coverage, "Black Jack's" horrid
demise became one of the most famous executions in the history of
the Old West.
Of 62 men and one woman legally hanged in New Mexico from 1847 to
1923, only two of the executions resulted in decapitation. Amazingly,
both of those hangings featured Texans as the "honoree."
As the Twenties
began to roar, most states switched to a more high-tech form of
capital punishment -- the electric chair. Society viewed death by
high voltage as more humane, and while that concept became debatable
and eventually ran out of juice in favor of lethal injection, at
least those who took a final seat in "the chair" got to keep their
head about them, so to speak.