"Catch 'Em Alive" Jack's Strange But Lucrative Old West Occupation

By | March 28, 2022

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Jack Abernathy, standing in coat holding hat. (Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

Homesteading on the Oklahoma prairie in the 1890s was difficult, and most young families struggled to earn a livable wage, but Jack Abernathy was an enterprising man with a knack for finding moneymaking opportunities. His first job was playing the piano in an Old West saloon when he was just six years old, but he soon discovered a strange skill that earned him fortune, fame, and even the admiration of President Theodore Roosevelt.

Jack Abernathy

John "Jack" Abernathy was born in Texas in 1876. He and one of his brothers were naturally gifted musicians despite never taking lessons and earned money for some time by playing piano and singing in a saloon in Sweetwater, Texas, but the young boys' careers abruptly ended when a gunfight broke out in the saloon and their mother forbade them from returning to work. The family still needed money, so when he was nine years old, Abernathy took a job as a cowboy at the AKX Ranch, and by the time he was 11, he was driving cattle to market some 500 miles away.

Abernathy was 15 years old when he truly struck pay dirt—or rather, a wolf's mouth. He was out hunting on horseback with several dogs when a pack of wolves attacked; when a wolf caught up to his favorite dog, Abernathy jumped from his horse, landed on the wolf, and took a swing at his snout, but his fist went right into the wolf's open mouth and throat. Amazingly, instead of chomping Jack's hand right off, the animal kept its mouth open and stopped fighting. Abernathy realized if he pulled his fist out, the animal would begin to fight again, so with the help of a hunting companion that soon rode upon the scene, he hog-tied the wolf before removing his (uninjured) hand. When they weighed it back at the ranch, they found the wolf was 130 lbs., three lbs. more than Abernathy.

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Theodore Roosevelt in 1885. (Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)

"Catch 'Em Alive" Jack

Despite a witness and a live wolf, most people found the story of how he captured the wolf unbelievable, so to prove he was telling the truth, Abernathy tried his dangerous stunt again. And again. At first, Jack did it as a bar trick, but soon, area ranchers were paying him $50 a pop to catch wolves. The local newspapers dubbed him "Catch 'Em Alive Jack," and his lucrative skill proved useful when, three years later, he married a young music teacher whose parents frowned on the relationship and eventually had six children with her. To support his growing family, Abernathy worked with zoos and animal parks and even put together his own traveling show where he demonstrated his wolf-catching technique.

Abernathy's traveling show caught the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt, a famously rugged outdoorsman and former rancher. He was eager to accompany Abernathy on a wolf hunt, and what the president wants, the president gets, so they were soon out on the Oklahoma prairie together. Just hours into the four-day hunt, Abernathy caught his first wolf, and by the end of it, he and Roosevelt were good friends. Roosevelt later named Abernathy the federal marshal of the Oklahoma Territory and frequently invited him to the White House for various events where he was introduced to such luminaries as Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Edison, John Jacob Astor, O. Henry, Mark Twain, and Bat Masterson.