Facebook Twitter Tumblr Close Skip to main content
A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Harry Reid’s Outlaw Ancestor?

Q: Was Harry Reid’s ancestor a horse thief?

A: That’s a hoax. Sen. Reid is only the most recent political figure to be accused of fabricated outlaw ancestry.


Can you tell me if this is true? I got the feeling it isn’t, but who knows? 

Judy Wallman, a professional genealogy researcher here in southern California , was doing some personal work on her own family tree. She discovered that Harry Reid’s great-great uncle, Remus Reid, was hanged for horse stealing and train robbery in Montana in 1889.  Both Judy and Harry Reid share this common ancestor.

The only known photograph of Remus shows him standing on the gallows in Montana territory.  

Thomas Edward "Black Jack" Ketchum

On the back of the picture Judy obtained during her research is this inscription: ‘Remus Reid, horse thief, sent to Montana Territorial Prison 1885, escaped 1887, robbed the Montana Flyer six  times. Caught by Pinkerton detectives, convicted and hanged in  1889.’

So Judy recently e-mailed Senator Harry Reid for information about their great-great uncle.

Believe it or not, Harry Reid’s staff sent back the following biographical sketch for her genealogy research:

‘Remus Reid was a famous cowboy in the Montana Territory . His business empire grew to include  acquisition of valuable equestrian assets and intimate dealings with the   Montana railroad. Beginning in 1883, he devoted several years of his life to government service, finally taking leave to resume his dealings with the  railroad. In 1887, he was a key player in a vital  investigation run by the renowned Pinkerton Detective Agency. In 1889,  Remus passed away during an important civic function held in his honor when the platform upon which he was standing collapsed.’

NOW THAT is how it’s done folks! That’s real SPIN.


This howler has been going around for years, naming others. The same story has been told about Hillary Clinton, Tipper Gore, Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska and Canadian politician Stephane Dion. Back in 2000, Snopes.com collected the earliest known version, accusing then-Vice President Al Gore’s wife, and the site has since received other renditions accusing a series of politicians, of whom Sen. Reid of Nevada is only the most recent. Earlier versions of this hoax have identified the condemned man in the old photo as Remus Rodham, Robert Dion, Remus Stevens and Gunther Gore. (The anonymous revisionists apparently forgot that Gore is not Tipper’s maiden name.)

The man in the photo is actually Thomas Edward "Black Jack" Ketchum, a notorious train robber who was executed in New Mexico in 1901. The photo was made into a souvenir postcard with the inscription, "The hanging of Black Jack the outlaw." No mention of any Remus. This is a funny story, funny enough to have been revised and repeated at least four times since 2000, but that’s all it is. There’s no truth to it.

-Jess Henig


Snopes.com. "To Hatch a Thief." 9 Jan. 2009.