‘Gazing upon the four men hanging there in the barn might have shocked some locals, but it also no doubt made many sigh with relief. The lynching of four badmen was not pretty but was deemed necessary’
Just after sunup on Monday, April 19, 1909, citizens who paid a visit to the Frisco barn in downtown Ada, Oklahoma, encountered a shocking scene—four men hanging from the rafters. Shocking, yes, but perhaps not so unwelcome to onlookers. In late March and early April authorities had arrested the four men, including assassin Jim Miller, for the brutal shotgun killing of Allen Augustus “Gus” Bobbitt, a popular rancher and former deputy U.S. marshal. Bobbitt had been an exceptional officer—the right hand of U.S. District Attorney Andrew Cavitt “A.C.” Cruce—and a crusader against crime. Testimony given at Miller’s preliminary hearing a few days earlier had strongly implicated him and the other three men in the dastardly deed. The quartet was already confined in the Ada jail, but the criminal justice system at the time was shaky. What good citizen wanted to see Miller and company set free? Gazing upon the four men hanging there in the barn might have shocked some locals, but it also no doubt made many sigh with relief. The lynching of four badmen was not pretty but was deemed necessary. Justice had been served—frontier style.
In Oklahoma, which had been a state for less than two years, lawlessness remained very much a reality. The courts there were hampered, if not crippled, by technicalities, false witnesses and juries that often would not convict even the worst offenders. When citizens believed there was no justice in the courts, they usually turned to vigilantism, administering their own brand of justice to rustlers, horse thieves, murderers and other criminals. On April 20, the day after the lynching, The Ada Evening News expressed the sentiments of most citizens:
[Lynchings] are to be deplored, but Oklahoma juries are permitting too many murderers to escape the penalty of their crimes, while procedure in the courts, with the importance given to trifling technicalities, is making it easy for criminals to escape punishment.
At Norman, Saturday, James Stevenson, who was charged with the murder of Deputy Marshal R.W. Cathey of Pauls Valley was acquitted by a jury.
Lynching is a form of popular vengeance that should have no place where courts and proper legal machinery are in operation.
In Jim Miller the citizens of Ada—whether they participated in the lynching (as some 40 of them apparently did) or arrived at the barn later—knew they had not hanged an innocent man. This fellow from Fort Worth had been a murderer for a quarter century yet had always managed to escape justice in the courts of Texas and Oklahoma. He had friends, even among good citizens, and seemed reasonable and unassuming. But behind the attractive mask was a hired killer who murdered in cold blood with unspeakable brutality. He was the personification of a psychopath. Only the vigilantes at Ada were able to stop him.
Among the many corpses Miller left in his wake was brother-in-law John Coop in July 1884 near Gatesville in central Texas. Miller, who was born in Arkansas in 1861 and moved with his family to Texas at age 1, was 22 when he ended a disagreement with Coop by filling him with buckshot. Miller was tried and convicted but won on appeal. He soon left his widowed mother and siblings and moved more than 100 miles west to McCulloch County. There he hired on as a cowhand for rancher Emanuel D. “Mannen” Clements and grew very close to some of the Clements family. Miller married Mannen’s daughter Sallie several years later and became a longtime friend of Sallie’s brother Mannie.
In March 1887 Mannen Clements drew a pistol on Ballinger Deputy Sheriff Joe Townsend, and the lawman was forced to kill him. Seven months later someone ambushed Townsend with a shotgun (Miller’s signature style). Townsend survived but lost an arm to amputation. No one was ever brought to trail.
Seven years later Miller met and befriended a cousin of the Clementses who had just been released from a long stay (1878–94) behind bars—none other than Texas terror John Wesley Hardin. Hardin, especially before he went to prison, was the most dangerous gunman in the West. He was intelligent and knew all the pistol-handling tricks. In a lightning motion he would draw one or two revolvers, aim and fire—often at human targets. One suspects that Hardin, some eight years older than Miller, taught Jim a trick or two.
Miller’s early brushes with the law did not keep him from wearing a badge in Pecos. In 1891 he even served as one of Reeves County Sheriff George A. “Bud” Frazer’s deputies, that is until Frazer fired him for misconduct and the suspected murder of a Mexican prisoner who knew of Miller’s shady activities. Miller conspired to kill Frazer, but the plot was foiled. In 1894 Miller and Frazer engaged in two separate shootouts. Miller was wounded on both occasions, but there is little evidence to support the legend he survived those clashes only because he wore a metal breastplate under his clothes. On September 14, 1896, ex-deputy Miller and ex-sheriff Frazer met again at a saloon in Toyah, near Pecos. Without so much as a howdy-do Miller leveled his shotgun at Frazer and emptied two loads of buckshot into his enemy’s head. Indicted for murder, Miller stood trial (after a change of venue) and was acquitted.
Miller had worked as an assassin before he moved to Pecos, but exactly when he first killed someone for a fee is uncertain. Certainly by the turn of the 20th century he was well established in his chosen profession. He reportedly carried out his assassinations for anywhere from $50 to $2,000. One of his more notorious kills came in August 1906 in Indian Territory when he used his trusty shotgun to ambush Ben Collins, a deputy U.S. marshal and Indian policeman. Again he was indicted for murder, and again nothing came of it. Two years later someone shot and killed Pat Garrett—former sheriff of Lincoln County, New Mexico Territory, and the man who shot Billy the Kid—on a desolate stretch of road near Las Cruces. Many people suspect Miller gunned down Garrett from ambush, but he was never indicted for the killing. Some 14 months later, as the Ada vigilantes prepared to string up Miller, he did some talking, reportedly telling his executioners, “Let the record show that I’ve killed 51 men.” The total might have been far less, as most of his killings cannot be documented, but one can argue that the secretive assassin had no reason to tell a lie when nearly at the end of his rope.
The three men lynched alongside Miller in the Frisco barn were Jesse West, Joe Allen and Berry B. Burrell. West was the main conspirator in the Bobbitt assassination; he had hired Miller. Allen was a close associate of West. They had ranched and farmed in the area until 1903, when pressured to leave by former Marshal Bobbitt, with whom they had argued over livestock and other matters. West and Allen had moved near Canadian, in the Texas Panhandle, but now they wanted to return. They believed Bobbitt stood in their way.
Sometime in 1908 West apparently mentioned the idea of moving back to the Ada vicinity in a letter to Tom Hope, president of the Ada National Bank. In his reply, dated August 8 of that year, Hope told West he missed him, considered him “one of the best friends we ever had” and encouraged him to return to Oklahoma, touting the great farms and business opportunities. Hope also spoke well of Bobbitt in the letter. Nevertheless, Hope’s encouragement probably convinced West he should not only return but also hire Miller to eliminate Bobbitt. Burrell, originally from Texas and then a resident of Duncan, Indian Territory, was a bank cashier turned livestock trader and an accomplice of Miller’s in murder and land fraud. Burrell watched Bobbitt for Miller and informed the hired killer when the time was right to move in with the shotgun.
Despite Hope’s claims of friendship with West, the bank president reportedly didn’t lift a finger to protect him from the lynch mob, although Hope’s son, Welborn, said someone had warned his father in advance the lynching would occur. It is likely Hope was more interested in having West’s business at the bank than in having West himself back in town.
On Saturday, February 27, 1909, Gus Bobbitt was in Ada to buy two wagonloads of cottonseed meal for his livestock. He drove one loaded wagon out of town, while Bob Ferguson, a neighbor he had hired for the occasion, followed in the second wagon. As they traveled southwest on the Ada–Roff road, they met a well-dressed rider, sporting a tie and a riding cap. Strangely, the horseman rode a shabby farm animal—a brown mare with distinctive markings. Neither Bobbitt nor Ferguson recognized the man as Jim Miller.
At sundown, having traveled about six miles, Bobbitt and Ferguson turned down the lane to Bobbitt’s ranch. A half-mile from the house they reached a large oak tree, behind which Miller waited, both hammers of his double-barreled shotgun cocked. The hired killer took aim and fired twice. Twenty-six shotgun pellets struck Bobbitt in a leg and above the hip. “Oh, God!” he yelled. Then he fell out of the wagon onto the ground. His team ran off with the wagon.
Miller, with pistol drawn, ran out to see about his victim. Bobbitt was still alive, but Miller did not finish him off. Instead, he ran to his horse and galloped away, throwing his shotgun into a nearby stream. Both Bobbitt and Ferguson had gotten a look at Miller and later described him.
Ferguson unhitched one of the horses from the second wagon, caught Bobbitt’s team and went to the house to notify Bobbitt’s wife, Tennessee, and to telephone a doctor and the law. Tennessee had heard the gunshots and rushed to her husband. She found him in agony. At his request, she put his head in her lap and comforted him. Gus told her that some of his old enemies—no doubt, West and Allen—were responsible. Less than two hours later he died where he had fallen. West and Allen would have been the leading suspects in any case.
Ferguson’s description of the assassin and evidence from the scene soon led authorities to the shooter. Miller had left behind wire cutters he had used to cut several fences, and authorities traced the cutters to Burrell, who had purchased them. Authorities tracked the brown mare to Miller’s nephew John Williamson in Francis, several miles northeast of Ada. Williamson gave a statement, saying he had loaned the mare to Miller and that Miller had admitted to killing Bobbitt.
Texas lawmen arrested Burrell on March 23 in Fort Worth and Miller on March 31 near that city. About the same time Ardmore authorities arrested teenager Oscar Peeler, who was on the fringes of the conspiracy, having rented the house in which Miller stayed. After the lynching, Peeler further incriminated the conspirators, claiming West had sent him checks to cover the house rental.
Jesse West had a long history of violence and questionable acts. Members of Joe Allen’s family have said West had once killed a black man for merely throwing a firecracker under the horse he was riding. In 1937 Oklahoman Ned Warren related that in 1899, at age 17, he had hired out to West for a cattle drive to the Texas Panhandle and was warned by his father that West was a dangerous man. At one point on the drive, while still in Oklahoma Territory, West’s cattle got into a man’s garden, and the man sent his two dogs to run them out. “Jesse killed the two dogs,” recalled Warren, “and told me to camp at the first good place, and tore the Dutchman’s door down getting through.”
At the turn of the 20th century West was a merchant in the wild town of Violet Springs in Pottawatomie (“Pott”) County, Oklahoma Territory (across the Canadian River 10 miles north of Ada, which at the time was in Indian Territory). Bobbitt also lived in Pott County. Allen was a rancher in adjoining Seminole County. For a time Bobbitt had no trouble with West and Allen, both of whom became involved in the saloon business at a place called Corner, in the extreme southeastern corner of the county. Whiskey flowed freely in Pott County, and violence went with it. West and Allen themselves got violent at times, once wrecking the saloon of a man who refused to sell his business to them. They intimidated most of the other saloon owners in the area. But when West and Allen tried to buy out saloon owner James McCarty, he brought in two Texas gunman—former Texas Ranger George “Hookey” Miller (he wore a hook in place of one hand) and Frank Starr—for protection. (Years later McCarty was one of the guards on duty the night the lynch mob yanked West, Allen, Burrell and Miller out of the Ada jail.)
Although no longer a lawman, Bobbitt retained strong convictions about right and wrong, and most Pott County citizens ultimately backed him against the practices of West and Allen. By 1903 Bobbitt and the others had had their fill of the two saloonkeepers and forced them out of Oklahoma Territory. The next year Bobbitt bought a home in Ada, where his wife and four children stayed most of the time, and the nearby ranch. Bobbitt, worried West and Allen might look him up someday, drew up a will and set up a $1,000 reward for the capture of the guilty party should he be killed.
At the time of Bobbitt’s murder, West was in Texas. But according to Oklahoma historian Alvin Rucker, West confided to friend and employee Ed Jones the reason for the assassination: “I did say in the courthouse at Tecumseh, after I had been acquitted on the frame-up charge that I had stolen Bobbitt’s cattle, that I would never work again until one of us was in the grave. I have kept my promise.” West in time learned that he, Allen and Burrell might all be charged in the death of Bobbitt. In early April he and Allen met in Oklahoma City with brilliant, though unscrupulous, Moorman “Moman” Pruiett, one of the most successful criminal defense attorneys of the 20th century. Pruiett agreed to represent them as well as Miller. On the night of April 6, 1909, authorities arrested West and Allen at the train depot in Oklahoma City. According to The Daily Oklahoman, West admitted his involvement in the assassination to Detective Robert Moore: “I would have killed him [Bobbitt] on sight. I didn’t kill him, but that was the only reason—I didn’t get the chance. But they will kill us, if you take us back to Ada.”
West knew what he was talking about. Just two weeks after authorities placed West and Allen in the Ada jail, the vigilantes did their work. A mob formed on the city streets near midnight on April 18, but its entry into the jail and the lynching came in the early hours of the 19th. According to the official version, County Attorney Robert Wimbish, who had done excellent service in helping to apprehend the four prisoners, confronted the mob on its way to the jail and tried to convince the men to return home.
But the vigilantes forced their way into the jail and got the drop on Walter Goyne, the deputy sheriff and jailor; Bob Nester, a fearless part-time deputy sheriff; James McCarty, the man who had troubles with West and Allen years earlier at the Corner; and night guard Joe Carter. Goyne later told The Ada Evening News the mob forced him to open the door to the cell area and then bound his hands with bailing wire. Nester went for his pistol, but the vigilantes clubbed him over the head and tied him up. Carter got outside, but the mob would not let him return. McCarty did not issue a statement. County Judge Joel Terrell and night policeman Lee West pled with the mob but to no avail. For those two to be there in the dead of night suggests city officials had advance knowledge of the planned lynching.
After bringing the four men out of their cells, the vigilantes asked Jesse West what he knew about the Bobbitt murder. He said he would tell them nothing, and furthermore, if he had a pistol, he would shoot some of them. “The ropes!” said a tall man in a slouch hat, the apparent leader of the mob. West got a beating for resisting and, like the other three prisoners, soon found a rope around his neck. “If you are going to hang me, do it quick,” Miller said. A state agent at Ada told The Daily Oklahoman the mob took Miller aside and interrogated him, promising him his freedom if he would talk. He talked, no doubt implicating all the conspirators, but the mob forgot its promise.
The streets of Ada were eerily dark at about 2:30 a.m. when the mob dragged the prisoners from the jail to the barn, just 30 feet away. Some of the vigilantes had forced an engineer at the power company to switch off power to the streetlights. The mob must have used lanterns to light the barn. Whether the four men uttered any final words is not known, but Deputy Goyne later recalled Miller had not spoken, explaining, “I ought to know, because I hung him.” This is the same Goyne who had stated after the lynching that the mob had tied him up at the jailhouse. In any case the four men were soon swinging from the rafters, each in turn, with Miller going last. In the low light their suspended bodies cast grotesque shadows.
It is unclear where Police Chief George Culver was on the night of the lynching. Sheriff Tom Smith and some other officials were out of town, which raised suspicions they had allowed the lynching to happen. “I think they knew what was going on,” said 82-year-old Frank Smith, the sheriff’s son, in a 1972 interview. As a 19-year-old, Frank had worked at his father’s office, bringing prisoner Miller his mail and often talking to him. The younger Smith also knew Burrell.
Governor Charles N. Haskell was upset that Ada authorities did not quickly notify him of the lynching. He set up a special grand jury at Ada to investigate and identify those responsible. The grand jury met over three days and interviewed 28 people with some knowledge of the event. Nobody could, or would, identify members of the mob. The grand jury concluded, “We deplore that this affair took place in our county and believe that in this matter the law should have taken its course, and we further believe that the occurrence was largely due to the tardy administration of justice by the court.” That was hardly surprising; rarely in the wild and woolly West did authorities prosecute citizens involved in a lynching.
Jesse West’s 25-year-old son, Joe, gave a lengthy, self-serving interview on May 1, 1909, to the Canadian City Press, in which he blamed Bobbitt for all the troubles. The Ada Evening News repeated it on May 4, saying the article evidently contained some “gross inaccuracies,” which, indeed, it did. Joe expressed not a single word of sympathy for Bobbitt, his wife or children. It is clear Joe was trying to cover for his father.
When the four conspirators decided to eliminate Gus Bobbitt, they likely figured they could escape justice even if caught and tried. Certainly the actual triggerman, Jim Miller, had beaten the legal system many times previously. What they hadn’t counted on was a vengeful mob. Ada’s angry vigilantes had formed their small ropes into simple loops, not hangman’s knots—meaning the four murderers slowly strangled to death.
For more information about Jim Miller see Barney K. Riggs: The Yuma and Pecos Avenger, by Ellis Lindsey and Gene Riggs. Watch for Lindsey and Riggs’ new Miller bio (tentatively titled Jim Miller: Beast of the Wild West), for possible release by the University of North Texas Press in 2013.