‘OH, GOD!’ cried Gus Bobbitt, when the shotgun roared out of the twilight gloom. His body lurched erect on the wagon seat as buckshot tore into his legs. Then the shotgun boomed again from behind an elm, its load tearing into Bobbitt’s left side. The cattleman toppled from his wagon into the pasture below, and his panicked team ran away into the night.
Behind Bobbitt, his neighbor Bob Ferguson jumped from his own wagon to take cover. But there was no more shooting, only the clatter of hooves as a horseman broke out of the thicket from where the fire had come. Ferguson was sure he knew the rider. He couldn’t say the gunman’s name, maybe, for the killer was a stranger, but Ferguson knew him as the same man who had passed Bobbitt and Ferguson on the trail just moments before. He had even greeted Bobbitt, although he had partially obscured his face with a rag, as if he had something in his eye. He had been riding a scruffy brown mare, and behind his saddle had been something wrapped in what looked like a folded slicker.
It was a shotgun, trademark and favorite weapon of one of the Old West’s best-known professional killers, James B. Miller, commonly known as ‘Deacon Jim,’ from his favorite dress of black broadcloth and his pious pretense of church-going respectability. Men also called him ‘Killin’ Jim,’ in reference to his chosen vocation, murder for hire.
Deacon Jim was precocious in the ways of violent death. Born in Arkansas in 1866, he was orphaned early and sent to live with his grandparents in Coryell County, Texas. When Miller was 8, his grandparents were murdered, and the boy was arrested for the crime. Never tried, he was sent to live with his sister and brother-in-law, John Coop. Ten years later, in July 1884, a shotgun blast killed John Coop as he slept on his front porch early one evening. His murderer galloped off into the night.
That time, 17-year-old Miller was tried and convicted. In addition to his well-known vile temper and hatred of Coop, there was substantial evidence of careful planning. It was enough to override Miller’s alibi that he had been at a camp meeting that evening. His major witness, a young lady, failed him, admitting at his trial that Miller had left her and ‘did not return until the regular service was over and the shouting commenced.’ Miller was sentenced to life, but his conviction was overturned on appeal, and the case was never retried.
Miller then wandered into San Saba County and immediately began to run with bad company. After being disarmed and arrested by Dee Harkey, later one of the most famous lawmen the West ever produced, Miller drifted into McCulloch County, where he raced horses and punched cows for Emmanuel (‘Mannen’) Clements, Sr., one of the four murderous Clements brothers of Taylor-Sutton feud fame.
Clements was a violent man and had killed at least a couple of men himself. He was also cousin to deadly John Wesley Hardin and had personally helped Hardin to break out of jail in the fall of 1872. Miller got to know Little Mannen, Clements’ equally violent son, and Sallie, the pretty daughter of the family.
In 1887, Mannen Clements was killed in a Ballinger, Texas, saloon by City Marshal Joe Townsend. Not long afterward, Townsend, riding home at night, was swept from the saddle by a shotgun fired out of the dark. The ambusher was never identified, but Miller was widely suspected. Townsend lost an arm but survived, and Miller left the county at a high lope.
Miller drifted through southeast New Mexico and the Mexican border area, and little is known of his activities for the next couple of years. He would later brag, however, of having ‘lost my notch stick on Mexicans that I killed out on the border.’ In 1891, he rode into Pecos, Texas, a raw, tough town just beginning to acquire a little civilization. Its population, it was said, spent its time ‘making a living, going to church, picnics, engaging in a friendly drink now and then, praying three times a day and fist-fighting twice a week.’
Miller hired on as a deputy to Sheriff George A. ‘Bud’ Frazer, who did not question his new assistant’s antecedents. In west Texas around the turn of the century, asking about a man’s background was both discourteous and hazardous.
For a while, Miller’s conduct was exemplary. He neither smoked nor drank, a rarity in that hard-bitten land, and was a regular member of the church congregation. He quickly became a familiar figure in Pecos, making his rounds clad in his inevitable black broadcloth coat, black boots and black Stetson. The nickname ‘Deacon Jim’ was a natural.
In 1891, Miller married Sallie Clements. Her brother Little Mannen came to town with her, and Miller began to use him as a deputy. As cattle rustling and horse theft increased up and down the Pecos Valley, Miller spent more time away from town in pursuit of the thieves. The trouble was, he never caught any, and the ranchers gathered to plan some way to stop their losses. Sheriff Frazer’s brother-in-law, Barney Riggs, suggested that maybe a first step would be to fire Miller, whom he rightly suspected of being involved in the rustling.
Miller laughed off the accusation, members of his church supported him, and the town took sides. The wonder is that Miller did not immediately reply to the accusation with gunpowder. Perhaps he did not because his lawman’s job was such a wonderful cover for his part-time rustling business. Or possibly he was reluctant to challenge Riggs, who was something of a hard case himself. Sentenced to life in Yuma after he had killed a rival for a woman’s favors, Riggs had been pardoned in 1887–he had killed two convicts who attacked the warden during an escape attempt.
Frazer, without proof of Miller’s dishonesty, kept him on. A few weeks later, Miller killed a Mexican prisoner who was ‘trying to escape.’ Riggs alleged that Miller had murdered the man because he knew where Deacon Jim had hidden a pair of stolen mules. Sure enough, on instructions supplied by Riggs, Frazer found the mules–and immediately fired Miller.
In the summer of 1892, Miller opposed Frazer in an election for sheriff and was defeated. Miller managed to win the office of city marshal, however, and began to surround himself with gunmen, some of them relatives, including Little Mannen Clements and one of the Hardin clan. Animosity festered in Pecos, and the boil finally came to a head in May 1893, while Frazer was away. The criminal element simply took over Pecos, and law-abiding citizens feared to leave their homes.
Somebody sent a telegram to Frazer, who immediately caught a train for home. Miller arranged an ambush on the station platform, but a citizen overheard the plan and sent a wire to warn Frazer. When Frazer got off the train flanked by Texas Rangers, the trap fizzled. So, unfortunately, did the case against Miller, Clements and Hardin, who promptly resumed their swaggering ways in Pecos.
Miller, now out of a job as marshal, opened a hotel, and the Pecos ulcer began to fester again. Con Gibson, who had warned Frazer, was murdered in New Mexico by a man apparently working for Miller, but Frazer could do nothing. Finally, one morning in 1894, Frazer took matters into his own hands.
Passing Miller in front of his hotel, Frazer roared: ‘Jim, you’re a thief and a murderer! Here’s one for Con Gibson!’ He drew his six-gun and opened fire, drilling one bullet into the front of Miller’s customary black coat and a second into the gunman’s right arm. Miller drew left-handed and returned fire, but his slugs went wild. Frazer emptied his revolver into the middle of that black coat, and Miller finally went down in the street. Frazer had put three rounds into a space you could cover with a coffee cup, right over Deacon Jim’s heart. And then his friends learned why he wore the black broadcloth coat in every kind of weather–underneath it, Miller wore a steel plate that had caught and turned Frazer’s bullets. Miller was badly bruised, but very much alive and panting for revenge. ‘I’m going to kill Bud Frazer,’ he promised, ‘if I have to crawl 20 miles on my knees to do it.’ While Miller nursed his battered body and his grudge, the town polarized. Many leading citizens, pillars of the church, supported Miller because of his sanctimonious Sunday behavior and his recent ‘conversion’ at a revival meeting.
The problem seemed to have solved itself when Frazer lost the next election. Stung, he left Pecos for new prospects in New Mexico. But the feud wasn’t over yet. Frazer returned to Pecos briefly to settle some personal affairs and ran into Miller on the street. This time, Frazer carried a Winchester, and Miller was packing his favorite weapon, a shotgun.
Knowing Miller had been looking for him, Frazer opened up, nailing the Deacon in the right arm and left leg, then twice over the heart. Still, Miller stayed on his feet, and Frazer, apparently unaware of the steel plate, took to his heels.
Frazer was arrested, but his impending trial was transferred to El Paso. Miller called for assistance from yet another relative, the urbane ex-con and murderer-turned-lawyer Wes Hardin. But Frazer’s trial ended in a hung jury, and the retrial was put off for a year. In the interim, Hardin was killed in El Paso’s Acme Saloon by tough John Selman.
To complete Miller’s unhappiness, Frazer was acquitted and returned to his business in New Mexico. In September, Frazer visited his family in Toyah, Texas, about 18 miles from Pecos, carrying a specially made revolver loaded with what he called ‘explosion balls.’ It would do him no good.
Frazer sat playing seven-up at a saloon table on the morning of September 13. Miller, forewarned by a confederate, crossed quickly from the hotel where he had been waiting. Without a word to the unsuspecting card players, he slid his shotgun through the saloon door and squeezed off both barrels. The buckshot tore Frazer’s head off in a shower of blood and bone, leaving his body still seated at the table.
Miller saddled up and rode back to Pecos, where he was promptly jailed for murder. Before he went to jail, he grandly ordered all of Frazer’s supporters to leave the county. Barney Riggs, at least, stayed around town, but kept his powder dry. Instead, he tangled with two Miller henchmen in the Orient Saloon. One of them, Bill Earhart, was the man who had acted as lookout for Miller in Toyah.
Earhart got off the first shot, but Riggs drilled the man between the eyes. Chasing the second man into the street, Riggs blew off the back of his head. Scooping up a few of the brains, he promised to send them to the widow of the man Miller had killed for revealing the first Frazer ambush. Tried for murder in El Paso, Riggs was promptly acquitted.
Miller himself was tried in Eastland, Texas, for the Frazer murder. After the first jury hung 11-to-1, Miller spent the next few months helping his minister hold prayer meetings. After such a public display of devotion, a second jury acquitted Miller in January 1899.
Deacon Jim moved to Memphis, Texas, where he ran a saloon and worked as a part-time deputy sheriff. He began to openly boast of his murders–and even ‘predict’ them. He was soon convicted for suborning perjury after he urged a man named Joe Earp (no relation to Wyatt) to swear away an innocent man’s life in return for a $10,000 reward. Earp turned state’s evidence, but Miller’s conviction was reversed.
As he rode the train back to Memphis, Miller boasted: ‘Joe Earp turned state’s evidence on me–and no man can do that and live. Watch the papers, boys, and you’ll see where Joe Earp died.’ Three weeks later, Earp was ambushed and shot down. Miller apparently did the job himself, then galloped 100 miles in one night to establish an alibi.
Miller wasn’t through. Soon thereafter, the district attorney who had prosecuted Miller stayed overnight on business in a Memphis hotel. By morning he was dead, officially of peritonitis. Later, however, the doctor revealed that the ‘peritonitis’ had been arsenic. The temporary hotel cook had been a friend of Miller’s and had disappeared after the prosecutor’s death. The doctor did not make an issue of the arsenic; he knew Jim Miller’s charming ways.
Miller moved on, ending up in Fort Worth in 1900, where he gambled a little and speculated in real estate. He and his wife opened a rooming house, and Deacon followed his familiar pattern by joining the church. His real occupation, however–and maybe his hobby–was killing.
These were the days of the great sheep wars, and Miller hired out to exterminate sheepmen at $150 per job. He may have killed as many as a dozen men, some anonymously, others on some excuse such as self-defense. He soon expanded his line of work to include murdering farmers whose fences got in the way of the great cattle herds.
In 1904, he ambushed Lubbock lawyer James Jarrott, who had staunchly and successfully represented several farmers against the big cattle interests. This time Killin’ Jim cut his man down with a rifle, shooting his helpless victim again and again as he lay writhing on the ground. ‘Hardest damned man to kill I ever tackled,’ said Miller.
Miller was moving up in the world. He had received $500 for dry-gulching Jarrott, and he began to strut the streets wearing a diamond ring and studs. He branched out into land speculation, promoting the sale of lots well submerged in the Gulf of Mexico. When his innocent salesman threatened to reveal the fraud in 1905, Miller shot him down in the men’s room of Fort Worth’s Westbrook Hotel. Again he escaped the law, this time on perjured alibi testimony.
The next year, 1906, Miller took a job in Oklahoma, still a year away from statehood. Up in the Chickasaw Nation, at a little town called Orr, U.S. Marshal Ben Collins had earned the permanent hatred of the outlaw Pruitt brothers by shooting and crippling one of them during an arrest. The Pruitts swore revenge, and they knew who to call.
One August evening, the roar of a shotgun split the night near the gate to Collins’ little farm. The young marshal had died hard, getting off four rounds from his revolver after the first load of buckshot knocked him from his horse. But another shotgun blast tore into his face, and he was dead by the time his frantic wife got to him.
The public was outraged, and a hard-driving investigation soon identified several conspirators, including the Pruitts and a chubby fingerman called Washmood. It did not take long to learn that Miller had killed Collins for $1,800.
As usual, Miller was both smart and lucky. As months dragged on before the trial, one conspirator died, and one of the Pruitts was killed by a lawman in an unrelated incident. Miller spent some time in jail, but by late 1907 he was out on bail. He returned to Fort Worth just in time to answer a call from a relative in New Mexico. He had been unemployed for a while, and now there was work for him.
This time his quarry was very big game indeed, and the pay was commensurate with the job. His target was none other than Pat Garrett, the legendary sheriff who had killed Billy the Kid back in 1881. The price tag was $1,500. They did not come any tougher than Pat Garrett, who had survived an assortment of gunfights with the worst of the Southwestern badmen. Garrett was semiretired now, after a career of ranching and law enforcement. He was living up in Dona Ana County, N.M., about 20 miles from Las Cruces, and he had become a major problem to powerful neighbors who coveted his land and the spring that watered it.
Financially strapped, Garrett decided to lease part of his range to Wayne Brazel, who, by prearrangement with Garrett’s avaricious neighbors, imported the unthinkable–goats. Garrett was appalled, and he sought any way to rid his range of these destructive beasts before they destroyed it entirely.
In January 1908, Deacon Jim appeared in Dona Ana County, posing as a cattleman in the market for grazing rights. He made an attractive offer to Garrett, who immediately began to dicker with Brazel to get those accursed goats off his land. Negotiations quickly broke down, however, and Garrett struck Brazel and told him exactly what kind of a man ran goats in cattle country.
In February, however, Garrett agreed to go to Las Cruces to talk to Deacon Jim. He traveled with Brazel and a man named Carl Adamson, to whom, in the Western spirit, he had extended hospitality the night before his trip. In spite of his wife’s apprehensions about his journey, Garrett carried no side arm, only a folding shotgun tucked away in its case in his buggy. He obviously did not connect cattleman Miller with the deadly Deacon Jim. After all, Garrett was pushing 60 and had not been an active lawman for years.
Garrett should have listened to his wife. Along the trail to Las Cruces, suspecting nothing, he stopped his rig to answer a call of nature. While he was doing so, a bullet tore through the back of his head and another lodged in his stomach. He died quickly, and the other two men drove into Las Cruces. Their story was that Brazel had killed Garrett with his revolver in self-defense after another argument about goats on cattle range.
The Las Cruces sheriff, a perceptive lawman named Lucero, smelled a rat. He found Garrett still lying in the road, his shotgun beside him. But the famous sheriff’s fly was still unbuttoned, and his right hand was still encased in a heavy glove, hardly the garb of an experienced gunfighter getting ready to attack someone. Lucero concluded that Garrett’s shotgun, loaded only with birdshot, had been placed near the body after he was killed.
The killing emitted an even stronger smell after a mounted police officer, prowling the off-road brush near the killing site, found horse droppings and two spent Winchester shells near the spot where Garrett was killed. The same officer knew Deacon Jim’s record and discovered he was related to Adamson.
It didn’t matter. Brazel was acquitted, and Miller was never arrested. He went back to Fort Worth to continue his gambling and real estate speculations.
Toward the end of 1908, Killin’ Jim’s friend and brother-in-law, Little Mannen Clements, died in a saloon fight in El Paso. Good riddance, honest people said, but Miller was determined to seek revenge. First, however, there was another matter of business to attend to. He had been offered another contract. This time it was no unsung nester or humble sheepman, or even a famous sheriff, but the biggest payday of his career. It was a prominent man, a pillar of his community of Ada, Okla. The blood price was $2,000, the richest prize of Deacon Jim’s ugly career. Vengeance would have to wait. Deacon Jim rode north.
Ada was a bustling young town, named for a daughter of one of the founding families and policed effectively by the twin Colts of a skinny shrimp of a marshal named Nestor. By the time Miller rode into Ada, the town was the growing center of a thriving cotton trade, a city on the way up.
It was also a very tough place, in or near which 36 people had been murdered in 1908 alone. It was home to a bitter quarrel between unscrupulous saloon operators Jesse West and Joe C. Allen and a hard-nosed businessman and sometime-lawman named Allen Augustus ‘Gus’ Bobbitt. Ada thought the worst of the feud was over by now. Bobbitt’s rivals had left the area to run cattle in Texas, but they had not forgotten Bobbitt, after all.
Instead, they had hired Jim Miller, the suave and courteous angel of death, who rode north early in 1909. And so it was that Gus Bobbitt drove his wagon back from town that winter night, and that terrible scattergun tore the life out of him at the gate to his own field. Bobbitt lived about an hour, lying with his head in his wife’s lap. Tough and clear-headed to the end, he told her how to dispose of his property, including $1,000 as a reward for the man who killed him.
A posse immediately set off to run down Bobbitt’s killer. This time, perhaps arrogant from long immunity, Miller had not covered his trail well. The townsmen found his horse at the home of someone named Williamson. Beaten and cowed by a crowd of angry men, Williamson spilled the beans.
Williamson, it developed, was yet another of Deacon Jim’s relatives–a nephew, in fact–and had sheltered his uncle before and after the killing. Miller had borrowed a mare from Williamson, admitting to him that he had killed a man and threatening to kill his nephew if he talked.
Miller was traced to Ardmore, Okla., and his landlady there told officers the Deacon had been carrying a shotgun. The trail then led to a youngster named Peeler, who admitted that he had been paid to take Miller to Ada. West and Allen had paid Miller his $2,000 fee through a livestock speculator named Berry Burrell.
The law moved quickly then. Burrell was arrested in Texas and returned to Ada. Then a tip led lawmen to the brakes of the Trinity River near Fort Worth and to Miller, who was arrested without resistance. By the first of April, he was securely locked in the Ada jail. Allen and West were lured out of Texas by a simple–and wholly fraudulent–wire: ‘Come to Ada at once. Need $10,000. Miller.’
By April 6, all the conspirators were jailed. Miller, Burrell, West and Allen occupied cells in Ada. Peeler and Williamson, ready and eager to testify for the state, had been moved to another town. Sensing the temper of the town, Allen and West were terrified that Judge Lynch would hurry the course of the law a little too much. As it turns out, their instincts were excellent, even if their morals were not.
The good citizens of Ada had had about enough of due process. They had been treated to the spectacle of Miller living high on the hog in jail, shaving twice a day, changing his sheets each morning, eating steak brought in from the Elite Cafe, even softening the floor of his cell with carpet. They knew, too, that he was openly scornful of the pitiful attempts of the state to punish him. After all, he had been tried repeatedly before, without success. A regular army of Texas and New Mexico cattlemen was ready to give testimonials for him; a multitude of wires and letters praised his character.
And, as he had before, Miller shrewdly retained the best lawyer around, in this case Moman Pruitt. Pruitt was a legend, a dynamic litigator who had never had a client executed, winning acquittals in 304 of his 342 murder cases. The citizens of Ada could read the omens as well as Miller could.
And so, in the early morning hours of Sunday, April 19, about 40 men broke into the jail, overpowered and bound the two lawmen there and pulled Miller, West, Allen and Burrell out of their cells. Down an alley they dragged their prisoners, into an abandoned livery stable behind the jail.
The mob wasted no time. The prisoners were bound with bailing wire, and ropes were tossed over the rafters of the gloomy stable. Miller’s three co-defendants were quickly jerked from the floor to twitch and convulse in ghastly silence. Then it was Miller’s turn, and the implacable men around him urged him to confess his crimes.
Miller, to his credit, was as impassive as he had been when he blew other men into eternity. ‘Let the record show,’ he said, ‘that I’ve killed 51 men.’ He pulled off a diamond ring and asked that it be given to his wife; a diamond shirt stud he left to the jailer for some kindness. Then, as the noose slid around his neck, Deacon Jim Miller asked for his trademark, his black broadcloth coat. ‘I’d like to have my coat,’ he said. ‘I don’t want to die naked.’
No, said the posse members; they had had enough of the cool killer’s effrontery. At his repeated request, somebody did set Killin’ Jim’s hat on the side of his head, and Miller actually laughed. ‘I’m ready now,’ he supposedly said. ‘You couldn’t kill me otherwise. Let her rip!’
The vigilantes pulled away, and at last, after Miller’s convulsive struggles were over, one of the mob hung Deacon Jim’s famous coat across his shoulders. ‘It won’t help him now,’ he said. The executioners went home through a misty rain, leaving the four bodies hanging in the gloom of the empty stable.
Nobody ever found out who the mob members were. Nobody really cared. As an Ada historian wrote later: ‘The forty-odd men who took part in the lynching were honorable men, for the most, who had patiently endured desperado rule until it could no longer be tolerated….It can be written down as the one mob action in America entirely justified in the eyes of God and man.’
If it was a bit presumptuous to announce that God approved, it is certain that most of Ada did. The message to hoodlums was clearly posted, and Ada was on her way to the peace and quiet her citizens so devoutly wanted.
To be sure, there were those who still believed Miller had been wrongly accused. Long lines of people paraded through the undertaker’s parlor. Even so, Ada had done the rest of the Southwest a mighty favor, for Miller had definitely killed at least a dozen men (maybe his own figure of 51 wasn’t too far off) and would certainly have continued his murdering ways. Not counting any future contracts he might have been offered, he had sworn to kill Barney Riggs and the man who had cut down Little Mannen Clements in El Paso.
With Deacon Jim Miller gone, the world was surely a cleaner, brighter place. One respected citizen spoke Miller’s epitaph, cutting cleanly through Miller’s smooth manners and churchgoing facade, ‘He was just a killer–the worst man I ever knew.’
This article was written by Robert Barr Smith and originally appeared in Wild West magazine.
For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Wild West magazine today!
For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Wild West magazine today!