Shotgun for Hire:The Story of “Deacon” Jim Miller, Killer of Pat Garrett

(1970, by Glenn Shirley)

Shirley (1916–2002) was the prolific author of 16 books. His biography of Jim Miller was the first, and it remains the most accurate and complete, although rather brief at just 131 pages. Shirley did what any good historian should—he relied on primary sources. He had at his disposal the works of Alvin Rucker, Welborn Hope and others. He made good use of old newspaper accounts. Shirley did make some mistakes, as any writer will, such as repeating the published myth that Miller killed his grandparents. But he correctly described Miller, his henchmen and his employers as murderers. He was a serious historian who expressed no bleeding-heart sympathy for any of them. As a native Oklahoman, Shirley wrote an especially strong account of Miller’s 1909 lynching at Ada and the events that led up to it.

Jim Miller: The Untold Story of a Texas Badman

(1983, by Bill C. James)

This attractive little 101-page book features large, readable type and many nice photographs. The subtitle, The Untold Story, is misleading, as Glenn Shirley told the story of Jim Miller years earlier in Shotgun for Hire. James does improve on certain details, such as clarifying that Miller did not kill his grandparents. But his book is very brief and in some cases incomplete. For instance, the 1902 murder of attorney and land agent James Jarrott is a well-known story around West Texas, yet the author says he couldn’t find a man by that name. There was such a man. Several men were tried for his murder, and the records are at the Lubbock County Courthouse. James writes that Miller’s killing of Frank Fore at Fort Worth in 1904 was possibly a conspiracy, then a few pages later says Miller apparently fired in self-defense. But in fairness, all writers miss some important details. This book is a departure from the established history of the troubles between Gus Bobbitt and his friends on one side and Jesse West and Joe Allen on the other. James relies on a biased statement from Joe West, Jesse’s son, and a statement from Ada banker Tom Hope.

Four Men Hanging: The End of the Old West

(1974, by Welborn Hope)

Thomas Welborn Hope (1903–88) was born at Ada, Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma), the son of banker Tom and Minnie Hope. He graduated from a teachers’ college in Ada and became a pharmacist and drugstore owner there. He also became a nationally recognized poet and wrote for several newspapers. Hope had a keen interest in the history of Ada. On March 4, 1951, the Oklahoma City Daily Oklahoman ran his excellent article, “The End of the Old Southwest,” about the 1909 lynching at Ada and its causes. He said that Gus Bobbitt stood with the law, and most of the good citizens sided with him in his troubles with the lawless element. “On the other hand,” he added, “Joe Allen and Jesse West had done nothing to further the interests of law and order. While never convicted, they were known to have indulged in cattle rustling and other nefarious activities.” In 1954 the Oklahoma State Bank of Ada published J. Hugh Biles’ book, The Early History of Ada, which included Hope’s 1951 article. Hope and Biles each interviewed citizens who knew the parties, plus they had the great works of Alvin Rucker (“The Old Corner Saloon,” 1930) and John Fortson (Pott County and What Has Come of It, 1936). The accounts of these historians represented the views of the majority of citizens. For example, Oklahoman A.N. Boatman in a 1937 interview said that West and Allen “started wholesale cattle thefts” and when Bobbitt “started out to catch them in it, they moved to West Texas.” In Four Men Hanging Hope offered an expanded history of Ada, the Bobbitt murder, the lynching and his charges against West and Allen. It includes numerous photographs of Ada and central figures in the story.

Tularosa: Last of the Frontier West

(1960, revised 1980, by C.L. Sonnichsen)

 Charles Leland Sonnichsen (1901–1991) did much to preserve the history of the Southwest by conducting hundreds of interviews and exchanges of letters in the 1940s through the 1960s with old-timers who had firsthand knowledge of key events and people. His papers are preserved at the library at the University of Texas at El Paso, where he was a longtime chairman of the English department and dean of the graduate school. Of his 27 books, Tularosa (named for a sun-scorched basin in southern New Mexico) is one of the best. Among the intriguing stories the book relates is the disappearance in 1896 of lawyer Albert Jennings Fountain and his young son Henry near White Sands—one of the great unsolved mysteries of the South west. Pat Garrett was called in to investigate the murders, but nobody was ever convicted of the crime. In 1908 someone in the same area shot down Garrett, and again no one was convicted. Sonnichsen believed Jim Miller was Garrett’s killer. In his book 10 Texas Feuds Sonnichsen wrote a chapter called “A Gentleman from Pecos,” which opens with these two sentences: “In one respect Jim Miller of Pecos, Texas, was superior to all other badmen—he had the best manners. You would never take him for what he was.”

The Shooters: A Gallery of Notorious Gunmen From the AmericanWest

(1976, Leon Claire Metz)

Leon Metz, author of 17 books, produced a gem here. The book profiles more than 30 gunfighters in a clear, popular, humorous style. In addition to a chapter on Jim Miller, Metz writes about such noted shooters as John Wesley Hardin, Pat Garrett, Billy the Kid, and Tom “Black Jack” Ketchum. Black Jack was a fearless, crude and intimidating criminal, who, as Metz says, “could not even die right.”When he was hanged in New Mexico Territory, his head came off. The chapter on Miller nails him as the true badman he was, in spite of his likeability. Metz examines Miller in more detail in two of his other books—John Selman, Gunfighter (1966) and John Wesley Hardin: Dark Angel of Texas (1996).

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

 (1966, on DVD and video, MGM)

This Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western classic features Blondie (Clint Eastwood) as the Good (well, maybe in comparison to the other two), Angel Eyes (LeeVan Cleef) as the Bad and Tuco (EliWallach) as the Ugly. Guess which one calls to mind the frontier assassin known as “Killin’ Jim” Miller, the baddest of the bad in real life? No, Miller didn’t quite have Van Cleef’s hard, narrow eyes, but Killin’ Jim and Angel Eyes shared a coldblooded professionalism. Especially note Angel Eyes’ first appearance in the film. He goes to the house of a man he has been hired to kill for $500. “When I start off to find somebody, I find him, that’s why they pay me,” he says as he shares the man’s dinner. The desperate man then gives $1,000 to the uninvited guest to kill his employer. “When I’m paid, I always see the job through,” says Angel Eyes (one can imagine Miller having said the same thing). And so he does, killing the man of the house (as well as the man’s oldest son) to earn his $500 and then returning to his employer and shooting him in bed to carry out the $1,000 job—true to his professional code of “seeing a job through.” Van Cleef’s character also has another interesting line, “People with ropes around their necks don’t always hang.” In the case of Miller, though, when the Ada vigilantes strung him up in a barn, he hanged real good.

Once Upon a Time in the West

(1969, on DVD, Paramount)

Shane

(1953, on DVD, Paramount)

 Each of these outstanding Westerns features a bad guy who bears some resemblance to the real-life Jim Miller. In the Sergio Leone epic Once Upon a Time in the West a railroad baron—who is dying of tuberculosis of the bone but remains as greedy as ever—employs hired assassin Frank (Henry Fonda) and his henchmen to force people either to sell their land to the railroad or be killed. Frank takes it upon himself to kill a widower and two older children from ambush, and then finds himself face-to-face with the youngest child, about 7. The extreme close-up of Frank’s face reveals the cold, unnerving smile and icy blue-eyed stare of a psychopath. With a faint grin he guns down the boy.There are similarities to Miller here: a hired killer with a soft voice but lacking a conscience. Frank finally gets his comeuppance from a mysterious, revenge-minded harmonica player simply known as Harmonica (Charles Bronson). Once upon a time in the past it seems Frank put a rope around the neck of Harmonica’s brother and found a most devious way to see that the fellow strangled to death. Harmonica’s revenge does not involve a rope, so Frank, unlike the real-life Miller, does not get lynched. Nevertheless, the revenge is plenty sweet.

In Shane the title character (played by Alan Ladd) is a good gunfighter who for little more than room and board takes it upon himself to protect Wyoming homesteader Joe Starrett (Van Heflin), wife Marian (Jean Arthur) and wide-eyed son Joey (Brandon DeWilde), along with their neighboring sodbusters. The memorable hired killer here is Jack Wilson (Jack Palance), his dark attire, soft voice, unhurried manner and evil essence calling to mind Miller. The movie badman has no nickname (say, “Killin’ Jack”). None is needed. “Wilson” is enough, and so is the evil grin Wilson displays as he toys with Stonewall Torre (Elisha Cook Jr.) before gunning down the little Rebel farmer in what really isn’t a fair fight. During Miller’s lifetime, nobody called him “Killin’ Jim” either. That concession didn’t make Miller any less deadly.

Ellis Lindsey and Editor Death of the Old West

(2010, on DVD, DustBowl Films)

This Emmy-winning documentary centers on the 1909 lynching of Jim Miller and three co-conspirators at Ada, Okla. The DVD features two versions of the film. The original one-hour version aired locally in Ada in 2007; the shorter version aired on PBS in Oklahoma and then in many other states. The documentary is correct in most of its content but makes a serious omission. It describes Miller well as a terrible assassin and accurately portrays the dire crime problem in Ada at the time of the lynching. It states that Jesse West and Joe Allen hired Miller to murder Gus Bobbitt, the popular former deputy U.S. marshal. Equally impressive is the balanced view of the lynching—that although it was against the law, it did bring law and order to Ada and helped drive out the criminal element. The filmmakers correctly assess that had citizens not lynched the four men, those men almost certainly would have escaped justice. However, the film’s depiction of West and Allen simply as businessmen persecuted by Bobbitt ignores all the available history that the two men had engaged in criminal activity and became furious at Bobbitt for resisting them and their criminal associates. After West and Allen were arrested, The Ada Evening News commented, “It is known that for many years Jesse West and Joe Allen were probably the most positive [in a business sense] if not notorious characters in south Pottawatomie County.” The narrator mentions that one of West’s good friends was outlaw Jim Harbolt. In 1896 Marshal Bobbitt arrested Harbolt, andWest hated Bobbitt for that. But Harbolt had killed a sheriff at Canadian, Texas, and was a real badman. Was Bobbitt, or any other lawman, supposed to avoid arresting a murderer if he was a friend of West? The documentary relies heavily upon the biased statement of Joe West, Jesse’s son, after the lynching. Joe complained that Bobbitt had sought to dig up information about a black man West was suspected of killing. But the families of West and Allen have said Jesse killed a black man merely for throwing a firecracker under the horse Jesse was riding. That was the kind of man West was. The front of the DVD case, in speaking of the time when West and Allen wanted to return to the Ada area, proclaims, “Jesse West knew that he had a problem…and that was Gus Bobbitt.” Considering West’s violent nature, it is no wonder he murdered Bobbitt, the leading man who opposed his criminal activity.

Wild West’s Most Wanted: Killin’ Jim Miller

(2003, on History Channel, Investigation Discovery Videos)

The runtime is less than four minutes for this online video [http://investigation.discovery.com], in which Mike Dirksen portrays Jim Miller (and looks the part—there is narration for re-created scenes but no dialogue). Miller, according to this assessment, tops the most wanted list and was the Wild West’s “No. 1 worst outlaw, a sociopath who murdered his own kin.” The narrator says, “Of all the Western gunslingers, Jim Miller is the one you’d least want to face,” and adds, “Murder for hire isn’t just his profession—it’s his joy.” Dirksen’s Miller survives a shooting by concealing metal plates beneath his coat (it might have happened) and kills his grandparents (no record of this exists).

 

Originally published in the October 2012 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.