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  • Writer's pictureDennis McCaslin

Life of Van Buren-born outlaw ended in 1907 lynching at Ada, Oklahoma

(Editor's note: Information for this article was drawn from over a dozen sources including Wikipedia, True West Magazine, the Encyclopedia of Western Gunfighters and numerous newspaper accounts.)

In 1861 the United States was on the precipice of the great War Between the States, but in the Arkansas River Valley the pioneering spirit and potential for growth in the westward expansion of the country was evident in growing towns like Van Buren.

Situated on the banks of the Arkansas River, in the mid- 1800's Van Buren was a thriving town that more than rivaled it's cross-river cousin Fort Smith. Pioneering families who moved into Crawford County saw Van Buren as the urban base of operations for a chance at building a better life.

Jim "Deacon" Miller

Jacob and Chynthia Basham Miller were among the populice that had traded life in Texas for a chance at a new start when they came to the area in 1857. Jacob, a stone mason by trade, tried to provide for his family in a number of ways but by the time the couple's second son, James Brown Miller, was born the family was just about "played out".

So when James was one, the Miller's uprooted and moved back to Texas close to the his grandparents where Jacob found work helping to build the first state capitol building in Austin.

But Jim was a rough and tumble child, and legend has it that at the age of eight he killed his grandparents (although it as never proven). His mother became a widow shortly thereafter and was listed as such in the 1880 census.

Four years later, his sister Georgia was married to a man named John Coop-- a man that 24-year-old Jim Miller detested. On July 30, 1884, John Coop was killed by a shotgun blast while he was in bed at his home about eight miles northwest of Gatesville in Coryell County.

It was well known that Jim did not like his brother-in-law and he was soon arrested for the murder. He was tried, convicted and sentenced to life in prison. However, his attorneys took the case to the Texas Court of Appeals, where the conviction was reversed on a technicality.

That was the beginning of an infamous and varied career that saw James "Deacon" Miller serve as a law officer, Texas Ranger, outlaw, and professional killer who was said to have killed 12 people during gunfights, and more in outlaw activities and affrays.

By the age of twenty-three Miller was associated with a band of outlaws in San Saba County, Texas, robbing trains and stagecoaches, and often killing in the process. He also purchased a one-half interest in a saloon in San Saba.

It was at that time that he also embarked on a career as an assassin, casually proclaiming that he would murder anyone for money (accounts of his price vary between $150 and $2,000.)

In his new-found career, he would eventually earn a reputation for getting the job done quickly and efficiently, usually by means of a shotgun ambush at night.

In appearance, Miller was a mild-mannered man, never cursed, didn’t drink or smoke, and was very well dressed, wearing a white shirt with a stiff collar, a stick pin on his lapel, a diamond ring, and always wearing a heavy frock coat, regardless of how hot it might be.

Despite his occupation, he was often known to attend church and read the bible, hence the nickname "Deacon".

He was not a fast draw gunfighter like so many other men of the west, but, was quick to use a gun when it suited him. In addition to killing for hire, he was also known to have killed several men in saloons when arguments would erupt over poker games.

A few years later, Miller became a hired hand on the McCulloch County ranch of Emanuel "Mannen" Clements, cousin of outlaw John Wesley Hardin.

Clements was killed by Ballinger City Marshal Joe Townsend on March 29, 1887, during the period when Miller worked at the ranch. Townsend was later ambushed by an assailant wielding a shotgun, which became known as Miller's signature style, and severely wounded in one arm. Townsend survived, but lost his arm to amputation.

Over the next couple of years, Miller traveled the Texas–Mexico border region and operated a saloon in San Saba County. In Reeves County, Miller became a deputy sheriff and later town marshal in Pecos. During this time, he gained a reputation for killing Mexicans, claiming that they had been attempting to escape.

In 1891 Miller married Sallie Clements, daughter of Mannen Clements.

Despite assuming the appearance of a devout Methodist Miller became involved in a feud with Pecos Sheriff George A. "Bud" Frazer.

On April 12, 1894, in Pecos, Miller was confronted by Frazer about his involvement in the murder of cattleman Con Gibson. Frazer did not wait for Miller to go for his shotgun, and shot and wounded him in the right arm.

While Miller was attempting to fire his gun with his left hand, hitting bystander Joe Krans, Frazer fired again, hitting Miller in the groin, which finally put him down. Frazer emptied his six-shooter into Miller's chest.

Pecos Sheriff George A. "Bud" Frazer

After Miller's friends had rushed him to a doctor, his frock coat was removed to reveal a large steel plate that Miller wore under it as a kind of bulletproof vest; it saved his life. Miller recovered.

On December 26, 1894, Miller was standing outside of a blacksmith's shop when Frazer began to fire at him. Frazer hit Miller in the arm and leg. Rushing in to finish him off, Frazer tried to shoot Miller in the chest, but the metal plate in Miller's coat saved him again. Frazer, demoralized, quickly retreated.

Miller had Frazer charged with attempted murder. The case was heard in El Paso, and ended in a hung jury. Frazer lost his bid for reelection as sheriff and left town for Eddy, New Mexico (now Carlsbad).

A few months later, he returned to the Pecos area to visit his mother and sister. Miller learned Frazer was in the area.

On September 13, 1896, Frazer was at a gambling table in Toyah, Texas. Miller opened the saloon's swinging doors, levelling his shotgun on one of them. He shot Frazer, who was dealing, removing most of his head. Frazer's sister confronted Miller, who threatened to kill her as well

A jury acquitted Miller.

Joe Earp

Miller muttered threats toward Joe Earp, a witness who testified against him. Three weeks after Miller's trial, Earp was killed by a shotgun blast.

To secure an alibi, Miller spent the night riding his horse on a grueling 100 mile journey.

The prosecuting district attorney, Judge Stanley, later died of food poisoning in Memphis, Texas.

Miller as associated with at least nine other known killings in the ensuing years.

By 1907, MIller had moved to Oklahoma, which achieved statehood that very year.

Allen Augustus "Gus" Bobbitt

Miller was contracted by Ada ranchers Jesse West and Joe Allen, through middleman Berry B. Burell for the murder of Allen Augustus "Gus" Bobbitt of Ada, a cattle rancher and former Deputy U.S. Marshal.

The murder was alleged to have been ordered either to acquire his land or because of a personal grudge. The fee was $1,700.

On February 27, 1909, Miller chose a place of ambush, concealing himself near Bobbitt's ranch house. Bobbitt and his hired man Bob Ferguson arrived from town by their supply wagons. Miller shot Bobbitt in the side with both barrels from his shotgun. Bobbitt tumbled out of the lead wagon, and Miller left the scene on his way to Fort Worth, passing by Ferguson.

Bobbitt's wife dashed out to check on her injured husband. Before dying, Bobbitt confirmed that he had been attacked by Miller.

The murder was also witnessed by Oscar Peeler, a 19-year-old cowhand who had accepted $50 to lead Miller to Bobbitt. Miller was arrested in Texas by a Texas Ranger and extradited to Oklahoma to stand trial alongside Jesse West, Joe Allen, and Berry Burrell.

The evidence against the four suspects, however, was not considered strong, leaving open the chance for acquittal. Many Ada residents knew that weeks earlier, a man named Stephenson, a suspect in the murder of Town Marshal Rudolph Cathey in Pauls Valley, Oklahoma, on November 3, 1907, had been acquitted on murder charges.

A lynch mob, reported by The Daily Ardmoreite as numbering 200 and by Associated Press as "estimated from 30 to 40 in number", broke into the jail "between two and three o'clock" on the morning of April 19, 1909. They dragged the four suspects outside to an abandoned livery stable behind the jail. Miller remained stoic while the other three reportedly begged for their lives.

Miller made two final requests: that his diamond ring be given to his wife and that he be permitted to wear his black hat while being hanged. Both requests were granted. He also asked to die in his black frock coat; this request was denied.[9] Miller is reported to have shouted, "Let 'er rip!" and stepped voluntarily off his box to hang.

The bodies of all four men were left hanging for several hours, until a photographer could be brought in to record the moment. These photos were sold to tourists in Ada for many years.

Jim "Deacon" Miller was laid to rest a week after the hanging in the Oakwood Cemetery in Fort Worth.

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