Friday, July 12, 2013

Famous Last Words: “Killer” Jim Miller

Jim Miller, c. 1886
“Let the record show I’ve killed 51 men. Let ’er rip.”

With those words, “Killer” Jim Miller, a noose around his neck, stepped off a box and into eternity. The lynch mob of 30 to 40 outraged citizens who had dragged him onto a makeshift gallows may have found it irritating Miller didn’t beg for his life like the three co-conspirators hanged with him.

Then again, perhaps they rejoiced at the professional assassin’s departure, no matter how defiant his attitude. By the time of his 1909 lynching in Ada, Oklahoma, Miller had earned a reputation as sneaky, deadly, and slippery when cornered by justice.

Born James Brown Miller on Oct. 25, 1866, in Van Buren, Arkansas, Miller arrived in Franklin, Texas, before his first birthday. Unsubstantiated, but persistent, rumors claim he was only 8 when he did away with a troublesome uncle and his grandparents. His first confirmed kill — and his first jaw-dropping escape from justice — happened a few months before Miller turned 18. After arguing with a brother-in-law he didn’t like, Miller shot the sleeping man to death. Had the subsequent sentence of life in prison stuck, Miller’s reign of terror might have ended right there — but a court overturned the murder conviction on a technicality.

Upon his release, Miller joined an outlaw gang that robbed stagecoaches and trains before turning his back on a life of crime and taking a succession of jobs in law enforcement. Reportedly, he even briefly served as a Texas Ranger. Based on his boasting, the badges may have been a calculated way for Miller to indulge his bloodlust behind a thin veneer of respectability.

And he was respectable, at least on the surface. A Bible-thumping Methodist who never missed a Sunday church service, Miller didn’t curse, drink, or smoke. In fact, his clean-cut appearance and apparent piety — bolstered by an ever-present black frockcoat that made him look a bit like a minister — earned Miller the nickname Deacon.

James Brown Miller and wife Sallie Clements Miller
with one of their four children, 1890s
Miller married John Wesley Hardin’s second cousin in 1888, fathered four children, and enjoyed a financially rewarding career selling real estate in Fort Worth. Reports indicate the family was considered a pillar of the community.

Behind the scenes, though, Miller advertised his services as a killer for hire, charging $150 a hit to “take care of” sheep ranchers, fence-stringing farmers, Mexicans, and almost anybody who got in his way. He specialized in doing away with lawmen, lawyers, and personal enemies, most often employing a shotgun from ambush under cover of darkness. Murder charges caught up with him several times, only to evaporate when witnesses for the prosecution disappeared.

Frontier justice finally caught up with Miller on April 19, 1909. A cartel of ranchers outside Ada, Oklahoma, paid him $1,700 to silence a former deputy U.S. marshal who was a little too outspoken in his opposition to a shady land-acquisition scheme known as “Indian skinning.” Before the marshal-turned-rancher died, he identified his murderer. Miller and three of the conspirators were arrested, charged, and awaiting trial when an armed mob broke into the jail, overpowered the guards, and wrestled Miller and the others into an abandoned livery stable. Fearing Miller would slip a noose yet again, the mob hanged all four men from the rafters.

By the time of his death at age 42, Miller was known to have killed 14 men. His boast of 51 executions may have been accurate. A photo of the grisly scene inside the stable, right, became a must-have tourist souvenir. Miller’s is the body on the far left.

Killer Jim Miller was buried in Fort Worth’s Oakwood Cemetery. At the time, one respectable citizen told the local newspaper, “He was just a killer — worst man I ever knew.”


A journalist in real life, Kathleen Rice Adams also is an editor and ghostwriter of non-fiction books. A rabble-rousing Texan to the bone, she much prefers romancing fictional western antiheros one protagonist at a time.

9 comments:

  1. Fantastic blog and history. Loved this. This is one bad guy I'd never heard about.

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  2. Thanks, Sharla! Today, good ol' Killer Jim Miller might've been called "a piece of work." ;-)

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  3. Super post, Kathleen! Like Sharla said, I had no idea about this guy. Yikes. Kinda ironic, him marrying into the John Wesley Hardin clan. I wonder if any of today's psychotropic drugs would have helped him.

    Welcome to our little corner of the world today! Good to have you here with us.

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  4. He definitely was a man without conscious. Amazing he could fool people for such a long time. Great post.

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  5. Thanks Tanya and Paisley! I'm not sure whether psychotropic medications would have helped Killer Jim, Tanya. I think he was just missing essential pieces -- one of them, like Paisley suggested, being a conscience.

    I've often wondered what kind of life his wife and children must have led. Miller's oldest child would've been about 19 or 20 when Miller was lynched. I haven't found much written about them ... but wouldn't that family make an interesting story?

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  6. Great post, Kathleen. I didn't know much about him, and I enjoyed reading your post.

    Hope you're feeling better.

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  7. Great post, Tex! I wondered about his family, too. What kind of man was he at home and if any of the children picked up on any of his peculiarities?

    --Kirsten

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  8. I wonder about his family, too. Their gene pool has a few sharks in it.

    Good article, Tex. I've only heard of Killer Miller--hadn't read much about him. Fascinating character study.

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  9. I am feeing better. Thanks for the wishes, Caroline. You're such a sweet person.

    Rustler and Trail Boss (Kirsten and Jacquie), I'll bet all three of us could speculate about Miller's family in a fictional form and we'd have three very different stories. :-D

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