Thursday, May 10, 2012

Old West: Killer Jim Miller - Outlaw & Assassin

Some say he was the worse of the worse. Some say he was more dangerous than John Wesley Hardin and Clay Allison. Most have probably never heard of him. But for those who have, they know he was a true son of Satan.

His name was James "Jim" Brown Miller. But just as with many outlaws and killers in the Old West, Jim Miller was known by other names. In his case, he was also known as "Deacon" Miller to some folks, because, believe it or not, he attended church whenever he could.

The law, and of course others, who knew him - simply called him "Killer Jim Miller". The reason, he was one of the worst of the many violent men of the Old West.

James Brown Miller was born on October 24, 1866 in Van Buren, Arkansas. In 1867, when he was just a year old, he and his family moved to Franklin, Texas.

While Jim Miller was said to a "bad seed" from an early age, there have been false reports that as a boy of eight -- he killed his own grandparents.

A few historians steeped in Miller have advised me that was never the case. I was advised that his was a disfunctional family and that it is apparent that mental illness ran in his family. His maternal grandfather was declared a lunatic. And yes, I was told that Jim Miller's grandfather actually killed his father and two uncles.

Though I have not been able to verify this yet, according to a few sources, in 1874, when Miller was only eight, both his grandmother and grandfather were found murdered, and he was arrested for the killings. He was not prosecuted, however, because of his age.

By the way, I tried to disprove the whole story of Miller killing his grandparents -- but I kept finding account after account of the story. 

Some say he took a shotgun to them both. Some say just his grandfather. Some say he was arrested and convicted, others say he was simply let go. I couldn't find any court records of it, which makes me suspicious of it not being true since they wrote everything down those days.

We do know that something took place where he was then sent to live with his sister and her husband, John E. Coop, on their farm near Gatesville. It is said that the hot-tempered Miller frequently clashed with his brother-in-law.

It is interesting to note that the gun Jim Miller used to kill his brother in law John Coop was gotten from his uncle William Basham of Ranger ,Texas. It wasn't given to him. Miller asked for the shotgun earlier and Basham wouldn't give it to him -- he must have knew what his nephew was up to. It is believed that Miller later took it anyway. 

Basham testified that Miller boasted about the killing, both before and after the event. It is believed that Basham was also a scared of Jim Miller and didn't want to give him the shotgun because he knew was the young man was capable of doing. 

As one historian points out, in retrospect, he was certainly right. And yes, it is surprising Miller didn't eventually go after his uncle Basham as well.

Miller was 23 when he shot and killed his brother in law. And as far as can be told, he was never called "Deacon" or "Killin' Jim" during his lifetime. Folks who knew him called him "Kid."

On July 30, 1884, when Miller was seventeen, he attended church with a Miss Georgia Large. Though it is said he was an impeccably dressed with surprisingly good manners as he didn't smoke or drink, he was indeed a ruthless murderer. And as said earlier, despite being a killer, he was often known to attend church and read the bible - but time would show him to be what he really was, he was in fact not want he pretended to be - he really was a killer.

During the service, Miller left for about forty minutes. During that time, Coop was murdered by someone unleashing a shotgun blast into him while he was asleep on a porch hammock about eight miles northwest of Gatesville, Texas, also 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 soon 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.

Yes, bull spit like that happened even back then!

Afterwards, Miller joined an outlaw gang in San Saba County, Texas, and started robbing trains and stagecoaches - and often killing took place in the process. At the time, 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 vary as to his price, but it could be anywhere between $150 and $2,000 -- depending on the target. 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.

No, unlike the Movies, hired guns weren't ones to call a man out in the street and have it out. Most times, like that of what happened to Morgan Earp, it was with a shotgun or rifle in an ambush when their target least expected it.

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 pen on his lapel, a diamond ring, and always wearing a heavy frock coat, regardless of how hot it might be.

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.

In about 1882, Miller was arrested and disarmed by young San Saba Deputy Sheriff Dee Harkey, later one of the most famous lawmen of the West.

Shortly afterwards, Miller drifted into McCulloch County, where he raced horses and worked as a cowboy for Emmanuel "Mannen" Clements, Sr., a violent man who was the older cousin of John Wesley Hardin.

While there, Miller became good friends with Emmanuel's son, Emmanuel "Mannie" Clements, Jr., as well as Mannen's daughter, Sallie. Jim and Sallie married in McCulloch County on February 15th, 1888 and would eventually have four children

Miller next drifted through southeast New Mexico and West Texas, along the Mexican border. Little is known of his activities during these years, but he would later brag that -- "I lost my notch stick on Mexicans that I killed out on the border."

By 1891, Miller was in Pecos, Texas where he was soon hired on by Reeves County Sheriff, George A. “Bud” Frazer. And no, it wasn't unusual for a man to be the law in one place while being wanted in another.

The 27 year-old Frazer, who had been sheriff for less than a year, was badly in need of a deputy in the frontier town and asked few questions of Miller. In those days, it was esteemed to be rude to ask too many questions of one’s past. It would be a fatal mistake for Frazer.

Miller soon moved his family, along with brother-in-law, Mannie Clements, to Pecos, where the family attended church, and by all appearances, were an upstanding group.

At about the same time, cattle rustling and horse theft increased up and down the Pecos Valley and Miller spent much of his time in pursuit of the thieves. But when Miller did not captured any of the criminals, it raised suspicious in the mind of local gunfighter and hard-case, Barney Riggs, who just happened to be Bud Frazer's brother-in-law.

As the increase in thefts had started to occur at just about the same time as Miller became a deputy, Riggs pointed out that perhaps Miller should be looked at as a suspect and suggested the Miller be fired. When Frazer confronted his deputy, Miller laughed off the accusation.

Miller, who was supported by members of his church and with no proof of the allegations, was kept on by Frazer and continued his service as a deputy. However, when Miller killed a Mexican prisoner who was "trying to escape," Frazer began to investigate.

Barney Riggs alleged that Miller had murdered the man because he knew where the deputy had hidden a pair of stolen mules.

When Frazer found that Riggs was correct and located the stolen mules, he immediately fired Miller. This would be the beginning of the deadly Frazer-Miller feud, which would last for the next several years.

The next year, in the 1892 Pecos Sheriff's election, Jim Miller opposed Bud Frazer, but lost. This small setback did not stop Miller from getting himself appointed as the Pecos City Marshal. Imagine that, having a killer for your town marshal.

As now Marshal Jim Miller, he hired his brother-in-law, Mannie Clements as his deputy and surrounded himself with gunmen, including a hard-case gunfighter named Bill Earhart, John Denson, another cousin of John Wesley Hardin's and Martin Q. Hardin, who is not known to have been related to John Wesley, but the two evidently referred to themselves as "cousins."

Mannie Clements was shot in the back of the head by an unidentified assassin. There is speculation that his brother-in-law Jim Miller was likely involved in some way, either by pulling the trigger himself or having one of his cohorts do it. And yes, I can see how that is probably more true than not.

Mannie Clements had been threatening to blow the whistle on organized crime in El Paso, including the people involved in Pat Garrett's murder which would have included Miller. They had to get rid of him to shut him up and it is believed they did.

In May of 1893, Sheriff Frazer was away on business and Miller's criminal element virtually took over the town. In the meantime, Miller and his henchmen were also hatching a plan to assassinate Bud Frazer when he returned.

The plan was to stage a shoot-out on the railroad station platform when the sheriff returned. Nearby, would be a third man who would shoot Frazer, making it appear as if he had been killed by a stray bullet.

The problem with their plan - a man named Con Gibson overheard the plan while in a local saloon. He contacted Frazer to let him know about it. Frazer, in turn contacted the Texas Rangers, and when Frazer arrived, he was flanked by Texas Rangers. Captain John R. Hughes soon arrested Miller, Clements and Martin Hardin. The three were indicted on September 7th, 1893 for conspiring to kill Frazer.

The case was transferred to El Paso to be tried, but there was a snag in the trial. The star witness, Con Gibson, the primary prosecution witness, had fled to nearby Eddy - now Carlsbad, New Mexico, where he was shot and killed by Miller henchman John Denson. With their witness gone, the state was forced to release the three prisoners.

Though Miller had once more escaped the long arm of the law, he did lose his job of Marshal. After that, he bought a hotel in Pecos. For a while, Miller then appeared to be living the life of an honest citizen and the crime spree settled down.

At the same time, the word began to spread around town that Sheriff Frazer couldn't handle Miller and had no business being Sheriff. The young Sheriff resented the talk and Miller, and it was just a matter of time before it all came to a head.

On April 18th, 1864, when Bud Frazer encountered Miller on the street, he yelled at him "Jim, you're a cattle rustler and murderer! Here's one for Con Gibson."

Frazer then opened fire on Miller, striking him in the right arm near the shoulder. Miller fired back but succeeded in only grazing a man named Joe Kraus, a local store keeper.

Frazer then emptied his pistol into Miller's chest and he collapsed. Bud then walked away only to find out later that, amazingly, Miller wasn't dead. Several of his friends picked up Miller and carried him into his hotel.

They were also surprised that the man wasn't dead, they discovered that Miller was wearing a metal breast-plate under his coat. Now, it became clear why the hired killer always wore a heavy frock coat. However, that information would not be shared with Frazer.

So yes, it was a situation sort of like in Clint Eastwood's Italian Western "A Fistful of Dollars" where Eastwood only known as "The Stranger" returns to town, where he faces the villian Rojos in a dramatic showdown.

With a steel chest plate hidden beneath his poncho, he taunts Ramon to "aim for the heart" as Ramon's rifle shots bounce off. Killing all present except Ramon, the Stranger challenges Ramon to reload his rifle faster than he, the Stranger, can reload his pistol.

He then shoots and kills Ramon. Esteban Rojo, unseen by the Stranger and aiming at him from a nearby building, is shot dead by Silvanito. The Stranger says his goodbyes and rides from the town. Well, in Miller's case, he doesn't ride off.

Though Miller survived, he would spend the next several months convalescing and there were no more conflicts between the two men - though Miller had been making threats the entire time.

In November of 1894, when the sheriff election came up again, Frazer lost. He then moved to Carlsbad, New Mexico, where he opened a livery stable. Frazer returned to Pecos the next month to settle his affairs.

The ex-Sheriff met up with Jim Miller in front of Zimmer's Blacksmith Shop on December 26, 1894.

Having heard the frequent threats that Miller had made against him, Frazer drew his gun, sending two shots into Miller's right arm and left leg. Miller then began firing left-handed, without success, while Frazer sent two more slugs into Miller's chest.

Amazed again that Miller was still alive and standing, the confused Frazer fled. It was only later that the ex-Sheriff would find out about Miller's protective breast-plate.

In March of 1895, John Wesley Hardin, who had become an attorney while in prison, arrived in Pecos and filed charges of attempted murder against Bud Frazer. The ex-Sheriff's trial was scheduled to be heard in El Paso. However, Hardin was killed before it came to trial and Frazer was acquitted in May, 1896.

Miller of course was furious and in the end would take his final revenge. Bud Frazer was not Miller's only target. Barney Riggs, Bud's brother-in-law, hard-case gunfighter, and the man who had exposed Miller's thievery while he was a deputy, was also in Jim's cross hairs.

Riggs was also said to have been the only man that Killer Jim Miller ever truly feared. In typical fashion, Miller decided that Riggs should also die.

In early 1896, two of Miller's henchmen -- John Denson and Bill Earhart were overheard in Fort Stockton, Texas muttering threats against Barney Riggs. Later, the pair left for Pecos, Texas to seek out Miller's nemesis.

When U.S. Deputy Marshal Dee Harkey found out about the threats, he wired a telegram warning Riggs so that when the pair arrived -- Barney could avoid them. However, on the morning of March 3rd, as Riggs was substituting for a friend as a bartender in R.S. Johnson's Saloon, he was alone.

Denson and Earhart burst into the room and a shot from Earhart grazed Barney, who instantly fired back killing the other man. He then grappled with Denson before the would-be assassin was able to flee. Riggs followed and as Denson was running down the street, Riggs shot him in the back of his head, killing him on the spot.

Miller's scheme to eliminate the one man he feared had failed. After the shooting, Riggs surrendered himself. He was later tried for murder and acquitted.

Later that year, even though Bud Frazer knew that Miller was out to get him, he still made the mistake of visiting family in nearby Toyah, Texas.

It was September of 1896, on the morning of the 14th, Bud was playing cards with friends in a saloon when Miller pushed open the door and fired with both barrels of a side by side shotgun - practically blowing Frazer's head from his body.

When Bud's distraught sister approached Miller with a gun, he said to her, "I'll give you what your brother got -- I'll shoot you right in the face!"

Once again, the far too lucky killer Jim Miller was acquitted of the murder of Bud Frazer, his defense being “he had done no worse than Frazer.”

During the trial, a man named Joe Earp - no known relation to the Earp Brothers - who had testified in his trial became his next target. In fact, several weeks afterwards, Joe Earp was shot down, reportedly by Miller himself, before galloping 100 miles in one night to establish an alibi.

Next, Miller made his way to Memphis in the Texas Panhandle. There, he ran a saloon, where he openly boasted of his many murders. He was also said to have worked as a part-time deputy Sheriff again. And in August of 1898, it is said that he was made a Texas Ranger for a brief period - but that's probably false because I haven't been able to confirm that part of his story.

In 1899, an attorney named Stanley, prosecuted Miller on a charge of subornation of perjury, meaning, persuading another to commit perjury. This charge was allegedly related to Joe Earp's account during Miller's murder trial of Bud Frazer.

Mysteriously Attorney Stanley soon after died of food poisoning, which history tells was more than likely another of Miller's work -- dying instead of arsenic.

Miller then returned to the Pecos area, where he spent some time in Monahans. However, by 1900, he and his wife, Sallie, were living in Fort Worth, where the assassin became involved in real estate and did very well financially. Even so, killing appeared to be in his blood, and his financial situation had little impact on his choice to continue his career as a killer.

During this period in the Old West, among other things going on -- the Sheep Wars were taking place. Those wanting to raise sheep face fierce Cattle Barons, and Miller was quick to hire out to kill any and all of the sheep herders for just $150 per job. Supposedly, he killed as many as a dozen men.

At the same time, there were numerous feuds going on regarding fences, which got in the way of the cattle herds grazing and getting to needed water. Miller was only more than happy to help the cattlemen by killing the farmers who fenced their land.

In 1904, Miller ambushed and killed a Lubbock lawyer James Jarrott, who had successfully represented several farmers against the big cattle interests. He received $500 for ambushing the attorney.

That same year, he also killed a man he did real estate business with in Fort Worth. T.D. “Frank” Fore, was an honest business man who threatened to tell a grand jury that Miller was selling lots that were actually submerged in the Gulf of Mexico.

On March 10th, 1904, Miller cornered Fore in the wash room of the Delaware Hotel and shot him to death. As people rushed to see what had happened Miller fell over Fore’s body tears in his eyes exclaiming “I did everything I could to keep him from reaching for his gun.”

Amazingly, Miller was acquitted again.

Continuing his wicked ways, Miller took a job in Indian Territory in 1906 in the small town of Orr, Oklahoma, located in the Chickasaw Nation. There in Orr lived an U.S. Deputy Marshal named Ben Collins who also served as an Indian Policeman.

Several years earlier, Ben Collins had tried to arrest a man named Port Pruitt, a prominent citizen in Emet, Oklahoma. Resisting arrest, Collins shot him, leaving Pruitt partially paralyzed. Port and his brother publicly swore vengeance on Ben Collins. They soon hired Killer Jim Miller for the price of $1,800 to take care of their enemy.

On August 1st, 1906, as Collins was riding home to his farm, when he received a load of buckshot which knocked him from his horse. Though the young lawman got off four rounds, while he was on the ground, another shotgun blast soon tore through his face.

An intense investigation was soon begun which pointed at Killer Jim Miller, and another man named Washmood. Once again arrested, Miller spent a short time in jail -- but he was soon released on bail. And yes, before Miller could be tried, all of the witnesses were soon killed -- and once again, the prosecution had to release him because of lack of witnesses and evidence.

Next, Jim Miller was accused of killing the famous Pat Garrett on February 28, 1908. The man who shot Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett, was allegedly killed because of a land dispute and by some accounts. It was said that Miller committed the murder as a paid assassin. However, a man named Wayne Brazel later confessed to the crime.

A man named Carl Adamson, who was married to a cousin of Sallie Miller, was also with Garrett when he was killed. This led to the rumors that Miller was involved. Rumor or not, I believe most historians agree that Garrett's murder was done by Jim Miller.

In 1908, some 36 people had been murdered in Ada. While that doesn't sound like many by today’s standards in a city for an entire year, that was a lot of killing in the Old West -- even at the closing of the West.

U.S. Marshal Allen Augustus "Gus" Bobbitt had retired from his U.S. Deputy Marshal position after Oklahoma became a state the previous year and retired to a ranch near Roff, Oklahoma. Though retired, Bobbitt was not quiet about his feelings about many of the events taking place in the area.

A number of citizens including saloon owners, Jesse West and Joe Allen, were practicing what was known as "Indian Skinning."  This practice involved taking advantage of Native Americans, who had earlier been granted 160 acres each in exchange for their reservation land.

Though Oklahoma law required that any such land being sold to whites had to have the approval of the county court judge, a number of opportunists took advantage of the situation, often getting the Indians drunk, and buying their 160 acres for as low as $50.

Former U.S. Marshal Gus Bobbitt was appalled and began to publicize what was going on. He then pushed for changes to elected offices in the town and the county. As a result, those corrupt politicians who were making a huge profit by way of the "Indian Skinning" hired the notorious Jim Miller to solve the problem and kill Bobbitt.

On February 27th, 1909, Bobbitt, was shot as he drove his wagon home from Ada. He lived for about an hour, and believe it or not, before he died -- he instructed his wife on how to dispose of his property which also included a $1,000 as a reward for the man that had killed him

Gus Bobbitt knew what he was doing, because even in death, within no time a posse was after Bobbitt's killer -- as well as numerous others, hoping to land the reward.

Having long escaped "Scot Free," like he had so many times before, Miller was so confident, that this time, his escape was sloppy. The posse soon found his horse at the home of a man named Williamson, who was said to have been yet, another one of Miller's many relatives.

Miller borrowed a mare from Williamson, admitting to him that he had killed a man and threatened to kill Williamson if he talked. In the end, the posse tracked down the notorious killer and found that Bobbit's paid assassin was indeed, Killer Jim Miller.

They found out it was the result of a conspiracy to commit murder, and several individuals were involved. A livestock speculator named Berry Burrell had hired Miller, but he was not alone. Several others who were involved in the profitable "Indian Skinning" were also part of the murder.

In April, Killer Jim Miller, along with Jesse West, Joe Allen, and Berry B. Burrell, were arrested for the killing of Gus Bobbitt. By April 6th, 1909, all of the conspirators had been jailed in Ada, Oklahoma.

Though it was well-known that Miller and the others had killed Bobbitt in a murder-for-hire scheme, the evidence was not solid. Because of their knowing how weak the case against Miller was, and aware of the lack of evidence as well as Miller's history of never having suffered the consequences of his actions, area residents formed a vigilante committee.

On April 19th, about 50 men of the vigilante committee rushed the jail and quickly overpowered the jailers. They then dragged Miller and the three other men outside.

In an abandoned livery stable behind the jail, the prisoners were bound with bailing wire, and ropes tossed over the rafters. Miller's cohorts were hanged first, after which, the vigilantes asked him to admit to his crimes. Miller then allegedly responded, "Let the record show that I've killed 51 men."

Before he died, he asked for his black broadcloth coat to be draped around his shoulders. Supposedly the vigilantes refused and myth says that the angry Miller supposedly said, "Well, let her rip!"

There ended the life of one of the most violent killers in the history of the Old West, a true psychopath and back-shooter.

When his body was returned to Texas, he is buried in the Oakwood Cemetery, in Fort Worth. Hopefully, as it was a habit to do to badmen at the time, they buried him face down -- so he could face where he was going on his way to meet the Devil!

My thanks to historians P.H. Schroeder and Mark Boardman in helping to clarify points of this article. I truly appreciate the help.

Tom Correa


  1. our Grandmother Grinstead had an original copy of the book "Mean as Hell" which tells the story of her cousin Jim Miller....she burned the book. How time changes her gkids are looking on amazon & ebay for copies of the book detailing their infamous cousin

  2. when uncle paul grinstead was a little boy, his grandfather showed him the scars left from being shot by his own grandson, jim miller

  3. Jim Miller was my Great Great Granddad he might have been a killer but he loved his kids my great grandma told me story of riding horseback with him checking fence and things like that. Sallie Miller loved him very much...

    1. jim miller was my greatgreat uncle .His brother Andrew Barett Miller was my great grand dad. Does anyone know what happened.I knew my great grandmother but when anyone asked what happened to Andrew aka Barney all she would say was "He died"


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