Few embrace Ada's Wild West past but history has a way of resurfacing
By Eric Swanson
The Ada News
The photo is slightly blurred, but viewers can still see a man's face staring out at them. The man in the center of the photo has a rope around his neck and is hanging from the rafters of a barn. Two other men, also with ropes around their necks, have their backs to the camera. Off to one side, a fourth man dangles from the rafters.
The black-and-white photo, which documents the April 1909 lynching of four men suspected of killing former deputy U.S. marshal and rancher A.A. "Gus" Bobbitt, is reproduced on a monument that now stands at the Box X Cemetery northwest of Ada. The Oklahoma Outlaws Lawmen Association, a group dedicated to studying the state's history, lawmen and outlaws, moved the monument to the cemetery in 2014. News of the move fueled a long-simmering debate over the lynching and its importance as a symbol of Ada's past.
The photo is one reason why people are still fascinated by the lynching, said Chuck Parsons, an amateur historian from Luling, Texas, who wrote a pamphlet about the incident.
"That picture has become an iconic photograph of the Wild West," he said Friday.
Old West violence
The story began with a feud between Bobbitt and rival cattleman, Jesse West, according to historical accounts. The two men were friends once, but their friendship soured when West's 13-year-old son was killed.
Their relationship deteriorated even further when the boy was buried, and West accused Bobbitt of stealing some of his cattle. Bobbitt later supported the 16-year-old boy accused of killing West's son, and a feud erupted between the two men.
The quarrel prompted West and his friend, Joe Allen, to move to Hemphill County, Texas. But they had not forgotten the feud, and they allegedly hired a notorious gunman, Deacon Jim Miller, to kill Bobbitt.
On Feb. 27, 1909, Bobbitt and his neighbor, Bob Ferguson, rode to Ada to buy some cotton seed. They were returning to Bobbitt's home southwest of town when a shotgun roared, sending buckshot into his legs and left side and knocking him off his wagon.
Ferguson jumped off his own wagon to take cover, but no more shots were fired, author Robert Barr Smith wrote in "Killer in Deacon's Clothing," a 1992 profile of Miller. The only sound was the clatter of hooves as a horseman left the thicket where the gunfire had erupted.
Ferguson knew he had seen the horseman on the trail a few moments ago, Barr wrote. The horseman, whose face was partly covered by a rag, had even greeted Bobbitt.
"He had been riding a scruffy brown mare, and behind his saddle had been something wrapped in what looked like a folded slicker," Barr wrote in the essay, which appeared in the August 1992 edition of Wild West magazine. "It was a shotgun, trademark and favorite weapon of one of the Old West's best-known professional killers, James P. Miller, commonly known as 'Deacon Jim,' from his favorite dress of black broadcloth and his pious pretense of church-going respectability."
Bobbitt lived for about an hour after the shooting, lying with his head in his wife's lap, according to Barr. Before he died, Bobbitt told his wife how to dispose of his property and asked her to offer a $1,000 reward for the man who shot him.
Lawmen traced Miller to Ardmore, when his landlady reported that he had been carrying a shotgun. They also tracked down a man named Oscar Peeler, who admitted that he had been paid to take Miller to Ada.
West and Allen had used a middleman named B.B. Burrell to pay Miller his $2,000 fee, Barr wrote.
"The law moved quickly then," Barr wrote. "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.'"
All four men were in the Ada jail by April 6.
The story took an even darker turn on April 19, when Ada residents decided to take justice in their own hands. A mob — historical estimates vary from 15 to 200 people — cut off the town's lights and telephones, then moved toward the jail.
After overpowering the jailers, the mob hauled Miller, Allen, West and Burrell out of their cells, according to Barr. The mob dragged the four men to an abandoned livery barn, bound them with baling wire and tossed ropes over the stable rafters.
Allen, West and Burrell were hanged quickly, Barr wrote. The mob urged Miller to confess, and he responded by saying, "Let the record show that I've killed 51 men."
Before Miller was hanged, he took off a diamond ring and asked the mob to give it to his wife. He left a diamond shirt stud to one of the jailers but asked to keep his black broadcloth coat — his trademark.
The vigilantes refused Miller's request, but they did set his hat on his head before the hanging. After Miller died, one of the vigilantes draped his coat across his shoulders, saying, "It won't help him now."
Then the mob went home, leaving the men's bodies hanging in the gloomy stable.
"Nobody ever found out who the mob members were," Barr wrote. "Nobody really cared."
Local photographer N.B. Stall captured the scene in a black-and-white photo, which became an icon of frontier justice.
People speculated about who carried out the lynching, and Oklahoma's governor ordered authorities to conduct a vigorous investigation. But no one was prosecuted — or even arrested — in connection with the case.
Over the years, history buffs have debated several key details of the case — including the identity of the people responsible for the lynching.
People ignored the truth about Bobbitt's character in 1909, and they are still reluctant to discuss that aspect of the case, said Herman Kirkwood, president of the Oklahoma Outlaws Lawmen History Association.
"The people over in Pontotoc County — basically, Ada — they portray Mr. Bobbitt as a saint," he said. "He was not a saint. He was a killer and a cattle thief."
Kirkwood, who has self-published a book about the case, said he believes Allen, Burrell, Miller and West were innocent because they were not convicted of killing Bobbitt.
"You're still innocent until you get convicted in a court of law," he said. "So then, none of them got to go to court. So wouldn't you have to say that those four men were innocent? I would, and I'm a retired lawman."
Kirkwood said he could not name any possible suspects in the lynching, but he thinks Bobbitt's fellow Masons may have been at the scene. He added that he does not know whether the Masons were directly responsible for the lynching or simply present.
Chuck Parsons, a fellow member of the Oklahoma Outlaws Lawmen History Association, said any theories about who committed the lynching would be based on speculation. He said he believes the mob acted out of fears that Moman Pruitt, attorney for gunman Jim Miller, would convince a jury that his client was innocent.
"The men who made up the lynch mob decided, 'Well, Miller's got Moman Pruitt to defend him. He'll get him off. We're not going to let that happen,'" Parsons said.
Several years ago, Texas author and history buff Bill James put up the money to have a memorial to the lynching made. The black granite monument includes a reproduction of N.B. Stall's photo and a brief account of the lynching.
James did not return a call Friday seeking comment for this story.
Dedicated in 1997, the monument was originally located on private property near downtown Ada, not far from the lynching site. Then in 2009, a fire in a nearby building prompted city workers to put the marker in storage.
The monument remained in storage until October 2014, when the Oklahoma Outlaws Lawmen History Association moved it to the Box X Cemetery.
Parsons said the story behind the monument endures for several reasons, including N.B. Stall's notorious photo. He said the element of mob justice makes the story even more fascinating to history buffs.
"Jim Miller was an evil man, granted, but the men who took him out of prison and lynched him — that goes against the American idea of justice, that you're innocent until proven guilty and so on and so forth," he said. "I think that all adds to why Miller is still of interest to people.
"Now if it hadn't been for that photograph, it's hard to say. We don't know if the appeal would still be there."
Reach Eric Swanson at firstname.lastname@example.org.