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The Most Lethal Outlaw: Billy the Kid, John Wesley Hardin, or “Deacon” Jim Miller?

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Welcome to TEXAS TALKS, the new Texas History & Travel blog at www.texashistory.com.

Who was the most deadly outlaw in the Old West? Billy the Kid, John Wesley Hardin, or “Deacon” Jim Miller?

According to Miller biographer Glenn Shirley, in comparison to Miller, The Kid and Hardin “were merely sensational gunfighters.” Miller, Shirley says, “was the most dangerous man in the Southwest.” Though notorious in his heyday, Miller currently lies in obscurity in Oakwood Cemetery on Fort Worth’s North Side while The Kid and Hardin still receive much press. J. B. Miller was born in Arkansas on October 25, 1861, and after his parents died, spent his early years with his grandparents in Coryell County, Texas. The grandparents died in a double slaying when he was eight and authorities arrested Miller for their murder but the case never went to trial. Next, he lived with his sister and her husband near Gatesville, Texas. Miller apparently didn’t get on with his bother-in-law, who died from a shotgun blast when Miller was 13. Officials indicted Miller, but the teen escaped justice once more.

Within a few years, he became a drifter, traveling across Texas to New Mexico and then back to Texas. Miller was not a typical outlaw. He didn’t imbibe alcohol or swear and he attended church regularly. With his white shirt, tie, and dress coat, he looked like a preacher, and people nicknamed him “Deacon.” But Miller was far from being a saint. His eyes were “pale blue . . . and so cold looking” that they gave men goose bumps. Lawman Dee Harkey said that Miller “was what you would call a moral man unless you knew his avocation. He was just a killer and seemed to love it. He would kill any man for money.” Miller became a deputy sheriff in Reeves County, Texas in 1891, the same year he married Sallie Clements. Clement’s father, Emanuel, was a cousin of John Wesley Hardin. Within a year, Miller’s boss, Sheriff Bud Frazer, had fired Miller for his poor job performance. Afterward, Miller and Frazer had two gunfights. In both confrontations, Frazer’s shots should have killed Miller. Miller, however, was only wounded, saved by a steel breastplate that he wore under his white shirt and coat. By 1896, Frazer was no longer sheriff. In September of that year, in a saloon in Toyah, Texas, Miller unloaded on Frazer with both barrels of his shotgun. After two trials, Miller was acquitted in Frazer’s death. “Deacon” Jim had escaped justice once more.

In 1900, Miller and his wife Sallie moved to Fort Worth and Sallie opened a boarding house across from the courthouse on Weatherford Street. Soon “Deacon” Jim was advertising his services as a professional hit man, “he would kill anyone for a price.” During the next decade, he traveled throughout West Texas and Oklahoma carrying out contract killings. Miller’s luck finally ran out in February 1909 after he ambushed Gus Bobbitt of Ada, Oklahoma. Authorities apprehended Miller and his three cohorts and imprisoned them in the county jail. Not willing to entrust the case to the judicial system, a mob of forty men wearing masks went to the jail early on the morning of April 19, 1909, took the four men, and hung them from a rafter in a nearby barn. This time, “Deacon” Jim Miller did not escape justice. Today, Miller (who once bragged he had killed fifty-one people) lies next to his in-laws, the Clements, in Oakwood Cemetery, located just off North Main Street in Fort Worth.

Above is a picture of noted historian Harwood Perry Hinton, Jr. at Miller’s grave in Oakwood Cemetery.

For more on Miller, see Glenn Shirley, Shotgun for Hire: The Story of “Deacon” Jim Miller (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970) (All blog quotations).

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