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Magazine | Okiecentric

Four Men Hanging

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Posted 07.20.12

“The Masons came down [the staircase] in pairs, erect and orderly,” wrote Welborn Hope, “until at the foot their Worshipful Master detached himself and stood in leadership of the group with a hand raised above his head. In his other hand he held a coil of baling wire.”

The Master stood by while across town a couple of his brethren cut the jail’s telephone lines and powered off the city streetlights. It was 2 a.m. when the progression of a few dozen hooded men silently slipped into the courthouse now under the cover of total darkness. Four of them carried ropes with nooses coiled at the end.

Once inside the jail, they overpowered four guards, knocking one unconscious, as they demanded the cell keys. Then they woke up Jim Miller, Jesse West, Joe Allen, and B.B. Burrell and ordered them to get dressed. West, the only one who put up a fight, was pistol whipped for his trouble. Miller removed a diamond stickpin from his coat and asked that it go to his wife. Then their hands were bound with baling wire and the four were marched about 30 feet north to the livery stable.

According to author Glenn Shirley, “The first man to swing from the rafters was Jesse West. Next in quick succession came Allen and Burrell.” Miller, who refused to confess, asked to wear his long coat and hat. When someone jammed it onto his head, Miller exclaimed, “Let ’er rip.”

A teenager doing morning chores discovered the macabre scene. Before cutting down the bodies, the town’s photographer A.B. Stahl set up his equipment to take the infamous photo. Welborn Hope was 8 years old at the time and he claims to have overheard a phone call to his father saying, “The Masons will act tonight.” He sneaked out of his house at dawn looking for his Uncle John who had not come home all night and may have been one of the vigilantes.

The young Hope was staring at “those four contorted faces with their bulging eyes” when Stahl snapped his camera.

* * *

Visions of the Wild West bring Tombstone, Arizona, or Deadwood to mind, but definitely not Ada, Oklahoma. But, by the turn of the 20th century, Ada had become the last vestige of the Old West’s wild and lawless desperadoes. Until, that is, on a spring night in 1909, when several dozen churchgoing businessmen broke into the jail, took four men accused in the murder of a former local sheriff—their Masonic lodge brother, no less—and committed the last mass outlaw lynching in U.S. history.

The festering feud that culminated in Jesse “Jolly” West hiring professional killer Jim Miller to assassinate his nemesis, A.A. “Gus” Bobbitt, had been simmering for nearly two decades. Their turf war began in the 1890s during the Canadian River saloon days when they both ran bootleg whiskey and owned competing bars near the most infamous regional trouble spot, the Corner Saloon. Federal law made it illegal to sell alcohol to American Indians, but the Corner Saloon was strategically located literally on a sandbar on the Oklahoma Territory side of the South Canadian River and since it blindly sold to whomever was willing to pay, the bar was a magnet for trouble, as evidenced by a river bottom graveyard filled with the unmarked graves of those on the losing side of one of the frequent gunfights.

As the Old West was tamed over the late 1800s, the country’s most notorious gunfighters and outlaws took refuge in the remoteness of Indian Territory. They often found their way to the Corner Saloon, established around 1891, just after the Oklahoma Land Run, by Bill Connors, a member of the notorious Confederate guerilla crew, Quantrill’s Raiders.

George “Hooky” Miller, a homicidal young man with a long record of manslaughter, was tending bar. Miller (no relation to Jim Miller) had lost a hand in a shootout and brandished a gleaming silver hook that was as deadly in a fight as his well-worn six-shooter. A raft of bank robbers, rustlers, and gunslingers drifted in and out of the Corner Saloon along with Native Americans who would buy a year’s worth of rotgut whiskey at a time to illegally transport in kegs back into Indian Territory.

The few lawmen in the area declared it the “worst den of iniquity” in the territories. In December 1905, the Oklahoma State Capital newspaper claimed the bar was “the scene of at least fifty murders” and that “the river waters are like an ablution of blood.”

When Oklahoma gained statehood in 1907, the legislature adopted statewide prohibition and the Corner Saloon was shut down. So the “coldblooded steel-nerved gunfighters from all over the vast sprawling West” that had accumulated into this tough region over the last 16 years simply moved a few miles away to the little town of Ada, where a single block on the west end of Main Street lined with cheap hotels and bootlegger bars soon became branded as the “Bucket of Blood.”

By then the Bobbitt and West feud was common knowledge. Both were in the cattle business and regularly accused each other of rustling from the other’s herd. And they both funneled bootleg whiskey into the Nations (Indian Territory). West and his longtime friend Joe Allen continually tried to get Bobbitt and his crew arrested for illegal liquor trading—a case of the pot calling the kettle black.

But the pot had been boiling. In 1894, on the day he was burying his wife, who died in a house fire, rustlers stole some of West’s cattle. He blamed Bobbitt. And after Bobbitt was appointed as a U.S. Deputy Marshal in the late 1890s, West claimed the deputy used the badge to intimidate his friends, even tracking one into Texas to arrest him. But anger turned to bitter hatred when, on Christmas Eve 1901, West’s 13-year-old son Martin “was shot by Cephus Bruner, a Seminole Negro-Indian, 16 years of age.” Although Bruner was found guilty and sentenced to hang, Bobbitt championed Bruner’s case, claiming it was self-defense. He helped get the sentence reduced to 99 years and then overturned, when Bruner, sick with consumption, was on his deathbed.

Although West and Allen were financially successful in their ventures, legal and otherwise, Bobbitt’s rise in political standing infuriated them. The two eventually left Ada, relocating their families to the Texas panhandle, where they continued to prosper.

* * *

Among Ada’s 5,000 residents at statehood was one Tom Hope, president of Ada National Bank. Hope ran a profitable business that included a lucrative and ongoing working relationship with Jesse West, who acted as sort of a financial middleman, setting up small loans throughout the region. His journal listed dozens of loans in specific detail, including the debtor’s cattle brand. So when West and Allen headed to Texas, Hope wasn’t happy that he’d lost business due to their feud with Bobbitt.

Hope was also a member of the 25,000 Club, formed by local businessmen to “make Ada a city of 25,000 population.” But the ever-expanding Bucket of Blood was by now a cesspool of crime. As Welborn Hope, Tom’s son, wrote of his hometown, “The last of the Old West’s gunfighters came to Ada because there was no other place to go—in Ada they could find a measure of freedom from the law.”

On January 16, 1909, in the nearby town of Allen, the affable local marshal, Zeke Putnam, was assassinated while shopping at a local store. A few months earlier, Putnam was involved in a shoot-out with a local rancher named Clarence Lee. Lee, who was drunk, shot first and missed. Putnam shot and killed him. Lee’s older brother, Mack, wanted revenge and headed to Ada to hire an assassin. Dan Scribner got the job for a small amount of cash and 120 acres of ranch land. Although it took three different tries, Scribner fulfilled the contract killing. But there were witnesses.

Not long after Putnam’s death, Pontotoc County Attorney Robert Wimbish booked Scribner into the Ada jail. By that afternoon, wrote Welborn Hope, “More than a hundred of Ada’s citizens were working themselves up to a visit to Pontotoc County jail for the purpose of stretching the neck of Dan Scribner.” Sheriff Tom Smith quickly ushered Scribner onto the afternoon train and out of town before a lynching could take place. Although everyone knew Mack Lee had paid Scribner to kill Putnam, he was never arrested or charged.

A few months earlier Tom Hope had written Jesse West a letter encouraging him to come back to Ada. He even addressed the old feud. “[C]ome to this county and make $100,000.00 in three years … Your old friend Bobbitt has joined the church, and I believe is a much better man than he used to be.” Despite Hope’s affirmations about Bobbitt, West must have confided in Joe Allen that there was no way he was going to tolerate being in the same town as his old enemy.

Over the years, Allen had profited financially as West’s sidekick. They weren’t partners in the strict sense of the word, but when West made money he included Allen as part of the operation. Even if Allen questioned his friend’s goal to have Bobbitt eliminated before moving back to Ada, he ultimately stuck with West and helped him plan the murder. The feud with Bobbitt was well known, so they had to devise a plan that would keep them far away from the actual event. West and Allen made a quick trip to Ada in mid-January and got the word out in the Bucket of Blood that they were looking for a hitman.

* * *

“Deacon” Jim Miller was a popular figure in the raucous cow town of Fort Worth. For $150 to $500, he’d eliminate sheepherders and cattle rustlers for Texas cattlemen who didn’t consider such killings a crime. Miller had also been a member of the elite Texas Rangers but could easily flip to the other side of the law depending on how much money was involved.

Miller had ventured into southern Oklahoma in 1906 to kill Bureau of Indian Affairs lawmen Ben Collins for an $1,800 fee from the family of a man Collins had shot three years earlier. In what

Oklahoma historian Glenn Shirley called “the greatest piece of legal hocus-pocus in the history of the territory”—it included numerous “disappeared” witnesses—Miller was never brought to trial. He was later suspected in the killing of Pat Garrett, the man who shot Billy the Kid. The Bucket of Blood criminals held Miller in high esteem and suggested him for the Bobbitt job.

In an ironic twist, West and Allen discovered that one of Tom Hope’s National Bank of Ada employees, B.B. Burrell, knew Miller. Welborn Hope indicated that, although his father didn’t entirely trust the man, Burrell was hired to do part time jobs for the bank, including jostling clients with overdue loans. Burrell was also from Fort Worth and there were claims he had assisted Miller with an earlier assassination.

West and Allen met with Burrell, who soon left for Fort Worth with, according to Shirley, a $2,000 offer for Miller to kill Bobbitt and another $3,000 to use in case of capture. Apparently, Miller first contacted 19-year-old Oscar Peeler, a family friend from Ardmore, with an offer of $50 to find him a house to rent in Ada, claiming he had a business deal in the area. Having no knowledge of Miller’s motive, Peeler brought him by wagon to Ada, where he met Burrell, whose role was to identify Miller’s mark, Gus Bobbitt, on the street.

Then Miller contacted an acquaintance, John Williamson, who lived about 16 miles northeast of town and offered $20 to borrow his horse for a couple days.

* * *

On February 27, 1909, a Saturday, Bobbitt and a neighbor, Robert Ferguson, were in Ada with two wagons getting feed for Bobbitt’s livestock. With Bobbitt in the lead, they headed back to his ranch, seven miles southwest of Ada, around sunset. Ferguson recalled a lone rider in a black hat and long black coat passing them on the ride home, partially obscuring his face with a handkerchief. Within a half mile of the ranch, a shotgun blast exploded from behind a clump of trees, ripping through Bobbitt and knocking him off the wagon. Ferguson leaped down and took cover. When he looked up and saw the gunman riding off, he unhitched a horse and rode to the ranch to get Bobbitt’s wife, Tennessee, who’d heard the shot. As she comforted Bobbitt, who lay dying on the road, Ferguson went for help.

The Ada Evening News extensively covered Bobbitt’s funeral, showcasing the intensity of the town’s response to the tragedy. “When the march from the Masonic Hall of the large procession led by the Masons who were more immediately escorting the corpse and closely following relatives had begun and proceeded through the main streets where business had suspended and closed doors, a most impressive, even imposing scene was presented …”

Within hours of the murder, donations swelled to a $1,000 reward—including funds from the Masons— for the assassin, “dead or alive.” By Sunday morning, posse volunteers had discovered a pair of wire cutters Miller used to clip several fences as he doubled backed after passing Bobbitt and Ferguson on the road. They also found the oil cloth used to conceal the shotgun. A witness who had encountered Miller watering his horse at a nearby spring was able to describe the killer as wearing a long coat and riding a brown mare. The posse soon followed the tracks to Williamson’s farm, but Miller was gone. Faced with a furious group of Bobbitt’s friends, Williamson demanded to be taken to Ada where he was held in jail as a material witness.

Miller had shown up back at Williamson’s place about 10 p.m. Saturday with the mare in a lather. The next day, he paid Williamson to take him to Sasakwa, halfway to Holdenville, and along the way Miller confessed to shooting Bobbitt, threatening Williamson that he would also be killed if he told. Miller even suggested shooting the brown mare to hide any evidence. While Williamson refused, out of fear he did remove the horseshoes, which the posse found hidden under the kitchen floorboards. After learning that Miller hopped the train for Ardmore, the posse took off for Peeler’s place. Miller wasn’t there, so they arrested Peeler, taking him back to Ada. A warrant for Miller’s arrest was wired to Fort Worth.

Peeler wasn’t talking, so Wimbish charged him with complicity in Bobbitt’s murder. He quickly gave a full confession, implicating West and Allen in the plot. Peeler earned $150 working with Miller, but the three checks he received were from Jesse West. After learning West also paid B.B. Burrell, the authorities devised a plan to apprehend the four accomplices.

* * *

Burrell was arrested at a Texas stock show on March 12. So sure was he that no charges against him would stick, he waived extradition, unaware of the Peeler and Williamson confessions. Miller was then captured, also in Texas, hiding out in a barn. By April 1, he too was in the Ada jail. Only West and Allen remained at large—until they responded to a fake telegram sent by Ada officials that read, “You and Joe come to Ada at once. Need $10,000. Miller.” It’s hard to believe they were that easily duped, but perhaps they worried that the contract killer would turn on them if they didn’t respond to his request for more money.

West and Allen may have also felt immune to any prosecution since, just a few weeks earlier, Mack Lee wasn’t charged after paying for Marshal Zeke Putnam’s contract killing. Whatever the explanation, five days later the pair was in Oklahoma City to deliver the funds but they were arrested leaving their attorney’s office. After a night in jail, the two were transported to Ada. They begged the arresting officers not to extradite them. “They will shoot us through the car windows, or through the jail windows, anyway they can,” West exclaimed. Despite their concerns, a preliminary hearing was set in Ada for Friday, April 16.

By the time West and Allen landed in the Ada jail, Peeler and Williamson had been moved to Tecumseh for their safety. Miller flaunted his money and influence in an attempt to intimidate any future jurors. He had fresh bed linens delivered daily. Plush area rugs were brought in for the cell floors and incense overpowered typical jail cell odors. And he ordered catered meals, including expensive steaks, from a local restaurant that delivered them to the courthouse. Miller always kept up his appearance, often shaving twice a day and donning freshly cleaned and starched dress shirts brought to the jail from the local laundry.

The businessmen of Ada had grown impatient with the Bucket of Blood. In the newly formed state legislature, cities were being selected to locate colleges and universities and, just days before Bobbitt’s murder, Ada had landed East Central College, something the businessmen did not want to see jeopardized. Miller had repeatedly been acquitted of murder using not-so-thinly-veiled threats against witnesses, jury members, and even members of the court. Telegrams from Texas supporters were pouring into Ada espousing “Deacon” Jim’s upstanding character.

When Justice of the Peace H.J. Brown denied newspaper coverage and the preliminary hearing was deemed “the most unusual court proceeding in Oklahoma history,” it was cause for consternation. It didn’t help that, just before their arrest, West and Allen had hired the most notorious defense attorney in the nation.

* * *

Moman Pruiett, “the murderer’s messiah,” was a theatrical trial lawyer not above intimidating witnesses. Over his career, the Pauls Valley native defended 343 people charged with murder and boasted of 303 acquittals. Of the few who were found guilty, only one was sentenced to death and that was eventually overturned by presidential clemency. Rumors circulated that he would also defend Miller, in addition to West and Allen.

Pruiett was near the end of a contentious trial and assured West and Allen he would be in Ada within the next couple of days to start preparing their defense. On Saturday afternoon, April 17, Pruiett won a not-guilty verdict for a man accused of killing a Pauls Valley marshal in front of numerous witnesses. Word of the acquittal made it to Ada within hours and the town became more despondent about the reality of the jailed men being held accountable for Bobbitt’s death.

During the next 36 hours, several dozen men met to plot a lynching. Although they are often referred to as a “mob,” the group was not disorderly or riotous. It has long been suspected that the planning occurred at the local Masonic Lodge. Most of the Ada businessmen were members, as was Gus Bobbitt. The group, almost 40 strong, planned it for after midnight on Sunday, to “not desecrate the Sabbath.” Three men, including Robert Wimbish, discovered the proceedings and tried to stop the lynching, but were outmanned and outgunned. Sheriff Smith, Bobbitt’s friend, likely got wind of the plans and, anyway, left town.

The picture and the hanging made national news. Opinion pages across the country espoused either congratulations or disdain for the townspeople “murdering the murderers.” Moman Pruiett was on his way to Ada when he picked up a newspaper and learned his clients were dead. No one was ever investigated or charged, nor was there a single deathbed confession by even one of the dozens involved.

A commemorative plaque was erected at the site of the hanging in 2009 on the 100th anniversary, but it has been in storage for over a year after a nearby building burned, and no one seems to know when or if it will be put back on public display.