(Wild) Western Civilization

Peter Wood

One of the most notorious of the hired killers in the Old West was James B. Miller.  He was called Deacon Jim for his habit of dressing in black broadcloth and his frequent cover of joining local churches.  He was repeatedly apprehended for his cold-blooded murders, but set free by local juries who were taken in by his fake religious protestations.       

The Deacon’s m.o. was to blast his victims in the back with a shotgun. He started early. In 1874, at age eight, he was arrested for murdering his grandparents in Coryell County, Texas, but was just sent off to live with his married sister.  In 1884, at age 17, he used a shotgun to kill his sleeping brother-in-law.  He was convicted but the verdict was overturned on appeal.  He rode off and found his way into the good graces of the Clements family, the cousins of the infamous gunslinger John Wesley Harding. 

For next 25 years the Deacon thrived largely through murder for hire, although he would occasionally offer free samples. He also, extraordinarily, served stints as an elected lawman in Pecos and in Memphis, Texas, sometimes combining his two occupations.  The Deacon proved hard to kill.  The sheriff of Pecos drew his six shooter on him in the street in 1894 and emptied his gun into Deacon Jim’s chest, unaware that Miller wore an armor plate under his clerical garb.  He walked away bruised but otherwise unhurt. The device, copied in several Westerns over the years, actually did save Deacon Miller in several gun fights. 

He met his end in 1909 in Ada, Oklahoma, where he had gone to earn $2,000 to murder a well-respected cattleman named Gus Bobbitt.  The Deacon ambushed Bobbitt at night, using his trademark shotgun.  He was never all that good with getaways.  The law picked up his trail and caught him, as well as the three men who hired him.  The townsfolk of Ada then watched as testimonials to his good character rolled in; he lawyered up; carpeted his cell; and had steaks sent in from the Elite Café.  They knew an acquittal couldn’t be far off and decided to bypass the law.  On Sunday morning April 19, a mob broke into the jail and hauled the prisoners over to the livery stable where they hanged them one by one, saving the Deacon—warning, disturbing image—until last.  He gave a little speech saying, “Let the record show that I’ve killed 51 men.”  Of course, even in death, he had earnest supporters as well as star-struck fans. 

My account follows that of Robert Barr Smith, an Oklahoma historian, whose essay “Killer in Deacon’s Clothing,” was first published in the magazine, Wild West, August 1992.  But there are numerous sources.  Here is an account from The Daily Ardmoreite of Ardmore, Oklahoma, from Monday, April 19, 1909. 

In other news about the course of Western civilization, Jane Shaw, writing on The John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy’s Clarion Call webpage this week reports on the manner in which the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill has been expending its funds for the series of John W. Pope-sponsored lectures, on the theme “Renewing the Western Tradition.” 

No, not the Wild West. But one does get the sense that, if Deacon Jim had been available to lecture, the UNC selection committee would have given him serious consideration.  As Jane Shaw explains, the speakers that the committee did choose seem to interpret “renewing Western civilization” as mainly a matter of debunking, de-centering, and otherwise expressing irritation with Western civilization.  The subtext seems to be: Renew it?  Why would anyone bother?  Let’s just get on with replacing it.  For this UNC spends $15,000 per lecture, from money given by a donor who explicitly sought a positive approach to the study of Western civilization.

When Jane Shaw suggested to Clayton Koelb, chair of the UNC Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures and head of the committee that selects the Pope lecturers, that lecturers seemed “to stress the value of intercultural ‘conversation’ and—it would seem—to demote or cavil with the benefits of Western traditions,” Professor Koelb was “shocked.”    Read Jane’s account, “The Culture Chasm at UNC,” for the rest of that revealing conversation. 

Jim Miller’s dress, his church-going habits, and his ability to speak convincingly in the tones of a camp meeting hoodwinked a lot of people back in the 1880, 90s, and 00s.  He cleverly used the outward forms of civilization to cover a criminal career. Criminality aside, the public today often is similarly tricked.  We have scholars who pretend to be custodians of a civilization that, in truth, they think is worn out, boring, riddled with hypocrisy, and complicit in oppression.  Yet they manage to present themselves, at convenient moments, as up-to-date embodiments of the very civilization that they loathe.  No jury will convict them. 

How can civilization protect itself when its official stewards are working for the other side?  

One of the last killings that Deacon Jim was involved with was the murder for hire of the retired lawman Pat Garrett in February 1908.  He was shot down unarmed, though the murder scene was artfully arranged to make it appear he was on the attack.  No one was convicted.  

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