History

Man in the Long Black Coat: Jim Miller, the Old West’s Deadliest Psycho

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Deacon Jim Miller, the man in the long black coat, was the deadliest gunman of the Old West, though he never achieved the same level of fame as many of his contemporaries like John Wesley Hardin or Billy the Kid. Miller’s body count was somewhere between 20-50 men. Miller was a psychopathic hitman. His bloody deeds are said to have begun when he murdered his grandparents at the tender age of eight. He went on to leave a trail of death and grief across Texas and surrounding states.

James Miller was born on October 25, 1861, in Van Buren, Arkansas. His parents moved to Franklin, Texas, when he was just a year old. Miller’s father was a stonemason who helped construct the first capitol building in Austin. Only a few years after the move to Texas, Miller’s father died, and Cynthia Miller took the children and moved to her parents’ place in Evant, Texas. In 1869, when young Jim was eight-years-old, the bodies of his grandparents were discovered in their home. Though he was never prosecuted for the crime, locals always believed the boy had killed them.  Following the double homicide, Miller and his mother went to live with his sister Georgia and her husband John Thomas Coop on their farm at Plum Creek not far from Gatesville.

Man in the Long Black Coat: Jim Miller, the Old West's Deadliest Psycho

Photo: Wikipedia (public domain)

There was trouble between Miller and his brother-in-law from the start. Though he kept a calm exterior, inside Miller was a seething mass of rage. When he was 17 years-old, Miller decided to murder Coop. On July 30, 1884, while Coop was sleeping on his porch, Miller killed him with a shotgun blast. Though arrested and convicted for the murder, Miller ultimately went free when his conviction was overturned on a technicality.

Over the following years, Miller roved the Texas-Mexico borderlands and took up with Emanuel “Mannen” Clements (the cousin of John Wesley Hardin). Miller married Sallie Clements, Mannen’s daughter, in 1891. In Pecos, Texas, Miller earned the trust and admiration of townswomen by playing the part of a devout Methodist. Miller was polite to a fault, attended church every Sunday, didn’t smoke, drink, or cuss, and always wore a long black coat, even in the punishing heat of a West Texas summer. These attributes earned him the nickname of Deacon Jim. It would take a gunfight in the street to reveal the reason Miller was never without his long black coat.

Man in the Long Black Coat: Jim Miller, the Old West's Deadliest Psycho

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Pecos County Sheriff Bud Frazer also came under the spell of this wolf in sheep’s clothing. Frazer made what would prove to be a fatal mistake when he pinned a deputy’s star on Miller’s chest. Deacon Jim went on to become town marshal in Pecos, where he had a nasty habit of gunning down “escaping” Mexican prisoners. Too late, Sheriff Frazer realized the truth: Miller was a hired killer who was allowing Pecos to fill up with outlaws. Miller’s MO was to establish an alibi by being seen in a town far away, then he’d spend all night riding a horse or series of horses nearly to death, traveling 100 miles to the home of his target. He’d kill his man with a shotgun or rifle blast from hiding, swing up into the saddle, and ride like hell back to the town of his alibi. Many researchers believe he even gunned down the legendary Pat Garrett. Miller’s clients were ranching syndicates, big businessmen, and fellow career criminals, and his targets were often peaceful farmers, sheepherders, or ex-lawmen. If a case came to trial, witnesses would be threatened into refusing to testify or would vanish altogether.

Frazer also knew Miller’s favorite murder tactic and wasn’t going to take any chances on being killed from ambush. On April 22, 1894, Frazer went to confront Miller in Pecos about the murder of a rancher. Frazer didn’t give him a chance: he shot Miller in the right arm. Deacon Jim attempted to fire his gun left-handed, but Frazer fired again and shot Miller in the groin. Then the sheriff emptied his revolver into Miller’s chest and walked away, believing justice had been served. He was mistaken. Miller’s comrades rushed him to a bed and sent for the doctor. They tore away the long black coat to reveal Deacon Jim’s secret: a large metal plate covering his chest. The crude bulletproof vest saved Miller’s life.

Man in the Long Black Coat: Jim Miller, the Old West's Deadliest Psycho

Photo: Wikipedia (public domain)

Frazer was amazed when he learned Miller had survived. Was the man invincible? Deacon Jim’s lackeys had kept the secret of his metal plate. That December, Frazer tried again. While Miller was outside the blacksmith shop, Frazer rushed up and began shooting, hitting Miller in the arm and leg. Once again, Frazer tried to finish him off with a bullet to the chest, and once again, the metal plate saved Miller.

Miller soon charged the sheriff with attempted murder. The El Paso court case ended in a hung jury, and afterward, Frazer lost his reelection campaign and left town in disgrace.  In September 1896, Frazer was gambling in Toyah, Texas, dealing cards at a table, when Miller stepped through the bat-wing doors of the saloon and blasted him with a shotgun. The shot tore off most of Frazer’s head. When the killing went to trial, the jury acquitted Miller.

Man in the Long Black Coat: Jim Miller, the Old West's Deadliest Psycho

Photo: Pixabay.com

Finally, in 1909, while Miller was being held on in the Ada, Oklahoma, jail on charges of murdering a former Deputy U. S. Marshal, Deacon Jim’s luck ran out. He would have no chance to threaten witnesses or jury members this time. In the dead of night, a lynch mob stormed the jail and dragged Miller and three other prisoners outside and marched them to a barn. With a noose around his neck, Miller made three simple requests: that his diamond ring be given to his widow and that they allow him to wear his black hat and coat. The mob denied him the long black coat, but granted his other two requests. While his fellow doomed men wept and begged for their lives, Miller shouted “Let ‘er rip!” and stepped off the box of his own accord. Hours later, a photographer immortalized the image of Miller dangling lifelessly from the rafter of the barn.