James “Jim” Brown Miller was one of the worst of the many violent men of the Old West. Miller was a law officer, Texas Ranger, outlaw, and professional killer who was said to have killed 12 people during gunfights, and more in outlaw activities and assignations. Often impeccably dressed with good manners, he didn’t smoke or drink and often attended church, earning him the nickname “Deacon Miller.” But, he was a wolf in sheep’s clothing and was seemingly one of those “bad seeds” from an early age.
Miller was born on October 25, 1861 (some sources list October 24, 1866) in Van Buren, Arkansas to Jacob and Chynthia Basham Miller. When he was just a year old, he and his family moved to Texas in 1862. Jim’s father, Jacob, who was a stonemason, helped build the first capitol building in Austin. However, somewhere along the line, Jacob died as his mother was listed as a widow in census reports. When the boy was just eight, some accounts said that he killed his own grandparents. However, this has never proven to be true.
By 1880, he was documented as living with his widowed mother and siblings in Coryell County. Four years later, his sister Georgia was married to a man named John Coop — a man that Jim Miller detested. On July 30, 1884, John Coop was killed by a shotgun blast while he was in bed at his home about eight miles northwest of Gatesville, Texas, also in Coryell County. It was well known that Jim did not like his brother-in-law and he was soon arrested for the murder. He was tried, convicted and sentenced to life in prison. However, his attorneys took the case to the Texas Court of Appeals, where the conviction was reversed on a technicality.
Afterward, Miller hooked up with an outlaw gang in San Saba County, Texas, robbing trains and stagecoaches, and often killing in the process. He also purchased a one-half interest in a saloon in San Saba. It was at that time that he also embarked on a career as an assassin, casually proclaiming that he would murder anyone for money (accounts of his price vary between $150 and $2,000.) In his new-found career, he would eventually earn a reputation for getting the job done quickly and efficiently, usually by means of a shotgun ambush at night.
In appearance, Miller was a mild-mannered man, never cursed, didn’t drink or smoke, and was very well dressed, wearing a white shirt with a stiff collar, a stick pin on his lapel, a diamond ring, and always wearing a heavy frock coat, regardless of how hot it might be. Despite his occupation, he was often known to attend church and read the bible. He was not a fast draw gunfighter like so many other men of the west, but, was quick to use a gun when it suited him. In addition to killing for hire, he was also known to have killed several men in saloons when arguments would erupt over poker games.
In about 1882, Miller was arrested and disarmed by young San Saba Deputy Sheriff Dee Harkey, later one of the most famous lawmen of the West. Shortly afterward, Miller drifted into McCulloch County, where he raced horses and worked as a cowboy for Emmanuel “Mannen” Clements, Sr., a violent man who was the older cousin of John Wesley Hardin. While there, Miller became good friends with Emmanuel’s son, Emmanuel “Mannie” Clements, Jr., as well as Mannen’s daughter, Sallie. Jim and Sallie married in McCulloch County on February 15, 1888, and would eventually have four children
Miller next drifted through southeast New Mexico and West Texas, along the Mexican border. Little is known of his activities during these years, but he would later brag: “lost my notch stick on Mexicans that I killed out on the border.”
By 1891, Miller was in Pecos, Texas where he was soon hired on by Reeves County Sheriff, George A. “Bud” Frazer. The 27-year-old Frazer, who had been sheriff for less than a year, was badly in need of a deputy in the frontier town and asked few questions of Miller. In those days, it was considered rude to ask too many questions of one’s past. It would be a fatal mistake for Frazer.
Miller soon moved his family, along with brother-in-law, Mannie Clements, to Pecos, where the family attended church, and by all appearances, were an upstanding group. At about the same time, cattle rustling and horse theft increased up and down the Pecos Valley and Miller spent much of his time in pursuit of the thieves. But, when he never captured any, it raised suspicions in the mind of local gunfighter and hard-case, Barney Riggs, who just happened to be Bud Frazer’s brother-in-law. As the increase in thefts had started to occur at just about the same time as Miller became a deputy, Riggs pointed out that perhaps Miller should be looked at as a suspect and suggested the Miller be fired. When Frazer confronted his deputy, Miller laughed off the accusation.
Miller, who was supported by members of his church and with no proof of the allegations, was kept on by Frazer and continued his serve as a deputy. However, when Miller killed a Mexican prisoner who was “trying to escape,” Frazer began to investigate. Barney Riggs alleged that Miller had murdered the man because he knew where the deputy had hidden a pair of stolen mules. When Frazer found that Riggs was correct and located the stolen mules, he immediately fired Miller. This would be the beginning of the deadly Frazer-Miller feud, which would last for the next several years.
The next year, in the 1892 Pecos Sheriff’s election, Jim Miller opposed Bud Frazer but lost. This, however, did not stop Miller from getting himself appointed as the Pecos City Marshal. Marshal Jim Miller then hired his brother-in-law, Mannie Clements as his deputy and surrounded himself with gunmen, including a hard-case gunfighter named Bill Earhart, John Denson, another cousin of John Wesley Hardin’s and Martin Q. Hardin, who is not known to have been related to John Wesley, but the two evidently referred to themselves as “cousins.”
In May 1893, Sheriff Frazer was away on business and Miller’s criminal element virtually took over the town. In the meantime, Miller and his henchmen were also hatching a plan to assassinate upon his return. The plan was to stage a shoot-out on the railroad station platform when the sheriff returned. Nearby, would be a third man who would shoot Frazer, making it appear as if he had been killed by a stray bullet. However, when a man named Con Gibson overheard the plan while in a local saloon, he contacted Frazer to let him know about it. Frazer, in turn, contacted the Texas Rangers, and when Frazer arrived, he was flanked by Texas Rangers. Captain John R. Hughes soon arrested Miller, Clements and Martin Hardin. The three were indicted on September 7, 1893, for conspiring to kill Frazer. The case was transferred to El Paso to be tried; however, Con Gibson, the primary prosecution witness, fled to nearby Eddy (now Carlsbad,) New Mexico, where he was shot and killed by Miller henchman, John Denson. With their witness gone, the state was forced to release the three prisoners.
Though Miller had once more escaped the long arm of the law, he did lose his job of marshal and bought a hotel in Pecos. Miller then appeared to be living the life of an honest citizen and the town settled down. However, word began to spread that Frazer couldn’t handle Miller and had no business being sheriff. The talk naturally built up resentment in the young sheriff.
On April 18, 1894, when Bud Frazer encountered Miller on the street, he yelled at him “Jim, you’re a cattle rustler and murderer! Here’s one for Con Gibson.” Frazer then opened fire on Miller, striking him in the right arm near the shoulder. Miller fired back but succeeded in only grazing a man named Joe Kraus, a local storekeeper. Frazer then emptied his pistol into Miller’s chest and he collapsed. Bud then walked away only to find out later that, amazingly, Miller wasn’t dead.
Several of his friends picked up Miller and carried him into his hotel. Also surprised that the man wasn’t dead, they discovered a metal breast-plate plate that Miller wore under his coat. Now, it became clear why the hired killer always wore a heavy frock coat. However, that information would not be shared with Frazer.
Though Miller survived, he would spend the next several months convalescing and there were no more conflicts between the two men, though Miller had been making threats the entire time. In November 1894, when the sheriff election came up again, Frazer lost. He then moved to Carlsbad, New Mexico, where he opened a livery stable.
Frazer returned to Pecos the next month to settle his affairs. The ex-sheriff encountered Jim Miller in front of Zimmer’s blacksmith shop on December 26, 1894. Having heard the frequent threats that Miller had made against him, Frazer drew his gun, sending two shots into Miller’s right arm and left leg. Jim then began firing left-handed, without success, while Frazer sent two more slugs into Miller’s chest. Amazed again that Miller was still alive and standing, the confused Frazer fled. It was only later that the ex-sheriff would find out about Miller’s protective breast-plate.