In the early morning hours of 19 April 1909, an organized mob hung Jim Miller, Jesse West, Joe Allen and Berry B. Burellfour men who were set to be tried the next day for the murder of cattleman and former U.S. Marshal, Allen Augustus "Gus" Bobbitt (1862 - 1909). This almost forgotten event could be said to mark the end of the the Wild West era. None of the mob were ever identified, but popular belief has it that local freemasons were involved.
As can be seen on his gravestone, Gus Babbitt was a freemason, a member of Ada Lodge No. 119. But, public opinion to the contrary, there is no proof that freemasons played any role in the lynching.
Ada, Oklahoma lynching, 1909
Nothing justifies lawlessness and mob rule. But the events of 19 April 1909 must be examined in the context of the times. As the rest of America entered the twentieth century, Oklahoma was the last frontier of the Wild West, and Ada Oklahoma was the last retreat of its outlaws. A town with a population of about 5,000 people, Ada had 38 murders in one year. Bootleggers, cutthroats and criminals ran roughshod over the town, and juries were often intimidated into returning verdicts of not guilty.
Early in 1909, Jim "Deacon" Miller was contracted by local ranchers Jesse West and Joe Allen through middleman Berry B. Burell [Burwell] to kill "Gus" Bobbitt, for a fee of $1,700. Jim Miller was a pathological killer, boasting of killing 31 people, starting with his grandparents when he was eight years old. True or not, when he was twenty-three he was convicted for killing his brother-in-law, although released on appeal. Embarking on a twenty-five-year career as a hired gun, there is evidence of at least eight hired killings and six killings resulting from saloon brawls or gambling altercations.
The murder on 27 February 1909 of a leading citizen by a hired killer was the final indignity to the citizens of Ada and although it is true that the crowd lynched the four men they believed responsible for Bobbitt's killing, they did it soberly, quietly, and without firing a shot. In the aftermath of the lynching it is reported that the criminal element quietly left town.
The Daily Ardmoreite, in their report of the lynching, described the four dead as "one of the bloodiest band of murderers in the state of Oklahoma and an organization of professional assassins, that for a record of blood crimes, probably has no equal in the annals of criminal history in the entire southwest."1
Reports of the size of the crowd vary. The Ada Evening News reported "about 50 men". The Daily Oklahoman reported a "mob of sixty" The Daily Ardmoreite, in Ardmore, sixty miles south of Ada, reported that the mob was 200 strong.2
The first report by Associated Press, repeating The Daily Ardmoreite's claim of 200, also noted:
Rose Hill Cemetery in Ada, Oklahoma.
"The mob, it is said, was organized in the commercial club rooms and was composed of many prominent citizens of the city, only a few of whom wore masks."
Immediately chastised by the Ada Evening News, Associated Press reduced the crowd, "estimated from 30 to 40 in number" anddeleting the club room referencereported "All of the members of the mob are thought to have been out of town parties, as they were mounted."3
The Daily Ardmoreite further reported: "It is believed by some that the mob was organized by friends and neighbors of Bobbitt, while others are of the opinion that many residents of Ada had a hand in it. Certain it is however that no member of the crowd has been apprehended and apparently no efforts have been made to establish any identities."4
"Oklahoma's first governor, Gov. C. N. Haskell, was outraged. He ordered a Blue Ribbon grand jury to identify the men in the mobbetween thirty and forty of themand bring them to justice. In the ninety-six years that have passed, the shroud of secrecy that baffled the lawmen at the time has remained intact."5
Yet the freemasons continue to be obliquely blamed. In 2007 Jim Etter, correspondent for the Oklahoman, reported that "while it's generally believed that the masked hangmen were the local Masons, the case was never officially solved."6
In another account : "Pontotoc county sheriff Tom Smith went to Roff on a cursory investigative on one occasion. Nothing was ever done to find the members of the mob who lynched the four men on April 19, 1909 in an old barn in Ada. However, it was generally suspected that the mob was made up of members of the Masonic lodge of which Gus Bobbitt was a member."7
Neither journalist Jim Etter nor website contributor Dennis Muncrief reveal the source for their general belief and suspicion. Novelist John Grisham is equally not constrained by the bonds of evidence and he reports in The Innocent Man that it was the freemasons.
Less a piece of nonfiction reporting, than an anti-death penalty polemic, The Innocent Man recounts the 1988 conviction of Ron Williamson for a murder he didn't commit. While Grisham's many errors and misrepresentations regarding the Williamson case have been documented by Oklahoma District Attorney William N. Peterson, Grisham peripherally implicates Ada, Oklahoma freemasons in the 19 April 1909 incident without providing any evidence.8
Although to date there has been no available evidence that freemasons, individually or as a body, participated in the lynching, popular writers have been happy to repeat unsubstantiated rumours, further perpetuating the folklore.9
1.The Daily Ardmoreite. Ardmore, Oklahoma. Monday, 19 April 1909 www.oklahomahistory.net accessed 2008/01/01.
2.The Evening News April 19, 1909. www.mindfreedom.net accessed 2008/01/01 ; The Daily Oklahoman, Oklahoma City : 19 April 1909, p. 1. newsok.com accessed 2008/01/01 ;
The Daily Ardmoreite, Ardmore, Oklahoma. April 19, 1909. www.oklahomahistory.net accessed 2008/01/01.
3.Associated Press reports cited by fotothing.com/bobbitt accessed 2008/01/01.
4.The Daily Ardmoreite, Ardmore, Oklahoma. April 19, 1909. www.oklahomahistory.net accessed 2008/01/01.
5.Phillip M. Swatek The Pontotoc Conspiracy. Florida Historical Society Press, 2003. hc 237pp. pressreleaseslive.com> accessed 2008/01/01.
6."Ada historians' play depicts vigilante past" Jim Etter, Oaklahoman 12 November 2007 newsok.com accessed 2008/01/01.
7.Dennis Muncrief, "4 MEN HANGING". Murray County, April 2007 www.rootsweb.com accessed 2008/01/01.
8.John Grisham, The Innocent Man: Murder And Injustice In A Small Town. New York : Doubleday Publishing, 2006 hc 368pp. ISBN:0385517238. p. 82. [pp. 98. pb Dell 2007]
9.Death of the Old West. Produced by Will Boggs, written by Mark Bratcher, music by Susan Wooley. Dustbowl Films, Ada Oklahoma. 30 min. (one-hour version also aired on the Ada Oklahoma's OETA public television). 19 April 2009. See: deathoftheoldwest.com accessed 2009/12/18.