I grew up in Oklahoma so books set in Oklahoma are interesting to me, especially if I am familiar with the locale. On my last trip to the library I couldn’t resist picking up The Pontotoc Conspiracy by Phillip M. Swatek. The novel is a fictionalized account of a series of interesting events in Ada’s early history.
This book was meticulously researched, and I would hazard a guess that it is fairly accurate. I wish the author had included a bibliography of his primary source material. It is an account of one man’s interaction with the citizens of Ada (it’s a town named after a woman) as he tries to move his family from Oklahoma City to Ada in the early 1900s.
John Harris, the narrator, becomes friends with Gus Bobbitt before Indian Territory became part of the state of Oklahoma. Gus Bobbitt was a deputy marshal for a time in Indian Territory and had his hands full because Texas criminals would simply cross the Red River into Indian Territory to escape justice. The area was still a bastion of the Wild West and pretty dangerous.
Then late in February 1909 Gus is gunned down on his way home. The killer calmly left the area, leaving behind an eye-witness. Some truly stellar police work happens with one or two lucky breaks. It’s only a day or so until the police know the identity of the killer, and not much longer until they discover who hired him.
The book is an recounting of how the police and the county attorney were able to investigate and arrest all four of the Texas men involved in the death of Gus Bobbitt. The killer, identified by his family members, was none other than Jim Miller, a notorious west Texas gunman who had been indicted for several murders but never jailed because witnesses kept disappearing. The two ranchers and the go between are also arrested and brought back to Ada for trial.
The citizens fear that Jim Miller will escape justice one more time. Early in the morning on the day of their trial a masked mob breaks into the jail and takes the four conspirators. When morning finally breaks the four men are found hung in John Harris’ barn by the railroad tracks. (In all fairness, I will add that John Harris was in Oklahoma City when this happened.)
The true mystery, which has never been solved, is which of Ada’s citizens were in the vigilante group who took justice into their own hands. For all his interest in the case John Harris never did find out who participated in the lynchings that dark Monday morning.
The book was fascinating. I never heard of any of this. In fact as I began to read the book I thought it was all made up. Until I found the pages of photos, anyway. Some enterprising photographer had managed to get a shot of the four men hanging in the barn. It really did happen.
I will say that the author is not the best writer I have ever read. Although well-organized, it tended to be a little dry. Of course, he was putting flesh on the bones of one of his wife’s family stories. Even so, it was a pretty fascinating look at the early days of Oklahoma, when oil was being discovered, cattle were king, and violence reigned.
By the way, in Oklahoma we pronounce Pontotoc as Pawn-a-tock. We’re not real fond of hard sounds here….