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Oklahoma historian Alvin Turner based his new book of poetry on hangings.

Ryan Querbach August 17th, 2011

In April of 1909, a vigilante mob hanged four men awaiting trial as murder suspects in Ada. Jim Miller, Jesse West, Joe Allen and D.B. Burrell were set to stand trial for the murder of Gus Bobbitt when the angry mob estimated at around 40 people took matters into their own hands.

Not many Oklahomans know this story, but local historian and author Alvin Turner based his new book of poetry, “Hanging Men,” on it. He said that the story should be better recognized, even if it’s not crucial to Oklahoma’s overall history.

“The particular story’s not especially important; you can tell all of Oklahoma history without telling this story. We’ve done it for years,” Turner said. “I think, though, that it is important for us to realize that there are these kinds of stories in our communities.”

He said questions can be raised about the morality of the hangings. Miller, a longtime outlaw, killed Bobbitt, and West allegedly paid Miller to do so. Turner said the other suspects’ roles were questionable, as was the mob’s vigilante approach.

Turner, a Norman resident and recent inductee into the Oklahoma Historians Hall of Fame, said he’s been drawn to this story since hearing that, according to family tradition, his maternal grandmother’s brother found the hanged suspects.

“I really think this story chose me,” he said. “I grew up hearing it.”

Although Turner is an academic historian, he feels that some stories are best captured with poetry. Some of the stories he tells are fictional, and he called the book more of an interpretative, rather than a historical approach.

Although it has fictional elements, he claims that it still has a clear message.

“The thing that I think is worthwhile about what I’ve done is the exploration of the larger issues of not only vigilantism, but of justice,” he said.

Nobody was ever punished for the hangings, nor is it known who was involved. But, Turner said people can still learn from such occurrences.

“You never have all the facts; there’s always questions hiding in the woodwork,” he said. “There’s a constant need for re-exploration and rethinking.”

He said people from Ada are more likely to know the story, but other Oklahomans are generally unfamiliar with it. Stories like this, as well as racially motivated hangings, aren’t often included in Oklahoma’s history.

“We idealize the past, and I think that’s unfortunate,” Turner said. “I think we need to deal with the whole truth; and in that sense, then this story points us toward that larger truth.”

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08.18.2011 at 04:22 Reply

Dear Ryan & the Gazette: Thank you so much for this lovely article. For those of you who would like to know where to get Hanging Men, please check out the Mongrel Empire Press website at  Mongrel Empire Press is based in Norman, OK. Buy local!