America's First Serial Killers and Many More Deadly Historic Figures
America’s First Serial Killers and Many More Deadly Historic Figures

America’s First Serial Killers and Many More Deadly Historic Figures

Khalid Elhassan - September 6, 2020

America’s First Serial Killers and Many More Deadly Historic Figures
Deacon Jim “Killer” Miller and his wife. Citizens and Assassins

13. Deadly Deacon Jim

Wild West criminal and criminal lawman James Brown Miller (1861 – 1909) was known as “Deacon Jim” because he neither smoke nor drank, and regularly attended the Methodist Church. Another of his nicknames was “Killer Miller”, because, well… for a seemingly straitlaced teetotaler, Miller was a deadly thug who killed many people.

Deacon Jim put on an air of respectability, and liked to go about impeccably dressed. However, he was a wolf in sheep’s clothing, having killed a dozen people in gunfights. He reportedly gunned down many more during a violent career in which he was an outlaw, a lawman, a Texas Ranger, and a killer for hire.

America’s First Serial Killers and Many More Deadly Historic Figures
Killer Miller gambling. Wikimedia

12. Starting a Deadly Career by Targeting His Own Family

When Jim Miller was a year old, his family moved from Arkansas to Texas. They settled in Austin, where his father worked as a stonemason. The father died when Miller was a child, and somewhere along the line, something went wrong with young Jim. At age eight, according to some accounts, he killed his own grandparents, although there is no conclusive proof to support that.

Whether or not he did in his grandparents, Miller grew into a violent young man. One of his earliest documented killings was of his brother in law, whom Miller detested. On July 30th, 1884, the brother in law was killed with a shotgun blast while he was sleeping. Miller was arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to life behind bars. However, the case was appealed, and the conviction was reversed on a technicality.

America’s First Serial Killers and Many More Deadly Historic Figures
Deacon Jim “Killer” Miller. Wikimedia

11. A Criminal Cop

After Jim Miller was released, he became a hired hand in a ranch. His boss was killed by Ballinger’s City Marshall in 1887, and soon thereafter, the Marshal was ambushed by somebody wielding a shotgun, and was severely wounded. The Marshal survived, but lost an arm to amputation. Miller was the prime suspect, but there was insufficient evidence to prosecute him for the attempted killing.

Miller then relocated to the Texas-Mexico border, where he became a deputy sheriff in Reeves County, then town marshal of Pecos. He was a deadly killer cop, and gained a reputation for murdering Mexicans, claiming that they were trying to escape. In 1894 he got into a feud with the county sheriff, who shot him in the arm, the groin, then emptied his six shooter into Miller’s chest. He survived, because he had been wearing a steel plate over his chest.

America’s First Serial Killers and Many More Deadly Historic Figures
Deacon Jim “Killer” Miller. Legends of the West

10. The Dirty Ranger

Jim Miller got a job as a Texas Ranger, and began to advertise his availability as a killer for hire. Charging $150 per murder, he used his Ranger authority to get away with literal murder. As his reputation grew, so did his fees, until he was eventually charging thousands of dollars per killing. He had no scruples about killing lawmen, and is credited with murdering Pat Garret, who had killed Billy the Kid.

America’s First Serial Killers and Many More Deadly Historic Figures
The lynching of Killer Miller, far left in black hat, and his accomplices. This Land Press

In 1909, Miller was hired to kill a popular rancher from Ada, Oklahoma, named Allen Bobbit. Miller shot Bobbit, but he lived long enough to name his killer. Miller and three accomplices were arrested, but the evidence seemed weak, leading many Ada residents and friends of Bobbit to fear that his killers might get acquitted. So they formed a mob, broke into the jail where the accused were held, and lynched the deadly Miller and his accomplices in the early morning hours of April 19th, 1909.

America’s First Serial Killers and Many More Deadly Historic Figures
Hiroo Onoda, right, and his younger brother Shigeo in 1944. Wikimedia

9. A Deadly Diehard

As US forces fought to retake the Philippines in 1944, 22-year-old Japanese Imperial Army Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda was sent on a reconnaissance mission to the island of Lubang. An intelligence officer specially trained as a commando, Onoda was directed to spy on American forces in the area and conduct guerrilla operations. He was ordered to never surrender, but also expressly ordered that, under no circumstances, was he authorized to take his own life.

On Lubang, senior Japanese officers meddled and prevented Onoda from carrying out his mission. Within months, American forces invaded the island, and in short order killed or captured all Japanese personnel, with the exception of Onoda and three other soldiers. Taking charge of the survivors, Onoda took to the hills. Over the following years and decades, Onoda would prove himself a deadly diehard – or bloody minded idiot – who would claim the lives of dozens while continuing to fight a war that had already ended.

America’s First Serial Killers and Many More Deadly Historic Figures
American soldiers fighting to liberate the Philippines. Wikimedia

8. Cut Off

With American forces overrunning the Philippines and overcoming organized Japanese resistance on the archipelago, Lieutenant Onoda scurried about the rugged terrain of Lubang. He was cut off from communications with his chain of command, and so did not receive official word of the Japanese capitulation in 1945. Without new orders countermanding his last received instructions to fight to the death, Onoda displayed a single-minded devotion to what he claimed was his duty, hid in the jungles and mountains of Lubang, and fought a deadly one-man war. For 29 years.

For nearly three decades, Onoda survived with his tiny command in the dense thickets of Lubang. They erected bamboo huts and eked out a living by hunting and gathering in the island’s jungle, stealing rice and other food from local farmers, and killing the occasional cow for meat. Tormented by heat and mosquitoes, rats and rain, Onoda’s band patched their increasingly threadbare uniforms, and kept their weapons in working order.

America’s First Serial Killers and Many More Deadly Historic Figures
Lubang Island. Research Gate

7. Deadly Delusions

Over the years, Lieutenant Onoda and his tiny band came across various leaflets announcing that the war had ended. However, they dismissed them as “fake news” – enemy propaganda and ruses of war. On one occasion, they encountered a leaflet upon which had been printed the official surrender order from their commanding general. They examined it closely to determine whether it was genuine, and decided that it must be a forgery. Even when they recovered airdropped letters and pictures from their own families urging them to surrender, Onoda’s band convinced themselves that it was a trick.

As the years flew by, Onoda’s four-man contingent steadily dwindled, as he lost comrades to a variety of causes. In 1949, one of them simply left the group, wandered alone around Lubang for six months, and eventually surrendered to authorities. Another was killed by a search party in 1954. His last companion was shot dead by police in 1972, while he and Onoda were trying to burn the rice stores of local farmers. Onoda was thus finally alone. Yet he kept on fighting, faithful to his last received orders, doggedly conducting a deadly one-man war.

America’s First Serial Killers and Many More Deadly Historic Figures
The rugged terrain of Lubang, in which Hiroo Onoda hid for decades. Inquirer

6. A Hippie Ends a Lunatic’s Deadly Private War

In 1974, a travelling Japanese hippie backpacker found Onoda, and befriended him. He managed to convince the holdout that the war had ended decades earlier, but Onoda still refused to surrender, absent orders from a superior officer. Returning to Japan with photographic proof of his encounter with Onoda, the holdout’s new friend contacted the Japanese government, which in turn tracked down his former commanding officer.

America’s First Serial Killers and Many More Deadly Historic Figures
The Japanese backpacker who found Hiroo Onoda, posing with the holdout and his rifle in February, 1974. Rare Historical Photos

Travelling to Lubang, Onoda’s wartime commander personally informed him that the war was over, that he was released from military duty, and ordered him to stand down. In 1974, clad in his battered and threadbare uniform, Lieutenant Onoda handed in his sword and other weapons to representatives of the US and Filipino military, and finally brought his war to an end nearly three decades after WWII had ended.

America’s First Serial Killers and Many More Deadly Historic Figures
Hiroo Onoda surrendering. Boston Globe

5. Deadly Hero, or Deadly Idiot?

Lieutenant Onoda returned to a hero’s welcome in Japan. However, admiration for his single-minded devotion to duty was not universal. Back in Lubang, the inhabitants did not view Onoda as a conscientious and honorable man devoted to duty. Instead, they saw him as a bloody minded deadly idiot. During his 29 year holdout, Onoda had inflicted sundry harms upon the Lubangese, stealing, destroying, and sabotaging their property. He also needlessly killed about 30 local police and farmers with whom his band had clashed while stealing or “requisitioning” food and supplies, in order to continue fighting a war that had ended decades earlier.

America’s First Serial Killers and Many More Deadly Historic Figures
Hiroo Onoda at his ranch in Brazil. Observer

A militarist through and through, Onoda believed that the war had been a sacred mission. The pacifist and futuristic Japan to which he returned was unrecognizable to him. Onoda found himself unable to fit in a country and culture so radically different from the one in which he had grown up. Within a year of returning to Japan, he moved to Brazil, where he bought a cattle ranch, settled into to the life of a rancher, married, and raised family. He died in 2014, aged 91.

America’s First Serial Killers and Many More Deadly Historic Figures
John Wesley Hardin. Wikimedia

4. The Most Deadly Outlaw of the Wild West

The most deadly outlaw and gunslinger of the Wild West was probably John Wesley Hardin (1853 – 1895), who killed dozens of victims – including one man whom he shot for snoring too loud. According to his own claims, which might or might not have been exaggerated, Hardin killed 42 men. Contemporary newspapers verified 27 killings that were attributed to him.

The son of a Methodist minister and a member of a prominent Texas family that included a judge and a legislator, Hardin was a bad ‘un from early on. His violent career started in 1867 with the stabbing of a schoolmate, and a year later, at age fifteen, he shot and killed an uncle’s former black slave in an argument over a wrestling match.

America’s First Serial Killers and Many More Deadly Historic Figures
Driving cattle on the Chisholm Trail. YouTube

3. A Soldier-Killing Spree

After murdering his uncle’s former slave, John Wesley Hardin fled to Sumpter, Texas, with Texas’ Reconstruction Government agents hot on his tail. He became more and more deadly as time went by, and he claimed to have killed three Union soldiers in 1868, when they tried to arrest him. Within a year of that triple homicide, Hardin killed another soldier.

America’s First Serial Killers and Many More Deadly Historic Figures
John Wesley Hardin. Criminal Hall of Fame

In 1871, the fugitive Hardin decided to try his hand at becoming a cowboy on the Chisholm Trail. He killed seven people en route, including two men in a card game, and an Indian “just for practice“. He killed another three men when he got to Abilene, Kansas. Later that year, he walked up to two black policemen who were looking for him, and shot them both, killing one and wounding the other.

America’s First Serial Killers and Many More Deadly Historic Figures
John Wesley Hardin. Reddit

2. Piling Up the Corpses

As Hardin grew ever more deadly, he invested the time and effort to hone and facilitate his killing technique. He carried his pistols in holsters sewn into his vest, with the butts pointed inwards across his chest. He crossed his arms to draw, which he deemed the quickest way to get his pistols into action, and practiced his draw technique every day. He also kept on steadily piling up the corpses, and on his 21st birthday in 1874, he quarreled with a deputy sheriff and shot him dead.

A $4000 “Dead or Alive” reward was placed on Hardin. Choosing discretion over valor, he fled Texas with his wife and daughter, and settled in Florida as a businessman, using an assumed name. That peaceful interlude lasted until 1877, when Texas Rangers caught up with Hardin on a train in Pensacola, Florida. He tried to draw his pistol, but it got snagged on his suspenders, and the Rangers pistol whipped him into submission.

America’s First Serial Killers and Many More Deadly Historic Figures
Photo said to be of John Wesley Hardin after he became a lawyer. Wild West Outlaws

1. A Deadly Outlaw’s Violent End

Back in Texas, Hardin was tried, convicted, and sentenced to 25 years in 1878. He made numerous escape attempts, including a tunnel into the prison armory, but they all failed. He eventually settled down, studied law behind bars, and was put in charge of the prison’s Sunday school.

America’s First Serial Killers and Many More Deadly Historic Figures
Constable John Selman, who killed John Wesley Hardin. Alchetron

In 1894, Hardin was pardoned after serving 17 years of his sentence. Upon his release, he took and passed Texas’ bar exam, and became a licensed lawyer. He moved to El Paso in 1895 to start a law practice, but got into trouble when he quarreled with John Selman, a lawman who had arrested a prostitute friend of Hardin. Heated words were exchanged, and that night, as Hardin was playing dice in a local saloon, Selman walked up to Hardin from behind, shot him in the back of the head, then pumped three more bullets into him as lay on the ground.

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Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

American Weekend, October 23rd, 1998 – Frontier Serial Killers: The Harpes

Ancient Pages – Giulia Tofana Poisoned 600 Men: Beautiful Sicilian Woman and Her Deadly Mission

Indiana Genealogy Trail – Jackson County Indiana: The Legend of the Reno Gang

Legends of America – James Miller, Hired Killer of the Old West

Legends of America – Reno Gang & the 1st Big Train Robbery

Legends of America – The Vicious Harpes: First American Serial Killers

Medium – Meet the Woman Who Poisoned Makeup to Help Over 600 Women Murder Their Husbands

Mike Dash History – Aqua Tofana: Slow-Poisoning and Husband-Killing in the 17th Century

Murderpedia – Harpe Brothers

Murderpedia – Kuno Hofmann

National Park Service, Fort Smith Historic Site – Rufus Buck Gang: A Time to Die

Observer, March 23rd, 2017 – No Surrender: The Story of a Japanese Soldier Who Did Not Surrender Until 29 Years After WWII

Philippine Daily Inquirer, April 10th, 2014 – Hiroo Onoda: Hero, or Villain?

Ranker – Life of Giulia Tofana

All That Interesting – Meet Giulia Tofana: The Professional Poisoner Said To Have Killed 600 Men

Spartacus Educational – Frank Reno

Texas State Historical Association – Hardin, John Wesley

Vintage News – The Most Prolific Female Assassin in History

Wikipedia – Harpe Brothers

Wikipedia – Japanese Holdout

Wikipedia – Reno Gang

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