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Old Opera House Mystery

(Black Hand Letters of Death)

By LK McGill Wagner, the OkieLegacy

What does 1910, Old Opera House, Law Enforcement League, Black Hand Letters, Alva, Oklahoma, Mabel Oakes and Justice of Peace Nelson L. Miller have in common?

This was a time when… female purity was regarded as a virtue to be protected. Social standards & dress were according to what was expected and morally correct in society. Women still wore the tight fitting, laced corsets, but there was a change, debate in the air as to if it was a healthy, safe garment for women to wear, confining, restricting their upper torsos. The skirts were to the ground; the coats were below the knees; and the blouses necklines were up around the neck. The “Law Enforcement League” was established, funded for the purpose of enforcing local moral standards, whether they dealt with booze, kissing in motion pictures, separation of races, or investigating backgrounds of newcomers to be sure they were morally acceptable to ruling town fathers.

9 November 1910, considerable excitement was buzzing through government square of Alva, Woods County, Oklahoma. Those favorable to the democratic cause were keeping their eyes, ears glued to the election postings at “Jesse Jackson’s Cigar store,” on the west side of the square, College Avenue, north of Monforts Drugs. On the North side of the square, those favorable to the republican cause were doing the same, upstairs in the two-story building of the “Woods County Citizens Union Bank,”northeast corner of 5th Street & Flynn Avenue.

This 1910 fall day was to go down as “A Day of Black Infamy” for this northwest community. Sometime between the hours of 12:00 p.m. and 3:00 p.m., November 9, 1910, Mabel Oakes was found dead in the “Old Opera House” around 3:30 p.m. by Justice Miller. Memories of that fall day will linger in the archives, with Mabel Oakes’ side of the story buried with her in the Alva cemetery.

Mabel Oakes was a young, country girl (23 years) living on Barnes Avenue, four blocks east of the southeast corner of the square, with her parents, George & Carrie Oakes, and a younger brother, Clarence (15 years).

Through testimony, transcripts we find that Miss Oakes was a large, sturdy, supposedly healthy woman of that time weighing around 160 to 165 pounds. Miss Oakes was also 5-months pregnant at the time of her demise. She wore a tight fitting corset and a scarf wrapped tightly around her tall neck. Miss Oakes explained to others the reason for the scarf tightly around the neck as a throat problem.

In 1910, Miss Oakes was known for her fainting spells for which she took prescribed medication of strychnine and morphine tablets. Were these fainting spells the cause of her broken arms, black eyes and bruises about her face? OR... her pregnancy? OR... were the fainting spells brought on by a heart condition or a tight fitting corset used by Miss Oakes to conceal her pregnancy that began in the early summer of 1910? OR... were Mabel's unfortunate accidents of broken arms, black eyes and bruises the cause of "Black Hand Letter" threats?

Only Mabel Oakes memories of that time will tell us the whole truth. Those memories lay underneath the northwest Oklahoma soil, in the Alva Cemetery, in the Oakes family plot.

The spring of 1909, Mabel began to work for Justice Miller as a stenographer at his offices in the Old Opera House. Mabel did various work learning to write on the typewriter, answering correspondence, drawing up other legal papers for Miller. Miss Oakes worked for Miller on and off. At her father’s insistence, Mabel quit three weeks before her death.

In the spring, summer 1910 Miss Oakes began receiving “Black Hand letters” (40-50) anonymous threats. Mabel would share these threatening letters with Justice Miller for safe keeping and protection.

This is just a sampling of the threatening letters Mabel received: “To show you that they are so brave, one of our friends is keeping watch tonight, acting as a spy. That is all right, for we were well represented too and it was a case of spy watch spy. You were followed when you left home tonight. If my full force had been with me you never would have seen or went home again at least not alive. Now get you we will. Dead or Alive. The crowd will not amount to anything when we have finished. Don’t be surprised at anything at anytime now. We mean business. Tell Shaw he had better find a better hiding place for his booze. Remember we will get you if it takes all summer and several lives. -- Signed Ananmous”

Did all these “Black Hand letters” lead up to the death of Mabel Oakes?

On Wednesday, November 9, 1910, Mabel left her parents home before 11:00 a.m. and says, “Mamma, I will be back pretty soon. I am going down to see Mr. Miller. I will be back pretty soon.” That is the last time Mabel was seen alive by her mother. Mabel’s father, George W. Oakes, last saw his daughter alive, November 9, 1910, a little before 9:00 a.m. at home. At eleven o’clock that same morning, Mabel arrived at Justice Miller’s offices in the “Old Opera House” to collect past wages that he had promised her after she had quit work.

Later that same day, Mabel complained to Miller that she was not feeling well. Mabel allegedly asked Miller for a tablespoon of whiskey. Miller gave her a small shot glass, less than half full, and told her to take his horse & buggy and go home. Mabel did not want to go home. She refused to go home. She said “Papa wouldn’t like that a bit.”

Miller asked her why? Mabel said “He absolutely don’t want me in your company any more.” She said she would be all right in a little bit and that she would go home then. This was the last time Miller saw Mabel alive.

Nelson L. Miller… In 1910, Miller was head of household residing in Alva, Oklahoma. On September 5, 1888, Miller (born 1859), married Rachel (born 1863). The Miller family consisted of: Lois, born 1888, Kansas; Eva, born 1891, Kansas; Minta, born 1892, Kansas; Bert L., born 1898, O.T.; and George, born 1902, O.T.

Let’s journey through time to September 1911, to the Woodward County courthouse and see if we can catch an interview with Nelson Miller and get his side of the story.

Justice Miller, we have heard about Miss Oakes sinking spells. When was the first time you heard about them? Miller replies, “The first time I knew of Mabel’s sinking spell was during the time she was getting well from her first broken arm in the winter, 1909.”

What are these “Black Hand letters” we’ve heard so much about and was there anything sexual between you and Mabel on that infamous spring 1910 buggy ride?

Miller explained as to the letters, “Mabel would often bring one or two of them to me in the morning when she would come to work, and say that they had been left sticking in the pump or the door of her home. The first few, I attached so little importance to and stuck them down in a coat pocket, they naturally wore out. Finally, Mabel suggest that there ought to be something done. At that time I began to save them and keep them in a big envelope in my office. Those are the ones I delivered to my attorney, Erskine W. Snoddy, at the time when I was arrested.”

As to that infamous spring 1910 buggy ride between Miller and Miss Oakes Miller’s explanation was, “Let me begin by saying, it was as early as March 1910. Some clients came to me wanting me to arbitrate a matter of a division fence west of Alva, six miles west to the first corner from the Normal School, striking the southeast corner of the section. In order to know the situation I had to go out there. I selected the next day, Sunday, to go out and view the situation. They were to meet me out there at 3:00 p.m. Mabel was in the office and knew all about that conversation. She wanted to know if it would be all right if she went out in the country with me. She said she had been housed up all summer and had not been out of town.”

Miller continues, “I told Mabel that would not do, and it would make people talk. Mabel didn’t see how people could talk about riding any more than sitting in the office. Exactly at 2:00 p.m., Mabel came down town towards the Rock Island Depot as I was going to the post office, and I went down the street and picked her up. We went out past the mill, into the country from there. We viewed the line fence and we got back about sundown that evening.”

Miller gave testimony of who stopped by his office the day of the murder, “S. B. Share was there about the noon hour and asked me about some court business I had on my docket; J. C. Snoddy was there talking over the election news with me; and Mabel Oakes came in about 11:00 a.m. and we talked about 12:15 p.m. Cook Snoddy drove up and came into my office about half past noon. We talked a little while, and we went out and got in his buggy and drove up to my house. We stayed at my house about five or ten minutes while I ran inside. I came back out, got in the buggy and we drove back to my office. When we left the office Mabel was sitting in a chair at the typewriter. When we came back she wasn’t in the office, but was standing in the door, the partition going through from the back room of the office to the little open room that had no roof on it. She was right at the wall standing, leaning up against the door. I went up to her. I saw that somebody else was there. I don’t know whether I knew who it was then or not. I never spoke to him nor saw him since that time. I left her standing there at that door when I went out. Mr. Snoddy followed me.”

Miller continues on, “I took my horse and buggy and drove directly to Jesse Jackson’s cigar store where they were issuing bulletins on the election returns. I would say that it was about 12:30 p.m. It might have been as late as 12:45 p.m. There was quite a crowd at Jackson’s, and I only remember the people that I talked to. I possibly knew all of them. I talked to James Roller, Fred Frederickson and Fred Crosner. I was there from thirty minutes to an hour. From there I went North around the square, turning east to republican headquarters. I might have stopped at a poolroom located along the north side of the square. Then I went over to republican headquarters and got the election results and talked with quite a good many people. I was there probably fifteen or twenty minutes. I saw George Oakes, Mr. Kent Eubank and Mr. Enlow. Along about 2:00 or 2:15 p.m., I went home to dinner for possibly 30 or 45 minutes. I drove right back to my office and tied up my horse and buggy before I proceeded over to the republican headquarters again.”

Miller continues “After I checked the returns, I went downstairs, across the street to the poolroom on the north side of the square, west of republican headquarters. I walked as far as the poolroom, and then went back up to the republican headquarters. Shortly after that, I picked up a wheel on the street and went west from republican headquarters down to Jackson’s. When I left Jackson’s, I went back to the republican headquarters again for another fifteen to twenty minutes. I entered the headquarters, talked with several people. One of those times at republican headquarters I talked with C. H. Mauntel about the returns, general election. I met Rauh down at the foot of the stairs. In fact, he and I came down the stairs together or pretty near together. I went right across the square to my office. I opened the door, went in and sit down in my office chair at my desk.”

Miller continues, “I wanted a drink, so I headed to the back room to get a bottle of whiskey I had hidden the night before. When I came through that door, the door to the small room was standing wide open. The minute I entered this little triangular room I saw Mabel laying there. I could see her very plain, because it was perfectly light in there. The window had a curtain on it at one time, it was located a little west of her head towards the south, within two or three feet of her. And the bottom part of that window had either one or two windows lights broken out. This curtain blew back and forth until it had frayed out at the bottom. That let the light and the air in, as if there was no curtain there at all. I found her in this condition, her left hand lying across her face hiding her eyes, with her handkerchief clasped in her hand. First I stood in the door and said ‘Mabel’ twice and she didn’t move. I then went over to her, kneeled down, picked up her hand that lay on her face and felt of her pulse. I saw the minute I raised her hand that something was awfully wrong. Of course, I thought it was one of her sinking spells. I felt her pulse and concluded that she was dead. I took the handkerchief out of her hand and wiped off her face or eyes. I smoothed her hair down. I looked at her eyes and they were about a third open, I think. I could see what I would call a death stare. I was convinced that she was dead.”

Miller continues on, “I felt the need of a stimulant more than I ever did in my life. I went up on the stage, found my bottle of whiskey I had hid the night before and took a drink. I put the bottle back, went down to the front, meditating in my mind what was the proper thing to do. I had acted as coroner a great many times. I understood the law in a case of this kind. I decided to call someone. I went out through the office door, left the door open and stepped out on the sidewalk to see if I could see anyone or anybody I could call.”

Miller says, “I saw Mr. Oakes coming along the east side of the street in front of a Livery Stable, ‘Nowell Livery Stable.’ It is cater-corner across the street from my office. I stepped out on the sidewalk, hollered at Oakes and he looked up but didn’t seem to make any particular effort to come. I admit I was very excited. I undertook to holler and my voice absolutely failed me. I made another effort and said, ‘Come quick,’ and by that time Oakes had turned off the sidewalk and was walking across the street.”

“I went into the office and Mr. Oakes followed me. We went through the office and I told him to come with me as I had something to show him. We walked through the door, out through another door. When we arrived at the door to the small, triangular room, I said, ‘There is Mabel. I am sure she is dead.’ Mr. Oakes said, ‘How long has she been there?’ I said I don’t know about that. I found her here a few minutes ago.’ Miller tell Oakes, “That is exactly the way I found her, except I felt of her pulse and found her dead before I found you.”

“Mr. Oakes then says to me, ‘Go call Hugh Martin and Claud McCrory. There will have to be a Coroners Inquest.’ I agreed with Oakes that was the right thing to do. I asked Mr. Oakes if he wanted to take Mabel’s body up to the front or leave it here where it was lying. Oakes says, ‘By all means, just as she lays now.’ ”

In our interview, Miller stated that he and Oakes passed on through the big building, into Miller’s office. Miller went to the telephone and called the sheriffs office, but got no answer. Miller told Oakes that someone will have to go notify them. Oakes was the one that left to get Sheriff Hugh Martin. Miller explained, “Judge Lawhon was walking up the sidewalk from up town, I called him and we talked until the crowd came from the court house.” That concluded our private interview with Nelson Miller during the court break.

Coroner’s Inquest & Autopsy…

Justice of the Peace, I. B. Lawhon, coroner, called in three local doctors: Dr. G. N. Bilby, Dr. O. E. Templin and Dr. Elizabeth Grantham to do an autopsy, November 9, 1910, between 3:00 and 4:00 that afternoon. Dr.’s Bilby, Templin and Grantham autopsy reported that rigo-mortis had not set in when examined. The body was not stiff and the lungs were not normal but were very black. Death resulted from strangulation, caused by the silk scarf drawn tightly about the neck. The doctors removed Miss Oakes five month old fetus, preserving it for future evidence. Miss Oakes death was estimated between the hours of 12:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.

Claud McCrory conducted the Coroner’s Inquest, Thursday, 10 November 1910, 9:00 p.m., with the jurors: George W. Crowell (foreman), R. B. Dugan, C. R. Moore, W. M. Goebel. Miller was charged with murder, bail was set at $5,000. Miller refused bail saying, “I fear the people of town would attack me if I appeared on the streets.”

The community, prosecution and defense attorneys began lining up for battle for a trial set for 7 September 1911, in Woodward County, case #714. For the prosecution we have Sandor James Vigg, county attorney; J. N. Tincher from Medicine Lodge, Kansas, hired by George Oakes, father of the deceased, Mabel Oakes; and Moman Pruiett, famous criminal lawyer from Oklahoma City, hired by the “Law Enforcement League.”

For Miller’s Defense team in the Woodward County, case #714, we have Judge L. T. Wilson; C. H. Mauntel, whom stepped down after the change of venue; J. P. Grove; and Charles J. Swindall, Woodward attorney.

Our research of the “Old Opera House Murder” has been through old newspaper archives; copy of N. L. Miller vs. State (600+ pages of Transcripts); 2 December 1910 Woods County Case #612; 7 Sept. 1911 Woodward County Case #714; and 26 April 1913 Appeal No. A-1618 from the State Library Archives. You can view the cast of characters, full testimonies, filings on our website at “The OkieLegacy – Mystery – Old Opera House Murder” –

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