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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: The Outlaw Who Got Away With It

By Tom Morrow

The older brother of one of America’s most famous outlaw lived in the shadow of Jesse James, yet was right alongside in most of the notorious exploits from the Civil War through their bank and train robbing days. While Jesse paid the ultimate price, Frank lived to be an old man in relative freedom.

The popular myth has Frank James as the good brother who followed Jesse in most of his criminal activities, but he had his share of criminal activity starting with the Civil War as he rode with the notorious Confederate guerrilla leader, William Clarke Quantrill.frank-jesse

Born Jan. 10, 1843, Alexander Franklin “Frank” James’ birthplace was Kearney, Mo., a small farming community just north of Kansas City. As a child, James showed interest in his late father’s sizable library, especially the works of William Shakespeare. Census records show that James attended school regularly, and he reportedly wanted to become a teacher.

The American Civil War began in 1861, when James was 18 years old. On Sept. 13, 1861, the Missouri State Guard, including Private Frank James, besieged Lexington, Mo. James fell ill and was left behind when the Confederate forces later retreated. He surrendered to the Union troops, was paroled, and was allowed to return home.

By early 1863, Frank had joined the guerrilla band led by William Clarke Quantrill. Frank took part with Quantrill’s company in the Aug. 21, 1863 Lawrence (Kansas) Massacre where approximately 200 mostly unarmed civilians were killed.

After the war, Frank was arrested and paroled July 27, 1865 in Nelson County, Ky. He reportedly was involved in a gunfight with four soldiers which resulted in two soldiers killed, one soldier wounded, and Frank wounded in the hip. However, there is an alternative account that claims in the autumn of 1865, Frank, was suspected of stealing horses in Ohio and that Frank shot two members of a posse and escaped.

During his years as a bandit, James was involved in at least four robberies between 1868 and 1876 that resulted in the deaths of bank employees or citizens. The most famous incident was the disastrous Northfield, Minnesota, raid on Sept. 7, 1876, that ended with the death or capture of most of the gang.

Frank James at age 52

Frank James at age 52

In 1882, five months after the killing of his brother Jesse, Frank boarded a train for Jefferson City, Mo., where he had an appointment with the governor in the state capitol. Placing his holster in Governor Crittenden’s hands, he explained, “I have been hunted for 21 years, have literally lived in the saddle, have never known a day of perfect peace. It was one long, anxious, inexorable, eternal vigil.” He then ended his statement by saying, “Governor, I haven’t let another man touch my gun since 1861.”

Accounts say that James surrendered with the understanding that he would not be extradited to Northfield, Minnesota.

He was tried for only two of the robberies/murders – one in Gallatin, Mo., for the July 15, 1881 robbery of the Rock Island train at Winston, Mo., in which the train engineer and a passenger were killed, and the other in Huntsville, Ala.. for the March 11, 1881 robbery of a United States Army Corps of Engineers payroll at Muscle Shoals, Ala. Among others, former Confederate General Joseph Orville Shelby testified on James’ behalf in the Missouri trial. Frank was acquitted in both Missouri and Alabama. Missouri accepted legal jurisdiction over him for other charges, but they never came to trial. He was never extradited to Minnesota for his connection with the Northfield Raid.

In the last 30 years of his life, James worked a variety of jobs, from shoe salesman to a Burlesque theater ticket-taker in St. Louis. He also served as an AT&T telegraph operator in St. Joseph, Mo. James took up the lecture circuit, while residing in Sherman, Texas. The Tacoma Times reported in July, 1914 that he was picking berries at a local ranch in Washington state and planned to buy a farm nearby.

In his final years, James returned to the James Farm in Missouri, giving tours for the sum of 25 cents. He died there on Feb. 18, 1915, aged 72 years. He left behind his wife Annie Ralston James and one son.


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