In March 1881, Jesse along with two other men, committed one of their last robberies; an army paymaster near Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Bill Ryan, one of the robbers, was captured shortly after in Nashville and identified Jesse and Frank James as his co-robbers. Although Frank later denied taking part, it’s very believable because Frank and Jesse were known to visit a friend, John Greene Norris, in nearby Selma, Alabama.
They were becoming too notorious to feel safe anywhere. A $10,000 reward for the James boys was posted and rumor was it meant “Dead or Alive.” Further, most of the old gang who had been with them since the war days had been killed or were in prison. The new men were of a different generation and did not have the same ties and loyalty to the gang the original members had. The gang’s final end came on April 3, 1882 when one of these new members, Bob Ford, shot and killed Jesse as he adjusted a picture on the wall of his home in Saint Joseph, Missouri.
Bob Ford and his brother, Charlie, surrendered. They were tried, Bob for first degree murder and Charlie for aiding and abetting murder, and sentenced to hang. Missouri Governor Crittenden immediately pardoned them.
Frank knew he was living on borrowed time. On October 5, 1882, he and his friend, John Newman Edwards, met Governor Chittenden in Jefferson City. Frank surrendered his gun to Chittenden. It was agreed that Frank would not be extradited to Minnesota to be tried for the Northfield bank robbery and murder of Joseph Heywood.
In Independence, where the first trial was held, Frank was treated as a visiting celebrity instead of an accused criminal. The first charges, the murder of Pinkerton agent Joseph Whicher and robbery of the Independence bank in 1867, are dropped due to lack of evidence.
Meanwhile, Minnesota tried to extradite Frank for the Northfield robbery, but Missouri leveled several more charges to hold him. The trial for murder of Frank McMillan during the robbery of a Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific passenger train, at Winston, Missouri, began August 21, 1883 in Gallitan. It was presided over by Judge Charles Goodman. The chief prosecutor of the state’s six man team was William Wallace.
Frank was represented by eight of the most prestigious lawyers of the time. Lead defense attorney was former Missouri Lieutenant Governor Charles P. Johnson. None other than Frank’s old friend, General Joseph Orville Shelby, appeared as a defense witness. Shelby may have been a mixed blessing as the general was intoxicated and belligerent towards the prosecution team. He was found in contempt of court and fined $50. The weakest link in the case was the prosecution’s lead witness, Dick Liddle, a former gang member and convicted horse thief. Stacking the cards even farther, every juror was a Democrat, some former Confederate soldiers. Held in the town opera house to accommodate the huge crowd of spectators, it was one of the most sensational trials of the century. Just a little over three hours after final arguments, jury foreman, William Richardson, returned with their verdict, “not guilty.”
Frank’s next trial was even more flamboyant. He was extradited to Alabama and went on trial in Huntsville on April 17, 1884 for the robbery of the Muscle Sholes paymaster. Frank’s train was met at the station by a cheering mob. This time the prosecution lead attorney was William H. Smith, US Attorney and former reconstruction governor of Alabama. Frank’s leading defense man was Leroy Pope Walker, former Confederate Secretary of War. The men were well matched but the jury was composed mostly of Confederate veterans. Tom Carney, editor of Old Huntsville Magazine, wrote that the James trial “was probably the biggest thing to hit Huntsville since the Civil War.”
As soon as Frank was acquitted, Missouri reclaimed him to stand trial for the Rocky Cut robbery however Governor Chittenden pardoned him and Frank was now considered an innocent man free to go about living his life as a law-abiding citizen. He was wise enough to never return to Minnesota.
However he did travel extensively, taking a number of jobs, everything from a shoe salesman to a race starter. He often worked around horses and was sought by various race tracks in various capacities. He served as betting commissioner for Samuel Hildreth, owner of the largest racing stable at the New Orleans Fairgrounds in 1902. When his old comrade Cole Younger was released from prison the two teamed up again to appear in The Great Cole Younger and Frank James Historical Wild West Show.
Frank bought a farm in Fletcher, Oklahoma for a time but returned to Missouri after his mother died. Towards the end of his life he gave tours of the Old James-Samuels Homestead for fifty cents. Frank James died a devout Christian and respected citizen on Feb 18, 1915.
© Kathleen Walls, for Legends of America, June 2016.
About the Author: Kathleen Walls is publisher and writer for “American Roads and Global Highways“, the Ezine for anyone who travels. She is also the author of travel books, Georgia’s Ghostly Getaways, Finding Florida’s Phantoms, Hosts With Ghosts: Haunted Historic Hotels in the Southeast, and the Wild About Florida series as well as several online tour guides. Her fiction books include the War in the West series, Under a Bloody Flag and Under a Black Flag; Kudzu; and Last Step which has been made into a movie by Forbes Productions.
She has been published in “Georgia Magazine,” London, England’s “Country Music People,” “Weekender,” most of the “Visit****online.com” sites, http://www.southernusavisitor.com/, “FWT Magazine” and many others. She is a member of International Food Wine and Travel Writers Association (IFWTWA) and North American Travel Journalists Association (NATJA).