THE LAST RIDE OF FRANK JAMES
Death of the Outlaw Brother
On this day, February 18, 1915, famous American outlaw – and brother of Jesse James – Alexander Franklin “Frank” James died on his farm near Excelsior Springs, Missouri. Frank long outlived his more infamous brother, eventually retiring from a life of crime and joining the western show circuit in the dying days of the real “Wild West.”
Frank James (Right) and his more infamous brother, Jesse
Frank was born in Kearney, Missouri to Baptist minister Reverend Robert Sallee James and his wife Zerelda (Cole) James, who had moved from Kentucky. He was the oldest of three children. His father died in 1851 and his mother re-married Benjamin Simms in 1852. After his death, she married a third time to Dr. Reuben Samuel in 1855 when Frank was 13 years old. As a boy, there was little hint about Frank’s wild life to come… He showed great interest in his father’s sizable library, especially the works of William Shakespeare and he attended school regularly. According to all recollections, he had plans to become a teacher. But then the Civil War got in the way.
Frank was 18 when the Civil War broke out in 1861. Initially, Frank and his younger brother, Jesse, stayed on the family farm, but soon, the violence of the outside world began to intrude on their peaceful farm life. The area where the James family lived was near the turbulent Missouri-Kansas border. Zerelda, a formidable frontier woman, had been raised in Kentucky and was a slave owner, so there was no question that her sympathies were directed toward the South. In May 1861, Frank James enlisted in the Confederate Army. He fought under General Sterling Price in the battle of Wilson’s Creek in southwest Missouri and then on September 13, 1861, the Missouri raiders, including Frank James, besieged Lexington, Missouri. Frank 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. On his arrival, however, he was arrested by the local pro-Union militia and was forced to sign an oath of allegiance to the Union.
By early 1863, Frank, ignoring his parole and oath of allegiance, had joined the guerrilla band of Fernando Scott, a former saddler. He soon switched to the more active command led by William Clarke Quantrill. Frank, and his friend, Thomas Coleman "Cole" Younger were with Quantrill during the 1863 raid on Lawrence, Kansas.
The raid, which has come to be known as the Lawrence Massacre, or Quantrill’s raid, was an attack that was led by a band of Quantrill’s men against the pro-Union town of Lawrence. The town was known as a staging area for “Redleggers” and “Jayhawkers”, which were essentially free-state militias and vigilante groups who made a practice of attacking and burning farms along the western border of Missouri, an area sympathetic to the Confederacy.
The Lawrence raid was masterfully planned by Quantrill. He joined together with a number of other independent guerilla bands and chose the time and day of the attack well in advance. The different groups of Missouri riders approached Lawrence from the east, during the pre-dawn hours. The riders were armed with multiple, long-barreled, cap and ball revolvers, shoved crossways into their double-breasted shirtfronts so that they would not have to reload during the heat of the battle. Quantrill, leading nearly 400 men, descended on Lawrence in a fury. Mayhem ensued during a four-hour frenzy of pillaging, burning and mass executions of most of Lawrence’s male population. By the time that Quantrill’s men rode out of town, one-quarter of Lawrence’s buildings had been burned to the ground, including all but two businesses. Most of the banks and stores were looted and between 185 and 200 men and boys were dead in the streets.
The Lawrence Massacre remains one of the bloodiest events in the history of Kansas and the Jayhawkers wasted no time in retaliating. A day after the attack, surviving citizens of Lawrence lynched a member of Quantrill’s raiders caught in town. On August 25, General Ewing authorized orders that evicted thousands of Missourians in four counties from their homes near the Kansas border. The raids were vicious, thorough and indiscriminate and left the western part of the state wasted and in flames.
The retaliation continued for months afterward. Just three months after the Lawrence raid, a party of Union soldiers invaded the James family farm, looking for information about the location of Quantrill’s camp. Jesse, who was just 15 years old at the time, was questioned, then horse-whipped when he refused to answer the soldiers’ questions. Dr. Samuel, who also denied knowing where the raider’s camp was located, was dragged from his house and was repeatedly hanged from a tree in the yard. Somehow, the doctor managed to survive the interrogation, but his mental state was so affected by the ordeal that he was placed in an asylum in St. Joseph. He remained there until his death in 1908.
After the war, refusing to surrender to the authorities they believed had oppressed them before and after the war, turned to the outlaw life. During his years as a bandit, Frank 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 September 7, 1876, that ended with the death or capture of most of the gang.
Five months after the killing of his brother Jesse in 1882, Frank James boarded a train to Jefferson City, Missouri, 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 twenty-one 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.”
Frank James in 1898
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, Missouri for the July 15, 1881 robbery of the Rock Island Line train at Winston, Missouri, in which the train engineer and a passenger were killed, and the other in Huntsville, Alabama for the March 11, 1881 robbery of a United States Army Corps of Engineers payroll at Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Among others, former Confederate General Joseph Orville Shelby testified on James' behalf in the Missouri trial. He 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.
Even in those days, the legend and affection for the James Brothers meant that Frank did little jail time for his crimes. After his surrender James was taken to Independence, Missouri, where he was held in jail three weeks, and later to Gallatin, where he remained in jail a year awaiting trial. Finally, James was acquitted and went to Oklahoma to live with his mother. He never was in the penitentiary and never was convicted of any of the charges against him.
In the last thirty years of his life, James worked a variety of jobs, including as a shoe salesman and then as a Burlesque theater ticket taker in St. Louis. One of the theater's spins to attract patrons was their use of the phrase "Come get your ticket punched by the legendary Frank James." He also served as an AT&T telegraph operator in St. Joseph, Missouri. James took up the lecture show and “Wild West” circuit, while residing in Sherman, Texas. In 1902, former Missourian Sam Hildreth, a leading thoroughbred horse trainer and owner, hired James as the betting commissioner at the Fair Grounds Race Track in New Orleans. He returned to the North Texas area where he was a shoe salesman at Sanger Brothers in Dallas.
In his final years, Frank eked out a living offering guided tours of the James family farm
In his final years, James returned to the James Farm, giving tours for the sum of 25 cents. He died there on February 18, 1915. He was 72 years old and a largely forgotten figure that would only find fame much later, when interest in the old west became an American obsession.