Frank James – who preyed on banks and railroads and robbed and murdered innocent civilians – walked freely into a new life
“I knew Jesse’s brother.”
My grandfather surprised my brother and me with this declaration one summer day in 1958. I was 9 years old. We were standing at the grave of Jesse James in the Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Kearney, Mo. The grave was marked by a ragged chunk of granite the size of a bowling ball, all that was left of a once-towering tombstone that had been chipped away by souvenir hunters.
My grandfather went on to explain that when he was a kid in Excelsior Springs, 10 miles away, he had often talked to Frank James, who was by then a man in late middle age with nothing much better to do than while away afternoons on city benches entertaining children with stories of how Pinkerton detectives had blown off his mother’s right arm in a botched raid on the James family farm. He had met Frank and Jesse’s mother as well, he said, a frightening old woman who gestured angrily at things with her empty sleeve.
He must have told us more, because I remember being hungry for details, startled by the idea that our soft-spoken, law-abiding grandfather, general manager of a Chevrolet dealership in Oklahoma City, had known one of the great outlaws of American history. It startles me even more today, because at this distance—more than 50 years after my grandfather’s revelation and nearly 150 years after Frank James robbed his first bank—it seems impossible that the living roots of my own existence could reach so deeply into such a distant past.
If my grandfather related more details about his relationship with Frank James, I’ve forgotten them. From time to time, I’ve even wondered if he made it up to impress two young boys at a time when Jesse James fervor was at one of its periodic heights. (The True Story of Jesse James, the latest Hollywood version of the story, had been released the year before.) But the dates, as well as the locations, check out. My grandfather, born in 1895, would have been 16 when Frank and Jesse’s mother died in 1911, and 20 when Frank died in 1915.
Frank James was four years older than Jesse, but his routine life span, his mellowing temperament and colorless death have made him his brother’s junior in the annals of criminal fascination. Nevertheless, because of our faint family connection, it was Frank who always stole my interest as once or twice each passing decade Hollywood dependably recycled the James story. The various actors who played Frank—Bill Paxton, Stacy Keach, Sam Shepard, even Johnny Cash—had a natural air of horse sense and moral weariness, in contrast to the spell of mercurial menace cast by stars like Robert Duvall or Brad Pitt in the role of Jesse. Frank was always the ego to Jesse’s id, the Dr. Watson to his Sherlock Holmes.
There is truth enough in that conventional paradigm. Frank seems to have been a more deliberate thinker than Jesse, and more capable of keeping his head down, his affairs in order and his appetites in check when the brothers went separately into hiding after their disastrous final bank robbery together in Northfield, Minn., in 1876. Jesse’s death six years later—at the hands of his own gang members—was sordid and sad, but it ended his story on a clarion note of treachery that helped seal his legend. Whereas Frank’s story just went quietly on.
But until Frank cleverly slipped into retirement, his notoriety was never less than his brother’s. Five months after Jesse was killed, Frank took a calculated risk and surrendered to Missouri governor Thomas Crittenden on October 5, 1882. Reporters who interviewed Frank in his jail cell in Independence and were determined to keep the James legend rolling filled column after column about the appearance of this renowned criminal who had eluded their scrutiny for 20 years. The skinny, big-eared, weather-beaten man of 39 seemed to herald some new development in human physiognomy. His face was “one among ten thousand, and one never to be forgotten.” He had “a peculiarly-shaped head, being narrower between the eyes than any other man in America.” His thinning hair was “so unruly that it infused a sort of earnest, positive, self-asserting aspect into the tout ensemble.”
The James boys were the sons of a charismatic, college-educated Baptist preacher who perished on a quixotic journey to the California gold fields when Frank was 7. From Robert Sallee James both sons appear to have inherited a degree of dash, and perhaps that is one reason Frank made sure to end his outlaw career with a chivalric flourish, unbuckling his gun belt and declaring to the governor, “I want to hand over to you that which no living man except myself has been permitted to touch since 1861, and to say that I am your prisoner.”
In the end, Frank’s gallant pose paid real dividends. Astonishingly, this lethal character—who had been among the most remorseless partisans in the Missouri border wars, and who afterward preyed on banks and railroads and express companies and robbed and murdered innocent civilians—walked freely into a new life, the beneficiary of various dropped charges and two sensational murder trials that ended in acquittal.
His new life, after some wandering years and sputtering career steps, ultimately brought Alexander Franklin James back home to the farm in northwestern Missouri where he was born in 1843. The farm had been a tourist site since shortly after Jesse’s death, operated with an unsentimental eye for profit by Frank and Jesse’s formidable mother, Zerelda James.
When Zerelda died, Frank took over the family business of showing curiosity-seekers the place where he and Jesse were born. Sorting through a box of old family letters recently, I came across a striking postcard that my grandparents sent back to Oklahoma during a visit to Missouri in the early 1940s. On the front is a hand-colored photo of a white-bearded old man wearing a suit and bowler hat, standing in front of a farm gate. A caption declares this to be “Last Picture of Frank James, ‘The Outlaw’, Taken at His Farm Near Excelsior Springs, Mo.” In the photo, a hand-lettered sign nailed to the gate reads “Home of the James—Jesse and Frank James—Admission 50 cents each person.” Another sign—misspelled—warns visitors “Kodaks Bared.”
The modern-day proprietor of the James Farm is Clay County, which operates a museum that delicately interprets this famous cradle of lawlessness. The site is only a few miles away from Jesse’s grave, which now bears a modest stone flush to the ground (“Born Sept. 5, 1847, assassinated April 3, 1882”) that replaces the desecrated tombstone I saw as a 9-year-old boy.
It was a stupefyingly hot day when I returned to Jesse’s grave as an adult, paid whatever respects were due the memory of an unrepentant robber and murderer and continued down Jesse James Farm Road through fields where the baled hay looked like giant loaves of bread baking in the open-air oven that is Missouri in July. I paid my admission at the farm’s visitors center, watched the obligatory short film, then wandered through a much better-than-expected museum that briskly chronicles the lives and times of the James brothers with admirable objectivity.
It’s a story that cannot be told without acknowledging the savage regional violence that came on the heels of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, and which only grew in intensity when Missouri, a nominally neutral border state, cracked apart during the Civil War.
The Jameses were slaveholders and hardscrabble farmers. Like many of the whites in northwest Missouri, they had strong Southern fealties. Zerelda, a widowed mother of three who had lost much of her furniture and farm equipment to her late husband’s creditors, would have been alarmed by the abolitionists who were flooding into neighboring Kansas in order to swing it into the free state column and further undermine her precarious solvency.
The dirty war between proslavery and antislavery partisans in Kansas naturally spilled over into Missouri after the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter. Frank James, at 18, promptly joined the secessionist-minded Missouri State Guard and helped defeat Union forces at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek in August 1861. It was a clear victory but Missouri remained under shaky Federal control, especially after the bulk of the Confederate army in the region was defeated at the Battle of Pea Ridge. The result was an insurgent war against the pro-Union provisional government, a conflict that deteriorated to personal score settling between gangs of bushwhackers and rampaging militias.
Six months after Wilson’s Creek, Frank was captured and allowed to return home under condition he not take up arms against the Union, but he brushed that obligation aside and joined up with freebooting guerrillas led by the opportunistic William Clarke Quantrill, who Frank later recalled was “full of life and a jolly fellow.” It was in Quantrill’s gang that Frank met a fellow bushwhacker named Cole Younger.
Though Frank was intelligent and supposedly a great reader who always had a Shakespeare quote handy, he was also rash and embittered and a ready participant in the depredations of this close-fought border war. He was in the midst of Quantrill’s horrific raid on the abolitionist capital of Lawrence, Kan., which the guerrilla leader ordered “thoroughly cleansed” and in which almost 200 men and boys were slaughtered. A few months later, Frank and Jesse—finally old enough, at 16, to get into the fight—fell under the deadly spell of the grandiloquent and perhaps psychopathic “Bloody” Bill Anderson, whose men decorated their horses’ bridles with human scalps and who were responsible, among other atrocities, for the giddy execution of 24 unarmed Union soldiers at Centralia, Mo., and for the slaughter and mutilation of almost 150 more who set out in reprisal.
The James family did not escape the sorts of abuses that Frank and Jesse inflicted on their victims. Zerelda and her submissive new husband, a doctor turned farmer named Reuben Samuel, were forced into temporary exile “for feeding, harboring and encouraging bushwhackers,” and in 1863 Dr. Samuel was tortured by Unionist militia men, who repeatedly strung him up on his own farm until he revealed the hiding place of Frank and his fellow bushwhackers. (Frank managed to escape.)
The brothers, though shot up at times, survived the Civil War, but had no inclination to put it behind them. The conflict left the secessionists of Missouri defeated and disenfranchised, suddenly powerless in an occupied land. For Frank and Jesse James, and for the Younger brothers and other former guerrillas in their iconic gang, the seething resentments of the war melded smoothly into predatory self-aggrandizement. They seem never to have troubled themselves with the idea that there was a difference between righteous vengeance and outright robbery.
Their string of bank hold-ups, which began in 1866—possibly with a daylight assault on the bank in Liberty, only a few miles from the James farm—were often marked by lethal shootouts with citizens and sometimes by cold-blooded executions of bank employees. After a few years of bank jobs, the gang began holding up trains. There were casualties in this new field as well—an engineer killed in a derailment, an express messenger brutally beaten—but passengers often reported that the robbers engaged them in jaunty banter, could sometimes be shamed into returning stolen goods and that one of them even quoted Shakespeare.
Shortly after he began robbing trains, Frank married Annie Ralston, the daughter of a prosperous local farmer, a graduate of Independence Female College and, according to one childhood friend, an excellent pistol shot. Her parents were horrified when she ran off with Frank, but it turned out to be an enduring marriage. Also a stressful one, no doubt, particularly after the calamity of the Northfield robbery, which netted the James-Younger gang $26.70 and turned into a street shootout and desperate manhunt that left all the outlaws except Frank and Jesse dead or captured.
After Northfield Frank had had enough. He adopted the alias Ben J. Woodson and lived quietly with Annie and their baby son in and around Nashville, where he worked as a teamster, joined the Methodist church and raised hogs that he exhibited at county fairs. He made a point of making friends with prominent citizens and officers of the law, banking their good opinion against a time when his identity might be exposed. But his new persona wasn’t entirely an impersonation. “My old life,” he later wrote, “grew more detestable the further I got away from it.”
The quiet life did not suit his younger brother. Jesse—under the name of J.D. Howard—lost money at poker and horse racing and made himself conspicuous by getting embroiled in lawsuits and bouncing checks. He put together a quarrelsome new gang and briefly enticed Frank back into the outlaw life. But after they robbed a train at Blue Cut, Mo., Frank headed off with his family to Virginia, determined to slip back onto an upright path. A few months later, in April 1882, Frank was coming home from a walk when Annie met him at the door with a look of shock on her face and a newspaper in her hand: Jesse James had been shot in the back of the head by Bob Ford, who had conspired with his brother Charlie to kill Jesse for a $10,000 reward.
After his surrender and acquittals, Frank did his best to follow his instincts and keep his head down, but celebrity and notoriety turned out to be lifelong distractions. “You ought to see how the women flock around him to buy dry goods,” one observer wrote when Frank was working in a store in Dallas. He also sold shoes and worked as a doorman at a burlesque theater, as a race starter at the fairgrounds and even as an actor (a very poor one, apparently) in several plays, though he stipulated that “I will not have anything to do with a performance that idealizes law-breaking.” In the end, he tried to have it both ways, forming a Wild West show with old friend Cole Younger—now paroled from prison—and cheekily playing the role of a passenger held up in a stagecoach.
In the James Farm museum I read the notation of Frank’s birth that Zerelda had inscribed in the family Bible. I learned about Frank’s beloved horse Dan, who was buried on the farm and whose grave was included in the tours that he used to give curiosity seekers. (Probably, I thought, my grandfather had met Dan as well.) For a long time I stood in front of a portrait of the outlaw at age 55. In it, Frank is impeccably turned out in a wingtip collar and tie and is staring at the lens with the direct, suspicious gaze of a hostile neighbor.
I joined in as a James Farm guide led a small group from the museum along a boardwalk to a white clapboard farmhouse in a clearing a few yards beyond two commanding shade trees. This was the house where Frank had lived as a boy, where Jesse was born and where the brothers hid out during their wild outlaw times in Missouri. It’s also where Frank spent the last years of his life, making small talk with tourists and young boys like my grandfather.
The room we entered first was the sitting room Zerelda added onto the house in the 1890s, and which after her death became Frank and Annie’s bedroom. Our guide pointed out samples of Annie’s tatting displayed on the walls, the business degree from Jones Commercial College acquired by Frank and Annie’s son, Robert F. James, who later built a three-hole golf course on the property. We learned that Annie maintained an 18-inch waist most of her life and that Frank had an impressive library, at least by rural 19th-century Clay County standards. Frank inherited the books—54 of them—from his erudite preacher father and kept them in a long wooden book chest with his name burned into the lid. The book chest was still there in the room, next to the bed in which Frank James had died.
We walked through the parlor, whose walls were decorated with James family photos, among them one of a youthful Jesse, supposedly made when he was near death from a bullet wound, a characteristically forbidding image of Zerelda and a photo of Frank’s lamented horse Dan. A telephone Frank installed in 1911 still hung near the entranceway to the kitchen.
Beyond the kitchen was the ancient heart of the house, a saddlebag log cabin (two rooms sharing a single fireplace) built in 1822. On the near side of the fireplace was Zerelda’s bedroom. On the far side was what the guide referred to as the “Pinkerton kitchen”—named for the bungled nighttime raid on the farm in 1875 by Allan Pinkerton’s detective agency. The raid was personal for Pinkerton; an agent he had sent to apprehend the James brothers the year before was found with a note pinned to his corpse that read “This to all detectives.”
This time, Pinkerton’s men, wrongly thinking that Frank and Jesse were hiding out with their mother, surrounded the house and tried to flush out the fugitives with an incendiary device they threw though the window, an iron ball filled with a liquid called Greek fire. But the device exploded, killing Frank and Jesse’s 8-year-old half-brother Archie and mangling Zerelda’s right arm so severely it had to be amputated.
The tour led us out through the kitchen doorway and into the backyard, where a replica of Jesse’s original tombstone marked the spot where Zerelda first buried him. His body has been exhumed twice, once in 1902 when Zerelda had it transferred to Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Kearney, and again in 1995 for DNA testing to confirm that the remains were actually those of Jesse James. (They are.)
Standing next to the 9-foot-high tombstone, our guide told us how Zerelda used to sell tourists stones lying on top of her son’s grave for 25 cents apiece, and then quickly replenish the supply from a nearby creekbed, and how she would carve his initials onto the handles of old pistols and sell them to particularly gullible visitors. As I stood listening, it occurred to me that this must have been the place where my grandfather, a century ago, had met Zerelda. He would have stood where I was standing now listening to this angry woman with the empty sleeve venomously lecturing him about the Unionist militia that tortured her husband, about the Pinkertons who maimed her and killed her 8-year-old son, about the murderous coward who shot Jesse from behind while he was adjusting a picture on the wall.
Frank himself died quietly at 72, just another old man on his farm, felled by a stroke. He is buried—at least his ashes are—in nearby Independence, in a tiny cemetery surrounded by a stone wall at the edge of a rambling city park. Having seen his mother stand vigil over Jesse’s resting place to ward off grave robbers, having watched his brother’s tombstone chipped away by souvenir hunters, he had—true to character—planned carefully ahead. He left instructions for his remains to be cremated and kept safe in a bank vault until his wife’s death, when they would be buried with hers.
He stipulated no religious service, though there was a simple funeral at the farm, with Frank’s eulogy given by John F. Phillips, a federal court judge and one of the attorneys who secured his acquittal.
“I feel a positive conviction,” Phillips said, “that the troublous, tragic life that befell him was neither of his liking or inclination.”
Maybe so, though there are people who would eagerly disagree. Frank James’ life can be easily seen as a chronicle of violence and hatred. But when you stand in this tranquil cemetery looking at his grave, it’s more tempting to give him the benefit of the doubt and read his life as a testament to the power of cooling passions.
Here he lies: the older brother, the second banana, the faded outlaw legend. He shares a modest tombstone with his wife, but you would never know it was his grave unless you were somebody like me who had gone looking for it for his own wistful reasons. The surname “James” is carved at the top, but on Frank’s side of the stone the name inscribed is technically correct but pointedly evasive: “Alexander F.”
Frank James is still in hiding.
Stephen Harrigan’s latest book is Remember Ben Clayton, a World War I–era novel.