THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)

"NOBODY GETS TO BE A COWBOY FOREVER." -- Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) in MONTE WALSH (NG, 1970)

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Tuesday, October 8, 2013

ARM OF THE BANDIT: The Trial of Frank James by Johnny D. Boggs

Frank and Jesse James were not admirable historical figures, but they were important ones.  If nothing else, they were responsible for the preservation of more artifacts, buildings, caves, and other sites than any other Americans with the possible exception of George Washington – and maybe even him, too.

Of the two brothers, Jesse is the most legendary.  Carl Sandburg wrote, “Jesse James is the only American bandit who is classical, who is to this country what Robin Hood or Dick Turpin is to England, whose exploits are so close to the mythical and apocryphal.”  Ah, but there’s the rub: the mythical and apocryphal.

The legends that have grown up around Jesse reflect two opposite characters: Robin Hood on the one hand; cold, cruel, callous thief and killer on the other.

Was Jesse a Robin Hood, who robbed the rich and gave to the poor?  Was he driven against his will into a life of crime by greedy bankers, railroad officials, and crooked and corrupt politicians?  Or was he simply an adventurous youth who developed a taste for excitement and plunder because of his experiences as a teenaged guerrilla fighter during the Civil War and thus was unable to adjust to the peacetime pursuits of a simple farmer?

In a 1949 speech by another famous Missourian, Harry Truman remarked, “Jesse James was a modern-day Robin Hood.  He stole from the rich and gave to the poor, which, in general, is not a bad policy.”  That may have been good politics at the time, but it is questionable history. 

It is true that most of the time Jesse did rob the rich, for to go around robbing the poor would have been incredibly stupid, and he wasn’t stupid.  But the truth is he really made no distinction regarding the financial status of his victims when he decided to commit a robbery.  It is also true that on several occasions he shot and killed innocent and/or defenseless victims in cold blood.  No self-respecting Robin Hood would ever engage in such acts.

But this we do know, no other outlaws in our history match the record of the two brothers from Missouri when it comes to the evasion of the law.  The law never caught them.  For more than a decade and after more than a score of holdups in ten different states that resulted in fourteen deaths, including that of three outlaws, Frank and Jesse were never apprehended by federal or state authorities.  Moreover, the Pinkerton Detective firm hired by the railroad interests also failed in its quest to track down the brothers.

Why is Jesse the more legendary brother?  Part of the reason could be the alliteration of his name.  Personality is also part of the explanation.  Jesse was much more outgoing than his more introverted older sibling who would have been content to settle down and live the life of a country gentleman farmer.  However, each time Frank made the effort to do so, Jesse would entice him back into a life of crime.

But the greatest factor that explains Jesse’s exalted position among American criminals is the fact that he died young, shot down in his own living room by one of his own gang members, in the presence of his wife and two children.

When Jesse was assassinated on April 3, 1882, there was much speculation and many rumors that Frank would take to the revenge trail.  Instead, five months after his brother’s death, he surrendered and was charged with murder and train robbery.  His case went to trial in September 1883.

Frank James about 15 years after his trial

William H. Wallace was a highly successful prosecuting attorney in Jackson County, the county in which Kansas City and Independence are located.  And even though Frank was tried for crimes committed in Daviess County and therefore stood trial in Gallatin, Wallace nevertheless served as the lead prosecutor.  Why?  Because he had successfully prosecuted Bill Ryan, the only accused member of the James gang to have been tried and convicted in Missouri. 

The trial was good for business in the small village of Gallatin.  The courtroom in the Daviess County courthouse would not accommodate all the spectators who wanted to attend the trial so it was moved to the Gallatin Opera House.  A team of eight attorneys represented the defendant and Wallace was assisted by five other prosecutors. The trial lasted sixteen days, including four days of closing arguments.  The jury reached a verdict after less than four hours of deliberation. 

Opera House, Gallatin, Missouri
I suppose most people know what the verdict was.  But just in case there is someone who wants to read the book and isn’t aware of the trial’s outcome, I won’t disclose it here.

Two of the more interesting historical personages associated with the trial are  General Joseph Orville (Jo) Shelby and Major John Newman Edwards.  It was General Shelby who refused to surrender at the end of the Civil War and marched his Confederate brigade to Mexico City to offer their services to Emperor Maximilian, who had been placed on the Mexican throne by the French.  The French had moved into Mexico at a time when the disunited United States was in no position to prevent them from doing so.

Maximilian declined Shelby’s offer but did grant the general and his men land with which to establish a colony.  Shelby and some of the men accepted the offer and remained in Mexico for two years, returning home after the French departed and Maximilian was overthrown and then executed.

The general was an outspoken supporter of ex-guerrillas such as Frank James.  When called upon to testify in the case regarding a sewing machine (too complicated to discuss here), he became defensive and blatantly belligerent and had to be cautioned by the judge several times.  In the middle of his testimony, he also asked the court if it would be okay if he went over to the defense table to shake hands with his good friend, Frank James.  The judge denied his request.  At the end of his testimony, he again made the request and again it was denied.  If this sounds as though the general was a shade on the tipsy side, that was not the case.  No, he was past that stage.  He was drunk.

Major Edwards
General Shelby

At General Shelby’s side throughout the war was his faithful adjutant, Major John Newman Edwards, who also accompanied him to Mexico, remaining there for two years.  After the war, Edwards pursued a career in journalism, working for newspapers in Kansas City, Sedalia, and St. Louis, as well as founding one newspaper in Kansas City.

He wrote two books, very unreliable but interesting reading, about Shelby and his command’s exploits during and after the Civil War.  He also wrote one, equally unreliable, praising the exploits of the Confederate guerrillas who terrorized the countryside during the war.  As a journalist, he became an apologist for the ex-guerrillas who had taken to the outlaw trail.  More than any other individual it was Edwards who created the Robin Hood myth associated with Jesse James.  Jesse was so appreciative of the Major's efforts that he named his son Jesse Edwards James. 

Edwards did not testify in the trial, but he played an important role.  He served as the intermediary between Frank and the governor in the negotiations that led to Frank’s surrender.  It’s just as well that he did not testify since he had an even bigger drinking problem than the general did.

That brings us to Arm of the Bandit: the Trial of Frank James, a novel by Johnny D. Boggs.  In an interview, Boggs was quoted as saying, “I try to make my novels fairly truthful.  But I always say,’Don’t quote me in your term paper.’”  This is how it should be when novelists write about actual historical individuals and events.  If readers want only facts then they should read a serious historical study of the subject.  Novelists are less constrained by the historical record and are free to elaborate, speculate, and fill in the blank spaces.  And that is what Boggs does with this novel.

As far as the trial itself is concerned, he adheres faithfully to the historical record.  It is outside the courtroom that he exercises the novelist’s prerogative of using his imagination to create a narrative that might not withstand cross-examination in the court of historical inquiry, but nevertheless meets the standard of plausibility.

If there is a hero in Boggs' story, it is the prosecuting attorney, William Wallace.  The heroine is Frank’s wife, Annie Ralston James, who stood by her husband through thick and thin (mostly thin) down through the years.  It is in developing these two characters that Boggs takes the most liberties.

William H. Wallace

Annie Ralston James

Boggs has done his research and his novel is an enjoyable and interesting read even for someone who has spent many years (yours truly, for example) studying Missouri’s tragic civil war within America's Civil War and its reputation as the “outlaw state” after the war.  It should be even more enjoyable – and informative – for readers who possess less knowledge about that history but would like to know more.

But even if the historical events recounted in the novel are of no great interest to the reader, it should still have appeal to those who enjoy a well-written courtroom drama, one that occurred very much the way Boggs presents it.

It is apparent that Boggs has an abiding interest in the subject.  One of his earlier novels was Northfield, which is an account of the James-Younger gang’s botched bank robbery in Northfield, Minnesota.  His research on that book and Arm of the Bandit led him to write Jesse James and the Movies, a non-fiction work that analyzes Hollywood’s depiction of the outlaw and how it conflicts with history.

Johnny D. Boggs
Among the many awards Boggs has received for his work are a Wrangler award from the Western Heritage Museum and six Spur awards from the Western Writers of America.  These are highly coveted awards in the Western writers community.


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