The Tame Lion – American Travel

THE James farm occupies a pretty bit of rolling land, at one corner of which, near the road, Frank James has built himself a neat, substantial frame house. Before the house is a large gate, bearing a sign as follows:

JAMES FARMS HOME OF THE JAMES’ JESSE AND FRANK ADMISSION 50C. KODAKS BARED

That word “bared” is not bad proofreading; it was spelled like that on the sign.

As we moved in the direction of the house a tall, slender old man with a large hooked nose and a white beard and mustache walked toward us. He was dressed in an exceedingly neat suit and wore a large black felt hat of the type common throughout Missouri. Coming up, he greeted our escort cordially, after which we were introduced. It was Frank James.

The former outlaw is a shrewd-looking, well preserved man, whose carriage, despite his seventy-one years, is notably erect. He looks more like a prosperous farmer or the president of a rural bank than like a bandit. In his manner there is a strong note of the showman. It is not at all objectionable, but it is there, in the same way that it is there in Buffalo Bill. Frank James is an interesting figure ; on meeting him you see, at once, that he knows he is an interesting figure and that he trades upon the fact. He is clearly an intelligent man, but he has been looked at and listened to for so many years, as a kind of curiosity, that he has the air of going through his tricks for one—of getting off a line of practised patter. It is pretty good patter, as patter goes, inclining to quotation, epigram, and homely philosophy, delivered in an assured “platform manner.”

It may be well here to remind the reader of the history of the James Gang.

The father and mother of the “boys” came from Kentucky to Missouri. The father was a Baptist minister and a slaveholder. He died before the war, and his widow married a man named Samuels, by whom she had several children.

From the year 1856 Missouri, which was a slave state, warred with Kansas, which was a free state, and there was much barbarity along the border. The “Jayhawkers,” or Kansas guerrillas, would make forays into Missouri, stealing cattle, burning houses, and committing all manner of depredations ; and lawless gangs of Missourians would retaliate, in kind, on Kansas. Among the most appalling cutthroats on the Missouri side was a man named Quantrell, head of the Quantrell gang, a body of guerrillas which sometimes numbered upward of a thousand men. The James boys were members of this gang, Frank James joining at the opening of the Civil War, and Jesse two years later, at the age of sixteen. In speaking of joining Quantrell, Frank James spoke of “going into the army.” Quantrell was, however, a mere border ruffian and was disowned by the Confederate army.

According to Frank James, Quantrell, who was born in Canal Dover, Ohio, went west, with his brother, to settle. In Kansas they were set upon by “Jayhawkers” and “Redlegs,” with the result that Quantrell’s brother was killed and that Quantrell himself was wounded and left for dead. He was, however, nursed to life by a Nez Perce Indian. When he recovered he became determined to have revenge upon the Kansans. To that end, he affected to be in sympathy with them, and joined some of their marauding bands. When he had established himself in their confidence he used to get himself sent out on scouting expeditions with one or two other men, and it was his amiable custom, upon such occasions, to kill his companions and return with a story of an attack by the enemy in which the others had met death. At last, when he had played this trick so often that he feared detection, he determined t0 get himself clear of his fellows. A plan had been matured for an attack upon the house of a rich slaveholder. Quantrell went to the house in advance, betrayed the plan, and arranged to join forces with the defenders. This resulted in the death of his seven or eight companions. At about this time the war came on, and Quantrell became a famous guerrilla leader, falling on detached bodies of Northern troops and massacring them, and even attacking towns—one of his worst offenses having been the massacre of most of the male inhabitants of Lawrence, Kas. He gave as the reason for his atrocities his desire for revenge for the death of his brother, and also used to allege that he was a Southerner, though that was not true.

I asked Frank James how he came to join Quantrell, when the war broke out, instead of enlisting in the regular army.

“We knew he was not a very fine character,” he explained, “but we were like the followers of Villa or Huerta: we wanted to destroy the folks that wanted to destroy us, and we would follow any man that would show us how to do it. Besides, I was young then. When a man is young his blood is hot; there ‘s a million things he ’11 do then that he won’t do when he ‘s older. There ‘s a story about a man at a banquet. He was offered champagne to drink, but he said: `I want quick action. I ’11 take Bourbon whisky.’ That was the way I felt. That ‘s why I joined Quantrell: to get quick action. And I got it, too. Jesse and I were with Quantrell until he was killed in Kentucky.”

John Samuels, a half brother of the James boys, told me the story of how Jesse James came to join Quantrell.

“Jesse was out plowing in a field,” he said, “when some Northern soldiers came to the place to look for Frank. Jesse was only sixteen years old. They beat him up. Then they went to the house and asked where Frank was. Mother and father did n’t know, but the soldiers wouldn’t believe them. They took father out and hung him by the neck to a tree. After a while they took him down and gave him another chance to tell. Of course he could n’t. So they hung him up again. They did that three times. Then they took him back to the house and told my mother they were going to shoot him. She begged them not to do it, but they took him off in the woods and fired off their guns so she ‘d hear, and think they ‘d done it. But they did n’t shoot him. They just took him over to another town and put him in jail. My mother did n’t know until the next day that he had n’t been shot, because the soldiers ordered her to re-main in the house if she did n’t want to get shot, too.

“That was too much for Jesse. He said: `Maw, I can’t stand it any longer; I ‘m going to join Quantrell.’ And he did.”

After the war the wilder element from the disbanded armies and guerrilla gangs caused continued trouble. Crime ran rampant along the border between Kansas and Missouri. And for many crimes committed in the neighborhood in which they lived, the James boys, who were known to be wild, were blamed.

“Mother always said,” declared Mr. Samuels, “that Frank and Jesse wanted to settle down after the war, but that the neighbors wouldn’t let them. Everything that went wrong around this region was always charged to them, until, finally, they were driven to outlawry.”

“How much truth is there in the different stories of bank robberies and train robberies committed by them ?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Of course they did a lot of things. But we never knew. They never said anything. They’d just come riding home, every now and then, and stop for a while, and then go riding away again. We never knew where they came from or where they went.”

It has been alleged that even after a reward of $10,000 had been offered for either of the Jameses, dead or alive, the neighbors shielded them when it was known that they were at home. I spoke about that to an old man who lived on a nearby farm.

“Yes,” he said, “that ‘s true. Once when the Pinker-tons were hunting them I met Frank and some members of the gang riding along the road, not far from here. I could have told, but I did n’t want to. I was n’t looking for any trouble with the James Gang. Suppose they had caught one or two of them? There ‘d be others left to get even with me, and I had my family to think of. That is the way lots of the neighbors felt about it. They were afraid to tell.”

I spoke to Frank James about the old “nickel novels.” “Yes,” he said, “some fellows printed a lot of stuff. I ‘d have stopped it, maybe, if I ‘d had as much money as Rockefeller. But what could I do? I tell you those yellow-backed books have done a lot of harm to the youth of this land—those and the moving pictures, showing robberies. Such things demoralize youth. If I had the job of censoring the moving pictures, they ‘d say I was a reg’lar Robespierre !”

“How about some of the old stories of robberies in which you were supposed to have taken part?” I asked.

“I neither affirm nor deny,” Frank James answered, with the glibness of long custom. “If I admitted that these stories were true, people would say : `There is the greatest scoundrel unhung!’ and if I denied ‘em, they ‘d say: `There ‘s the greatest liar on earth!’ So I just say nothing.”

According to John Samuels, Frank James and Cole Younger were generally acknowledged to be the brains of the James Gang. “It was claimed,” he said, “that Frank planned and Jesse executed. Frank was certainly the cool man of the two, and Jesse was a little bit ex-citable. He had the name of being the quickest man in the world with a gun. Sometimes when he was home for a visit, when I was a boy, he ‘d be sitting there in the , house, and there ‘d come some little noise. Then he ‘d whip out his pistol so quick you could n’t see the motion of his hand.”

As we conversed we strolled in the direction of the old house, that house of tragedy in which the family lived in the troublous times. On the way we passed Frank James’s chicken coop, and I noticed that on it had been painted the legend : “Bull Moose—T. R.”

“The wing, at the back, is the old part of the house,” James explained. “It was there that the Pinkertons threw the bomb.”

I asked about the bomb throwing and heard the story from John Samuels, who was there when it occurred.

“I was a child of thirteen then,” he said, “and I was the only one in the room who was n’t killed or crippled. It happened at night. We had suspected for a long time that a man named Laird, who was working as a farm hand for a neighbor of ours named Askew on that farm over there”—he indicated a farmhouse on a near-by hill—”was a Pinkerton man, and that he was there to watch for Frank and Jesse. Well, one night he must have decided they were at home, for the house was surrounded while we were asleep. A lot of torches were put around in the yard to give light. Then the house was set on fire in seven places and a bomb was thrown in through this window.” He pointed to a window in the side of the old log wing. “It was about midnight. My mother and little brother and I were in the room. Mother kicked the bomb into the fireplace before it went off. The fuse was sputtering. Maybe she even thought of throwing the thing out of the window again. Anyhow, when it exploded it blew off her forearm and killed my little brother.”

“Come in the house,” invited Frank James. “We ‘ve got a piece of the bomb in there.”

We entered the old cabin. In the fireplace marks of the explosion are still visible. The piece of the bomb which they preserve is a bowl-shaped bit of iron, about the size of a bread-and-butter plate.

“What was their idea in throwing the bomb?” I asked.

“As near as we know,” replied Frank James, “the Pinkertons figured that Jesse and I were sleeping in the front part of the house. You see, there ‘s a little porch running back from the main house to the door of the old cabin. They must have figured that when the bomb went off we would run out on the porch to see what was the matter. Then they were going to bag us.”

“Well, did you run out?”

“Evidently not,” said Frank James.

“Were you there?” I asked.

“Some think we were and some think not,” he said.

An old man who had been constable of the township at the time the James boys were on the warpath had come up and joined us.

“How about Askew?” I suggested. “I should have thought he would have been afraid to harbor a Pinkerton man.”

The old man nodded. “You ‘d of thought so, wouldn’t you?” he agreed. “Askew was shot dead three months after the bomb throwing. He was carrying a pail of milk from the stable to the house when he got three bullets in the face.”

“Who killed him?” I asked.

The old constable allowed his eyes to drift ruminatively over the neighboring hillsides before replying. Frank James and his half brother, who were standing by, also heard my question, and` they, too, became interested in the surrounding scenery.

“Well-I,” said the old constable at last, “that’s always been a question.”

Mr. Samuels told me details concerning the death of Jesse James.

“Things were getting pretty hot for the boys,” he said. “Big rewards had been offered for them. Frank was in hiding down South, and Jesse was married and living under an assumed name in a little house he had rented in St. Joe, Mo. That was in 1882. There had been some hints of trouble in the gang. Dick Little, one of the boys, had gotten in with the authorities, and it had been rumored that he had won the Ford boys over, too. Jesse had heard that report, but he had confidence in Charlie Ford. Bob Ford he did n’t trust so much. Well, Charlie and Bob Ford came to St. Joe to see Jesse and his wife. They were sitting around the house one day, and Jesse’s wife wanted him to dust a picture for her. He was always a great hand to help his wife. He moved a chair over under the picture, and before getting up on it to dust, he took his belt and pistols off and threw them on the bed. Then he got up on the chair.. While he was standing there Bob Ford shot him in the back.

“Well, Bob died a violent death a while after that.

He was shot by a man named Kelly in a saloon in Creede, Colo. And Charlie Ford brooded over the killing of Jesse and committed suicide about a year later. The three Younger boys, who were members of the gang, too, were captured a while after, near Northfield, Minn., where they had tried to rob a bank. They were all sent up for life. Bob Younger died in the penitentiary at Stillwater, but Cole and Jim were paroled and not al-lowed to leave the State. Jim fell in love with a woman, but being an ex-convict, he could n’t get a license to marry her. That broke his heart and he committed suicide. Cole finally got a full pardon and is now living in Jackson County, Missouri. He and Frank are the only two members of the Gang who are left and the only two that did n’t die either in the penitentiary or by violence. Frank was in hiding for years with a big price on his head. At last he gave himself up, stood trial, and was acquitted.”

Adherents of Bob Ford told a different story of the motives back of the killing of Jesse James. They con-tend that Jesse James thought Ford had been “telling things” and ought to be put out of the way, and that in killing Jesse, Ford practically saved his own life.

Whatever may be the truth, it is generally agreed that the action of Jesse James in taking off his guns and turning his back on the Ford boys was unprecedented. He had never before been known to remove his weapons. Some people think he did it as a piece of bravado. Others say he did it to show the Ford boys that he trusted them. But whatever the occasion for the action it gave Bob Ford his chance—a chance which, it is thought, he would not have dared take when Jesse James was armed.

During the course of our visit Frank James “lectured,” more or less constantly, touching on a variety of subjects, including the Mexican situation and woman suffrage.

“The women ought to have the vote,” he affirmed. “Look what we owe to the women. A man gets 75 per cent. of what goodness there is in him from his mother, and he owes at least 40 per cent. of all he makes to his wife. Yes, some men owe more than that. Some of ‘em owe 100 per cent. to their wives.”

Ethics and morality seem to be favorite topics with the old man, and he makes free with quotations from the Bible and from Shakespeare in substantiation of his opinions.

“City people,” I heard him say to some other visitors who came while we were there, “think that we folks who live on farms have n’t got no sense. Well, we may not know much, but what we do know we know darn well. We farmers feed all these smart folks in the cities, so they ought to give us credit for knowing something.”

He can be dry and waggish as he shows himself off to those who come and pay their fifty cents. It was amusing to watch him and listen to him. Sometimes he sounded like an old parson, but his air of piety sat upon him grotesquely as one reflected on his earlier career.

A prelate with his hat cocked rakishly over one ear could have seemed hardly more incongruous.

At some of his virtuous platitudes it was hard not to smile. All the time I was there I kept thinking how like he was to some character of Gilbert’s. All that is needed to make Frank James complete is some lyrics and some music by Sir Arthur Sullivan.

There are almost as many stories of the James Boys and their gang to be heard in Excelsior Springs as there are houses in the town. But as Frank James will not commit himself, it is next to impossible to verify them. However, I shall give a sample.

I was told that Frank and Jesse James were riding along a country road with another member of the gang, and that, coming to a farmhouse shortly after noon, they stopped and asked the woman living there if she could give them “dinner”—as the midday meal is called in Kansas and Missouri.

The woman said she could. They dismounted and entered. Then, as they sat in the kitchen watching her making the meal ready, Jesse noticed that tears kept coming to her eyes. Finally he asked her if anything was wrong. At that she broke down completely, in-forming him that she was a widow, that her farm was mortgaged for several hundred dollars, and that the man who held the mortgage was coming out that after-noon to collect. She had not the money to pay him and expected to lose her property.

“That ‘s nothing to cry about,” said Jesse. “Here’s the money.”

To the woman, who had not the least idea who the men were, their visit must have seemed like one from angels. She took the money, thanking them profusely, and, after having fed them well, saw them ride away.

Later in the day, when the holder of the mortgage appeared upon the scene, fully expecting to foreclose, he was surprised at receiving payment in full. He receipted, mounted his horse, and set out on his return to town. But on the way back a strange thing befell him. He was held up and robbed by three mysterious masked men.