Eye-Witness Account of 1869 Bank Robbery

In October, 1942, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat published an eye-witness account of the 1869 robbery of the Daviess County Savings Association by Frank and Jesse James. Edward Clingan, 89, of Gallatin was identified as the only living witness to the robbery, which at the time of publication occurred 73 years prior. This newspaper account claimed that Mr. Clingan recounted the adventure “as clearly and as accurately as though it had happened yesterday.”

In October, 1942, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat published an eye-witness account of the 1869 robbery of the Daviess County Savings Association by Frank and Jesse James. Edward Clingan, 89, of Gallatin was identified as the only living witness to the robbery, which at the time of publication occurred 73 years prior. This newspaper account claimed that Mr. Clingan recounted the adventure “as clearly and as accurately as though it had happened yesterday.”

When his class was dismissed at noon that day, Dec. 7, 1869, Clingan, then a 16-year-old schoolboy, hurried to the post office for the family mail. As he stood in the post office he heard several shots. Thinking that the shots were first by a celebrator who had been drinking too much corn whisky, Clingan ran from the post office to see who was creating the disturbance.

This is an artist’s concept of the 1869 shooting of Capt. John Sheets of Gallatin, allegedly by Frank and Jesse James.

On gaining the street, Clingan saw William A. McDowell, a bank clerk, stumble through the doorway of the bank, which as located directly across the street from the post office on the southwest corner of the town square. McDowell fell, picked himself up and ran toward the post office. A bandit, who later proved to be one of the James boys, appeared in the doorway and fired several shots in the direction of McDowell. None of the bullets struck him.

“Capt. Sheets had been killed,” McDowell shouted several times as he reached safety on Clingan’s side of the street.

The bandit fled from the bank entrance and Clingan ran across the street to the bank. In the rear room of the 2-room brick building he found his brother-in-law, Capt. John W. Sheets, head of the bank, lying on the floor. Another bystander arrived on the scene about the same time as Clingan. Together they propped up the banker.

“Are you hurt, Capt. Sheets?” Clingan asked. Sheets never answered; he had been killed instantly when one of the bandits had shot him twice at close range. One bullet entered his head hear the bridge of his nose and the other lodged in his heart.

Seeing there was nothing he could do for Sheets, Clingan rejoined the crowd that had gathered in the street. The outlaws, who had been identified by the crowd as Jesse and Frank James, were attempting to escape on their horses which they had left in an alley half a block south of the bank. Several of the more daring men entered the alley cautiously. They found that one of the bandits was not in sight and had obviously escaped, but the other had been thrown to the ground when his wrist had become entangled in his horse’s reins. His horse had freed itself and had run away.

As the crowd approached, someone shouted, “Let’s get him.” The bandit drew his gun and pointed it menacingly. Clingan said that the crowd took to its heels almost at once and he thought it was wise to leave hurriedly, too.

He ran to a drug store owned by Chris Gilliland, which had a rear door opening into the alley where the outlaws had been encountered. E. Barnum, a silversmith, arrived at the store about the same time as Clingan, and the borrowed the druggist’s gun and quietly opened the door leading ito the alley. They were just in time to see Frank and Jesse mount the horse of the man who had fled, but later returned to see what had happened to his accomplice. The silversmith fired one ineffectual shot from the alley doorway, but hastily closed the door when a bullet smacked into the wall beside it.

Laying down a barrage of revolver shots, the brothers rode out of town. A posse quickly organized, rode after them, but took the wrong fork in a crossroad near Gallatin and never saw the outlaws again.

Clingan, eager not to miss any of the excitement, commandeered a small mustard-colored mustang and joined the search. Accompanying him was a burly stranger. Clingan had never seen the man before and thought his actions and appearance suspicious. Deciding that the man might be connected in some way with the robbery, Clingan deemed it best to report his suspicions to the posse. Making an excuse for his departure, he left the stranger and went in search of the posse. He met the unsuccessful posse on its way back to Gallatin and reported his suspicions. A search was made but the stranger was never seen again.

Clingan believes that he was a spy stationed by the James boys to report any progress being made in the manhunt.

A few days later farmer Daniel Smoot received a letter from the desperadoes informing him that he was welcome to keep the fine Kentucky mare they had lost during the robbery in exchange for the horse they had taken from him.

On the day following the robbery, Alec Irving and Jess Donohue, both of Gallatin, returning home from a trip, passed through Kearney, MO. Near Kearney they saw Jesse and Frank James. One of them was mounted on Smoot’s horse.

McDowell, the bank clerk, recounting the robbery, said that one of the bandits had entered the bank and requested change for a $100 bill. Sheets stepped into the back room of the building. The outlaw followed him and, seemingly without pretext, fired the two shots that killed him.

The Gallatin bank acted as a branch office for a larger bank in Chillicothe operated by another of Clingan’s brothers-in-law, Judge James F. McFerran. As most of the money transactions were made in Chillicothe, there was little cash on hand at the time of the robbery. Only a few dollars were involved in the crime that cost Sheets his life.

Clingan has spent most of his 89 years in Gallatin.

[NOTE: The memory of Mr. Clingan is questioned concerning the proximity of the post office to the Savings Association building. Apparently, Clingan mistakingly was thinking of the First National Bank building, which operated in years after the James Gang robbery at the intersection of Grand and Main streets. This bank was across from the post office, not the Daviess County Savings Association where the robbery occurred.]

— reprinted from the Saturday, Oct. 17, 1942 edition of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, written by Ed Johnson expressly for the Globe-Democrat.