The scars of the Civil War were fading in 1880 as a young Kansas City lawyer and Westminster College graduate named William Hockaday Wallace opened his bid for the prosecuting attorney’s seat in Jackson County, MO.
General James A. Garfield and General Winfield S. Hancock were running for the presidency of the United States that fall, but Jackson County hardly knew it, according to author Robertus Love in his “The Rise and Fall of Jesse James,” a book on the notorious Missouri bandit published by The Knickerbocker Press in 1926. “Jackson County concentered its interest upon the race of the young lawyer whose platform was built directly over a dynamite cache. Old-timers still talk about it, now and then, and some of them wonder if ‘Will’ Wallace was a brave man or just a natural-born fool who happened to be in luck. Opinion drives far in the direction of the brave-man theory.”
Strange as it seemed it was Will Wallace’s bravery that made him somewhat of an enigma to the people of Jackson County in the fall of 1880. They weren’t sure what to make of the 32-year-old lawyer and his bold promise, if elected, to prosecute the James Boys’ Gang, arguably the most notorious band of outlaws in American history. The James Gang had terrorized the people of western Missouri and border states since the end of the Civil War 15 years earlier. It was considered certain death to speak out against them.
An 1898 publication, The History of the Bench and Bar of Missouri, wrote that Wallace was the “first and only candidate for (public) office who ever denounced the band from the stump. By his example he dispelled the intense secrecy that had surrounded their exploits.”
Author Love concurred. “If ever any many in public office or campaigning for election took his life into his hands, that man was Will Wallace,” he said.
Armed with a six-shooter, Wallace campaigned on horseback, usually at night, in the heart of the region where the bandits never failed to find seclusion and aid. Speaking from the stump outdoors and in churches and schoolhouses, Wallace called the outlaws by name. Having been raised in eastern Jackson County, he knew many of the gang members and their relatives personally.
In a passage from his own autobiography, Wallace recalled his message on the political warpath of 1880:
“I charged specifically and by name that Jesse James, Frank James, Ed Miller, Dick Liddil, William Ryan and another man, whose name I did not know, were the men who were committing the train robberies, bank robberies and murders throughout the state. I had been raised in Jackson County, had practiced law for five years at Independence (MO), and was sure of the accuracy of my declarations. My foolhardiness — for such, indeed, it was — occasioned astonishment and intense excitement. Some of the friends of the outlaws knew that my list was correct. Others honestly believed I was charging innocent men with crime, and the feeling for and against me was at fever heat. Word was sent me that I would not be permitted to speak at some of the places advertised, but I went and spoke, and repeated my charge.”
Wallace’s tenacity was rewarded. The voters of Jackson County awarded him a 2-year term as prosecuting attorney, and re-elected him in 1882.
Despite the vote of confidence, people were convinced that Wallace’s promise to prosecute the James Gang was nothing more than a bluff. “Who in is right mind would stand up in court and prosecute one of the gang members?” they asked. After all, Wallace was a Southerner by heritage. He had much in common with the James Boys, they said.
In that, they were wrong.
Beyond the fact they were raised on neighboring farms and their fathers were preachers — the James’s a Baptist and Wallace’s a Presbyterian — the similarities were few.
A year younger than Jesse James, Wallace was born in 1848 in Clark County, KY, the son of the Rev. Joseph Wallace and the former Bettie Hockaday. His ancestors had come from the north of Ireland in the 18th Century, and Wallace’s great-grandfather served as a Virginia captain under George Washington at Valley Forge.
When Wallace was three years old, his mother died. His father remarried, a union that would produce four more sons, and in 1857 moved the family by steamboat to a Jackson County farm between the present towns of Lee’s Summit and Blue Springs. In addition to the Jameses, neighbors included the equally notorious Youngers — Cole, Jim, James and John — who rode with the Jameses for 11 years before meeting their Waterloo in the famous Northfield (MN) raid in 1876.
Unfortunately for the Wallaces, their new homestead was also a battleground in the Missouri-Kansas border warfare over slavery. During the next six years, the border area laid claim to being what one historian called “the reddest spot on the map of the United States.” The horrors Wallace witnessed as a young boy are penned in this autobiographical passage: “Torch and fire, sword and rapine, pillage and plunder, robbery and assassination were abroad in the land. No pen can depict it, no picture fully portray it. Citizens were arrested and lodged in jail, and women and children were left alone and defenseless. The day of vengeance came. Men were hanged to trees or in their barns, or were called from their homes in the night-time and shot. A burning house could be seen across the prairies in the nighttime at a distance of at least 25 miles. One night I looked out of a second-story window and counted 22 houses on fire.”
The Wallaces would escape with their lives, but not much else. Federal soldiers, under the command of the Kansas cutthroat Col. Charles Jennison, pillaged their home. Once considered well-to-do, the family was left with almost nothing. The Wallaces got a reprieve from further violence in August 1863 when the Federal commander at Kansas City issued his celebrated Order No 11. The order compelled all residents of rural Jackson County and nearby territories to emigrate within 15 days.
Drawn by a yoke of oxen, the family traveled for days to reach their new home in Fulton, MO. The Rev. Wallace was given a professorship at Westminster College, and young William enrolled in the college’s preparatory school or academy, as it was known.
Working his way through school, Wallace graduated from Westminster with an A.B. degree in 1871. Over the next decade and a half, the college awarded degrees to William’s four brothers: John (1879), who became a lawyer in Lee’s Summit; Charles (1880) a St. Joseph physician; Theodoric (1880) a Kansas City lawyer; and Addison (1884) a Mexico (MO) minister.
After studying law in Fulton for several years in the office of a relative, Westminster alumnus and future Missouri Attorney General John A Hockaday, Wallace became a practicing attorney at Independence. To supplement the income of a budding lawyer, he also wrote news stories for the Kansas City Times and the Independence Sentinel.
In March, 1874, Wallace filed a story on the murder of a man on a rural Jackson County road. The man turned out to be John Witcher, an agent with Chicago’s Pinkerton detective agency, who hoped to capture the Jameses singlehandedly. Nine years later, Wallace would find himself in the courtroom prosecuting Frank James for Witcher’s murder.
By the time Frank James came to trial in 1883, Wallace had succeeded in doing what posses, detective agencies, and law enforcement groups had failed to do — break up the notorious James Gang.
Wallace got his first opportunity to fulfill his 1880 campaign promise with the capture of gang member Bill Ryan in Tennessee in March 1881. Working single-handed and alone, Wallace won a conviction of Ryan for a train robbery in Glendale, MO. The sentence was 25 years in the state penitentiary, but more importantly, Wallace had sent a message to the public that the outlaws could be convicted by a Missouri jury.
“I put my whole soul into an effort in the closing argument to inspire the jury with courage to convict, for I was afraid that some of them, knowing the danger of a vote to convict, might falter,” Wallace said in his autobiography. “I have always regarded this as the supreme hour of my practice as a lawyer.”
Wallace won the conviction despite numerous obstacles. Witnesses for the railroad, out of fear for their lives, refused to testify against Ryan. Wallace’s closest friends urged him to dismiss the case, saying no jury would dare convict the outlaw. Rumors — later confirmed by a gang member — were everywhere that Jesse James and his men were camped out in the woods near Independence (the trial site) and had plans to rescue Ryan. The courtroom itself was packed with gang members and friends of the Jameses, most of whom carried weapons and slept at night in the courthouse yard.
To this day, the trial of Bill Ryan is considered one of the most exciting trials to ever take place in the Midwest. It marked the beginning of the end for the James Gang. The outlaws found themselves hunted as never before. Within months Jesse James was shot and killed by 20-year-old Bob Ford in his St. Joseph home. The St. Joseph Herald, in its April 9, 1882, issue, reported rumors that Wallace, Missouri Governor James Crittenden, and two local law officials knew of Ford’s plan for murdering Jesse. The rumors were never substantiated.
“It is but fair to say that (Wallace) took no part and knew nothing of the killing of Jesse James, and as a testimony to his absolute fairness and honesty, it is of record that through him, after the killing Jesse James, the mother and wife of Frank James opened negotiations for the surrender of the latter, they knowing that he would protect him and carry out any agreement he might make,” The History of the Bench and Bar of Missouri reported. “Mr. Wallace’s terms of surrender included, among other things, that Frank James should serve a term in the penitentiary. The terms were declined, being pronounced too severe.”
In October 1882, Frank James walked into the office of Governor Crittenden in Jefferson City and surrendered. He was prosecuted by Wallace in 1883 for the murder of a railroad workman two years earlier. Due to a lack of evidence, Wallace dropped the charge against James for the murder of the Pinkerton agent (Witcher) who Wallace had reported about as a newspaperman eight years earlier.
With sentiment for the deposed gang running high, Frank James was acquitted by a Gallatin (MO) jury. The acquittal was achieved despite a closing argument by Wallace that a former U.S. Senator of the time called “one of the finest productions in the English tongue.” A free man, Frank James would go on to become a “model” citizen and live almost 33 years on the family farm in Jackson County.
Wallace would pay a price for his part in breaking up the James Gang. Before the end of his second term as prosecuting attorney, Wallace was made the Democratic nominee for Congress and resigned his office to enter the 1884 campaign. His opponents charged that he displayed unnecessary vigor in his prosecution of the James Gang. Despite registering a vote at the primaries far in excess of any of his competitors, a dispute erupted as to whether Wallace or an opponent obtained the nomination in the congressional convention. Choosing not to divide the party, Wallace withdrew from the race.
He returned to private practice in Kansas City only to be called out again in 1907 as judge of the circuit court of Jackson County. During the course of his 14 years on the bench, he became one of Kansas City’s leading citizens.
“There is scarcely an office in the gift of the people of Missouri he cold not have had, had he been willing to accede to the urgent and repeated requests made by his many friends throughout the state,” The History of the Bench and Bar of Missouri wrote.
Wallace would die on Oct. 21, 1937, at the ripe old age of 89. His death closed the pages on one of the most colorful periods in the history of Western Missouri.
— reprinted from the spring 1989 edition of The Columns (pp. 19-21), a newsletter for Westminster College at Fulton, MO
The personal courage exhibited by William H. Wallace in pursuing the prosecution of outlaw Frank James is described in an article written by Paul I. Wellman published Sept. 4, 1940, in the Weekly Kansas City Star which, in part, reads as follows:
The third day of the trial, General J.O. “Jo” Shelby was called to the stand and the courtroom was packed to capacity. In a clear voice he spoke of having met Liddil, Jesse James and Bill Ryan at his home about the time of the train robbery, and that Jesse told him Frank was not with them but was in the South and “had not been with the gang for five years.” The general’s mere word held tremendous weight with the people and the testimony created a sensation.
Asked to point out Frank James, Shelby arose from the witness chair and said, “May I, please the court, having recognized an old Confederate comrade, shake him by the hand?” The court refused, but the act was a great boost to Frank James’s cause. From that time on the ‘War for Southern Independence,’ the ‘Bonnie Blue Flag,’ and the ‘First and Second Battles of Mannasses’ were on trial — and the verdict in a Missouri community was foregone.
Wallace attempted to shake the general’s testimony. “Do you, sir, accuse me of lying?” Shelby demanded fiercely.
The court soothed him down, but moment later he flared again when Wallace asked him if he protected Frank James’s wife. “I protect nobody,” Shelby said, “but I will do what I can, sir, to feed a comrade or succor a woman, even if it was Jennison’s wife!” (the reference was to Colonel Jennison of Kansas, leader of the hated Redlegs).
Wallace smiled scornfully. Instantly the general fixed him with a cold glare: “Mr. Wallace,” he said with deadly quietness, “if you want to make this a personal matter, you can do so.”
Every person in the courtroom knew what that meant. It meant that Shelby was inviting the prosecutor to “call him out” — to meet him in a duel. It was as open an invitation to a challenge as was ever given in a public place, but Wallace did not quail, although he speedily dismissed the witness.
Later in the day, a note was handed to Wallace. He did not reveal its contents but later he said that it was a warning from a friend of his who reported that Shelby had sworn to shoot the lawyer on sight. That kind of a threat was sufficient to make any man think deeply, no matter how courageous he was. Shelby was fearless, reckless of circumstances, and imbued with the old-fashioned belief that a man ought to settle his own wrongs. Moreover, he was deadly with a pistol and always shot to kill.
Wallace probably was considerably troubled in his own mind when he left the courthouse that afternoon. He was a man of inflexible courage, but he had work to do and he wanted to do it. Books of law to study that night were under his arm as he walked along toward his hotel. It had rained and the streets were muddy. Across one mudhole a plank was laid for pedestrians to cross dry shod.
With his mind on his case, Wallace stepped on one end of the plank just as another man stepped on the opposite end. The prosecutor looked up. There standing before him in his long black coat, over the sleeves of which his white cuffs were turned back, stood Jo Shelby.
Nobody ever knew what sent through the attorney’s mind. He was unarmed except for an armful of books, and on the other side of the plank was one of the most dangerous men, when angered, in Missouri. It is quite likely Wallace expected to die on that spot, but he stood without moving a muscle in his face and waited.
Instead of drawing a revolver, Shelby stepped back off the plank. He removed his hat and made a courtly bow. “You pass first, Mr. Wallace,” he said with all a Southern gentleman’s courtesy.
It was probably with an exquisite sensation of relief that Wallace accepted the courtesy, for he knew then that Shelby had never sworn to shoot him. Had he don so, the shooting would have occurred at that moment and at that point.
When court reopened next morning, Shelby appeared and made a public apology for his remarks of the previous day, then cheerfully paid a $10 fine for contempt. It was apparent he know what the outcome of the case would be — with oratory, and table pounding and fine language and frenzied appeals. But the verdict was foregone. When Jo Shelby was a witness, and the Lost Cause an issue, there could be but one answer: Frank James was acquitted.