The following conclusion about the 1883 trial of Frank James is taken from an address given by General John T. Barker for a meeting of the Boone County Bar Association held at Columbia (MO) on August 7, 1952. It reads, in part, as follows:
The trial lasted for over a week, and all the leading newspapers had correspondents there. The trial was watched all over America. There were 12 hours of oratory at the close, and the jury retired to consider its verdict after noon. About four o’clock that afternoon it brought in a verdict of “not guilty” and Frank James was a free man for the first time since he started with Quantrill in 1861, but many murder and robbery charges were still pending against him…
Legend says the James boys were with the Younger brothers in the fiasco at Northfield, MN. I do not know. I do know that all the law enforcing agencies in the country tried for more than 15 years to find evidence to convict the James boys, but they were never tried after Gallatin, and of course, Jesse was dead.
I do not think I should express an opinion as to their guilt or innocence, and our guess is as good as mine. I have only tried to review the only trial either of the James boys participated in. No one on the train that was robbed recognized the James boys or any one else, although none of the robbers were marked. Frank had a noticeable scar on his face from a sabre wound, but no witness mentioned seeing a robber with a scar on his face.
Frank’s defense was an alibi, that he was not there. The only witnesses who testified that he was in the vicinity of the robbery before it happened, were farm people who testified that they saw several men in the vicinity for about a month before the robbery, and that Frank James was one of them. In most of the instances of identification, the witnesses told others that they could not identify Frank James or any one else.
Dick Liddill, who was pardoned from the penitentiary to testify against Frank James, was a notorious convict, but he identified Frank James as one of the train robbers. He had not told Governor Crittenden who pardoned him that Frank was one of the robbers, and he had told others that Frank was not one of the robbers.
There was sufficient evidence to have convicted Frank James had it been believed, but the jury did not believe the witnesses. Wallace, who prosecuted Frank James, was trying to make a record for himself as he wanted to be Governor, and probably would have been governor had he convicted Frank James. He fought a hard fight financed by the banks and railroads, and used everything he had.
Neither Governor Crittenden or William F. Wallace ever held another elective office in Missouri. Frank lived in Missouri for many yeas after his trial and always enjoyed a good reputation. He started horse races at many Missouri towns, and took tickets at Ed Butler’s Standard Theater in St. Louis for many years. The Democrats would not elect him Doorkeeper of the House of Representatives at Jefferson City because of eastern criticism. He is buried in the James family gave yard near Kearney, and each year thousands pay to see his grave.
The James boys were not the western type of outlaws. They never saw Dodge City, Abilene, Wichita, Tombstone or Deadwood. They had their families with them all the time. They had many sorrows. They saw their father punished by northern troops. A bomb was thrown into their mother’s room on the farm by Pinkerton detectives and her arm was torn from her body and her youngest child killed in her arms. They saw their girl friends and relatives thrown into a condemned, dilapidated building in Kansas City which soon fell, killing or wounding all of them. They fought from 1861 to 1865 for the Southern cause although they refused to align themselves with regular troops. They fought for the South and the South lost.
Your guess is as to their guilt is as good as mine. I do not know. They were never arrested or convicted. Missouri was called the “Robber State” because of them. People refused to travel through the state, but the James boys are often spoken of in Missouri with admiration and respect, as the men who took the falling torch of “the lost cause” and almost single-handed flaunted it in the face of the enemy. They were the products of a tumultuous era and have passed into legend. Many people now have a soft spot in their heart for the James boys, and time has mellowed the memory of their misdeeds.
They lost and the loser always looks bad. And the winner always looks good. Victory made George Washington and his soldiers patriots and heroes. Had they lost, they would have been branded as traitors and would have been hung. How would the James boys have looked had the South won? How would Quantrill the guerilla have looked had the South won? How would Lincoln have looked had the South won? Would he have been a hero or would he have been hung? Was there a difference in General Sherman burning Atlanta and Columbia, and in Quantrill burning Lawrence? It is hard to judge those people today, because they fought for a lost cause.
Only two losers in American history died heroes: General Robert E. Lee, who lost the Civil War, and Casey, who struck out in the ninth inning with two men on base, losing the baseball game.
The world assumes that the James boys started train robbery as a business and maybe they did. But today they wander in that spirit land with their old comrades in Gray and see again the Stars and Bars floating proudly to the breeze. The feeling against them had died down to a great extent. I think we can all say to the James boys today a long, long farewell.
Note: Digital images were added to this account for online display.