Frank James’s murder trial in 1883 in Gallatin, MO — where a jury found him not guilty — featured legal luminaries on both sides and impassioned references to the “Lost Cause” for which the bandit had fought two decades earlier.┬áThe story is related in “Trial of a Century: The Acquittal of Frank James” in the January issue of the Missouri Historical Review, published by the State Historical Society of Missouri, Columbia.

Frank James, shown here in 1898 at age 55, was the older brother to the now-legendary American outlaw Jesse. Although on the surface the brothers seemed very similar, in truth the siblings were quite different. Jesse was showy, daring to the point of recklessness, and had a thirst for fame that would eventually be his downfall. Frank was shy, referred to spend his time reading, and married a schoolteacher.

Alexander Franklin James, older brother of Jesse James and a partner in his exploits, had surrendered Oct. 5, 1882, to Gov. Thomas Crittenden. After being honored at a reception in Independence, he was taken to the Jackson County jail to await trial for the murder of a Pinkerton detective eight years earlier.

However, the article’s author, J. Michael Cronan, writes, the Jackson County prosecutor, William H. Wallace, decided there was not sufficient evidence. James was taken to Gallatin, seat of Daviess County in north Missouri, to be tried for the murder of Frank McMillan, a passenger on a train that was robbed near Winston, MO, on July 15, 1881.

Attorney William Wallace of Jackson County prosecuted Frank James in the 1883 trial at Gallatin, MO. Ironically, Wallace was a Confederate soldier during the Civil War and was never elected again to public office after Frank James was acquitted.

The trial began Aug. 20, 1883, in an opera house with 400 seats, more than the local courthouse had but not enough to hold all the people who wanted to attend. James’s defense was essentially an alibi. In the background was his service to the late Confederacy.

Out of a 40-man jury panel, 25 were identified as Democrats, 13 as Republicans and two as Greenbackers. The 12 chosen were all Democrats and all farmers. Two were Confederate veterans.

Jury selection was determined by the county sheriff according to law in effect in 1883. Those impaneled by Sheriff Crozier were Southern sympathizers who acquitted Frank James. Over 100 persons were interviewed before a panel of 12 jurists was selected. The selection of the jury required four days. The jurors were: J.B. Smith, age 26; Charles R. Nance, 45; Jason Winburn, 39; Richard E. Hale, 24; James Snider, 37; Benjamin Feurt, 37; Lorenzo Gilbreath, 46; W.F. Richardson, 53; William Merritt, 33; Oscar Chamberlain, 31; A.B. Shellman, 37; James Boggs, 57.

The former Confederate’s defense team was headed by a Union veteran, Col. John F. Philips, then a commissioner of the Missouri Supreme Court. He was a former member of Congress and later was a state appellate judge and federal district judge. Philips had distinguished himself at the Battle of Westport.

Chief Defense Attorney in the trial of Frank James was John F. Philips, who vacated his Supreme Court post to participate in the trial

“The beauty and brilliance of Philips’s argument lay in its simplicity,” writes Cronan, a Kansas City lawyer. “He presented James as a man drive out of Missouri who only wanted to be left alone to earn an honest living by diligently toiling upon a small farm in Tennessee.”

Philips spoke contemptuously of Dick Liddell, an ex-convict who testified he took part in the train robbery.

A defense witness was General J.O. “Jo” Shelby, a Confederate hero who testified that in November 1861 he saw Liddell and Jesse James and they told him Frank James, because of his health, had been in the South for years. Shelby’s testimony was most notable, though, by his state in inebriation.

This bronze statue of a mounted General Joseph O. “Jo” Shelby is located in a pocket park at Commercial and Main in Waverly, MO. There are other tributes to the Confederate cavalry leader, including “Jo Shelby Lake” at Fountain Grove Conservation Area off the Grand River near Meadville, MO.

After the trial, other charges in Missouri against Frank James were ultimately dismissed. He was tried and acquitted in federal court in Alabama on a robbery charge, and thereafter was an actor, theater doorman, and farmer.

He died Feb. 18, 1915, at the family farm at Kearney, MO. Col. Philips gave a stirring eulogy of his former client.

— by Dr. James W. Goodrich of the State Historical Society of Missouri

Note: Digital images were added to this account for online display.