Jesse James died in the prime of life in a way that could only multiply and strengthen the already internationally-known legend of the James Gang. But what of his soft-spoken brother, the student of Shakespeare? What marked the end of his life in crime? Frank James was tried for robbery and murder in Gallatin in 1883.
When Frank James surrendered to Gov. Crittenden, authorties in many states besides Missouri were anxious to initiate legal proceedings. From all the places landmarked as victims of a James Gang robbery, it was decided that the best available evidence to convict Frank James might come from the July 15, 1881, robbery of a Rock Island train at Winston, MO, in Daviess County. The most famous trial of the Old West unfolded in Galaltin Aug. 20 through Sept. 6, 1883. Frank James faced charges of robbery and the murders of Conductor William Westfall and stonemason Frank McMillan during the 1881 train robbery at Winston, and also the murder of Capt. John Sheets in the 1869 bank robbery in Gallatin. The indictment against Frank James on the Sheets murder was dropped; a conviction was sought on the train robbery and murder charges only. It was truly a major event. Gallatin’s population of about 1,500 people nearly doubled. Governor Crittenden attended the proceedings, as did U.S. Senators and other officials and notables from many eastern states. Daily newspapers such as the Kansas City Evening Star, the St. Joseph Daily Gazette, the St. Louis Republican, and others sent their own correspodents and played each day’s developments into front page news. A legal issue heightened the already emotional event. Could a Commissioner of the Supreme Court of Missouri vacate his post to act as a defense attorney? Political interest was also at stake. Could a prosecutor from Jackson County make good his campaign pledge to put Frank James behind bars? And what might acquittal mean to Gov. Crittenden who was already suspected of promising a pardon in exchange for the surrender of the notorious outlaw? It was literaly a theatrical event. The courthouse in Daviess County at the time was a nearly condemned structure. So, most of the trial was held in the opera house to accommodate the crowds. It was located in the upstairs of the Alexander Building in the middle of the west side of the business square. Judge Charles Goodman of Gentry County, a host of ladies, and representatives of the press sat on the stage. The principals in the trial were situated immediately before the stage. There were 13 prominent lawyers involved, including a former Lt. Governor of Missouri. Over 100 persons were interviewed before a panel of 12 jurists was selected. Over 70 witnesses would be called to give testimony. Tickets were issued so that the throngs of onlookers would not exceed 400 — all the opera house could hold. Judge Goodman instructed deputies to allow no guns into the auditorium, and there was much concern about gunplay in town due to strong opinions on the innocence or guilt of Frank James. Frank James’s defense was a simple alibi. He claimed to be in Texas at the time of the Winston train robbery, visiting a sister. The prosecution’s key witness was Dick Liddell, a convicted horse thief and former James Gang member granted immunity in the case in exchange for his testimony. The trial lasted 17 days. The closing speeches provided a fitting climax. Both sides of the bench agreed to limit their final presentations — four speeches per side spanning two court days. Civil War sympathies were a constant backdrop to proceedings despite efforts by Judge Goodman against reliving the war. Most expected a hung jury. Missouri law assigned guilt to anyone proven to have participated in the crime. Thus, Frank James would be found guilty if jurists believed he were there regardless of whether or not he actually pulled the trigger killing Conductor Westfall and stonemason McMillan. People throughout the nation were in high anticipation over the trial’s outcome. There was shock and utter disgust expressed when an acquittal was rendered, but not necessarily in Gallatin. Cheers went up in the opera house immediately after the verdict was issued, though mostly from the throngs who ventured into Gallatin to offer an old Confederate comrade their support. How could Frank James be declared not guilty? Probably due to a combination of circumstances. Over 16 years had passed since the crime was committed. During this period, the legend of the James Brotehrs as modern day "Robin Hoods" was widely known. Perhaps the death of a younger brother and the maimed arm of his mother at the hands of Pinkerton detectives elicited sympathy for Frank James. Frank James’s own expressed desire to live a peaceful life, and his example of doing so for a period of years, was also an influence. The death of his more notorious brother, Jesse, in St. Joseph meant the end of the James Gang. Many also noted that Frank James surrendered to Gov. Crittenden rather than being captured by authorities. All these points impressed the jury. Perhaps most importantly, however, was the composition of the jury. Prosecutor William Wallace threatened to quit the trial upon learning of Sheriff Crozier’s actions in the jury selection process. He suspected a "stacked deck" of Southern sympathizers for Frank James. Only pressure by Judge Goodman, who feared gunplay if proceedings were suddenly ended, kept the trial intact. This trial was selected for re-enactment during the 75th anniversary of the law school at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. It was also re-enacted by the Gallatin Theatre League in the fall of 1990, near the actual site of the famous 1883 trial.
Written by Darryl Wilkinson, 1989