Unique Find! Civil lawsuit against Frank & Jesse James

Authentic, historical legal papers — the only civil lawsuit ever filed against Frank & Jesse James — rediscovered on Aug. 17, 2007, by James Meuhlberger, an attorney from Kansas City while researching lawfirm originating partner Henry Clay McDougal.

Authentic, historical legal papers — the only civil lawsuit ever filed against Frank & Jesse James — rediscovered on Aug. 17, 2007, by James Meuhlberger, an attorney from Kansas City while researching law firm originating partner Henry Clay McDougal.

The record of a 137-year-old lawsuit  unique to those interested in the lives and legend of outlaws Frank and Jesse James  was unexpectedly discovered last Friday in the Daviess County courthouse. And the find is exciting historians and others who enjoy tracking down authentic details about the notorious outlaws.

The plaintiff, Daniel Smoot, filed charges against Frank and Jesse James in the Common Pleas Court of Daviess County. Smoot sought payment of $223.50 as reimbursement for a horse allegedly taken by the James brothers following the 1869 attempted robbery of the Daviess County Savings Association.

The murder of Capt. John Sheets during that robbery attempt — apparently when Jesse James mistook Sheets for Samuel Cox over a Civil War grudge — normally commands the attention of historians. The ensuing reward announced by Missouri Gov. T.T. Crittenden marked the first time the James boys were publicly branded as outlaws.  Now, with the discovery of this legal paperwork, the unique reality of Smoot’s lawsuit filed against the James brothers may revive widespread attention.

The response by the James boys to Smoot’s accusations foreshadows what was to fuel their emerging legend. Defense attorney Samuel A. Richardson wrote that defendants Frank and Jesse James denied being at or near Gallatin on Dec. 7, 1869. Thus, they denied stealing anything from Smoot. What’s more, the outlaws argued their case publicly by writing a letter published in a Kansas City newspaper, a technique repeatedly used by the Jameses to vault their legendary exploits and self-proclaimed innocence to national and international prominence.

Predictably, Frank and Jesse James never appeared in court. The James boys spent the next decade flaunting their lives in crime. Obviously, no one chanced their wrath by filing claims in court against the outlaws — nobody except Daniel Smoot. Thus, this legal document is the only lawsuit ever filed against Jesse James by one of his victims. But it was also the stuff of considerable worries over revenge during the years that followed, at least to H.C. McDougal, the lawyer who filed the charges against Frank and Jesse James.

Henry Clay McDougal, Attorney

On Friday, Aug. 17, 2007, James P. Muehlberger, an attorney from Kansas City, visited Gallatin to expand upon his research of Henry Clay McDougal. Mr. Muehlberger is preparing text and a display about McDougal for the law firm where Muehlberger is employed. Shook, Hardy & Bacon LLC is the largest law firm in Kansas City with additional offices located throughout the United States.

McDougal is known locally as one of the special prosecutors appointed by the governor during the trial of Frank James held in Gallatin in 1883. McDougal is also the connection which enabled the Daviess County Historical Society to secure funds from an estate which now finances ongoing mainten-ance and limited operation of the county’s 1889 Squirrel Cage Jail as a visitors’ infor-mation center. McDougal, as Mr. Muehlberger explains, was a partner to his law firm’s founder, Frank Sebree.

Mr. Meuhlberger recognized the significance of the legal papers immediately, and the lawsuit was soon wisked away to a local bank vault for safekeeping.

The legal papers have been elusive to those previously researching Jesse James lore. In fact, it was commonly thought that the paperwork on this lawsuit might even have been stolen by some collector or unscrupulous history buff. Circuit Clerk Sue Bird explains that the legal papers weren’t actually misplaced, just filed in a way that made sense to the court clerk of that time.

Now that these authentic historical papers have been found, they will be properly preserved. The Secretary of State’s office has been notified, and archival specialists will soon be involved in that effort. Eventually, an informational display spotlighting the only civil lawsuit brought to bear against outlaws Frank and Jesse James will be constructed at the Squirrel Cage Jail in Gallatin. It is hoped that this project will be completed in time for the Daviess County Chautauqua slated for Sept. 14-16.

 Daniel Smoot’s accusation against the James brothers:

As the attorney representing Smoot, H.C. McDougal sought damages in writing the following: “Plaintiff states that on the 7th day of December, 1869, at or near the City of Gallatin, in the county of Daviess and State of Missouri, the defendants Jesse James and Frank James did feloniously steal, take and carry away from this plaintiff, and in his presence and against his will by pulling him, the said plaintiff in fear of some immediate injury to his person, the following personal property to wit: one bay horse, with four white-feet and white stripe on the nose, of the value of $150; one saddle of the value of $15; one bridle of the value of $2; and one halter of the value of $1.50. The property of this plaintiff, by which the plaintiff says he is damaged in the sum of two hundred and twenty three and 50/100 dollars, for which he asks judgement.” In addition, interest and costs of the lawsuit were to be added to the value of Smoot’s personal property.

Detailing Smoot’s Lawsuit… petition presented by Attorney H.C. McDougal on Smoot’s behalf, seeking $223.50 in damages; March 8, 1870 — Writ of Attachment issued to the Clay County Sheriff, to apply $223.50 against the holdings and possessions of the James brothers March 11, 1870 — Clay County Deputy Sheriff J.B. Thomson writes that a copy of the petition was left with a member of the (James) family where Jesse and Frank James usually resideJuly 12, 1870 — Daviess County Common Pleas Court acknowledges that “defendants Jesse James and Frank James have absconded or absented themselves from their usual place of abode in this State, so that the ordinary process of law cannot be served upon them.”

“The history of Daviess County has no blacker crime in its pages than the murder of John W. Sheets.”  — 1882 History of Daviess County

The 1882 History of Daviess County confirms how the James brothers presented their alibi to the public through a Kansas City newspaper, described on page 502: “Miss Susie James, a sister of the accused, swears that her brother Jesse and herself attended preaching in Greenville, Clay County, on Sunday, December 5th, and after their return Jesse sold her bay mare Kate (the one left by the murderer at Gallatin) to a stranger who said he was from Topeka, Kansas.

She further testifies that her brother was at home on the 7th… “Zerelda Samuel, mother of the accused, swears that her son Jesse was at home December 6th, 7th, and 8th, and that he sold his sister’s mare to a man from Topeka, Kansas, for five $100 bills on Sunday, the 6th. Reuben Samuel, step-father of the accused, testifies to the same thing.”

 — written by Darryl Wilkinson, Editor;
published in the August 22, 2007, edition of the Gallatin North Missourian