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.
The 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.
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.
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.
The former Confederate’s defense team was headed by a Union veteran, Col. John F. Phillips, 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. Phillips had distinguished himself at the Battle of Westport.
“The beauty and brilliance of Phillips’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.”
Phillips spoke contemptuously of Dick Liddell, an ex-convict who testified he took part in the train robbery.
A defense witness was Gen. Jo O. 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.
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. Phillips gave a stirring eulogy of his former client.
— by Dr. James W. Goodrich of the State Historical Society of Missouri