Frank James, of the James Gang, acquited in Huntsville

Posted by | April 24, 2014

On a cold day in March 1881, three masked men on horseback, brandishing revolvers, held up an army paymaster on the banks of the Tennessee River near Muscle Shoals, AL. The paymaster was on his way with the payroll to pay the construction workers digging a canal near Muscle Shoals.

The masked men kidnapped the unlucky paymaster and took him into the woods where they relieved him of the payroll, his horse, and even his gold pocket watch he’d inherited from his deceased father. They then released him to a long walk home and disappeared into the dark woods, over $5000 richer.

Making his way north to Kentucky, Bill Ryan rode into the tiny crossroads of White’s Creek Tennessee, a few miles north of Nashville, and took refuge in a saloon from a gathering thunderstorm. A few shots of whiskey later, he was drunk and disorderly and running his mouth about being an “outlaw against state, county, and the United States Government!”

One local barfly had the temerity to question his outlaw credentials and Ryan pulled his pistols and made a scene. At gunpoint, he extracted an apology for the offense, but his luck, and ultimately that of the James Gang, had finally run out. The bartender just happened to be an off-duty Sheriff’s deputy.

After a vigorous scuffle, Ryan was disarmed and under arrest. He was carried off to the Nashville jail where his identity was soon revealed, and he was asked to explain how he came into possession of a large portion of that army payroll.

Huntsville Courthouse circa 1900Huntsville Courthouse, where Frank James was tried, circa 1900.

Jesse James, and his brother Frank, were soon implicated in the robbery and warrants were issued for their arrest.

Within a year, Jesse would be dead, shot in the back of the head by Bob Ford in an attempt to earn clemency from the government for his own crimes and collect a hefty reward offered by the governor of Missouri.

During the following year, Bill Ryan would be sentenced to a long prison term, Frank would surrender to the Missouri authorities, the rest would scatter, and the infamous James Gang would be retired for good.

With Frank now in custody, it was time for him to face justice. A Huntsville grand jury indicted Frank and he was charged with armed robbery and brought to Huntsville to stand trial.

By this time, the James Gang’s exploits were already the stuff of legend. A whole entertainment industry had been built around their adventures. Dime stores across America carried pulp novels and magazines that thrilled their readers with the gang’s daring exploits.

Frank James received a celebrity trial. A large cheering crowd greeted his train as it arrived at the Huntsville depot. Newspaper reporters from far and wide descended on what was then the tiny town of Huntsville, filled the hotels and boarding houses, and filed sensational reports on the latest developments in the case.

On April 17, 1884, the trial began. Frank entered the courtroom accompanied by his wife, young son, and an all-star legal team headed by veteran Huntsville lawyer, Leroy Pope Walker who also happened to be the former Secretary of War for the Confederacy. The prosecution was headed up by the formidable William H. Smith, US Attorney and a former governor of Alabama during Reconstruction.

The two lead attorneys sparred and jousted in front of a jury made up largely of Civil War veterans. Leroy Pope Walker well understood his jury. He emphasized in his opening statement that Frank had also fought for the Cause, having served with the Missouri irregulars under William Clarke Quantrill during the closing days of the war.

Governor Smith countered with the facts of the case. He brought out witnesses who identified Frank as one of the robbers. Under withering cross examination, Walker got each to recant their claim. As his case looked increasingly lost, Governor Smith saved his ace in the hole for last.

James Andrew Liddel had been a loyal member of the James Gang for many years. He was the one who discovered Ryan had been arrested and even helped Frank and Jesse make their getaway. But Liddel had a weakness for women.

Sometime after they fled Nashville, Liddel became involved with an attractive widow who had also caught the eye of Woodson Hite, a cousin of the James brothers. An argument over money turned violent and Liddel shot Woodson Hite to death.

Liddel was subsequently captured by the law and, realizing the fix he was now in, decided to cooperate with the authorities. Governor Smith made him his star witness against Frank, his former comrade and employer.

Frank James, of the James Gang, 1884Frank James shortly after his acquital.

Liddel surely regretted his decision to come to Huntsville, for Leroy Pope Walker saved his most brutal cross examination for the government’s star witness. Liddel was portrayed as a liar and career criminal, who was destroying the character and reputation of an upright man like Frank, so he could avoid going to the gallows for murder.

Governor Smith could see his case slipping away. He tried on redirect to reestablish some of Liddel’s credibility, but in the end it did no good. After a parade of witnesses by the defense who swore that they saw Frank in Nashville on the day of the robbery and a brilliant final summation by Leroy Pope Walker, the jury reached its verdict.

Frank James was acquitted of all charges. He walked out of that Huntsville courthouse a free man. It had been the trial of the century.

Source: (originally reprinted from Old Huntsville Magazine)

One Response

  • Spencer Washington says:

    Frank was acquitted after an hour and twenty minutes of deliberations. A reporter asked the jury foreman how the jury produced a verdict in only 80 minutes. The foreman
    replied that seeing that the judge charged the jury at 11:30 and they filed out and were locked away by 11:45 that they could have voted to acquit at 10 minutes to 12 but they knew if they did so that the Federal Judge would dismiss the jury and all 12 jury members were bound and determined to eat one more noonday meal at the Federal Government’s expense.

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