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The James Gang and Kentucky


Part 5

It is apparent by now that the James boys were well liked in Kentucky. They had friends and relatives almost everywhere. They were welcome in Nelson, Lyon, Meade, Spencer and all their surrounding counties. They had the friendships of law enforcement as well as family ties with the Samuels and Hite’s. These ties were not just average connections, but the best type of connections, political, family and financial. Jesse and Frank became Robin Hoods, instead of Robbing Hoods due in part to an Independence Missouri Newspaper Editor, John Newman Edwards. Edwards was the adjutant for Confederate General Joseph “Jo” Shelby. He was fond of the James boys and knew their mettle in a fight. Jesse had been wounded in the chest twice, and never completely healed. Jesse and Frank were both fast and accurate with a gun, but either would kill if there was the slightest doubt in their mind. Edwards helped to arrange Franks surrender after Jesse’s assassination.

Both of these men traveled great distances. Very soon after the Russellville robbery, and Frank’s shootout in Brandenburg, Jesse moved to New York, where he took passage on a steamship to San Francisco, California, thence to the warm springs of Paso Robles, California. Frank was still healing from his wound incurred at Brandenburg, inflicted by Marshall Sabastian’s posse. They visited their Uncle Drury Woodson James, the younger brother of Jesse’s father. Frank met Jesse in San Francisco, but traveled by stage coach and railroad to get there. After the warm springs, they traveled overland, through New Mexico and Arizona Territory, Texas and back to their old stomping grounds. They robbed banks, stage coaches and trains in Iowa, Kentucky, Illinois, Minnesota, West Virginia, Alabama, Missouri and no doubt other places. It is rumored they met Billy the Kid, William Bonnie on their way back from California.

Once back in Kentucky, a U. S. Marshal, Crittenden asked about a reward for the Muscle Shoals, Alabama stage coach robbery, and likely informed Yankee Bligh that the James boys were in Bardstown. The Muscle Shoals stage was carrying a Federal- payroll and so was doubly attractive to the James Gang. They get rich and strike a blow for the Confederacy at the same time. The stage line was the Florence, Tuscumbia, Muscle Shoals, Alabama route, and “Whiskey Head Ryan” was one of the James gang. Frank didn’t like Ryan because he would get drunk and brag about his exploits.

In mid-October of 1881, a former state legislator named Ben Johnson, informed George Hunter, Donnie Pence’s chief deputy, that the James boys were in Bardstown, Kentucky. He became acquainted with Hunter through Donnie Pence when Johnson’s father was an attorney. One day, Pence told Johnson that the James boys were having dinner at what was then the Central or Ellis Hotel. He asked Johnson if he would like to meet them? They were nearly to the hotel when Pence grabbed Johnson’s arm and said, “There is Yankee Bligh and George Hunter! They must know the boys are there.” Pence asked Johnson if he would fight with him, Jesse and Frank, and he said he would. Pence went in the back way to warn Frank and Jesse, and Johnson went into the lobby. A door off the Lobby led to the restaurant. Pence suggested the James leave by the back door, but the boys said they would not go out the back for Bligh or Hunter. Bligh and Hunter had entered the lobby with two other local men, Bill McAtee and another named Edson.

There were several people in the lobby oblivious to what might happen, but the hotel clerk was ready to dive for cover. After a few minutes, Jesse emerged from the restaurant with his hands crossed, grasping the handles of his revolvers hidden by his coat. He looked at the four men, two to the north and two situated south, and they looked back. Jesse walked to the door, and turned around as Frank entered the room grasping his two pistol handles. Pence and Johnson went to the side wall. The detectives were petrified. Frank walked to the front door, turned around beside Jesse, both facing the detectives. Then, Dick Liddle and Wood Hite entered from the restaurant and hurried out to get the horses from the livery. The gang quickly mounted, gave a yell and rode out of town. Liddle, Hite, Frank and Jesse, Pence and Johnson made six crack shots against four, two of which may never have drawn on another man. Discretion is the greater part of valor.

Two years later, Jesse was dead and Frank was being tried. His last trial was in Huntsville, Alabama over the Muscle Shoals stage coach robbery. The jury, comprised of ex-Confederate soldiers, heard all of the evidence and filed into the jury room. No sooner than deliberation ended, the foreman announced they had carefully considered the evidence and Frank James was “Not Guilty”. The courtroom erupted in applause and cheers. After this Federal Trial, all others were cancelled. Frank James was free. In 1914, he was at the Kentucky State Fair in Owensboro, and a reporter asked if he had been in Brandenburg, Kentucky. Frank said, “yes, I was almost killed there!” Not only was Brandenburg lucky, but so was Frank James!