By Mary Miller Cullins
On January 10, 1843, Frank James, the lesser known brother of Jesse James, was born in Clay County, Missouri.
Frank and Jesse James were both legends in their own time, though Jesse is better remembered today because of his dramatically violent death. The two Missouri brothers drifted into a life of crime after serving in Confederate guerrilla forces during the Civil War. They began robbing banks in 1866, and their bold style won them quite a of popular admiration. Once, Jesse stopped to tell a crowd of townspeople gathered for a political speech that he thought something might be wrong at the bank he and Frank had just robbed. On another occasion, they staged an audacious hold-up of a Kansas City fair box office in the middle of a crowd of 10,000 people.
In an era of increasing public dislike for large corporate railroads and banks, some Americans began to see the James brothers as heroes, modern-day Robin Hoods who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. Newspapers, eager to increase their readership, contributed to this positive view of the brothers. In reality, the James brothers were brutal criminals who willingly killed innocent victims in their pursuit of money, but misguided public sympathy for the men was so great that the Missouri state legislature at one point nearly approved a measure granting amnesty to the entire James gang.
After the brothers murdered two innocent men during an 1881 train robbery the State of Missouri came to its senses and offered a reward of $5,000 each for the capture of Jesse and Frank. Shot down for reward money in 1882 by one of his own gang members, Jesse achieved a false but enduring reputation as a martyr in the cause of the common people against powerful interests.
Had Frank suffered the same fate, no doubt he too would have achieved martyrdom and been the subject of popular songs like the “Ballad of Jesse James.” However, Frank wisely preferred long life to being a martyr and he turned himself in a few months after his brother’s death. Prosecutors were unable to convince juries that Frank was a criminal, and he was declared a free man after avoiding conviction at three separate trials in Missouri and Alabama.
For the next 30 years Frank lived an honest and peaceful life. He worked as a race starter at the county fairs, a doorman at the theater, and a star attraction in some traveling theater companies. Frank retired to his family’s farm in Missouri, where he died at the age of 72.
Frank James died in 1915.