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By Linda Emley
Everyone knows Jesse James, but his older brother Frank, always played “second fiddle”. Their family farm in Kearney is known as the “Jesse James Farm and Museum”, but Frank lived there longer.
Their first bank robbery was in Liberty and once again it’s called the “Jesse James Bank Museum”.
I find this funny because Jesse wasn’t even present at the Liberty robbery because he was at home recovering from a gunshot wound.
Jesse was charismatic and had blue eyes. Frank was a good-old boy with big ears, but he was still the last man standing. It always bothered me that Jesse got all the fame and I’ve decided that Frank deserves to have his day.
It’s been said that Frank was the man on the horse at the Richmond Bank Robbery. “The robber who remained on his horse took a stand in the middle of the street. He was mounted on a very fine and well-trained horse. Having wound the bridle reins around the bow of his saddle in such a manner as to give greater tension to one rein than to the other, the horse continued to move round in a circle thus enabling his rider to see about him in every direction. With a navy pistol in each hand the horseman fired up and down the street.”
Alexander Franklin James was born on Jan. 10, 1843 in Kearney to Baptist minister Robert and Zerelda Cole James. In 1850, their father left for California in hopes of preaching to gold miners, but cholera struck and he died. He’s buried in an unmarked grave in Placerville, Calif. Frank and Jesse visited California years later, but they were unable to find their father’s grave.
Franks and Jesse had two stepfathers. There are many stories about the second one, Dr. Reuben Samuel, but their first one, Benjamin Simms is seldom mentioned. It’s said that Simms was hard on the boys and I’ve often wondered how this effected them. They had a sister, Susan, who lived to adulthood and one brother who died when he was an infant. They also had four half-brothers and sisters.
Frank used his father’s book collection and was an avid reader who enjoyed the works of William Shakespeare. He might have gotten additional schooling if the Civil War hadn’t started.
In 1861, 18-year-old Frank, joined the Missouri State Guard. In 1862, he joined William Clarke Quantrill and rode with the Partisan Rangers for the rest of the war.
Frank was with Quantrill in 1863 when he raided Lawrence and was still with him in 1865 when Quantrill died. Jesse wanted to ride with Quantrill, but Quantrill thought that 16-year-old Jesse was too young. This rejection caused Jesse to join Capt. Bill Anderson’s Rangers. Frank and Jesse may have been with Anderson when he died in 1865.
After the war, the boys started robbing banks and trains. Frank’s life changed after Jesse’s death in 1882. They shared 34 years on this earth, but Frank had another 33 years without Jesse.
Five months after Jesse died, Frank went to Gov. Crittendale in Jefferson City and placed his gun on his desk and said, “I have been hunted for 21 years, have literally lived in the saddle, have never known a day of perfect peace. It was one long, anxious, inexorable, eternal vigil. Governor, I haven’t let another man touch my gun since 1861.”
Frank stood trial in Missouri and Alabama but was acquitted. His New York Times obituary said, “After his surrender James was taken to Independence, Mo., where he was held in jail three weeks, and later to Gallatin, where he remained in jail a year awaiting trial. Finally he was acquitted and went to Oklahoma to live with his mother. He never was in the penitentiary and never was convicted of any of the charges against him.”
Frank spent many years working odd jobs. He was a shoe salesman, a burlesque ticket taker and a telegraph operator. He also spent time on the lecture circuit with Cole Younger. In his later years, Frank gave tours at the James Farm.
Frank married Annie Ralston in 1874 and her family didn’t attend the wedding because they didn’t approve of her choice in husbands. Their only child, Robert Franklin James was born in Tennessee in 1878.
Frank attended many “Confederate” reunions after the war. He and Annie hosted a “Quantrill Raiders” reunion in Blue Springs in 1898, which became an annual event.
Frank died on Feb. 18, 1915 at the age of 72. His death certificate lists his occupation as farmer. Frank was cremated and his ashes were kept in a bank vault until his wife died in 1944. The ashes of both were buried at the same time at the Hill Park Cemetery in Independence. You could walk right by his grave and never know he was buried there because his tombstone says Alexander F. James 1843-1915.
Frank had some movies made about him. In 1940, Henry Fonda played Frank in “The Return of Frank James”. In 1995, Leonard Nimoy played Frank in a made-for-TV movie titled, “Bonanza: Under Attack”. I think it’s funny that Mr. Spock and Frank James were both played by Nimoy.
One can only wonder what Frank would think if he saw these men telling his story on the “silver screen”.
Linda Emley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.