Accounts of the bloody robbery of Hughes and Wasson Bank

Over three days in July of 1971, Richmond celebrated its sesquicentennial, with a number of events, including a reenactment of the James-Younger gang robbing the Hughes and Wasson Bank. Crowds lined the streets to watch this lone horseman. (Photo from the 1973 Ray County History Book)

Over three days in July of 1971, Richmond celebrated its sesquicentennial, with a number of events, including a reenactment of the James-Younger gang robbing the Hughes and Wasson Bank. Crowds lined the streets to watch this lone horseman. (Photo from the 1973 Ray County History Book)

By Linda Emley

With September right around the corner, it’s time to get ready for Richmond’s Fourth Annual Outlaw Days. When we originally started this festival, I worked on the committee to make sure that the reenactment was as historically correct as possible. Now, four years later, we are getting ready for another show.

I’m amazed that I’ve seen it live four times, and I still look at it with new eyes when the boys come riding down the street to rob the Richmond bank. It’s like being in a time machine and seeing real history being made. I plan on sharing a few more details about Richmond’s bank robbery over the next few weeks, so saddle up and join me as we ride down the dusty trail to Richmond as it was in 1867.

We’ve always heard the story about how the James boys robbed the Hughes and Wasson Bank at “half past three o’clock, Thursday, May 23, 1867.” After I researched this story, the one thing I know for sure is that no one really knows what happened.

The facts we do know: $3,500 was taken from the bank, three people were shot dead and the bandits rode rapidly out of town. The 1881 Ray County History book has a two-page story, and there is no mention of Frank or Jesse James. This was written only 14 years after the bank robbery, so some who might have witnessed the event could have written a first-hand account for the history book.

Some highlights of the 1881 history book story include: “Four of the party entered the bank and with pistols presented, demanded the money therein. The other six remained outside in front of the bank building, and kept up a continual fire upon citizens who dared to show themselves in the streets.

“The robber who remained on his horse took a stand in the middle of the street, near the bank. 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, while the robbery was going on in the bank.

“Frank Griffin, from his position behind a tree in the courthouse yard, was discharging his gun at the man on the horse without effect; when the latter discovered Griffin’s head from behind the tree he fired at it, with unerring aim. The ball penetrated the brain and Griffin instantly expired.”

Frank’s father, William Griffin was the town jailer. He ran up to the bank thinking the robbers were no longer inside and got shot through his heart by someone in the bank. The mayor, John B Shaw, who was in the middle of the street, was shot in the abdomen and lived for only a few hours. The history book says the man on the horse was the man who shot the mayor and Frank Griffin on the courthouse lawn.

I was amazed when I searched Wikipedia, and found mention of the Richmond bank robbery on the page about Jesse James. It says, “On May 23, 1867 .. they robbed a bank in Richmond, in which they killed the mayor and two others. It remains uncertain whether either of the James brothers took part, although an eyewitness who knew the brothers told a newspaper seven years later ‘positively and emphatically that he recognized Jesse and Frank James among the robbers.’”

Were the James boys really in Richmond on May 23, 1867? Judge James Ross, great-grandson of Jesse James and author of the book, I, Jesse James, stated in his book that Jesse James shot one person and Frank James shot the other two. Judge Ross was one of the oldest living relatives of Frank and Jesse James when he died at the age of 80 in 2007. His mother was Josephine Frances James, granddaughter of Jesse James. So, the judge thinks they were here, based on his own research and stories his grandfather (Jesse James, Jr.) told him.

There is a different story that comes to us by word of mouth from our own Richmond citizens of 1867. I had always heard stories of Bob Ford and Bud Jacobs from a dear old lady named Nellie Bly Thompson Walker. She was the storyteller of the Thompson and Emley clan. Aunt Nell told a great story about when she was a little girl, the black widow came to town and she and her sister had to share their bed with this old lady. The black widow had some connection to the Fords and the James boys. Aunt Nell was so scared she slept with her clothes on in case she had to flee in the middle of the night. I was excited to find out that Milford Wyse knew Bud Jacobs and had his stories to tell.

Since Bud is a major player in this story, I started a background check on him. Who was Bud Jacobs? Bud couldn’t be his given name. I called Wyse, now deceased, and while I scrolled down the page of all Jacobses who died in Ray Country between 1910 and 1959, we found Oswald Martin Jacobs, who died Oct. 26, 1949. He was 77 years old. His birth date is listed as February 1872. The actual date of his birth is not known.

His mother was listed as Elizabeth Ford,  and quite possibly she is Martha Elizabeth Ford Bolton. Martha was at the right age in 1882 to have had a 1-year-old child, such as Bud was. At that age, he might well have remembered Frank and Jesse James.

When Frank and Jesse came to town to visit the Fords at the Bolton farm, Bud would get 25 cents to take their horses quietly up the back alley to the stable. When people saw some fine unfamiliar horses at the stable, they knew the James boys were in town.

Some of the local Richmond folks said that Frank James stayed on his horse outside the bank and Jesse went inside. Some people said that Frank James shot Frank Griffin, others said there was no way he could have shot someone on the courthouse lawn while sitting on a dancing horse. And, per the 1881 history book, someone was spinning around on his dancing horse while shooting two guns.

While Bud Jacobs was not there, he did say if anyone could, it would have been Frank James. Bud told a story about Frank James who, while riding a horse, on his way to Henrietta, used a pistol to shoot a bird out of the sky.

Another word-of-mouth story: There were some folks on a balcony across the street from the courthouse who were shooting at the robbers. Some people said one of them may have shot one of the three people who died. We all know that “friendly fire” does not make for a good story, so this account did not make it to the history books, nor do we know if it’s true.

One of the alleged robbers, William McGuire, was later captured in St. Louis and brought back to Richmond to stand trial. A few months after that, John W. Francis, then sheriff of Ray County, apprehended a man named Devers in Kentucky. He was accused of being the man on the horse outside the bank. While awaiting their court date, McGuire and Devers were taken from the jail by vigilantes and hanged.

The banking house of Hughes and Wasson was destroyed in a fire on March 11, 2008. The building was located on West Main Street across from the old J.C. Penney store.

The next time you drive by our courthouse, think about Frank Griffin, the young man who died on the courthouse lawn while trying to stop the gang from robbing the bank.

Once again, the gang will be back in town to rob the bank at the Fourth Annual Outlaws Days, Saturday, Sept. 12. Please mark your calendar and join the gang witness Ray County history firsthand.

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