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Book Review: Judgment at Gallatin: the Trial of Frank James (by Gerard S. Petrone) : WW

Originally published on Published Online: August 12, 2001 
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Judgment at Gallatin: the Trial of Frank James, by Gerard S. Petrone, Texas Tech University Press, Lubbock, 1998, $28.95.

The State of Missouri vs. Frank James may not have been the trial of the 19th century, but it certainly ranks up there. After the killing of Jesse James in April 1882, the outlaw's older brother turned himself in to Missouri Governor Thomas Crittenden. Charged with murder and train robbery committed on July 15, 1881, in Winston, James began the fight for his life in an opera house–the courtroom couldn't hold the overflow crowds–in Gallatin.

Self-styled "amateur historian" Jerry Petrone re-creates the trial, from its carnival atmosphere outside the makeshift courtroom (snake-oil salesmen, puppet shows and shooting galleries filled downtown Gallatin) to the eccentric characters inside (defense witness ex-Confederate General Jo Shelby was drunk when he testified), in this well-researched, easy-to-read and enlightening look at the historic trial. Transcripts of the trial do not exist, so Petrone relies heavily on newspaper accounts and the obscure The Trial of Frank James for Murder, published in 1898.

A team of six attorneys, led by special prosecuting attorney William H. Wallace (who carried a pistol during the trial), represented the state, while eight lawyers handled the defense. The trial, which began on August 20, 1882, lasted 16 days, including four days of closing arguments, but it took less than four hours for the jury to acquit James. One editor called the shocking verdict "a most unfortunate advertisement," while Jesse James' assassin, Robert Ford, said, "I never believed that it was possible for the jury to acquit, knowing as I did, that he was guilty. Even this afternoon I had offered to wager one thousand dollars on his conviction."

Overwriting ("The sun was just setting in the west….") and cliches ("rule with an iron fist," and "earn eternal bragging rights") illustrate Petrone's amateur status, but Judgment at Gallatin is thorough history and an all-around excellent read whether you believe justice was served or miscarried.

Johnny D. Boggs

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