Frankly Speaking About Frank James
Frank James was in the same line of work as brother Jesse James but didn’t get nearly as much publicity when their gang (a quick pardon to Cole Younger) was robbing banks and trains. This was due, in no small part, to Jesse’s habit of writing letters to newspapers. Certainly Jesse got more headlines at his death, mainly because he went violently in 1882, while Frank went peacefully 33 years later. And today Jesse James and Billy the Kid remain the best-known names from the days of Wild West outlawry. But it’s not as if Jesse’s older brother by four years has been forgotten. If you want forgotten, think of the Kid’s half brother and ask yourself how much you know about Joe Antrim.
Frank might have bowed out of the dangerous outlaw business slightly before Jesse bowed out permanently (thanks to assassin Bob Ford), but they were equally notorious from the end of the Civil War right through their September 1876 escape from the massive Minnesota manhunt that followed the Northfield bank robbery fiasco. In fact, Frank has on his resume the deadly raid on Lawrence, Kan., orchestrated 150 years ago by Confederate guerrilla commander William Quantrill (see related story, P. 38). Jesse, just 15 at the time, had to wait nearly a year before he could officially fight for the Southern cause. During the brothers’ postwar “robbing for the Lost Cause” years, Jesse found cause to kill a few people—at least two, perhaps as many as a half-dozen. But the supposedly less impulsive and more intelligent (he sometimes quoted William Shakespeare) Frank shot down in cold blood Joseph Lee Heywood, the acting cashier at Northfield.
“Most people today think of Frank—if they think of him at all—as the better of the two James brothers,” says Mark Lee Gardner, who writes about “The Other James Brother” in this issue (August 2013) and provides details of the Heywood killing in his latest book Shot All to Hell: Jesse James, the Northfield Raid and the Wild West’s Greatest Escape. Yes, Frank James was also at Northfield and made that great escape with his brother, but nothing Gardner or anyone else writes will make Frank a headliner over Jesse. That doesn’t change Gardner’s belief that Frank was just as ready as Jesse to pull the trigger on any man viewed as the enemy. Don’t be fooled by Frank’s looks (like a preacher, some said) or his personality (sober and sedate compared to devil-may-care Jesse) or the 30 years he lived as a peaceable citizen after being acquitted of murder and robbery. Gardner quotes several people who knew both brothers and were of the opinion that brainy Frank was the more cold-blooded of the two.
Historians have long debated who truly led the James-Younger Gang. Some insist neither Cole Younger nor Frank James, who were close in age and good friends, would allow the younger Jesse James to give them orders. Gardner says that “Cole and Jesse simply tolerated each other” and that “Jesse could usually count on Cole to disagree with any plan he came up with.” Frank did his share of planning, too, but he apparently didn’t have a big ego like Cole and Jesse. Gardner does say Jesse was the one behind the gang’s September 7, 1876, trip to Minnesota and also the targeting of Northfield’s First National Bank. The last gang member in the bank that day was the biggest villain of the day—the killer of Heywood. Prolific Minnesota historian John J. Koblas, who died in March (see P. 11), said in his book Faithful Unto Death that this last robber was “presumably Frank James,” and Gardner found the evidence to end any doubt about it.
The Northfield story was Koblas’ baby, so to speak, but he was willing to share with other researchers and editors who wanted to know more about the James-Younger Gang’s most infamous robbery. “His many books on the Northfield Raid are excellent resources,” Gardner writes in the acknowledgements for All Shot to Hell. “I spent several days going through his collection, which took him years to gather.…I was fortunate to have the opportunity to visit with him while I was in Northfield.” And the rest of us are fortunate that Koblas and Gardner turned their expert research into fine Wild West reading, even if the events all happened in Minnesota.