The Lost Cause: The Trials of Frank and Jesse James, by James P. Muehlberger, 2013, Westholme Publishing, Yardley, Pa., $24.95.
Instead of detailing their train and bank robberies, author Muehlberger, a Kansas City attorney, concentrates on the prosecutions of Frank and Jesse and their gang members. Jesse James on trial? Well, yes, sort of. Back in 2007 Muehlberger rediscovered in the Daviess County, Mo., court clerk’s office the only civil lawsuit ever filed against the James brothers. After the gang murdered a bank cashier in Gallatin, Mo., in 1869, Jesse stole a horse belonging to farmer Daniel Smoote, who hired lawyer Henry McDougal to sue for the loss of property. Indeed Daniel Smoote v. Frank and Jesse James actually happened, and the judge ruled in Smoote’s favor after Frank and Jesse refused to appear for trial. Afterward, sore loser Jesse twice tried to murder McDougal (also see Muehlberger’s “He Won His Showdown With Jesse James” in the February 2010 Wild West). McDougal not only survived but, after Jesse’s death, prosecuted Frank James for murder.
As this well-researched book details, Jesse and most members of the gang fared far worse than Frank. After giving himself up, Frank was tried in Gallatin, Mo., in August-September 1883 for the 1879 murder of Frank McMillan during the Winston, Mo., train robbery. In this “trial of the century,” in which McDougal served as one of the prosecutors, the jury acquitted Frank. There would be one more trial for Frank, a 10-day April 1882 event in Huntsville, Ala., in which he was tried for the March 11, 1881, robbery of an Army paymaster near Muscle Shoals, Ala. After a parade of witnesses swore they saw Frank in Nashville, Tenn., on the day of the robbery, the jury reached a verdict of not guilty. Frank was now a free man, and he lived as such until his death of natural causes at age 72 in 1915. The author says the Gallatin trial “demonstrates the power of myth, even in the face of stark facts.” He adds the verdict was “the first, and perhaps the most important, victory for those committed to the Lost Cause myth, a myth that continues to be propagated today.” No legalese here. Muehlberger writes well, providing a clear picture of this lesser known side to the James Gang story.