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  • Frank James’s Muscle Shoals Trial
  • Whitney Snow (bio)

In the custody of deputy marshals, alexander frank james departed Kansas City, Missouri, on February 13, 1884, to face charges for robbery. This would be no short trip to a local or even state jail, but instead a long cross-country journey. Frank’s ultimate destination was Huntsville, Alabama, a rural city on the cusp of becoming an industrial haven, primarily for textile mills. There he was to stand trial for complicity in the robbery of a canal paymaster in nearby Muscle Shoals. The calamity that soon befell this Tennessee Valley town evolved from fact, meshed with fiction, and ultimately became legend. Weeding out rumors and myths leaves a very simple truth—that in all likelihood, Frank did not commit the crime in question. Even so, the ordeal certainly shaped James mythology, especially in Huntsville. Its locals weaved many tall tales about Frank’s “visit” and continue to do so to this day. Exploring public perception of the James gang outside of Missouri, this case study argues that the trial’s significance lay not in its verdict, but rather in the reasons behind the support Huntsville locals gave the brother of Jesse James.

Historians have grappled over Frank’s guilt or lack thereof in the Muscle Shoals robbery. In his 1955 book The James Boys Rode South, W. Stanley Hoole argued that while visiting an old childhood pal John Green Norris, the owner of a contracting firm in Selma, Alabama, Frank and Jesse planned the Muscle Shoals robbery. Hoole emphasized, however, that the heist was Jesse’s idea and that an unenthused Frank simply went along with his brother’s scheme.1 According to [End Page 322] Huntsville historian James Record, “My opinion is that he was guilty.”2 This is a tempting conclusion, but the easiest conclusion is not always the right one.

In Frank and Jesse James: The Story Behind the Legend, Ted Yeatman announced his suspicion as to the identity of the culprits: Jesse, Wood Hite, and Bill Ryan. This is an interesting argument because the participation of Hite, Jesse’s cousin, would explain why so many witnesses claimed two of the bandits resembled. Cousins often favor as much as siblings. Plus, one of the blonde men was said to look sick and at the time, Hite’s brother had recently passed away from tuberculosis. T. J. Stiles, author of Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War, concurred that Jesse masterminded the heist and was aided by Hite and Ryan. In Shot All to Hell: Jesse James, the Northfield Raid, and the Wild West’s Greatest Escape, Mark Lee Gardner also argued Frank’s innocence in the Muscle Shoals robbery. Gerard Petrone, author of Judgement at Gallatin: The Trial of Frank James, and James P. Muehlberger, author of The Lost Cause: The Trials of Frank and Jesse James, maintained Frank had not been involved in the Alabama crime.3 But if he did not participate in the deed, why did Frank, living under an alias, flee Nashville? Part of it may have been filial loyalty, but more than likely, he left because Ryan had exposed his true identity.4 With their track record, it is not outside the realm of possibility for Jesse and Frank to have both been involved, but neither may have participated in the heist. Frank and Jesse were respected members of the Nashville community and, if not well-off, they were at least comfortable, so there was no reason for them to risk losing their newfound peace of mind. [End Page 323]

Before delving into the case, context must be given as to how Frank and his infamous brother Jesse were accused in the first place. The story begins on March 11, 1881, when U.S. Army Paymaster Alexander G. Smith, attempting to deliver the payroll for the Muscle Shoals canal at Lock 6, was robbed by three men. They stopped him about two miles from his destination. He thought they were lost and wanting directions until they pulled out their guns and proceeded to take $5,290.18, roughly $500 in gold, $419 in silver, and $4,371 in greenbacks. For...


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pp. 322-344
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