The True Story Behind the Legendary Outlaw Gang, a Civil War Vendetta, and the Forgotten Court Documents That Helped Seal Their Fate On a dreary December 7, 1869, two strangers entered the Daviess County Savings and Loan in Gallatin, Missouri. One of the men asked the cashier for change and then unexpectedly raised a revolver and shot him at point-blank range. Until now, this crime has been considered the first of a string of bank and train robberies committed by Jesse James, ...
The True Story Behind the Legendary Outlaw Gang, a Civil War Vendetta, and the Forgotten Court Documents That Helped Seal Their Fate On a dreary December 7, 1869, two strangers entered the Daviess County Savings and Loan in Gallatin, Missouri. One of the men asked the cashier for change and then unexpectedly raised a revolver and shot him at point-blank range. Until now, this crime has been considered the first of a string of bank and train robberies committed by Jesse James, his brother Frank, and other gang members. But a story has circulated for more than a century that the case was actually brought to trial by a young Missouri lawyer—and it was through this case that twenty-two-year-old Jesse was first identified as a criminal to the country. But until recently no evidence for such an action could be found. After years of painstaking searches through dusty court archives across Missouri, defense attorney James P. Muehlberger finally discovered the historic documents in 2007. These fascinating and important records reveal that the gunmen were forced to leave behind a magnificent thoroughbred that linked James to the murder and, more intriguing, that the attack was not a bank robbery at all, but a calculated assassination in retribution for a Civil War killing. The Lost Cause: The Trials of Frank and Jesse James is a thoroughly researched, thrilling account of the rise, pursuit, and prosecution of the legendary outlaw gang. Beginning with the newfound evidence of the Gallatin bank teller murder, the author explains how Jesse James attempted to avenge the death of his Confederate partisan leader, “Bloody Bill” Anderson, but shot the wrong man. Having lost his thoroughbred, Jesse stole another horse. Newly minted lawyer Henry McDougal brashly sued Jesse and Frank James for the loss of property, which would hang the murder on their heads. While Jesse professed his innocence and remained at large, his case was taken up by John Newman Edwards, editor of the Kansas City Times. Through Edwards’s pen, the James brothers were transformed from petty criminals to noble outlaws still fighting for Southern honor—the “Lost Cause.” Not fooled by Edwards’s rhetoric and populist appeal, McDougal and others, including Pinkerton detectives and the governor of Missouri, led a behind-the-scenes fight to bring down the gang. As the author explains, they first prosecuted lesser gang members, and by infiltrating the group, the authorities slowly unraveled the gang, with Jesse being shot by a paid informant in 1882. Frank James gave himself up, and in what was called the “trial of the century,” he was exonerated on all charges and retired to become a notable horse racing official until his death in 1915. Combining true crime, western adventure, and the transformation of America into a modern nation, The Lost Cause is engaging, entertaining history.
For The Lost Cause, Muehlberger, a practicing lawyer, pored through legal files that no one else had examined for over a century. He superbly describes the trial and its personalities, building suspense and revealing much about the time, the character of the place and the personality of Frank James. He also submits new evidence that puts a distinctly different spin on the brothers' motives and exploits.
Relying on rigorous research into Missouri court archives, Kansas City, Mo., lawyer Muehlberger tells the fascinating story of the murder that landed Frank and Jesse James in the headlines long before the latter’s ignominious end. In December 1869, the bandit brothers walked into a bank and shot the cashier at point-blank range. Initially considered the big bang that kicked off the Jameses’ spree of bank and train robberies, the murder was instead, according to Muehlberger, a premeditated and misdirected act of retribution in response to the killing of the brothers’ Confederate guerilla leader, “Bloody Bill” Anderson, during the Civil War. In the ensuing manhunt, the editor of the Kansas City Times, a Rebel sympathizer, tried to paint the brothers as defenders of the old Southern guard, while a young lawyer, the governor of Missouri, and the legendary Pinkerton detectives sought to present the men as they really were—thieves and murderers. All the front-line players receive Muehlberger’s close attention, and his history works well as both a thrilling Wild West drama and an insightful portrait of a country trying to rebuild under the burden of still-simmering resentments and conflicting loyalties. Photos, illus. & maps. (June)
A Missouri legal historian's well-researched but lackluster answer to the question of whether Jesse James was "the last great rebel of the Civil War or the first notorious robber after [it]." Since his death in 1882, outlaw Jesse James has been immortalized in books and films as the "noble robber" who committed crimes in the name of "protecting the former Confederate States from Northern exploitation." Attorney Muehlberger takes exception to this myth and sets out to show that James was anything but noble. He seeks out the "smoking gun" in personal papers, newspaper reports and sworn testimonies from criminal trials involving both Jesse and his brother Frank. The author examines records of a successful suit brought against the James brothers by Henry McDougal, a man who not only founded Muehlberger's law firm, but was also an important figure in late-19th-century Missouri politics. What emerges is a story of a man who was a faceless Confederate bushwhacker until 1869. In December of that year, he and his brother robbed a small-town Missouri bank, killed a former Union captain–turned-cashier and made off with another man's prized thoroughbred horse. John Edwards, the Kansas City Times editor and a former Confederate soldier, seized upon the story and helped James write extravagant letters that extolled the virtues of the Confederate "Lost Cause." According to Muehlberger, those letters not only created the Jesse James myth, but also diverted attention away from the fact that James supported his penchant for gambling and his taste for fine horses through theft and murder. James' story is intriguing, but it often gets lost in the larger historical context Muehlberger provides, as well as in the detailed descriptions of court proceedings involving the James brothers. Of possible interest to Jesse James and/or Civil War buffs, but not to a wider audience.
Lawyer and legal historian Muehlberger's investigation of Jesse and Frank James's criminal careers and their connection to a little-remembered legal case involving a horse named Kate, a young lawyer, a Confederate-sympathizing newspaper editor, and lasting memories of the chaos Missouri experienced during the Civil War reveals a fascinating historical story. Muehlberger asserts that current perception of the James-Younger gang derives from years of sensational dime novels and Kansas City Times editor John Newman Edwards's propaganda campaign in favor of the legendary outlaws. He also argues that the turbulent atmosphere of Missouri during the Civil War and the James's involvement with Southern guerillas who terrorized pro-Union sympathizers led to the development of a Robin Hood-type legend instead of any factual investigation of Jesse and Frank's crimes and motives. The legal case surrounding a robbery/murder in Gallatin, MI, and lawyer Henry McDougal's use of a property-loss suit is the springboard for a well-documented and well-researched tale that reads like a thriller. VERDICT Recommended for general readers, historic true crime buffs, legal and crime scholars, and those who enjoy myth busting.—Amelia Osterud, Carroll Univ. Lib., Waukesha, WI
JAMES P. MUEHLBERGER is a partner at the Shook, Hardy & Bacon law firm in Kansas City, Missouri. A graduate of the University of Kansas Law School, he is a frequent author on litigation and legal history. His articles have appeared in a number of publications, including the National Law Journal, For the Defense, and Wild West Magazine.