As much as everyone loves a good story, and as much as those stories — at least, the most salacious ones — tend to be exaggerated and become a part of local lore as they’re handed down through the generations, there’s one of the chronicles of Scott County’s past that has gone mostly untold: the story of how this rural Cumberland Plateau community helped to harbor one of America’s most notorious outlaws.
That outlaw was, of course, Jesse James, the renowned bank and train robber and leader of the James-Younger Gang. Both of Scott County’s most prominent historians — H. Clay Smith and Esther Sharp Sanderson — wrote of James’ visits to the area, yet still relatively little is known about exactly what James’ business was in Scott County.
Smith told it like this, relating a story told to him by Huntsville native James W. Baker:
“They came to Huntsville about two years after the Civil War; four strangers rode into the county seat town of Huntsville, Tennessee. They boarded at the Sharp Hotel on the southeast corner of the Court Square and told people they were buyers and traders of livestock.”
The four men were brothers Jesse and Frank James and two members of their band. According to recorded history, the men rented a building next door to the hotel, which was owned by Billy Sharp, a colorful character known around town as “Uncle Billy,” and opened a general store.
Over the next several months, the James brothers and their companions operated the store, taking care of their financial obligations with gold or silver coin and riding in and out of town to locate livestock — cattle, hogs, horses and sheep — that could be purchased and driven to market the following summer.
And then, after six months, they simply closed up the shop and rode off. There was no notice; the four men left as quickly as they had arrived.
By the time the James brothers rode into Huntsville in the late 1860s, it is quite possible that they had already begun their life of crime. As post-Civil War violence raged in the brothers’ home state of Missouri, crime took root. Among the bank robberies that took place by ex-Confederate secessionists, there were two that stood out: On February 13, 1866, the first daylight armed bank robbery in the United States during peacetime occurred in Liberty, Mo. The bank, Clay County Savings Association, was owned by Republican former militia officers, and was robbed by bushwhackers with whom Jesse James had been affiliated with as a teenager during the war.
It is unknown whether Jesse and Frank James participated in that robbery. As they became renowned through their involvement in later bank robberies, they were retroactively credited with the Liberty robbery, but it was never conclusively proven.
The second bank robbery was on May 23, 1867, when the gang with which the James brothers was associated robbed a bank in Richmond, Mo., killing the town’s mayor and two others in the process. Again, it isn’t clear whether Jesse and Frank James took part in the robbery, but an eyewitness told a newspaper that he recognized the brothers among the robbers.
The James brothers were not well-known when they spent time in Huntsville, which helps explain why their presence in Scott County did not arouse suspicion. They were outlaws by that time, of course; their involvement in guerrilla warfare during the Civil War had made them so. In fact, the brothers’ parents and sister were forced by Union troops to leave Clay County, Mo. and migrate to Nebraska as a result of the brothers’ guerrilla activities.
Still, their exploits had not captured the imagination of the nation, and would not until they began to be associated with bank robberies and train robberies several years later.
While it’s not completely clear that the brothers were involved in any bank robberies prior to their stay in Huntsville, they were conclusively tied to a bank robbery in Russellville, Ky., near the Tennessee-Kentucky state line, in 1868. That would have likely been after they departed Huntsville for good.
It was in 1869, just about three weeks before Christmas, that Jesse James the outlaw began to gain notoriety. He and his brother robbed the Daviess County Savings Association in Gallatin, Mo. And while they didn’t get much money from the robbery, James shot and killed a cashier, mistakenly believing him to be the U.S. Army captain who had shot and killed his former guerrilla commander, “Bloody Bill” Anderson, during the Civil War.
The James brothers managed to elude a posse and escape from Gallatin, but they were officially outlaws. Missouri Governor Thomas T. Crittenden set a reward for Jesse James’ capture.
In the months that followed the Gallatin robbery, a pro-Confederate newspaper, the Kansas City Times, began publishing letters from James in which he asserted his innocence and railed against Republican leadership in Missouri, while expressing pride in those who remained loyal to the Confederate cause. With the newspaper’s influence, James became the symbol of resistance to the Republican-led Reconstruction efforts and a way for the defiant former Confederates to rally their cause. He was fast becoming a Southern hero.
It was about the same time that the James-Younger gang was founded, with the James brothers joining brothers Cole, John, Jim and Bob Younger, along with other Confederates. Together, they robbed banks in Iowa, Texas, Kansas, West Virginia and many states in between. They also robbed stagecoaches, even a fair. They would carry out their robberies daringly, in broad daylight and in front of crowds of people, even taking the time to ham it up for bystanders.
The James brothers’ first train robbery was carried out in July 1873, when a train was derailed along the Rock Island railroad line near Adair, Iowa. A total of $3,000 — or about $61,000 in modern worth — was stolen. The gang wore Ku Klux Klan masks as they carried out the robbery.
Although the James brothers — particularly Frank — had been connected with savagery during the Civil War, there was a humanitarian touch to their train robberies. They held up passengers only twice, otherwise choosing to take the contents of the train’s safe. With the Kansas City newspaper highlighting these details, Jesse James began to earn a reputation as a 19th century Robin Hood.
Public sentiment towards Jesse James grew more favorable in 1875, when the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, which had been hired by the railroad to stop the James-Younger Gang, raided the James family farm in Missouri, burning the residence and killing James’ younger half-brother, Archie. A bill was introduced in the Missouri state legislature to praise the James brothers and offer them amnesty. It was defeated, but only narrowly.
In September 1876, the James-Younger Gang met its demise in Northfield, Minn., when a bank robbery went terribly wrong. Two members of the gang were killed by townspeople who — unlike the residents of Missouri — weren’t sympathetic towards the James brothers. The Younger brothers were all captured in a subsequent gunfight. Only the James brothers escaped.
Jesse and Frank James moved to Nashville after that, going by the names of Thomas Howard and BJ Woodson. But Jesse James couldn’t completely give up his life of crime. And, three years later, he began to recruit a new gang. He robbed a train in Glendale, Mo. Other crimes followed.
Eventually, though, the James brothers decided it was time to settle down for good. They moved back to Missouri, then Frank James left for Virginia, where he thought he’d be safer.
on April 3, 1882, Jesse James was shot dead inside his Missouri home by Bob Ford. Ford, who was at the residence with his brother, Charley, shot James in the back of the head as James stood on a chair to clean a dusty picture.
The Ford brothers wired the governor to claim his reward, but the two were arrested and charged with first-degree murder. They later pleaded guilty and were sentenced to death by hanging, but were pardoned by the governor. That fueled public sentiment for Jesse James, creating suspicion that the governor had conspired with a private citizen to kill the outlaw. Ford was shot in the throat and killed 10 years later. His killer was sentenced to life in prison, but his sentence was commuted after more than 7,000 people signed a petition demanding his release.
Years later, long after his brother had been killed, Frank James visited the Kentucky town of Hustonville, located along modern-day U.S. Hwy. 127 just north of Somerset, where he visited with the Weatherford family, who were merchants in the town. As related by Smith in his book, Dusty Bits of the Forgotten Past, when the Weatherfords told Frank James that their business partner was James F. Baker in Huntsville, Tenn., James told them that he was well acquainted with the town, and that “he and Jesse had stayed in Huntsville several months under assumed names while ‘scouting’ or ‘laying low’ from officers of the law. He described the town and several persons whom he remembered well. Two of them were Uncle Billy Sharp and Rube Hurtt.”
It is likely that a Scott County man was a part of the James gang. Mitt Adkins, alias Clell Miller, is believed to have been killed during one of the bank robberies in Missouri.
This story is the August 2018 installment of Forgotten Times, presented by United Cumberland Bank on the fourth week of each month as part of the Independent Herald's Back Page Features series. A print version of this story can be found on Page B10 of the August 23, 2018 edition of the Independent Herald.