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Frank James reenactor offers glimpse into inner life

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

(Photo)
Gregg Higginbotham of Independence, Mo., portrays Frank James during the Historic Preservation Association of Bourbon County's meeting on a recent Wednesday night at The Old Congregational Church.(Laurie Sisk/Tribune)
Frank James was a mix of contradictions, a man who enjoyed reading Shakespeare and history who had the reputation of a cold-hearted outlaw. At the same time, he denied robbing any banks or murdering anyone.

James, in the form of reenactor Gregg Higginbotham, made the historic figure's case before a full house at Fort Scott's Old Congregational Church on a recent Wednesday night.

Numerous books and dime-store novels have been written about James, his more famous brother Jesse and the Younger gang, but he said few of those -- or any of the tales -- have much truth to them.

Higginbotham said neither he nor Jesse had been to Minnesota where the famous Northfield, Minn., raid involving Cole Younger's gang took place when he tried to rob a bank there.

Reflecting on his life, Higginbotham said James was born Alexander Franklin James in Kearney, Mo., to Baptist minister Robert Sallee and Zerelda James in 1843. He died Feb. 18, 1915 at age 72.

James was named after Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin, two of his mother's favorite people from history -- and his own.

Because he didn't laugh a lot, he was called Old Gloomy Frank. His mother was married three times. Higginbotham said the James boys didn't like her second husband very much, but they were fond of her third spouse, Dr. Reuben Samuel.

James was 18 when the Civil War began and joined the 5th Division of the Missouri State Guard, which in September 1861, took on the Union at Lexington, Mo. Left behind after getting sick, James surrendered to the Union. He was paroled and allowed to go home, but references say, he was forced to sign an oath of allegiance to the Union.

After Confederate troops withdrew in fall 1864, references said, a guerrilla war was sparked between pro-Confederates, known as bushwhackers, and the Union, web references said.

In early 1863, James joined a guerrilla group headed by Fernando Scott and then switched to one led by William Quantrill.

James said his favorite gun was a .44 caliber Remington because the cylinders came out easily. "We wore shirts with big pockets in front and carried extra-big cylinders in our shirt pockets already loaded," Higginbotham said, as James.

"Remingtons are the surest and strongest revolvers made," he added.

Higginbotham said Quantrill's band started off with 200 men and grew to 400. "We fought a war we didn't win, but by God we gave it our best shot," he said.

James married Annie Ralston, a school teacher from Independence. Ralston taught school at Rock Creek. James escorted her across the creek one day when it was flooded and she referred to him as a "gallant knight."

He was 32 when they eloped in Omaha, Neb. The couple had a son, Robert.

Jesse James married the same day to a first cousin, named Zerelda like the boys' mother. They had two children, Jesse Edwards and Mary.

In October 1882 and following the death of Jesse James, Frank James surrendered to then-Gov. Thomas Crittenden in Jefferson City, Mo., by handing over his revolvers. He was assured a fair trial and was acquitted.

He and his family returned to Independence and were greeted by the whole town. James was still wanted in several other states, but the charges didn't stick, so by the fall of 1883, he was able to do whatever he wanted.

While visiting friends in Nevada, Mo., in the fall of 1902, James was hired by the Bourbon County Racing Association to be the "official starter" at the "fall races" that were held at the fairgrounds racetrack located on South U.S. Highway 69 and Liberty Road where Extrusions, Ward Craft and Labconco are presently located.

James traveled to and from Fort Scott on the Kay Railroad and was in Fort Scott for the entire three-day race, the release said. He died in 1915 at the age of 72.



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