When I was a boy, my paternal grandfather told me stories of his father, James Henry “Big Chief” Hill, who was something of a rolling stone. Big Chief didn’t marry until he was in his 30s, after spending a good deal of time rambling, and gambling, from one place to another across the South. Rumor has it that he had to leave Alabama for a while after an altercation with a less-than-honest poker player in Florence. My great-grandpa was always good with a gun or knife. But the most captivating story my granddaddy told me of his father was the latter’s friendship with Frank James (Jesse’s older brother, for those who don’t know).
It seems that my great-grandfather, born the son of a Confederate soldier, Henry Randolph Hill, in the Greenhill-Killen area of northwest Alabama in 1866, had met Frank James during one of the latter’s forays into the Tennessee Valley after the war. Frank had apparently taken a liking to this bold, impulsive young fellow. Though I never learned all the details of this friendship, I have always had a particular interest in—and admiration for—the James-Younger Gang. After all, not everyone can claim a tie to famous Southern outlaws as part of his family history. So I was more than just a little interested when the Huntsville Times recently ran a story on the 1884 trial of Frank James.
In April of that year, forty-one-year-old Frank James was being held in a Huntsville jail cell on federal robbery charges. Prosecutors claimed that Frank, Jesse, and sidekick “Wild Bill” Ryan had held up a U.S. Army payroll clerk in March 1881, taking over $5000 that was to be used to help construct the Muscle Shoals Canal, not far from my current residence in Killen. By the spring of 1884, Jesse was already dead from a bullet in the back from gang member Bob Ford. But Frank had survived ordeal after ordeal, becoming a living legend in the process. He did not disappoint the citizens of Huntsville in the spring of 1884.
Huntsville, and all of north Alabama, clearly stood with Frank James as the trial date approached. Tom Carney, the editor of Old Huntsville Magazine, wrote that the James trial “was probably the biggest thing to hit Huntsville since the Civil War [sic].” During the two months Frank spent locked up in the city jail awaiting trial, he was treated royally. He held court, as it were, reading Shakespeare aloud, charming the ladies, and doing several flamboyant interviews with sympathetic news reporters. Local businessmen supplied Frank with good food and fine cigars and kept his clothes cleaned and pressed, all at no charge to the accused.
On the first day of the trial—17 April 1884—the walls of the Calhoun House on Eustis Avenue shook in response to the wild cheers from a capacity crowd of well wishers who packed the cavernous building. They were there to see Frank beat the federal rap. His lawyer, LeRoy Pope Walker, the Confederacy’s first Secretary of War, called upon the defense’s chief witness, a Nashville police officer, to swear that he’d seen Frank in the Tennessee capital on the day of the robbery. That testimony, in addition to Walker’s playing up of Frank’s pro-Confederate activities and the fact that the James boys had robbed only Yankee trains, was all it took to convince the jury to come back after only thirty minutes with a verdict of “not guilty.”
The courtroom erupted with shouts, cheers, and rebel yells in praise of Frank and the verdict. A festive atmosphere prevailed in the city. This was one battle the Yankees didn’t win. Tom Carney summed up the Southern attitude: “After the war, Southerners were stripped of their guns, their resources, and their pride. All of a sudden, a . . . hero like Frank James comes along. It didn’t matter if he was innocent or guilty, they weren’t going to convict him.”
Frank James may indeed have been “guilty” of breaking Yankee law, but there was a time when good Southerners had the sense to understand the virtue of heroism when it ran up against mere legalism. Frank and Jesse James robbed Yankees to give back to their own people, in some measure, a little of what the war and Reconstruction had robbed from them. The James boys were not in the train and bank robbing business to accumulate personal wealth. They, like the mythical Robin Hood and his Merry Men of Sherwood Forest, were in the business of dispensing justice on behalf of a prostrate people who had known precious little of it for a long time.
But can you imagine how different Frank James’s trial would be today, especially after 11 September 2001, the USA Patriot Act, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, and on-going wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? I would wager that most Huntsvillians (and Southerners in general) would call old Frank a terrorist rather than a hero. Of course, they would have been well conditioned by the media, their political representatives, and all respectable public opinion to accept the proposition that anyone who confronted and contested the power and authority of the federal government deserved imprisonment and even death. What the Yankees couldn’t do to us in 1884 they can do with apparent ease today.
I, however, (and I presume you as well) still consider Frank James a hero. Moreover, should Frank somehow come back to life today and continue his career of robbing Yankee trains and such, I would take that incarnation of him as a hero, too. I guess I’m saying that I love Frank James and all those like him who are not afraid to spit in the eye of tyrants and have a grand old time doing it. Their attitude is infectious, at least it is among a people who can think for themselves and still value the honorable and the decent rather than the powerful and profane.
My great-grandfathers’ generation, though raised amidst the poverty and destruction left by the war and Reconstruction, at least had enough pride and guts to refuse to bow to arrogant power. He and his contemporaries also had enough sense to honor a man such as Frank James. He was a real life hero to young James Henry Hill. In turn, both of those men are heroes to me. I hope I deserve to be called a hero by someone some day. For now, however, I suppose I—like you–shall have to be content with being called a terrorist and traitor by those who ought to know better—our own poor, brainwashed Southern brothers and sisters. And unlike Frank James, for all our trouble we haven’t even had the pleasure of robbing any Yankee trains. Our crimes are crimes of thoughts and words. Our crimes are crimes of remembering men like Frank James and wishing we could ride with them.
25 April 2005