Daily Archives: March 31, 2010

Jessie and Frank: Myths and Truths

So here I am in my hometown of Huntsville, AL for the launch of STRESS FRACTURE. Today we took our morning walk around Big Spring Park, the birthplace of the city. Big Spring erupts from one of the many limestone caverns that stretch out beneath the city and indeed much of North Alabama. Spelunking is big around here. It was on the banks of this spring that John Hunt settled, laying claim to what would become the Rocket City.

Big Spring Park

When I was kid, the park had a baseball field where I played Little League and streams and ponds where my cousin David and I sank more than a few toy boats. It was also a place where you could pull wads of water cress from the water and safely eat them or take them home for a dinner salad. Huntsville was the world’s water cress capitol.

It’s changed. Gone are the ball fields and the open land. But what remains is beautiful, particularly in the spring when the cherry and pear tress bloom. Like today.

Big Spring Park and the Von Braun Center

While walking, I was reminded of the story of when the James Gang robbed the First National Bank. A shoot out followed and Frank was captured. Jesse dove off the rock wall behind the bank and into Big Spring.

Big Spring origin and what was the First National Bank

He swam through the opening in the rock face where Big Spring originates and into the subterranean caverns, escaping the law and hiding out for a couple of days. Slipping away, he reorganized his gang and threatened to burn the city to the ground unless Frank was set free. Frank was released and he and Jesse headed north to the family farm just over the border in Tennessee. The city was saved.

Subterranean cavern entry beneath the bank

This was one of the great stories of my youth. What an adventure. How I wished I could have been around in the 1880s and witness this amazing event.

Only one problem. It never happened. True the James boys and their long-time accomplices the Youngers robbed banks and trains together and the James clan did indeed have a farm up in Tennessee. The rest? Not true.

Frank was jailed and tried in Huntsville in 1884, not for robbing the First National Bank, but for a 1881 payroll robbery in nearby Muscle Shoals, a city more recently famous for its music studio where artists such as Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart, and the Rolling Stones recorded.

On March 11, 1881, Jesse, Frank, Bill Ryan, and Wood Hite held up a federal paymaster and made off with $5200, no small amount in 1881. Frank and Jesse fled to Missouri, Jesse was killed in 1882, and in 1884 Frank was brought back to Huntsville to stand trial. It attracted media from all over and Frank was treated as a celebrity. He was also acquitted.

A great story, but the myth was better.


Posted by on March 31, 2010 in Interesting Cases

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