Terror filled the streets of Independence 136 years ago as a member of the James Gang was on trial and the gang tried to intimidate the community and bend a jury to its will.
It didn’t work. Bill “Whiskeyhead” Ryan was sentenced to prison for 25 years for his role in the robbery at the Glendale Station.
“To me, this was a climax of all the terror that could be inflicted on … the community,” says Ralph Monaco II, whose latest book is “The Bandit Rides Again: Jesse James, Whiskeyhead Ryan, and the Glendale Train Robbery.”
It’s out now, with proceeds benefitting the Jackson County Historical Society. This Saturday, Monaco and others will re-create Ryan’s trial. The event is at 1 p.m. in the Brady Courtroom on the second floor of the Truman Courthouse in the middle of the Independence Square. Admission is $10, and some tickets are still available. Go to jchs.org, or pay at the door.
Monaco ran across something odd when researching his first book, “The Strange Story of Colonel Swope and Doctor Hyde.” It was a St. Louis Post-Dispatch article from 1910 in which William Lowe, implicated in the Leeds train robbery, recanted his earlier testimony. He knew that pointed to a story.
“So I just copied, pasted, saved it in a file in my office,” he said. Monaco wrote four other books, including “Blood on the Streets: The Civil War Comes to Jackson County, Missouri, August 1862” and “Scattered to the Four Winds: General Order No. 11 and Martial Law in Jackson County, Missouri, 1863.”
Now he’s come back to the James Gang, but this is roughly 15 years after the Civil War. It’s no longer the group that Monaco describes as a band of brothers, men who had ridden together in the war and rode and robbed afterward.
Northfield, Minnesota had changed that.
On Sept. 7, 1876, they attempted a daylight robbery of the First National Bank. Six of the gang’s members were killed or captured by townspeople who surrounded the bank or by a posse that chased them. Frank was shot in the leg, but he and Jesse got away.
“After that debacle … the James Gang is no more,” Monaco said.
Monaco is convinced that Frank James did no crimes from Northfield until the Winston train robbery of July 1881. Jesse, however, was reconstituting the gang, drawing in young ruffians from Cracker Neck, the area that today is the commercial strip near U.S. 40 and Missouri 291 – and not far from the Glendale station.
Frank James had his reservations. He warned Jesse against riding with Whiskeyhead Ryan, saying Ryan would bring down the gang.
“And he did,” Monaco said.
He adds, “Frank hates Bill Ryan.”
The gang hit the Chicago & Alton train at the Glendale station, which was on the west side of the tracks (today’s Kansas City Southern tracks) just north of what today is 39th Street and east of Little Blue Parkway.
Frank James wasn’t there.
“He was accused of it – just didn’t do it,” Monaco says.
But Ryan was there, and his drunken boasting about it later, in Tennessee, landed him back in Jackson County, on trial in September 1881.
Independence, Monaco points out, had known terror and war off and on since 1854, starting with the border war. More was on the way. Part of it was another Chicago & Alton robbery, on Sept. 7, 1881, this time at Blue Cut, which was either near today’s Midwest Genealogy Center on Lee’s Summit Road or a bit to the west, near Noland Road.
This time things were different. Frank took part. They robbed passengers, not just the railroad.
“They were sending a message,” Monaco says.
Also, he says, the “Cracker Neck boys galloped through town” and fired rockets into the air.
One former gang member, now a witness – Tucker Basham – was threatened. His home was torched.
During a weekend break in the trial a letter – complete with skull and crossbones – from the “League of 12” warned prosecutors to drop the charges against Ryan or “your lives will not be safe.”
“It was nothing but terrorism,” Monaco says.
It didn’t fail entirely. The prosecutor, trying desperately to convict Ryan and break the back of the gang, couldn’t get any Chicago & Alton employees to testify.
Nonetheless, the jury took only 15 minutes to convict Ryan and sentence him to 25 years in prison.
“My original title of the book,” Monaco said, “was ‘The Beginning of the End of the James Gang,’”
Within a year, Jesse James was dead – shot by one of his own – and Frank James had surrendered himself personally to the governor of Missouri. (He was still a folk hero and treated rather lavishly as he awaited trial at what is today known at the 1859 Jail on the Square.)
Part of what drove Monaco to write the book is that the Blue Cut and Glendale train robberies are often conflated, that people think Frank James was at both.
“Glendale and Blue Cut are confused,” he said.
Hollywood doesn’t always get history right, but Monaco said the 2007 movie “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” with Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck, is fairly accurate in its depiction of the robbery at Blue Cut.
The story has more layers – relatives and others who come in and out of the James brothers’ lives with various agendas, the newspaper editor who romanticised them despite the extreme violence they committed – all played out in Monaco’s book and this weekend’s re-enactment.
“That’s why I say fiction doesn’t beat history,” Monaco says.