On March 11, 1881, Alexander Smith, Army paymaster, swung into the saddle in Florence, Alabama bearing $5200 in government payroll. He trotted along the Muscle Shoals Canal tow path several miles from town. The canal was known across the country, a modern engineering marvel. But to the three desperados recently arrived from their home in Nashville, the canal meant an opportunity, greenbacks, government payroll no less, just what they preferred.
The band sprung on Smith before he could reach for his pistol, robbed him then released him along with about $30 of his own money and a gold watch. They told him they desired to take nothing but the government money. They gave him an overcoat to warm himself when they parted. Previously they had robbed banks in Kentucky at Russellville and Columbia in 1868 and 1872. They stole as much as $20,000 from a bank in Huntington, West Virginia in 1875 and held up a stagecoach near Mammoth Cave, Kentucky in 1880.
Soon one of the bandits was caught in Nashville, but the others got away cleanly, safe across the Mississippi. So why is the hold up in Alabama so significant and what has any of this to do with the Old West? The War Between the States, then sixteen years past, holds the answer. Let me explain.
About two years later, a wanted man calling himself BJ Woodson surrendered to the governor. His brother, murdered a few months earlier, was also wanted. To the governor’s way of thinking, a notorious outlaw like the brother was best done with no matter the political climate. His killers were quickly tried, convicted and then pardoned. This left little doubt that the same fate awaited “Woodson” if he did not take make a change, so he surrendered. A former gang member identified “Woodson” as one of Paymaster Smith’s assailants. He was extradited from his native state to Alabama where he stood trial for the first time in his life – for that holdup along the Muscle Shoals Canal.
But no one was surprised when the jury in the Southern state acquitted. In the years following the end of Civil War Reconstruction, the old Southern guard had sought to exert itself in Alabama and other Southern states. Juries mostly decided by what seemed politically correct rather than on the evidence. This case proved no different and our defendant, a Confederate veteran and Southern folk hero, went free.
But upon leaving the court room, this “Woodson” faced two more lawmen, each waiting to return him for trial to his own jurisdiction. Fortunately for him it was the marshal from Missouri who took custody. You see “Woodson” had carried out far more crime in his home state than those relative few robberies I noted east of the Mississippi. He was returned home to Missouri where, once again, sympathetic jurors acquitted him, first for murder and later for armed robbery. And the authorities from that other jurisdiction, the State of Minnesota, never were granted extradition.
It seems an agreement was reached between the Missouri governor and “Mr. Woodson”. The agreement would allow him to avoid the fate of his brother, Jesse. The mysterious Mr. Woodson was in fact Frank James. He agreed to surrender and even to stand trial in Alabama, but only if assured he would be spared extradition to Minnesota where the his gang’s Northfield raid left two citizens dead. Cole, Jim and Bob Younger, captured after that raid, had availed themselves of a quirk in the state’s law and legally slipped the hangman’s noose by confessing. Outrage led to a change in the law and confession was no longer permitted to save a convicted man in Minnesota. Those Minnesota Yankees, prone to despising former Rebels, would most assuredly convict and hang Frank James.
But Frank was never convicted of anything. He took jobs as a shoe salesman, telegraph operator and as the betting commissioner for a New Orleans horse track. In fact after Cole younger was paroled and left Minnesota in 1903, he and Frank started the James-Younger Wild West Show. Frank traveled as a lecturer and gave 50 cent tours of the home he and Jesse grew up in.
And there in 1915 he died in bed at the age of 72. It seems in those days it was better to be popular than law abiding. Come to think of it maybe not that much has changed since then.