Posted May 26, 2003

Jesse James and the First Missouri Train Robbery

by Ronald H Beights

Jesse James and the First Missouri Train Robbery

Available from

30% off cover price

Pelican Books
Trade Paperback, 206 pages


Reviewed by G. E. Rule

On January 31, 1874, five men robbed the Little Rock Express on its way from St. Louis, MO to Little Rock, AR at a little southeast Missouri town called Gads Hill. A bold and daring robbery that resulted in no casualties, the Gads Hill robbery did much to add to the legend of the James-Younger gang. The “captain” of the robbers came prepared with a pre-written press-release that he gave the trainmen to relay to the newspapers. “There’s a hell of an excitement in this part of the country” it ended, and indeed there was.

Author Ronald H. Beights has been fascinated with the Gads Hill robbery since he was a boy, and his book reflects many years of patient research in original sources and with descendants of some of those touched by the bandits along their route.

Beights begins the story on January 13, 1874, as five mysterious, and heavily armed, travelers ride through Arkansas. Two days later these five robbed a stagecoach at Hot Springs. Beights follows them back into Missouri and the robbed train, and then along their escape route back to the home ground of the James-Youngers in western Missouri. As Beights relates, in the next few months following the robbery three detectives and one of the Youngers would die in gun battles as the Pinkerton Agency tried to apprehend the Gads Hill robbers.

Beights is certain that Jesse and Frank James were two of the five robbers, and the evidence is indeed convincing on this point. Of the remaining three, two were probably Youngers, with Beights seeming to like Jim and John for the role, though he acknowledges that at least one of those robbed at Gads Hill was later certain that Cole Younger was one of the robbers. But Cole’s alibi seems fairly convincing, and John and Jim showed up in St. Clair County around the time the escaping robbers reached there. They ended up in a battle with three Pinkerton men on March 16, 1874, with two of the Pinkertons and John Younger killed in the process.

For the fifth man, Beights is not certain at all. Arthur McCoy and Clell Miller seem to be his two leading candidates, but Beights does not seem willing to choose between them. However, based on physical descriptions, my money is on McCoy. In their wanderings, the fifth man was described as being around 40 years old and over six feet tall. This simply cannot be Miller (5’8” and in his mid-twenties) or any other known James-Younger associate of the time, but fits McCoy very well indeed.

As McCoy aficionados, it was very enjoyable to read Beights write about “the Arthur McCoy gang”, as the newspapers often described them at the time. While McCoy’s leadership of the gang just after the war would make a lot of sense, by 1874 it is certainly possible that Jesse had assumed a leadership role. It is worth noting that the St. Louis newspapers (and their readers) were familiar with McCoy back into the 1850’s probably, and certainly by early 1861 when he was considered one of the five leaders (with Basil Duke, Colton Greene, Rock Champion, and James Quinlan) of the pro-secession Minute Men militia of St. Louis, engaged in a duel with Frank Blair and Nathaniel Lyon over the Federal arsenal and it’s precious arms. Colton Greene (later General, CSA) noted that in the near-riot in front of Minute Men headquarters on March 4, 1861, that it was under McCoy’s leadership that the street-fighting was beginning to go the Minute Men’s way before the Mayor of St. Louis arrived and managed to quell the outbreak before it became an all-out war (which, quite frankly, is what the Minute Men were after just then). McCoy continued to be familiar with St. Louis newspaper readers as a Captain (and spy who often slipped into and out of St. Louis during the war) with JO Shelby’s cavalry. It is quite likely that McCoy became familiar with the James, Youngers, and friends during General Price’s Great Raid of 1864. According to John N. Edwards, McCoy was riding next to guerrilla chieftain George Todd when Todd was killed near Independence, MO in October of 1864. At any rate, it should be no surprise that the St. Louis newspapers would look at the lineup of the gang and decide that McCoy was probably the one calling the shots. Certainly his was the name that their readers would be most likely to recognize with a shiver of apprehension. It is interesting to note that one of the robbers evinced an especial hatred of the St. Louis Democrat. The Democrat had long been the paper of record of Missouri’s Republicans (one of the countless ironies of the Civil War and Reconstruction in Missouri is the misnaming of St. Louis two biggest newspapers --the Republican was a Democratic paper and the Democrat was a Republican paper), and therefore was to be despised by all ex-Confederates. McCoy as an ex-Confederate St. Louisian was likely to have an even deeper hatred of the Democrat than his western Missouri compatriots.

Beights’ McCoy sources seem very good, and we are pleased to note that he taught us a thing or two in that area. It seems likely that Beights withholds naming McCoy as the fifth man for sure based on the report in the St. Louis Dispatch that McCoy had died in Texas on January 11, 1874, and therefore could not have been involved. The thing is, the Dispatch was John N. Edwards paper just then, and this would not be the first nor last time that Edwards had covered for McCoy or the James boys. According to Beights, on April 7, 1874, the Liberty Tribune reported that McCoy had been killed near the Missouri/Arkansas border on or about March 1, 1874, with Frank James wounded at the same time. The St. Louis Democrat reprinted the claim on April 11, and then on April 14, the Dispatch claimed to have an anonymous letter from Texas claiming that McCoy had died there in January.

It seems clear that the Dispatch article was prompted by two things. One was the report in the hated Democrat of three days before. The second was the Dispatch’s report of February 10, 1874, putting the Gads Hill robbery on McCoy, the James, and the Youngers. As Beights reports, Edwards was out of town when the Feb. 10 article appeared, and was furious when he learned that his newspaper had printed it. It seems quite possible that the “anonymous letter from Texas” was Edwards’ way of getting his old friend and wartime companion (Edwards was Shelby’s Adjutant when McCoy was one of Shelby’s captains) Arthur off the hook for Gads Hill. Edwards had reported in the famous “A Terrible Quintette” just a few months earlier in the Dispatch that McCoy intended to “Go West.” So reporting his death in Texas would fit his earlier reporting. If McCoy was already dead anyway in the reported March shootout, at least he could protect the family somewhat by deflecting blame for the Gads Hill train robbery. Also, if McCoy couldn’t have been at Gads Hill, then maybe it wasn’t “The Arthur McCoy Gang” (i.e. James and Youngers) that did the job after all; a line of thought that Edwards was trying to encourage just then. However, Frank and Jesse were there, and there doesn’t seem to be any other forty-something year old six-footers besides McCoy in the inventory of James associates to fit the bill for the fifth man at Gads Hill.

All of which is not to say that Beights’ book features Arthur McCoy as much as this review does. You’ll have to blame our particular interest in McCoy for that. What Beights does do exceedingly well, however, is return to original sources, and to the reports and oral history of those who came in contact with the outlaws in the weeks surrounding the robbery. Beights’ writing is easy on the eye, and at about 150 pages of story (not counting introduction, footnotes, and index), Jesse James and the First Missouri Train Robbery is a quick and informative read. Highly recommended.


©2003 G. E. Rule

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