Digging holes here and there in American history.


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Thursday, April 26, 2012

THE JESSE JAMES GANG AND THE ARCADIA STAGECOACH ROBBERY


 
By Wesley Harris
 
    Near noon on January 8, 1874, five masked men swooped down on an eastbound stagecoach about three miles west of Arcadia. While the robbers searched for valuables among the mail bags and the passengers’ pockets, the westbound coach of the Monroe & Shreveport Stage Line approached. Forcing it to stop as well, the robbers added to their bounty. The evidence points to members of the infamous James-Younger gang as the likely culprits. 
Jesse James

The road traversing north Louisiana from the Mississippi River to Texas was known as the Traveler’s Road, Wire Road, or depending on your perspective, the Shreveport Road or the road to Texas. Prior to the Civil War, the railroad had extended its line west from Vicksburg to Monroe, Louisiana, with the intent of linking up with Shreveport but the conflict interrupted the project.

The lean years of Reconstruction further delayed extension of the rails. To span the gap between the Ouachita and Red Rivers, the same men who ran the railroad operated a stagecoach line, providing the only commercial conveyance between Monroe and Shreveport, a distance of more than 100 miles. The Monroe & Shreveport Stage Line operated until 1883 when the Vicksburg, Shreveport & Pacific Railroad was finally completed.

Newspaper accounts described the robbery in detail. One robber stood in the road to stop the Monroe-bound stage while his companions hid in the trees. The most thorough narrative was provided by Special Agent J.R. Jolly of the Post Office Department, a tale that was repeated in newspapers across the country:



“ …a person disguised with a handkerchief over a portion of his face sprang in front of the horses in the lead, and, bringing a double-barreled shotgun cocked to bear on the driver, demanded him to stop the stage, which was done, as the driver remarked that he could almost see the bottom of both barrels of the gun, owing to the direction it was pointed. At the same moment two robbers, standing unobserved behind the pine trees, sprang to one side of the stage, while two more, secreted behind fallen trees, jumped to the other side, and the four, having large revolvers in each of their hands, demanded the passengers to surrender their weapons.”

The five hapless passengers immediately and without hesitation complied:

“One revolver and two derringers were given up to the robbers after which the passengers were requested to get out of the stage one at a time. On alighting they were compelled to raise both arms and submit to having their persons searched for money and other valuables. This performance gone through, they were politely requested to be seated in a row, and be quiet and obedient.

“The amount obtained was $760 from the passengers, but the robbers returned $5 each to three of them and $10 each to the other two. One of the $10 notes was given in payment of the appropriated revolver. A request to strip and search one of the victims was suggested and he immediately commenced pulling off his clothing at the same time telling the robbers that it was rather hard to take all of his money and then force him to disrobe. His extreme willingness seemed to convince them that he possessed no more shekels, and they permitted him to again fall in line without further investigation…”


The devious passenger had outsmarted them. Had the strip continued, a money belt containing $800 in gold would have been discovered. Instead, the money reached the Arcadia postmaster safely.

During the holdup, the westbound stage from Monroe approached and the robbers quickly regrouped to intercept it as well. It proved to be without passengers so the booty was limited to slim pickings from the mail bag. The robbers appeared to be in no hurry, taking an hour to commit their crime, even bantering with the victims and collecting up newspapers to take with them.
Ticket for Monroe & Shreveport Stage Line

Speculation has tied the James-Younger gang to the robbery but most accounts of the notorious robbers’ exploits fail to mention it. The litany of 1874 crimes attributed to Jesse and Frank James and Cole Younger and his brothers normally begins with the January 15 robbery of a stagecoach between Malvern and Hot Springs, Arkansas, followed by the audacious heist of the Iron Mountain train at Gad’s Hill, Missouri on January 31. However, strong evidence indicates the James-Younger gang committed the double robbery of the Louisiana stages.

Few historians link the Jameses and Youngers to Louisiana, but legends abound in the Bayou State regarding the outlaws’ affinity for the region. A 1945 tour guide developed by writers employed by FDR’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) listed numerous James-Younger sites in northeast Louisiana, including purported hideouts. By his own admission, Cole Younger lived in northeast Louisiana off and on after the Civil War and in his book declares he was at the Bass Plantation in Carroll Parish (now East Carroll) with numerous witnesses when the Arcadia stage robberies occurred.

Local tradition holds that the James and Younger families spent time in the area between the Ouachita and Mississippi Rivers, mostly lying low when pursuit by the law got too hot in their regular stomping grounds. The stories are numerous enough to fill a book. Since newspapers were scarce in the area and publicly advertising the outlaws’ presence would be foolhardy at best, scant contemporary written record supports the anecdotes. Still, the volume of stories is compelling, although most were not reduced to paper until the early 20th Century.

Whether the folklore is true or not, Cole Younger admitted he, family members, and friends spent considerable time in Louisiana after the Civil War. Younger knew the area quite well. During the war, he participated in raids on the Louisiana side of the Mississippi River opposite Vicksburg and remained in the vicinity after the conflict ended. From Younger’s book, it is apparent he traveled the road where the stagecoaches were robbed several times.
Cole Younger, late in life

On several occasions Cole Younger claimed he was in northeast Louisiana when robberies took place elsewhere in the country. In his book, Cole Younger, by Himself, he states:

“At the time of the Richmond [March 2, 1867] and Savannah, Mo., [May 23, 1867] bank robberies, in which, according to newspapers and sensationalists, I was largely concerned, I was living on the Bass plantation, three miles below Lake Providence, in Louisiana. Capt. J. C. and Frank Lea, of Roswell, N. M., and Tom Lea, of Independence, Mo., were living in the same house with me, any one of whom will vouch for the truth of my statement that I was not anywhere near either of these towns at the time of the robberies in question, but was with them at the plantation referred to above.

“June 3, 1871, Obocock Bros.' bank at Corydon, Iowa, was robbed of $40,000 by seven men in broad daylight. The romancers have connected Jim [Younger] and me with that, when as a matter of fact I was in Louisiana.”


Two major crimes occurred in the region within three weeks of Louisiana double stage robbery. The January 15 robbery of a stagecoach in Arkansas was reported in newspapers across America including the New York Times:

“Little Rock, Ark. Jan. 16 – The stage which left Malvern yesterday for Hot Springs was stopped by a band of five highwaymen about five miles from Hot Springs, who captured the mail bags and about $2,000 worth of valuables from the fourteen passengers, and taking one of the stage horses decamped.”

Just fifteen days after the Malvern robbery, a daring holdup of a train occurred as it pulled into the Gad’s Hill, Missouri station. On January 31, five masked men forced the train to stop, boarded, and robbed the baggage car and passengers alike. The audacious deed captured the attention of the nation’s newspaper readers and put Pinkerton detectives hot on the gang’s trail. Sightings over the ensuing days plotted the band’s escape on a path north toward the home territory of the James boys.

Most historians agree the James-Younger band committed the Malvern and Gad’s Hill robberies. Brothers Jesse and Frank James and Cole and Bob Younger are generally named as participants although various gang members have been nominated as the fifth robber. No other significant crimes are found in the newspapers of Arkansas, Louisiana, or east Texas for January and February that might indicate another gang of robbers working the region.

The three January 1874 robberies share striking similarities. Five bandits participated in each holdup. In each case, significant conversations and interaction occurred between the robbers and the victims including what the outlaws probably considered humorous banter. The Arcadia robbery lasted over an hour and the robbers took their time robbing the Gad’s Hill train.

The time frame and distances reinforce the notion that the same gang perpetrated all three holdups. The Louisiana stage robbers were last seen 14 miles north of Homer near the village of Haynesville, which would put them about five miles from the Arkansas state line. Extending a line north from the stage robbery to Haynesville on roughly the same course would place them in Hot Springs, a tourist spot well known to Jesse and Frank James, in time to commit the Malvern stage holdup on January 15. Continuing north toward Missouri to reach Gad’s Hill in sixteen days was not difficult.

Newspaper accounts identify the Louisiana robbery as a calculated crime, not a chance encounter with an easy mark. The James-Younger gang planned their crimes; rarely committing a robbery on the spur of the moment. The papers reported:

“One of the robbers told the driver [of the westbound stage] what his name was, and that this was the fourth time his mails had been robbed. In each case, the statements were correct. One of them said that they were disappointed, looking for a Jew from this end of the line [Monroe], with $4,000.”

This admission reveals the robbers’ presence around Monroe and perhaps points east toward the Mississippi River on the Traveler’s Road earlier. It is not difficult to envision one of the robbers in a tavern or rail station spying an enticing target, learning of his itinerary, and riding ahead to lie in wait for his stage. “Casing” the stage line in Monroe to learn about the driver and his behavior during prior robberies would have been simple.
Monroe is just a matter of miles from the home that Cole Younger said he was visiting when these early 1874 robberies occurred. In his book and in a letter published in the November 30, 1874, St. Louis Republican, Cole Younger claimed he was in Carroll Parish, Louisiana, from December 1, 1873, to February 8, 1874, and thus could not have participated in three alleged James-Younger crimes—conveniently covering the time span of the Arcadia stage heist, the Malvern holdup, and the Gads Hill train robbery. Younger named Captain Joseph C. Lea in his alibi.

Younger fought in this same northeast Louisiana area with brother-in-law John Jarrette and Captain Lea during the Civil War. He lived in Floyd for several years after the war. Some sources report Jarrette was living in Delhi on the Traveler’s Road at this time. The 1945 WPA guide even pinpointed Jarrette’s home for tourists. In one of the few contemporary newspaper articles to mention the James or Youngers, the November 24, 1876 issue of the Ouachita Telegraph in Monroe cited Jarrette as a brother-in-law of the Younger brothers who:

“lived, we believe, some two years ago, near Delhi, where he was visited, since the war, by one or two of the Youngers… He was compelled to leave that vicinity because of being suspected as one of the murderers of a German stock-trader near Delhi. He was, we believe, a member of Quantrill’s partisans during the war.”

After the disastrous Northfield, Minnesota bank robbery where Cole Younger was arrested and Jesse and Frank James barely escaped, the Kansas City [MO] Journal of Commerce noted “It is said that [John] Jarrett’s family reside somewhere in the vicinity of Lake Providence, Louisiana.”

It seems realistic that the Youngers and James brothers had reasons for being in northeast Louisiana. It is not unreasonable to imagine Jesse and Frank were hanging out with Cole and his brothers, learned of a wealthy traveler and rode ahead to await the Monroe stage. Once they committed the deed, it was time to ride north toward home in Missouri.

There is no conclusive proof that the James and Younger boys robbed two stagecoaches simultaneously near Arcadia. But many locals are positive the gang frequented the region. Oak Grove holds an annual Jesse James festival. Admirers name sons and trailers parks after Jesse and Frank James. Unfortunately, an inordinate number of these namesakes have literally followed in the outlaws’ footsteps, landing themselves in the state penitentiary at Angola.

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