When The James Boys Rode


By Edison H. Thomas - 1955

Although it's been 132 years since the James boys rode into Russellville, Logan County, Kentucky, robbed the bank, and rode out again, the story today is just as clear to the people there; as if it had happened yesterday.

Residents will tell you, too, with a bit of nostalgia in their voices, that the James boys went on to lead a wild and notorious life, but the bank they robbed at Russellville was something special: their first big bank job.

Reportedly, too, this bank was the first east of the Mississippi River to claim the dubious honor of being robbed, and the second in the entire United States.

Honor or not, the fact is the bank was robbed, and most people will tell you, without doubt, the James boys did it.

It was a rather warm day for March 20, 1868, and due to the hour of the day, shortly after noon, very few people were stirring in the vicinity of Sixth and Main Streets in Russellville.

On the northwest corner, the elegant, imposing, two-story building of the Nimrod Long Banking Company stood in quiet dignity. It had been built around 1858, at a cost of $50,000, a fabulous sum for a building in those days. But a bank was a little out of the ordinary, and this one, many people said, was one of the strongest, financially, in all of Kentucky.

Four-Way Approach
Around 12:30 p.m., the rapid rhythm of horses' hooves could be heard. Three people wandering the vicinity: a man, a woman, and a little girl, paused to look. Approaching the intersection from each direction were men on horseback, eight men in all.

Shots rang out as the horsemen converged upon the corner. The man, Dr. Walter Byrne, ducked for cover. The little girl, Jennie Prewitt, age nine, cringed in wide-eyed terror; then, as if seeking shelter, she ran directly across the street and stopped in front of the bank.

"Jennie, come back!" a woman cried out. "You'll be shot!"

"Don't worry, lady," one of the men on horseback said, as he rode up and stopped, casually, in front of the bank. "We're here to get money, not to shoot children."

The woman, Mrs. Lizzie Sevier, who conducted a school across the street, hurriedly disappeared inside.

Two of the bandits moved down Sixth Street to the side door of the bank, tied their horses to a hitching post nearby, and entered through the president's office. The president, Nimrod Long, rushed back to his office, when he heard the men at the door. As he entered, he looked directly into a pistol barrel.

"Don't move or you'll be shot," a voice said, quietly.
Mr. Long didn't say a word, but he had no doubt as to who held the gun. It was Jesse James.

Jesse's companion moved toward the front of the bank, leaving Mr. Long and Jesse in the office. The bandit flicked his eyes toward the door, and Mr. Long, seeing his chance, lunged toward the outlaw. There was a brief scuffle, then a shot rang out. The bullet grazed Mr. Long's head, inflicting a small scalp wound and, with a thud, hit the concrete vault wall, chipping bits from it.

"Nice-Looking" Man
Mr. Long fell to the floor, and Jesse James hurried to the front of the bank. Meanwhile, little Jennie Prewitt stood on the sidewalk in front of the bank, with her eyes focused inside.

For many years later, Miss Jennie (she died near 80) told and retold this story:

"I looked in the window of the bank and saw a man with a gun against Mr. Hugh Barclay's head (he was the cashier). I clearly remember a fine-looking man coming through the door from Mr. Long's office, after the shot was fired. He was wearing a black hat, with a feather on the side. He looked just like the pictures I had seen of Jesse James."

Fortunately, Mr. Barclay was not shot. He stood perfectly still, as the bandits scooped up the cash. The only other person in the bank, a farmer named Simmons, also stood perfectly still as the two men dashed out the front door.

However, Mr. Long, who had regained consciousness, dashed out the back door, spreading the alarm, but to no avail. The riders had assembled and headed up Main Street.
A few moments later, another shot rang out. Those who saw him aim said the man, identified as Jesse James, shot at a metal fish, a weather vane atop the courthouse, as he rode by, and it spun like a pinwheel. When it stopped turning, one could see a neat hole through it, just above and to the left of center. A new courthouse was built in 1904, and the weather vane was transferred to its new quarters, where it may be seen today, with the bullet hole intact.

The Chase Is On
A posse was quickly organized, and the chase was on. Down through West Kentucky, straight to the Mississippi River, they went. Across the river into Missouri the trail led, then it trickled out. The James boys had made the first of many of their escapes from the clutches of the law.

During the May term of the Logan County Circuit Court, in 1868, the grand jury returned indictments against G. W. Shepherd, later identified as J. W. Shepherd; G. W. Smith; Thomas Coleman; John Dawson; and Oliver Shepherd. It later became general knowledge that Coleman was Cole Younger, and that Smith and Dawson were Frank and Jesse James.

Shepherd was captured in Nelson County, Kentucky, where he had married and bought a home, presumably with his ill-gotten gains. He was the only man ever to pay the penalty for the Russellville robbery. He was to have been brought to trial on May 20, 1868, but the trial was continued to the November term of court. Not being able to meet the $18,000 bond, which was later reduced to $10,000, he was held in the Logan County jail.

Rumors began to spread. The story was that the James gang had headed back that way to free Shepherd. The population locked and barred their doors, both day and night. As a safeguard, Shepherd was ordered taken to Louisville for safekeeping, until November. The sheriff was given two guards, and the party boarded the L. & N. train for the trip to Louisville.

Trial Held A Year Later
It wasn't until the following May that Shepherd was brought back down from Louisville aboard another L. & N. train, this time escorted by the sheriff and four guards, to stand trial. On May 8, 1869, Shepherd was found guilty of the robbery. Three days later, he was sentenced to three years in prison.

Passing of time has so woven fact and fiction about the James boys that, frequently, it is difficult to separate the two. Robert James, father of the boys, was born on a farm about four miles from Adairville, Kentucky, some 12 miles from Russellville. His house still stands today.

A devout worker in his church, Robert James later went to Georgetown College, Georgetown, Kentucky, where he studied for the ministry. While there, he was assisted, financially, by George W. Norton, founder of the bank (brother of Eckstein Norton, president of the L. and N., 1886-1891), and Nimrod Long, who bought the bank from Norton, and who was to be robbed many years later by the sons of the young student he had aided. It has been reported that when Jesse discovered that Nimrod Long was his father's benefactor in earlier years, he returned his share of loot from the Russellville bank.

Also, while at Georgetown, the elder James met and married the young lady, who was to be the mother of Frank and Jesse. They later moved to Missouri, where the boys were born.

Uncle Owned Farm
The farmhouse at Adairville is also reported to have been the meeting place of the James boys, when things got too hot for them "out West." Then owned by Major George Hite, whose wife was an aunt of the boys, the home has since been remodeled, and the farm is now the property of R. N. Holman of Adairville. It has been in his family for the past 35 years.

Mr. Holman said that a cave lying several hundred yards across the field in front of the house was also supposed to have been used as a hiding place, and even today, people still dig in the vicinity, where they think money might have been hidden. So far, no one has found anything.

The house, now about 147 years old, originally consisted of two, two-story sections connected by a "dog trot," an open hall between, common to houses built in early days. For years, up until the time of its remodeling, one could see the name "Jesse James" and the date "October 15, 1867" written on the wall of one of the upstairs rooms. On the opposite wall were several bullet holes, said to have been made by the outlaws. It has been definitely established that the boys did visit this home a number of times during their rise to ill fame and fortune, and many tales about them are still told by old-timers there.

It was at this farmhouse that the gang was supposed to have assembled before riding into Russellville, but Jesse denied that he had anything to do with that robbery. Instead, he said he was visiting with relatives at Chaplin, Kentucky, near Bardstown, that day. Frank said he was in California at the time, but it has since been authenticated that he didn't get to California until several years later.

The James boys carved quite a notorious niche in history, and much was written about them in the years following the robbery of the bank at Russellville, said to have been their first job (Jesse was only 21 at the time).

As the story was told and retold, reporters had it that their total loot amounted to $250,000 from that bank, but to quote a figure, which is said to be authentic, they took exactly $9,035.92.

The smallness of the total amount, though, takes none of the glitter and the pseudo glamor from the time when the James boys rode on Russellville.


Editor's Note: This story by Edison H. Thomas was originally published in the July 1955 edition of The L. & N. Magazine, a popular, non-copyrighted publication for railroad employees in the mid-20th century.