Lot 40: James, Frank. Fine autograph letter signed ("Ben"), 12 pages (8 x 5 in.; 203 x 127 mm.)
December 18, 2012
Calabasas Hills, CA, USALive Auction
40. James, Frank. Fine autograph letter signed (“Ben”), 12 pages (8 x 5 in.; 203 x 127 mm.), “Gallatin, Montana,” 8 July 1883. To his wife, Annie James in Independence, Montana; with original envelope.
Advice and reflection from the notorious bank and train robber to his wife from prison: There are none so happy as those who labor . . . and as to riches not one in ten thousand who possess them are ever happy.
In his lengthy and heartfelt letter, James reflects on his values, relates how he and his wife should dress for his impending murder trial, and points out that his defense lawyer’s reputation will be at stake as well as his own life.
The desperado writes in full: Your dear letter of the fourth received yesterday. I would have answered the same day, but had just written you. I read your dear letter a number of times. I studied each word and sentence thoroughly, and I assure you I appreciate your letters and always feel much happier after reading them. You are a true and noble woman and just such women make true and faithful husbands. Notwithstanding I love you more than I do my own life. I wish it was possible for me to love you more than I do. Never mind just wait ‘til I get out. Dont I wish I could be with you and our dear little boy today how I would love and caress you. Yet if I am denied that pleasure I can and do console myself w[h]ith the reflection that you love me and are no doubt thinking of me whilst I am writing this. Darling do you know I often recall the many happy days spent together in old Tenn. Ah! Those were far happier times than we realized at the time. Dont you think so? There are none so happy as those who labor. Nevertheless it seems to be the common belief among the majority of people that it is absolutely necessary to possess either riches or talent in order to be happy. I say no, a thousand times no and I believe you will concur with me in this belief. History does if you do not. Look at Tom Marshall of Ky who was conceded by not a few to be one of the brightest lights that grand old state produced. Was he happy thinking you? No, no far from. Listen what he said whilst dying -- ‘My God this is dreadful, dying in a house built by the hands of charity and under covering bought by the County’. Look again at the great Goldsmith. ‘tis said of him that he derived more genuine pleasure from his flute whilst playing before some cottage amidst the Alps, than he ever did from his beautiful writing. And as to riches not one in ten thousand who possess them are ever happy. The only true happiness that can exist that does exist is the true relationships existing between a true wife and a true husband. Riches and fame are but hollow mockery. You can but remember what Gray murmured as he sat upon a moss covered grave stone in the Country church yard, while the leaves of the ‘rugged Elms’ whispered above him.
The pride of heraldy, the pomp of power-- And all that wealth e’er gave awaite alike the inevitable hour. The paths of glory lead but to the grave’. What a beautiful sentiment and how true, when we shake off this mortal coil’ riches will be nothing, fame will be nothing. The only question then will be have we been true to ourselves? I hope when that day arrive we both may be able to say we have been true to ourselves. I hope you and Robie may both keep well and try and enjoy yourselves as best you can. Do not take things to heart too much. Remember God never forgets his own. Mamma to try to tell you what I was doing would be a waste of Time. You know the surroundings and know just about how I am putting in the Time each and ever[y] day. You must know however that I miss you very much. I do wish I did not have to be separated from you this way. It makes me sick at heart to think of it. I send you a clipping form the Sentinal republished by the Democrat of this place. I do think that man Payne is one of the most contemptable dogs living. I do hope if he should ever speak to you -- you will have the courage to treat him with perfect contempt. I would like to know what all Grand Pa asked about me? Tell me wont you? I am glad to know he is friendly to us and hope he may continue to be. You asked me if I had heard from Mr. Dean? Yes he tried hard to get here and regretted very much that he could not I also saw a letter from Charles P Johnson and whilst he was tacking around trying to get here his wife gave birth to a fine boy. I guess he was proud when he arrived home. I believe I have a letter from John [Tuorence] you left. Mr. Rush is now in St. Joseph and when he returns I suppose I will hear some news. Mr. Charlie Johnson said he met Frank O’Neal and that he said that according to the way he understood the matter I ought to been out on bail long go and told Johnson he would write Edward at Jefferson City and they would consult with Philips and all parties and see what could be done. I hope they have done so but are afraid the meeting has not taken place. I am of the opinion Johnson is thoroughly in earnest now he knows that his reputation as a criminal lawyer is at stake and it behooves him to better himself and I hope to goodness he will. I am growing so anxious to be with my precious ones. When we do meet it will be like Mrs. Holland says just like getting married won’t it? It will be nice, wont it hon? I guess you are now smiling and thinking you bad bad fellow. What a man thinks in his heart that he is, says the Bible. I think if I continue to write I will have nothing to say for Thursday. Do you really think that Mrs. H and G will attend the trial or is it all talk. I wish they would come, dont you. Mamma I want you to be fixed up ever so nice when you come. And if you want me to look you will have to get me a white vest and a nice pair of shoes like that cut you have cut form the paper. I know you will laugh and say you proud old goose. Mind now I dont ask you to get them I leave the matter entirely to you. I know money is scarce and dont need them. But I do want you to get the most beautiful hat you can have tacked up in Independince. If you do not you will hear some fussing. I am anxious to see a letter with a X if anything is wrong I will blame you. No I wont either hon. I will bare all the blame and pay all bills.
So there now dont cry, it is the best thing on earth, arnt it hon? You are bount to acknowledge the corn, actions you know speak louder than words sometimes. I guess you will not let any one read this letter will you? You can if you like. But I quite sure you wont Oh, you say you Monkey, thats all right if you do but you are bount to acknowled I am a right spry old man yet. I have not outlived my usefulness by a good many years yet I can tell you. Why I feel to day as I was not more than twenty five I am afraid you are getting old though it is rather a bad sign to be complaining with your back. However I hope by August will be feeling like a spring chicking. Never mind Mamma it dont matter if you do complain. Sometimes I wouldnt give you as you are for all the women on earth I know if I had the power to make one that would suit me half as well as you. You are just as perfect as it is possible for one to be. I do wish above all thing that you could know just how dear you are to me. I spent six hours out in the yard Sunday. Had a number to call Misses Mary Lee Josie Cox-Emmans. I enjoyed being out but could I sit down with you and Rob I would enjoy your company ten thousand times more than I would any ones on Earth. No woman looks half as interesting to me as my dear little wife. Mr.Burnes brought me over a quart of nice cherrys. I divided with Mrs. C. and the children. Pady says the ‘Kid’ is walking right along. Mrs. Brosius is still confined to her bed. I am thankful to God that you are healthy. I would be more than happy to have you on my knee to night I would pinch a piece out of sure. I hope you will step down and see Mr. Hardins folks the first time you are in town. I think they are good friends of ours. Dont you. I want you to remember me to all our friends tell them I appreciate them so much and write me often it will do me lots of good to hear from them every few days. Let me tell you right [here]. I dont neither want either shoes nor vest that was all talk. But I do want you to get such things, as you want I will now put my arms around you and kiss there now. Love to all the family I must now tell you goodbye- but before I do I will ask you to love and think of me often. Wont you? So bye bye. In a postscript, James has added, I dont think I will have much to write next Thursday but I will do so all the same.
James wrote the present letter while in jail in Gallatin while awaiting trial for the murder of Frank McMillan, a stone quarry laborer, during the robbery of a Rock Island train at Winston, Missouri in 1881. In the ensuing trial, the state sought to prove that Frank was seen near the scene of the crime and that he had fatally shot McMillan. The state, however, had to contend with a formidable witness, Confederate General Joseph O. Shelby, who was known for his sincerity, earnest convictions and his loyalty to any man who had fought under his command. When called to the stand, Shelby testified that at the time of the train robbery, he had met Jesse James, Dick Liddil and Bill Ryan at his home, when Jesse told him that Frank was not with them, but was in the South, and that he had not been with the gang for five years. The general’s testimony not only held tremendous weight with the people and created a sensation, but it was also responsible for Frank’s acquittal. In this letter, James refers to three of his defense attorneys, Charles P. Johnson of St. Louis, a former Lieutenant Governor of Missouri; Judge John F. Philips of Kansas City; and William Rush of Gallatin. Interesting to note is James’ use of the alias, “Ben” to prevent the letter from falling into reporters’ hands or into wrong hands.