Wednesday, April 8, 2009
Mrs. Alexander Franklin James
It’s easy to picture Frank James and little brother Jesse wreaking havoc with Bloody Bill Anderson and Quantrille’s raiders, robbing stagecoaches and shooting up Northfield, Minnesota because we’ve seen it a million times in the movies. But Alexander Franklin James was also a man who devoured the books in his father’s library and quoted Shakespeare at will. His papa Robert Sallee James, a farmer and Baptist minister, co-founded the William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri. So maybe it’s not all that surprising that Frank married a schoolteacher, Anna Ralston, who held a Bachelor of Arts degree in Science and Literature from Missouri State College and was one of its first female graduates.
The Kansas City Times in August 1876, naming Frank James a “notable knight of the road” reported that his marriage might have “remained shrouded in obscurity” had it not been for detectives from St. Louis and Cincinnati snooping around Independence, Missouri after a train robbery. Their interview with Mrs. Samuel Ralston at her home, about seven miles east of the city, revealed she and her husband had not the least idea that their daughter Annie loved and had been won by the bold train robber Frank James the year before.
How and when Frank met Miss Annie Ralston remains another of the mysteries of “the wild young man’s life.” Annie had been raised by wealthy well-known businessman Samuel Ralston, and Frank was not known to have been on intimate terms with the family nor a frequent visitor to their home. But somehow he courted Annie and stole her heart. She eloped with the “dashing, daring Frank James” in the summer of 1875.
That July, Annie simply asked her parents for permission to visit her brother-in-law, Mr. Ezra Hickman in Kansas City. Unbeknownst to them, Frank waited for her on the train, the elopement already arranged. When Ezra met her at the Kansas City depot, she told him she needed a few more minutes to speak to a friend still on the train and would follow to his house in a hack.
That was the last seen of Annie, who supposedly rendezvoused with Jesse in Kansas and proceeded with the James brothers to Omaha.
Two days after her departure for Kansas City, her parents received a brief note from her that said
Dear Mother: I am married and going West. Annie Reynolds
Not recognizing the name Reynolds, they figured she’d run off with a gambler they’d heard about. Putting their sons on her trail, her parents eventually learned of Annie’s marriage to the outlaw. Her father advised the family to treat the matter philosophically. Nothing could be done now, he said, and the less said about it the better. No one outside of the family and a few close friends would have known about the marriage had not the recent train robbery led the detectives to Ralston's house in the hope of finding Frank James there.
For three months earlier, Frank had ridden to their gate on a handsome chestnut horse. The Ralstons had not seen their daughter for nine months, and the meeting was abrupt and tearful. Frank replied that Annie was all right but that her parent’s could not see her again. She was far away and could not send letters for fear of leading the authorities to him. The visit ended in anger and tears, and Frank was never seen at the Ralston house again. Nor had he anything to do with the recent robbery.
Annie and Frank had one son, Robert Franklin James, born February 6, 1878. Five months after the murder of his brother Jesse in April 1882, Frank gave himself up to Missouri governor Crittenden, claiming he wanted peace after being hunted for twenty-one years. Accounts say that Frank surrendered with the understanding that he would not be extradited to Northfield, Minnesota where the James gang had been decimated in 1876. Two days later, Annie wrote a poem to her husband, entitled Surrendered.
Despite a vigorous prosecution, Frank was tried for only two robberies/murders and was found not guilty by both juries, who cited lack of evidence. For the last thirty years of his life, he became respectable. For a time, Frank did lecture tours with former James gang comrade Cole Younger. He became an AT&A telegraph operature before returning to the James Farm in Kearney, Missouri, where he gave tours for the significant sum of twenty-five cents. He died an honorable man on February 18, 1915. However, fearing that his grave would be desecrated or dismantled for souvenirs, he decreed that his cremated ashes be kept in a vault until such time he and Annie could be buried together.
Annie remained at the James Farm with her mother–in-law, Zerelda James Samuel for many years. In a letter to a friend, she sent “best wishes from a lonely old woman whose life work is ended.” After her death at age 91 in the sanitarium at Excelsior Springs, Missouri, she and Frank were finally buried next to each other at Hill Park Cemetery in Independence.
(In my first Western novel, my hero was a fictional James cousin who met Annie Ralston while attending college. Since doing research for that story, I find myself still interested in James trivia.)
~by Tanya Hanson