James Gang visited central Texas town

February 23, 2010 8:45:15 AM PST
Sometime between an $1,800 stagecoach robbery in September 1880 in Mammoth Cave, Ky., and a $5,300 payroll heist in March 1881 in Muscle Shoals, Ala., the notorious James Gang rode anonymously into Rockdale for a brief rest and reunion with a former colleague. The visit was not the James Gang's first trip to Texas. Jesse and his bride, Zerelda Amanda Mimms, honeymooned in Galveston in April 1874, a date that closely coincided with a $3,000 stagecoach robbery in Austin attributed to the James Gang.

Rockdale, 50 miles northeast of Austin, became an incorporated city in 1874. As the first major railroad town in Milam County, it developed as a shipping point for cattlemen and agricultural producers. In the 1880s, Rockdale boasted 1,700 residents, five churches, two schools, gristmills, cotton gins, a 250-seat opera house, a private bank, a newspaper called The Rockdale Messenger, and numerous general stores, hotels and mercantile shops.

A few years after Rockdale's founding, on a cold night in the winter of 1880-81, five men on horses arrived at Edward Williams' new wagon yard situated on the lot behind the current Rockdale Police Department where the former Phillips & Luckey Funeral Home building now stands, according to historical accounts of Rockdale.

The men inquired about the cost of feeding and boarding their horses. After Williams named his price, the men decided to buy a barrel of corn so they could feed their own horses. Williams locked the men's saddles and bridles up for the night and noticed that attached to each saddle was a Winchester rifle, according to accounts.

The men told Williams they were going to the telegraph office to dispatch a message, but he did not see them again until late afternoon the following day. The men paid for boarding their horses and asked Williams if he would buy them a loaf of bread.

When Williams brought the bread to them, the men had saddled their horses and were ready to leave. After one of the horses began to pitch, two men traded horses. Williams told one man he would like to own the pitching horse and the man answered, "Yes, and a lot of others." The man drew his coat back and displayed a large pistol, bragging that, "They don't allow this in town, but I'd like to see them help it." The men then rode away as quietly as they had entered Rockdale.

The identities of the five men remained a mystery until possibly a year later when it was revealed they were in town to look up an old friend. John Bell, owner of a livery stable in Rockdale, was moving away. But before leaving town, he confided to Williams that the men were Jesse and Frank James and three gang members, according to several books written about Rockdale's history.

Bell, operating under an alias, was a former James Gang member who moved to Rockdale during the 1870s for a fresh start, leaving behind an outlaw past and his true name. Bell, a Missouri native, is listed in the 1880 census as age 30, living in a Rockdale hotel owned by Wolf Max.

Bell admitted to Williams that the five men were his friends. They stayed overnight in Rockdale, and spent time resting and talking of old times with their former gang member.

Williams then realized that the two visitors who traded horses had been the James boys. Frank traded horses with Jesse and it was Frank who showed Williams his sidearm. More than two years later, Jesse James was ambushed and shot to death by Robert Ford. In 1885, Frank James was acquitted on charges he faced.