Historic Markers Across Alabama

Jesse James Gang Canal Payroll Robbery/Trial of Frank James

Marker ID:  
Location: intersection of Lee Hwyy (U.S. 72) and Houstontown Rd (County Route 33), Killen, AL
County: Lauderdale
Coordinates: N 34° 51.574    W 087° 26.054
  34.85956666    -87.43423333
Style: Free Standing **
Waymark: None


Jesse James Gang
Canal Payroll Robbery
March 1881

In, 1881, approximately three miles south of here, the U.S. Corps of Engineers was constructing the Muscle Shoals Canal along the north side of the Tennessee River. On March 11, 1881, Alexander G. Smith, paymaster for the camp near the mouth of Bluewater Creek, traveled to Florence to pick up the payroll. He collected a total of $5,290.18 from the Campbell Banking Company. On his return trip the next day, Smith was robbed by three gunmen. They took the payroll, plus his personal money and watch. Smith was forced to go northward toward Tennessee with the robbers. Later, they divided the money, returned Smith's belongings, and released him. He arrived at the Bluewater Camp at noon on March 13. On March 26, a stranger, claiming to be Tom Hill, entered a saloon near Nashville. After a ruckus, he was turned over to the law enforcement authorities. His real name was William Ryan, a member of the James Gang. He was carrying nearly $1,500 in gold and currency, but denied any knowledge of the robbery. On March 30, Smith identified Ryan as one of the robbers. Ryan stated that Jesse and Frank James had been living on the outskirts of Nashville under assumed names. Before they could be questioned, the brothers returned to Missouri. Ryan was sent to Missouri for crimes he had committed there and was sentenced to several years in prison. James A. "Dick" Liddil, a member of James Gang, claimed to be innocent of the payroll robbery, stating that Jesse and Frank James and William Ryan committed the crime.

Trial of Frank James
April 1884

The Federal District Attorney in Huntsville collected evidence against the major suspects in the Muscle Shoals Canal robbery. Jesse James was killed by Robert Ford in 1882. William Ryan was in prison in Missouri. Dick Liddil was brought to Huntsville and found guilty of complicity in the payroll robbery. Frank James was arrested in Missouri and taken to Huntsville for trial. One of the most noted trials in Alabama history, it was a three-day trial that began April 16, 1884. The prosecuting attorney was William H. Smith, a former governor of Alabama. The prosecution called several witnesses, all of whom claimed to have seen Frank James in Lauderdale County immediately before the robbery, but none could positively identify him. The defense attorney was Leroy Pope Walker, a popular Alabama lawyer, a former Confederate General and Secretary of War. He was assisted by two prominent lawyers. Defense witnesses vouched for the good character of Frank James, portraying him as a good, loyal Southern gentleman who had risked his life many times during the Civil War. Public sympathy was strongly in favor of James' acquittal. He was acquitted and walked out of the Huntsville Courthouse a free man. This marked the end of the Jesse James Gang. The Muscle Shoals Canal payroll robbery was never solved. It was reported that Frank James returned to Missouri and lived an exemplary life until his death on February 18, 1915.

Erected 2016 by East Lauderdale Historical Society.

End of Jesse James Gang Canal Payroll Robbery/Trial of Frank James