GUEST COLUMN: On the Lam: Notorious James brothers hid from law in Spencer County

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By Tom Watson

Jesse and Frank James did a considerable amount of their hiding in northeast Nelson County around Chaplin and in the Samuels-Deatsville section not far from Bardstown. The area was friendly territory for the soldiers of fortune where families named Dawson, Samuels, Sayers, Pence and Hall provided food and lodging.


The Tom and Nancy Dawson log house still stands where Confederate Guerrilla Captain William Quantrill wrote love poems to Nancy Dawson, their granddaughter.

He was 27 and she was 18. The late Emily Huston Dawson said her great aunt Nancy didn’t care much for “The Captain” as the family referred to Quantrill.

There is no other indication of how Nancy regarded Quantrill or his poetry. Quantrill also wrote a poem to Elizabeth VanDyke, who married Eliphilet “Babe” Hunter. I believe Babe was with Quantrill at the James Heady Wakefield farm in Spencer County when “The Captain” was mortally wounded.

Frank James rode with Quantrill and was with him January first, 1865 when some 40 irregular soldiers entered Kentucky.

Jesse fought under the banner of Bill Anderson and was in Texas prior to rejoining his older brother after the war.

Quantrill was fatally wounded May 10, 1865 at the Wakefield farm between Bloomfield and Taylorsville.

Once the James brothers were re-united, they added some old friends to form the James-Younger gang. Cole, Jim and Bob Younger became outlaws as did brothers Bud and Donny Pence along with George and Oliver Shepherd. Dave Helton, another member of Quantrill’s force, also settled in Nelson County after hostilities ended, but apparently did not take up banditry.

When the robbery of the Nimrod Long and Company Bank at Russellville was being planned in 1868, George Shepherd sent word from Chaplin for John Jarrette to come from Missouri and participate. Jarrette later married Mary Josephine “Josie” Younger, the Younger brothers’ sister. Jarrette was credited with getting Cole Younger involved in the Russellville robbery and George Shepherd was able to get George’s brother, Oliver, to take part.

Tom and Nancy Dawson were the grandparents of outlaw John Jarrette and their daughter, Adelaide, married Bob Saunders and among the children produced by them was Martha Saunders, who married Dick Maddox, then George Shepherd, then Alex McMakin. She married McMakin while Shepherd was in prison doing a short term for robbery of the Russellville bank.

John Jarrette’s brother, Benjamin, died at the age of 17, several years before the Civil War and is buried in the yard at the Dawson cabin south of Bloomfield. John and Josie did not die in a house fire as was reported by several writers. John wrote a letter to Cole Younger from British Columbia that proved he was not dead. John Jarrette and Josie Younger had two children, Jeptha and Margaret.

While in Nelson County with Quantrill, Frank James made friends with Alexander and Finetta Sayers of Deatsville. The Sayers residence is being restored. It faces the railroad tracks where the out-bound dinner train passes just before reaching the Deatsville station.

In addition to the Pence brothers, Isaac and Bob Hall were also with Quantrill and all four settled in the Samuels-Deatsville section of Nelson County after the war.

The oral history of Chaplin tells of Jesse and Frank James, and likely other members of the gang, staying at the T.K. Marshall Hotel. There’s even a report that the James boys bought the hotel so they could be assured of privacy.

Pinkerton Detective Yankee Bligh was quoted as saying he believed Jesse and Frank James were in the Marshall Hotel when the bank was robbed in Russellville and didn’t participate. The robbers escaped with some $12,000 in a wheat sack from what was also called the Old Bank of Kentucky.

In later years, Donny Pence was elected sheriff of Nelson County and his brother, Bud, was town marshal of Taylorsville.

A Civil War terror in Nelson and adjacent counties was Jerome Clarke, a rebel soldier who became a guerrilla in 1864 after John Hunt Morgan’s setback at Cynthiana, Ky. and became known as “Sue Mundy.” Clark rode with Frank James and Jim Younger under the banner of Quantrill a couple of times, but was never a member of the James-Younger gang. Clarke’s story is covered in the book “Confederate Guerrilla Sue Mundy.”

If the question was asked of the James brothers, they would have to admit they robbed a few trains during their career, starting in 1873 when they disconnected a rail near Council Bluffs, Iowa. The engine left the tracks and turned over on its side, killing the engineer and injuring the fireman.

The outlaws took $2,000 from the express company’s safe, then went through the cars, taking another thousand dollars in cash and valuables from the passengers.

The James-Younger Gang committed the first train robbery in Missouri a year later at Gad’s Hill, where they stopped a train and took money from the express car, then robbed passengers.

The outlaws examined the hands of the passengers and those who had rough hands caused by hard work were allowed to keep their money and valuables. Just before the robbers left, Jesse James handed the train’s engineer a press release he’d scribbled out, telling him all he had to do was pencil in the amount of money taken and it was ready for publication.

Sounds like Jesse wanted to be a reporter as well as a train robber.

An attorney named Ben Johnson, who became a member of Congress, wrote that he was at Donny Pence’s home at Samuels in December, 1881 and after hunting all day with Pence and Jesse James, he watched Jesse scratch his name and the date on a window pane with a diamond ring.

The date on the glass is Oct. 18, 1881, which means Johnson’s memory wasn’t very good for dates.

Jesse wanted to show he could not have committed a train robbery 550 miles away on the October date. There’s “Sept. 9” also carved into the glass, but no year.

The pane was saved before the house was later torn down and is preserved at the Kentucky Historical Society in Frankfort.

During one of Frank James’ visits to the Samuels-Deatsville area in 1912, John W. Muir said Frank spoke to Finetta Sayers’ Sunday school class at the New Salem Baptist Church.

This is the incident that grew into a report that Frank “taught” Sunday

school at the church.

I have seen Frank’s initialed clothes brush and the U-S Army belt buckle he wore at Centralia in September, 1864 and was wearing when he surrendered to Missouri’s governor.

I was visiting with Jack Muir in his Bardstown home years ago when he told me the items had been given to him by Finetta Sayers’ sister, Ora Samuels, at Finetta’s request before her death in the late 1920s.

Jack’s widow agreed to sell the items to Linda Bruckheimer, the wife of Hollywood producer Jerry Bruckheimer.

She gave them to Jerry as a Christmas gift.

The Bruckheimers maintain the Walnut Grove mansion and farm on the north side of Bloomfield, just a few miles from Bardstown.