The final robbery in Jesse James’ criminal career was to steal a payroll from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
It was a rainy, windy Friday on March 11, 1881 when Alexander Smith, receiver of materials, returned from Florence, Ala., with $5,240.18. The money was a payroll for laborers in the Blue Water Camp at the Muscle Shoals Canal Project on the Tennessee River.
But when Smith stopped between Shoal Creek and the camp to open a gate, Jesse James, Wood Hite and William “Whiskey Head” Ryan brandished their weapons and quickly unarmed Smith. They took the payroll out of the inner pocket of his coat, and the gold and silver coins in a bag hanging from the pommel of his saddle.
The gang forced Smith to ride nearly 20 miles in a rainstorm before releasing him and generously allowed him to keep his horse, his own money and his gold watch.
According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District librarian Jim Siburt, Smith returned to Blue Water Camp the following morning. Col. William King, district engineer, dispatched a posse that pursued the James gang north, but lost their tracks near the Cumberland River because of torrential downpours.
Whiskey Head Ryan soon split from James and Hite, although they all were headed to Nashville, Tenn. James returned to his family and monitored local news reports. His brother Frank even visited to inquire how the job turned out.
On March 26, Whiskey Head traveled up White’s Creek Pike, a thoroughfare on the western edge of Nashville. When freezing rain began to fall, he stopped at a local saloon.
“The saloon, like many, was a multipurpose establishment that served meals and sold groceries as well,” Siburt said. “A sign at the bar advertised oysters. Ryan ordered a dozen and a bottle of what proved to be extremely potent Tennessee whiskey.”
After a drunken brawl, the local lawman discovered the large amount of gold that Whiskey Head carried, and Ryan was arrested and became the lead suspect in the robbery.
News of the arrest traveled fast. With local authorities growing suspicious, Jesse and Frank departed Nashville immediately with their families. Frank headed for safer territory in Virginia, while Jesse went to St. Joseph, Mo., where he lived under the name Thomas Howard.
The Blue Water Camp robbery is historically significant because it was the final robbery in Jesse James’ long career. The James gang was in decline by the late 1870s after the death or arrest of all the former Confederate guerillas that made up the original group. In addition, Frank James was trying to settle down.
James recruited a new gang in 1879, and robbed a train in Glendale, Mo., on Oct. 3, 1879. His final crime spree included two more train robberies, and ended with the theft of the USACE payroll.
In the spring of 1882, fellow gang member Robert Ford shot James in the back of the head in St. Joseph. He died instantly.
Frank surrendered six months later. In April 1884, he stood trial in Huntsville, Ala., for the payroll robbery. Although accused of the crime, he claimed he did not participate. Represented by a team of outstanding lawyers, the court acquitted him. Frank James lived a respectable life until his death in 1915.
Whiskey Head Ryan, sentenced to 25 years for the Glendale train robbery, earned an early release in 1889. He died soon after when he rode his horse at full gallop and hit his head on a tree branch.
When the robbery took place, the USACE laborers were in the early phase of the Muscle Shoals Canal Project, placing cut stone into nine locks along the canal. Covering 14.5 miles, the project bypassed the shoals and allowed steamboats from Florence, Ala., to carry cargo upriver to Chattanooga, Tenn.
As for the stolen payroll, the Blue Water Camp workers all eventually received their pay.