Frank James & The Independence Missouri Jail

10 miles from Kansas City, the 1859 Independence Missouri Jail Museum is a fun day trip back in time to see where the infamous Frank James was incarcerated as well as American Civil War Confederate guerrilla leader William Quantrill.

Today the Independence, Missouri jail and marshal’s house is a museum and historic site and are the earliest, surviving, documented examples of Kansas City’s pioneer architect Asa Beebe Cross (also known as A. B. Cross’) work.

Jackson County Marhsall's House and Jail Museum

The 1859 Jackson County Jail and Marshal’s House was a working jail until 1933 when it was decommissioned.

It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970.

1859 Jail & Marshal’s Home in Independence

Marshal's residence

The marshal’s job was considered a humble one with humble pay. He lived with his wife and children in the Marshal’s residence, which was the front half of the building.

You can see the Marshal’s home from Main Street, but the two-story limestone jail and the 1901 chain gang jail join the rear of the home.

The home was two stories.

On the first floor are a kitchen and parlor. The marshal’s wife often cooked meals for the prisoners, in addition to her husband and children..

The parlor was considered the formal sitting room and where they would read books and play instruments. It is also where the family would entertain guests and where the wife would have other women over to sew.

On the second floor are three bedrooms; the master for the marshall and his wife, one bedroom for the children, and a third which would have been used as a guest room.

Jail cells attached to the marshal's house

The jail cells were attached to the residence on both the first and second floors. It’s quite hard to believe the Marshal’s family lived in quarters right across the hall from the cell blocks.

While there were doors and bars separating the home and jail, there was access from the house directly to the cells.

In the 1850s the Marshal was paid about $50 per month in addition to the use of the house, for his services.

Life in the 1859 Jail

1859 Jail cells in Independence

The Independence, Missouri jail consisted of six upstairs and six downstairs cells, with two-foot thick walls of limestone blocks. A single kerosene lamp in the hallway provided the only light at night.

Two doors, one of grated iron and one of solid iron, were on each cell. Each cell had one window covered with grated iron. While it let in the sunshine, it was also a source of cold air and wind in the winter.

Some of the crimes for which a person could be imprisoned in the jail prior to the Civil War included: horse racing on public streets, firing guns in town, operating a gaming house, assault and battery, disturbing the peace, disturbing a religious meeting, or building a privy (toilet) “not over a pit”.

Each cell was six by nine feet and designed to hold three prisoners, though, during the Civil War, as many as twenty prisoners were confined in each cell.

Up to ten and at times, 20 prisoners shared one cell where they ate, slept and shared a chamber pot with no privacy.

There were no beds in most cells and prisoners slept on a shared pallet. Prisoners would have to take turns sleeping, as there wasn’t enough space for them to all sleep at the same time.

The cells were very dark and only lit by candles, which were not always available or given to every cell. Prisoners also dealt with bugs and mice.

The cells were not heated and some prisoners died of exposure during the jail’s history.

Shackle from 1859 jail

During this time, chain gangs were used to build roads, sewers, and other projects. They left six days a week at sunrise and returned at sunset. One inmate spent a year on the chain gang for stealing a cow.

women prisoners at the 1859 Jail

women at 1859 jail in independence

Women were also incarcerated at the Jackson County jail in Missouri. From 14 to 42 years old, women in the above document were jailed for streetwalking, disrupting the peace to crimes such as grand larceny and running a brothel.

Children prisoners at the 1859 Jail

When the Jackson County jail opened, children were tried and sentenced like adults. For example, an 11-year-old boy, who jumped on a train, was arrested and held in jail for four days.

Who Was Frank James?

Jesse James & Frank James
Jesse James (left) & Frank James (right)

Alexander Franklin James, was more commonly known as the Outlaw Frank James and the older brother of Jesse James. Frank was an American Confederate soldier in the Civil War and a member of the notorious James–Younger Gang.

Frank was born on January 10, 1843, to Robert and Zerelda James. He grew up in the town of Kearney in Clay County, Missouri which is just under an hour from Kansas City. Today, the James Family Farm and house are a museum and are registered as a historic landmark and on the National Register of Historic Places.

From 1860 to 1882, the James Gang was the most feared band of outlaws in American history. The gang of bandits are thought to be responsible for more than 20 bank and train robberies and the murders of countless individuals.

After Jesse James was murdered in 1882, his older brother, Frank, began negotiations with the Missouri governor to surrender because he feared assassination.

Frank James arrived at the 1859 Jackson County jail on October 6, 1882, and served 112 days for the murder of Captain John Sheets during a robbery in Gallatin, Missouri.

Frank James was released in the spring of 1883 when the prosecuting attorney could not build a sufficient case. While James was charged by other courts, he was acquitted for every charge brought against him.

History During the Construction of the 1859 Independence Jail

As the twelve, new, limestone jail cells were opened, hostilities between free state and pro-slavery forces were reaching a boiling point in this area of Midwestern United States.

In 1854, Congress had passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which opened the Kansas Territory to settlement. The Civil War Battles of Independence and Lone Jack in 1862 ended in Confederate victories. The state of Missouri was held in the union by military force even though the elected Governor and legislators had voted to secede from the Union.

During this time women and children were arrested and placed in the 1859 Jackson County Jail that followed the command of the Union and Order No. 11 which depopulated Jackson County as well as other counties along the Kansas-Missouri border.

Decades after the war ended in Missouri, the citizens of Jackson county felt the lingering bitterness and uncertainty of that great conflict. Out of these tumultuous times rode Missouri’s most notorious outlaws. Outlaws like the James boys and Younger brothers used the remaining animosities from the outrages of the war to stay a step ahead of the law for nearly twenty years.

Frank James’ time in the Civil war

Frank and his brother Jesse were Confederate sympathizers. Frank joined a unit of Governor Claiborne Fox Jackson’s Home Guard on May 4, 1861, and fought at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek under General Sterling Price. Because he came down with measles and was left behind, Frank was captured by Union troops.

Frank James life of Crime

The James brothers drifted into a life of crime after serving in Confederate guerilla forces during the Civil War. Frank was part of the James-Younger Gang that began robbing banks and trains in 1866. Although the gang began in 1866 it wasn’t called the James-Younger Gang until 1868, when it was determined that Cole Younger, Jesse and Frank James were involved.

Frank James was tried for murder in Missouri and found not guilty, tried for train robbery in Alabama and found not guilty, and finally tried for armed robbery in Missouri and again released. A free man, he retired to a quiet life on his family’s farm, dying in 1915 in the room in which he was born.

Timeline to frank’s surrender & more

  • In 1881 Governor Crittenden offered a reward for the capture of Jesse and Frank James “dead or alive”.
  • On April 3, 1882, Jesse James was shot and killed by Robert “Bob” Ford in his home in St. Joseph for the sole purposes of fame and collecting the $10,000 reward.
  • On October 5, 1882 surrendered to Missouri governor Thomas Crittenden in Jefferson City, Missouri.
  • On October 6, 1882 Frank arrived at the Jackson County Jail in Independence, Missouri where he served 112 days.
  • On May 6, 1884 Charles Wilson “Charley” Ford committed suicide. He was the brother of Bob Ford, an outlaw, and member of the James Gang. It is documented he fell into a deep depression following James’ death and also had the terminal illness of tuberculosis, and a debilitating morphine addiction.
  • On June 8, 1892 Robert Ford, known as the “dirty little coward” that killed Jesse James was shot and killed in a barroom brawl in Creede, Colorado.
  • On February 18, 1915 at the age of 72, Frank James died a free man and of natural causes.

Visiting the 1859 Jail Museum

Shackle in prison cell

The 1859 Jail Museum is a great piece of history tucked away in Independence MO. Admission is $3 – $6 per person based on age. The museum is a self-guided tour of the marshal’s home as well as the jail and a small museum along with a courtyard and tiny schoolhouse.

It’s quite interesting to see firsthand how Frank James was treated to his own fancy cell while common criminals would be crammed as many as 10 to the same size cell. You are able to walk inside the jail cells.

Throughout the jails are a lot of interesting story placards, prisoner information, photos, and artifacts.

Harry Wright from 1859 Jail in Independence, MO
Arthur Wright prisoner at 1859 jail

There’s also a small exhibit in the back of time period wedding gowns with write-ups on who wore them.

In 1907, a brick jail was added to the back of the limestone jail to house chain gangs.

Frank James’ Cell

Frank James' Cell

While others had little to nothing in their cell, because of his celebrity, Frank James’ cell was furnished with a Brussels carpet, fine furniture and paintings.

He was permitted free run of the jail and hosted card games in his cell at night. Frank James’ cell is preserved as it was when he occupied it, as part of the modern museum.

Take a self-guided tour of the jail and museum for a first-hand look at frontier justice. Guided tours are available upon request in advance.

interesting facts about Frank James

  1. Frank James is Jesse James older brother.
  2. Frank and Jesse James were both legends in their own time, though Jesse is better remembered today because of his more notorious and violent death.
  3. Frank James grew up on a Missouri farm in Kearney.
  4. His father, Robert James was a hemp farmer, slave owner, and Baptist minister from Kentucky who helped found William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri.
  5. Frank James was charged by numerous courts and was acquitted for every charge brought against him.
  6. Frank was a Confederate sympathizer and a bushwhacker (a Confederate guerrilla) during the American Civil War.
  7. In 1861, Frank was captured when Lexington, Missouri was besieged by Union soldiers and was forced to swear allegiance to them.
  8. In 1875, detectives hoping to track down Frank and Jesse surrounded the farm and threw a bomb through the window. When the bomb exploded it killed their eight-year-old brother Archie. Their mother, Zerelda Cole James was injured and lost part of her arm.
  9. Frank James is buried in Independence, Missouri at the Hill Park Cemetary. His stone says Alexander Franklin James.

Directions to the 1859 Jail

The 1859 Jail & Marshal’s Home is located at 217 N Main St in Independence, MO 64050. It is located off Interstate 35, about 10 miles northeast of Kansas City.

From Kansas City, Missouri take 1-70 East. Take exit 4A for Benton Blvd/Truman Rd and merge onto Benton Blvd. Turn right onto E Truman Rd. Turn right onto N Main St.

Plan about 1 hour to tour the museum and house.

Established in 1959, the Jackson County Historical Society works to preserve the 1859 limestone Jail Museum.

Related Post: The Jesse James Bank Museum is 30 minutes from Kansas City in the town of Liberty, Missouri, and the location of the first successful daylight, peacetime bank robbery in the United States.

Related Post: The Jesse James Farm and Museum is located in Kearney, which is just under an hour from Kansas City. The museum has the world’s largest collection of James family artifacts and is the location of the home where Jesse and Frank James grew up.

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The 1859 Independence Missouri Jail Museum is a trip back in time to see where the infamous Frank James was incarcerated.

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