The Real Story of Stephen Elkins and the Outlaw Cole Younger
Senators Stephen B. Elkins and Henry Gassaway Davis are best known as senators and industrialists who developed the railroad, timber, and coal industries around Randolph County, and are the namesakes of the towns of Elkins, Davis, Gassaway, and Davis & Elkins College. But it is rumored that they were actually the outlaws Frank and Jesse James of the infamous James Gang. Listen or read below as folklorist Gerry Milnes tells the incredible true story of Stephen Elkins’ connection to outlaw Cole Younger and the James Gang.
If you know me you know I’ve always been interested in folklore, and Melvin Wine knew a lot. He told me one time that back in the 1930s (he was born in 1911, 1909), he lived in Braxton County and he had a child who needed medical attention and he had to bring him to Elkins. It was a three or four day affair and Melvin had time to kill, so he was walking up and down Davis Avenue one day and he looked up (back then there weren’t any trees on the hill up to Halliehurst and Graceland) and he saw these two mansions. He said to this old man on the street: “who lives up there?” and the old man said “oh that’s Senators Davis and Elkins”. But then he said “that’s not who they really were. And Melvin said “well who were they?” and he said “Frank and Jesse James”. So I put that in my head and thought about it.
If you’ve been a music lover from around here for a while you’ve probably heard of Woody Simmons, he was a great old-time fiddle player. Woody was a widower and we had him over for Christmas dinner one time. There was a lot of conversation going around the table and somebody said something about Davis and Elkins. Woody said “Oh they were Frank and Jesse James”, so I registered that.
Then Woody said to me one day, I was down at his house playing some tunes, and I asked him about that some more. He said “well there used to be an old man around here who went by the name of Pearl Howard who was real mean old man, nobody fooled with Pearl Howard”. He said he died in 1938. He said he always carried a gun. He said he always wore a long coat, I remember him saying that. And he said on his deathbed he called his family in to tell them that his real name wasn’t Pearl Howard, his real name was Robert Ford. Now if you’re a Jesse James follower, Robert Ford was the guy who killed Jesse James. And Woody said “you know, some of the family still lives up the valley in Elkwater and they could testify to that”. So Woody jumped in the car with me and we went out to Elkwater and talked to this woman who was the granddaughter of Pearl Howard. She was too young to be at the funeral but she said she heard the story all her life that on his deathbed he said that his name was Robert Ford. And she said she had an uncle also named Pearl Howard in Ohio, he’s eighty-some years old who is still living. So I got his phone number and called him. He had been at the funeral and he agreed. It was his father who had told him that his real name was Robert Ford. So I registered that.
Now there was a woman, I don’t know if anyone remembers Odie Chapman, she was a member of the Randolph County Historical Society. I was talking to her one day, I don’t know how the story came up, and she said she had a picture of – he was in the James Gang – Cole Younger. She said she had a picture of Cole Younger at the Elkins train station. She said she didn’t have it anymore. She lent it to somebody and never got it back. But she was an honest woman. She said she had this picture of Cole Younger at the Elkins train station. So what’s going on here? Cole Younger was in the James Gang. He was in the Northfield train robbery where they killed a man in Northfield, Minnesota and during the bank robbery he was captured and sent to prison. So I found these letters from Cole Younger written to Stephen Elkins. Stephen Elkins at the time was Secretary of War, and Cole Younger wanted him to pull some strings to get him out of prison. I forget how long his sentence was but he did get released from prison after ten years. And there’s a lot of debate about why and how, but there are these letters he wrote to Stephen Elkins asking him to put his muscle behind getting him out of prison.
Beyond that you have that James Gang did rob a bank in West Virginia, in Huntington. There’s stories all over the state, there’s a house in Braxton County where people swear Jesse James stayed the night. There’s a story about Jesse James visiting “Devil Anse” Hatfield. The folklore goes on and on. But here’s the real story. First off, Davis and Elkins were not Frank and Jesse James. But when Stephen Elkins was in the Civil War, I think he was in the Ohio 23rd, he was in Missouri and was captured by the Quantrill Gang. If you know about outlaw gangs that should ring a bell. Well the Quantrills were noted for not taking any live prisoners. So Stephen Elkins was captured and he was taken into their camp. They barely got into camp when someone rode up and said there’s Union troops closing in and they had to get out of there fast. So they jumped on their horses and they rode off. Cole Younger somehow got up next to Stephen Elkins and said “we’re gonna come to a fork in the road here. We’re all taking the right fork, you take the left fork and whip your horse. It’s your only chance. And he did that and he escaped. And the reason Cole Younger did that was because he had been a student of Stephen Elkins. Stephen Elkins was a schoolteacher in younger days in Missouri. Cole Younger had been one of his students. He recognized Elkins when they brought him to the Quantrills camp and he basically saved Elkins’ life. So years later after he left the Quantrill Gang and is in the James Gang, he’s in prison for this murder and he’s writing these letters to Stephen Elkins to try to get him to get him out of prison. So that’s the rest of the story.