The outlaw Frank James did not die in St. Louis. But he did live — and attained his final mortal form — in our fair city.
A little more than 100 years ago, on Feb. 21, 1915, the Missouri Crematory at 3211 Sublette Avenue disposed of the remains of the older of the two infamous James brothers. Alexander Franklin “Frank” James was 72.
After James’ storied life of crime — he surrendered to authorities in 1882 in Jefferson City, shortly after brother Jesse James was shot in his home — he was tried twice and acquitted both times. Starting in 1883, James roamed the country and worked at a variety of odd jobs.
According to historian/biographer William A. Settle Jr., Frank James lived in St. Louis roughly between 1894 and 1901 and worked at the Standard Theater in downtown St. Louis.
The theater was located at Seventh and Walnut streets, one block north of today’s Ballpark Village. News reports from the time describe James as an usher, doorman and/or guard. The theater was owned by one Col. Edward Butler, who apparently promised to try to land James a job as a sergeant-at-arms in the Missouri Legislature. (News accounts did not mention if the inherent irony was intentional or not.)
That political plan met with understandable opposition, and most articles note that by 1903 or 1904, James had returned to his farm in Kearney, Mo., near Kansas City.
Whether James’ time in St. Louis made him familiar with the Missouri Crematory, now known as Hillcrest Abbey, matters little.
Crematorium manager Steve Du Lany said the facility was one of only six crematoriums in the nation in 1915, and the only one west of the Mississippi River.
“So if Mr. James wished to be cremated, it would’ve been done here,” he said.
Old news stories claim James decided years before his death to be cremated because he was troubled by rumors that his brother’s brain had been stolen and used for medical experiments.
According to records still kept at the building, the cremated remains — “never called ashes” in the cremation business, Du Lany noted — were turned over to Jesse E. James, outlaw Jesse James’ oldest son and a nephew of the deceased. A ledger signed by Jesse E. James can still be seen at the old crematorium on Sublette Avenue, near the South City YMCA.
The nephew took the remains back to Frank James’ wife, Annie Ralston James, in Kearney. There, in another irony, they were kept in a bank vault until they could be buried with his wife, news reports said.
Annie James died in 1944. Her body was also cremated, and the couple’s remains were buried together in a plot near Independence, Mo.
This is the first in a weekly series of stories focusing on people, places and things that are uniquely St. Louis. It could be an unusual piece of history, an object or place that holds unheralded significance, or a person who has a unique story to tell. We would like to hear your ideas. Send suggestions by email to email@example.com, or mail to Joe Holleman, 900 North Tucker Boulevard, St. Louis, Mo. 63101.