Train conductor William Westfall was killed in cold blood by Jesse James who claimed later that Westfall was the conductor on the train that led the Pinkerton's to the James homestead.  The raid resulted in the bombing of the James' home, maiming of their mother and the death of their little brother.

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William Westfall and Jesse James

On July 15, 1881 three bearded men boarded a Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad train at Cameron, Missouri thirty miles east of St. Joseph. The train was destined for Davenport, Iowa and was carrying several thousand dollars intended for the Farmer's Bank in Gallatin, Missouri another twenty miles up the track. Among the bearded men were Frank and Jesse James. The brothers went into the smoking car and took a seat and their companion Wood Hite went through the car and positioned himself on the rear platform of the baggage car. The train consisted of the locomotive with its coal tender, followed by the baggage car. Behind the baggage car was the smoking car. There may have been one or two other passenger cars and the caboose. Conductor William H. Westfall checked his watch and at the appropriate minute gave the signal for the train to start and climbed aboard.

A few miles down the track the train slowed as it approached Winston, Missouri. Two more men ran out of the shadows of the trees and leaped on the back end of the baggage car. Now train passengers included Frank, Jesse, Wood Hite, Clarence Hite and Dick Liddil. The notorious James Gang was about to strike again. Conductor Westfall was collecting tickets in the smoking car when the glass in the door at the front of the car broke and two bandits with raised pistols burst into the car yelling, "Hands up!" At the same moment Frank and Jesse stood up and drew their pistols.

Jesse looked directly at Conductor Westfall and one passenger reported that he uttered, "You're the man I want."

Apparently Frank fired first at Westfall and the bullet hit the conductor in the arm. Westfall turned and ran for the rear door of the car as two more shots rang out, both missing their mark. Jesse, exasperated at his brother's poor aim, fired his pistol and William Westfall fell dead on the floor with a bullet through the back of his head. The outlaws dragged his lifeless body out to the platform and then proceeded with the robbery. Another employee of the railroad, John McMillan, was also killed during the hold-up. At some point Westfall's body rolled off the platform onto the ground beside the tracks. It was not recovered until the following day. William Harrison Westfall of Plattsburg, Clinton County, Missouri was thirty-eight years old. He left his widow Eliza Jane (Sweany) with three children between the ages of three and twelve. He was a Union veteran of the Civil War.

The Jesse James legend says that William Westfall was killed as revenge for the Pinkerton attack on the James homestead six years earlier. There is absolutely no evidence that this is true.  If it were true, the James brothers probably knew that Westfall would be the conductor on the train. The James gang members were among the railroads' best customers besides being their worst enemies. Before they robbed a train they would ride it to make sure they knew its schedule, all of its stops and what it might be carrying. Jesse had been planning this robbery for weeks and had taken this particular train more than once. During one of these rides he would have encountered Westfall and learned to recognize him.

More than six years before Allen Pinkerton was determined to bring the James boys to justice. The Pinkerton Agency was a private detective agency (the term "private eye" came from the eye symbol on the Pinkerton advertisements). The Pinkerton Agency was hired by the railroads to put a stop to the James Gang but the agency had no legal standing in Missouri, or even in Chicago where Pinkerton had his headquarters. However, legal or not, in the 1870's Allen Pinkerton was the nearest thing the United States had to a national law enforcement agency.

Pinkerton had sent three of his men at different times to spy on the James brothers, their friends and family. The men were discovered and were immediately killed by Frank or Jesse. The brothers even left a note pinned to the jacket of one of the spies that read, "The same to all detectives." The killings and this taunt enraged Pinkerton and he was determined to catch the outlaws, even if he had to do it himself. But, he needed to know when the brothers would be visiting their mother and stepfather, Zerelda and Dr. Reuben Samuels at their farm near Kearney, in Clay County, Missouri. Pinkerton knew that Frank and Jesse often visited their mother but no one seemed to be able to catch them there.

Pinkerton sent another detective named Jack Ladd to Clay County. Ladd knew the danger he would be in and kept his identity and purpose in Clay County a closely guarded secret. Ladd took a job as a hand on the farm of Dan Askew, a close neighbor of the Samuels. Ladd was such a good farmhand that no one in the area suspected him to be a Pinkerton agent. There is some question as to whether Dan Askew knew Ladd's true purpose, but strong evidence indicates that Askew was in on the Pinkerton plan. Daniel Askew was a former Missouri Union militia officer, the type of person the James brothers and the guerrillas they rode with during the Civil War despised. Askew's feelings towards the former guerrilla brothers were probably just as raw.

Soon Ladd learned that Jesse and Frank were in the area and had been seen at the James-Samuel's farm. He sent word back to Kansas City where Allen Pinkerton was waiting for his chance. Pinkerton had made arrangements with the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad line to provide him with a locomotive, tender and a caboose. Legend says that William Westfall was the conductor for the train. The conductor was not just a ticket taker; he was responsible for the train and its crew. It moved when he said it moved and stopped when he said it stopped. Without a doubt, the conductor would have known Pinkerton's mission but it is unlikely he knew what Pinkerton would do at the Samuel's farm.

On January 27, 1875 at about 7:30PM the train came to a stop near Kearney. Several men got out of the caboose and met a couple of other men with horses. Allen Pinkerton and his men started south through snow and biter cold towards the farm. Westfall took the train on down the line where it was turned and brought it back to the rendezvous point for the Pinkertons after they had completed their mission. What happened at the James-Samuel farm almost put Allen Pinkerton out of business.

Around midnight the Pinkerton men reached and surrounded the Samuel house, taking cover by the barn and outbuildings. In a stable in the barn was Jesse's fine thoroughbred mare. Inside the house were Zerelda, Frank and Jesse's mother, their stepfather Rueben Samuel, their young half-sister Fannie and young half-brother thirteen-year-old Archie. Also in the home were the Samuel's black maid and her children.

The Pinkertons brought with them tools that clearly indicates that they intended to burn the place down. Their first attempt used something like a Roman candle containing cotton balls saturated with Kerosene. They intended to set the house afire by shooting fireballs at the siding covering the log walls. The noise awakened the family inside and Dr. Samuel easily extinguished the fires by pulling off the clapboard siding where it was burning. Failing to set the home ablaze with this device, the Pinkertons resorted to what can only be called a bomb. It was a hollow iron ball about the size of a modern soccer ball filled with a combustible jell called Greek Fire. One of the men broke a window of the living room and tossed in the bomb. The device immediately set a quilt on fire. Zerelda Samuel attempted to toss the burning ball back out the window but it was too heavy for her. She did manage to throw out the quilt. Dr. Samuel grabbed a shovel and tossed the bomb into the fireplace. It immediately exploded.

The shrapnel from the iron ball hit young Archie Samuel in the midsection practically disemboweling him. He died later that night. Another piece hit Zerelda in the arm shredding the limb. Doctors later would have to amputate the arm below the elbow. Dr. Samuel was hit in the head but was not seriously injured. The maid was also hit by the flying shrapnel and sustained serious injuries. Mrs. Samuel ran out of the house screaming and cursing the Pinkertons for their barbarity. To make matters worse, it immediately became apparent to Allen Pinkerton that Frank and Jesse were not at home.

Pinkerton realized that he might be in a bit of trouble himself. He ordered his men to return to the train waiting for them just out side of Kearney. A posse later followed their trail back to the railroad. The train carried Pinkerton and his men back to Chicago, and out of Missouri as fast as possible.

As the men climbed aboard the caboose, the conductor asked Pinkerton how it had gone. Pinkerton told him, "Don't ask, and don't say anything about it."

A public outcry arose against the Pinkerton agency for their clearly illegal attempt to catch the outlaws. There were cries for Allen Pinkerton's head and charges of murder were filed against him and his men. However, Pinkerton's powerful allies were able to squash the charges. Pinkerton never again attempted to catch the James gang. Jack Ladd disappeared from the Askew farm, never to be seen in Missouri again.

Shortly after the raid, Frank and Jesse paid a visit to Dan Askew. He did not survive the encounter. After killing Askew the brothers went to the home of a friendly neighbor. They told him that if anyone asked who killed Dan Askew, to say the Pinkertons did it. The James brothers vowed to kill anyone associated with the raid on their family farm. Somehow much later, they claimed to have learned the name of William Westfall, the conductor of the Pinkerton train. From that time on Westfall was a marked man. Jesse claimed to have even stalked Allen Pinkerton in Chicago, but did not kill him because he could not get close enough to him; he wanted Pinkerton to know who did it.

Two weeks after the Gallatin train robbery, on July 28, 1881, the governor of Missouri, Thomas Crittenden Issued a proclamation offering an award of $5,000 for the capture of any of the gang members involved in the robbery and the killing of William Westfall and John McMillan. In addition the award for Jesse and Frank James was $5,000 each for their conviction. On April 3, 1882 Bob Ford attempted to collect on the reward for Jesse. Ironically, Jesse James died the same way that his victim William Westfall had died, with a bullet through the back of the head.

A short time later his friend John Newman Edwards, the newspaper man who is most responsible for the Jesse James legend, arranged for Frank James to surrender. Frank was charged among other things with the murder of William Westfall. The charge was later dropped and when Frank was finally tried from his crimes he was acquitted. He died an old man at the Kearney homestead on February 18, 1915. No one ever faced a jury for the killing of William Westfall.

William Harrison Westfall was born in Leroy, McClean County, Illinois on January 9, 1843 to Levi and Susan (Clearwater) Westfall. He married Eliza J. Sweaney on September 29, 1867 in Davies County, Missouri – the same area where he was killed. William and Eliza had two sons and a daughter, all born in Missouri: Daniel, born in 1869; Lewis, born in 1871; Tillie, born in 1878. The family lived in Plattsburg, Clinton County, Missouri when William was killed.  Eliza died years later in Oregon. 

William's parents Levi and Susan Clearwater were married in 1828 in Montgomery County, Indiana. The Westfall's had twelve children: Eliza Jane; Rueben; John; Angeline; Owen C.; Susan M.; William H.; Ashby; Nathan; Harrison; Harriet; Mary E., born between 1829 and 1854. Levi was born in 1810 in Miami County, Ohio to Reuben and Elizabeth (Tucker) Westfall. Reuben was born in Beverly, Randolph County, (West) Virginia in 1779, the son of Jacob Westfall and Mary King. For the lineage of this family see:  Family Tree of Virginia Westfall

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Ronald N. Wall
Modified: 09 September 2017