Society of the Old West

From early westward expansion through the early 20th Century.

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. 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.

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