Arthur McCoy and the James Gang

Arthur McCoy and the James Gang by Deb Houdek Rule

Arthur C. McCoy is one of the more puzzling characters to ride with the James-Younger gang. Historians seem to have not known what to do with him and research on him to date has been scanty to none. The reasons McCoy is such an unusual gang member are that he didn’t fit the profile of the others. He wasn’t from the western border area, he wasn’t a farmer, he hadn’t been a guerrilla, and he was old enough to be the father of the James brothers.

McCoy may have crossed paths with Robert Salle James, father of Frank and Jesse, as early as 1850. The Irish-born McCoy joined the Gold Rush in California appearing on the 1850 census in Centreville, just a short distance from Placerville where Drury James resided and Robert James died and was buried. It’s unknown if they connected at this point or if their being in the same area was coincidence.

While the outlaw career of the James-Younger gang started after the War ended, McCoy’s history with robbery began well before. In the 1850 McCoy was connected to a stagecoach robbery in California in which $30,000 was reported stolen. A wealthy San Francisco gambler helped extricate McCoy from the legal consequences. This friend reappeared in 1873 to help out McCoy’s wife after McCoy was connected to the Adair, Iowa train robbery.

In the mid-1850s Arthur McCoy settled in St. Louis, joining the volunteer fire companies which gained him extensive social and political connections. Through these fire department connections McCoy met his wife, Louisa Gibson. The Gibsons were a well-to-do family with a history in Missouri dating back to some of the oldest white settlers. McCoy’s new mother-in-law had a French ancestry in Ste. Genevieve, Missouri dating back into the 1700s in the wealthiest and largest plantation and slave-owning families in the area. These extensive relationships in Ste. Genevieve came into play in later years when the James-Younger gang robberies began taking place.

As the Civil War began become a reality, McCoy was at the forefront of the secessionist movement in St. Louis. Along with such noted individuals as General Basil Duke (later with Morgan), McCoy was one of the founders of the Minute Men who made a play for the St. Louis arsenal, which—if they had succeeded—could have change the course of the entire war. After a capture at Camp Jackson, and parole, McCoy fought at Shiloh with Bowen’s regiment. After his unit was decimated, McCoy joined General J. O. Shelby’s company and was quickly promoted to captain.

With Shelby, McCoy met the man who later became the chronicler and apologist of the James-Younger gang—John Newman Edwards. McCoy’s wartime adventures are covered in Edwards’ “Shelby and his Men” and expanded upon, with his connection to Jesse James mentioned, in “Noted Guerrillas.” In 1864 General Shelby assigned McCoy’s company to ride with Todd’s company. Edwards account puts Jesse James near the front of the ranks in the charge. In his November 1873 article, “A Terrible Quintette,” Edwards names Jesse and Frank James, John and Cole Younger, and Arthur C. McCoy as the five most significant gang members at that point.

McCoy also encountered Cole Younger and John Jarrette during their service under Shelby. Though Cole Younger later claimed not to have seen McCoy after the war’s end, he describes him with accuracy and familiarity.

During the war, McCoy was also connected with, and was a part of, a number of Confederate secret service/Order of American Knights—OAK—operations (OAK replaced the defunct Knights of the Golden Circle in 1863 and was General Price’s secret service organization in connection with numerous actions including several copperhead conspiracies). McCoy went in and out of St. Louis numerous times during the war, carrying thousands of letters in and out (a hanging offense under Federal martial law), and carrying back rifle caps. In February 1864 McCoy’s son died in St. Louis and days later McCoy was captured by Federal forces. He escaped several months later by jumping off the steamer carrying him north to Alton prison.

After the war’s end, McCoy becomes more elusive. The first robbery attached to his name is Russellville, Kentucky. He’s also strongly connected to the Ste. Genevieve robbery and the Adair, Iowa train robbery. McCoy had lived near Ste. Genevieve for some time after the war, safe amidst his wife’s family. At the time of the robbery, his wife’s relatives had apparently lost control of the bank in what appears to be an action related to removing former Confederate sympathizers from control. To target the Ste. Genevieve bank at that time strongly suggests McCoy had a personal motivation that would have also appealed to his young ex-guerrilla comrades. The cry, “Hurrah for Sam Hildebrand” also ties to both McCoy’s Ste. Genevieve connections and to his comrade’s guerrillas connections.

After the Adair, Iowa train robbery, McCoy is also connected to the Gads Hill train robbery (he had a strong familiarity with the area in which that took place), and the murder of Pinkerton agent Whicher.

At some point in 1874 Arthur C. McCoy effectively vanishes from history. He’s said to have died of a fever on pneumonia in Texas before 1880, but even his family was uncertain. Other accounts say he was arrested—or killed—in connection with the San Antonio stagecoach robbery in April of 1874. Though considered a major participant in the James-Younger gang robberies up to that point and named in numerous newspaper articles, afterwards he’s almost written out of the stories as the legends of the younger members grow.