Friday, February 8, 2013

The January 2013 Meeting of the Stanly County Genealogical Society: Stanly Counties relationship with Jesse James.

On January 28, 2013 the Stanly County Genealogical Society was gifted by the speaker Mr. Ralph Ganis. The topic of his presentation was the James Gang's connections with North Carolina and in particular, Stanly County. Almost every one has heard the legend of the Outlaw Jesse James, his brother Frank James and their group of reconstruction era bandits, the James and Younger Gang. It is widely know that the James brothers were confederate veterans from Missouri. What is not widely known is their connection to Stanly and surrounding counties in North Carolina.

Ralph Ganis
Mr. Ganis is the author of the book "Desparate Measures" which deals with the subject of Jesse James and the James Gang. We he began his research  many years ago, any of the characters who would have heard of  Jesse James or any of his gang trekking through the Carolinas, were in the very twilight years of their existence, and most of them gone. He was able to talk to a few old timers who remember rumours or the meeting of persons when they were children. That window of opportunity is now closing forever.

Jesse James not only had a connection to Stanly and Union Counties, but also to Rockingham, Guilford, Alamance and Caswell counties as well. Several of these families had migrated from North Carolina to Clay County, Missouri, home of the James family. In fact, the James' home was sold to them by a man from Greensboro, North Carolina. Sarah Cole, a cousin of Jesse James, married Joel Albright, a man from Greensboro. There was every reason, Mr. Ganis states, for Jesse James to come to North Carolina after the war, to visit relatives and to travel with neighbors.

Jim Cumming, a member of the James Gang, was from Rockingham County, N.C.

Buffalo Presbyterian Church, in Greensboro, was built by Jacob Albright, James first cousin.

The Holt family from Alamance County, NC played a pivotal role in Clay County, Missouri.

Mr. Ganis stated how the town of Lawrence, Kansas was burned to the ground. Targeted in 1863 by Confederates for it's support of abolitionists and known as a haven for vigilante groups that had led raids on several of Missouri's western plantations. The James and Holts were said to have taken an active part in the raid. Part of the reason for the raid was the set up there of a Women's prison, in which Union forces incarcerated women and girls who aided the Missouri guerrillas, typically sisters and mothers of Rebel soldiers. During the raid, the prison collapsed, killing several of the women in the jail, including the 14 year old sister of "Bloody Bill" Anderson.
Lawrence Massacre

In his book and in his lecture, Mr. Ganis told of how John Dixon Holt commanded one branch of the KKK, that was born in the office of an attorney in Alamance County, North Carolina. There were 10 men in the room, and every one of them had a relative in Clay County, Missouri.

In 20 years of research, Mr. Ganis has not uncovered one family connection from Stanly or Union Counties, NC to Jesse James. His presence in the area was not to visit family. His connection was Lorenzo Merriman Little.
Lorenzo Merriman Little
Lorenzo Merriman Little
Merriman Little was born and raised in the southwestern section of Stanly County, near present day Stanfield or Locust. He went to California, on a search for fortune, as many men of his day did. There he met the men from Missouri. The formation of the James gang began in California. There were the Youngers, Cole, Jim, Bob and their brother-in-law, John Jarrett, the future members of the gang.

Find A Grave link to Merriman Little

Merriman returned to North Carolina after the war. First, to his old home on the Rocky River, and then later to Marshville, just south, in Union County, to be near the railroad at Beaver Dam.

What was going on here after the war? Reconstruction. The population resisting the efforts of Washington. Mr. Ganis wrote in "Desperate Measures" that Jesse James came to North Carolina with his neighbors after the war. No one knew him here in 1869. A decade later, he would come in to visit Merriman Little, about 1879-1880, and by then, could not use his real name, but went by John Davis Howard, or another alias. At this point he was known.

And this is where a member of Mr. Ganis was brought in, his Great GrandUncle, 'Mome Diggs'. The Diggs family, according to Mr. Ganis, was very close to the Littles.

He can't say how long the James's stayed in North Carolina, by documentation. The preponderance of the evidence is circumstantial. He stayed for a while at Locust Hill in Caswell County. He lived there prior to becoming a known figure. Frank was nearby. They always had a way of living within a hundred miles of each other. It was most likely that Jesse was in Caswell County, and Frank here in our neck of the woods. Frank knew Merriman better and Merriman knew Cole Younger.

Tom, his grandfather's uncle, was told that as a child he had looked into the eyes of Jesse James. Tom was born in 1882, the year that Jesse James died. Mome Diggs was a pallbearer. It could have been that he had been to visit the Diggs and Littles, who lived close to each other, and Mome said, "Jesse, look at my nephew", and the legend peared into the eyes of the infant, and there the story was passed down to the boy, Tom, as he grew up.

Stories from old timers were consistent. When old timers from Stanly or Union were asked if he lived here, they would reply, "No, he was just passing through". However, in Caswell County, if asked if he just visited, they would correct, "No, he lived here." A man in Caswell County even showed Mr. Ganis which house he lived in, and it was still standing. When asked how truthful he thought it might be that the house was the genuine home of Jesse James, the old gentleman replied, " Let me tell you something, the people who told me , they believed it. They didn't tell me a lie."

In his book, "Desparate Measures", Mr. Ganis tells the story of Mr. James in Missouri and the tough times after the war. His research was authenticated by Duke University. There was no system to protect Southerners, so they began to take things into their own hands.

Jesse James was born  in 1847 and died on April 3 1882. He was shot by Bob Ford.

Bob Ford

A week before he shot Jesse, the 'coward' Bob Ford, as he was known, had shot the James's first cousin, 
Wood Hite. The Ford brothers, Bob and Charlie, had joined the James Gang in it's latter days. 

Frank James was a tough guy. It is said that none of the rumors that Jesse James had faked his death circulated while Frank James was alive.

Andrew Moorman "Mome" Diggs

In Marshville, there is a barber shop called Buford Barber Shop. Behind that building was the Russel farm. It is said that Jesse James was hiding in that building. In those days a doctor lived there. Jesse could have went there for treatment of pre-existing wounds, and laid up and healed at the Russel House. He believed in the healing effects of spring waters and visited the areas of Rocky River Springs in Stanly County, and Healing Springs in Davidson.

He had friends in Ed and Clell Miller from Yadkin Co, North Carolina. In his constant movement to stay one step ahead of the law, it is said that he visited them as well.

Andrew Moorman Diggs, aka Mome, was the ancestor of the speaker. He is buried in Peachland, North Carolina.

Find a grave link to Memorial of Mome Diggs.

Mome Diggs was arrested in 1883 after being in a saloon, coming out druck and shooting and killing a man named Sandy Cash. The atmosphere of the times was extremely different than it is today. Mome sat in the jail on the third floor of the Union County Courthouse for 2 years awaiting trial. He was shackled so heavily when they brought him into the courtroom, he could not walk, and stiff from being caged up for all that time. Inmates were not allowed exercise as they are today and he was heavily watched and incarcerated as officials were wary of a jailbreak given his past and his associations.

The judge talked to him, hoping to have a loophole to set him free. The issue was that Mome Diggs was a bit of a celebrity, the dashing desparado who had rode with the legendary James Gang, but most of all, Diggs was a white man. His innocent victim, Sandy Cash, was a black man. In the 1880's, a judge did not want to convict a white man in a crime against a black man. "Mome", the judge asked, "Did you mean to kill the man?" Mome replied, "Yes, Your Honor, I meant to shoot the SOB." He would not lie to save his life, literally. He would rob and he would kill, but by his honor, he would not lie.

Mome was sentenced to 20 years in prison. He served 5 years in the State Penitentiary in Raleigh and then was pardoned by Governor Daniel Gould Fowle. He came home, got a job with the railroad and in a most ironic and almost humorous twist, was given a job guarding payroll for the railroad. Criminal backgrounds were more expungeable than they are today. It did not matter that he had robbed banks, he could shoot.

In 1897, he had rode with the train to Tennesse, when the train returned to Monroe, a group of men were waiting on him to inflict their own sense of justice, suspected to be friends of Sandy Cash, the man Mome had murdered 14 years earlier. They beat him up to near death and laid him on the railroad track to be beheaded. His body was in such bad shape, the authorities did not know him.

After his disappearance, his family heard rumors of the man executed by being laid upon the track. They had the unknown man exhumed, claimed the body and had him buried in Peachland.

An old man that had known of him, Mr. Tommy Allen, would later tell Mr. Ganis, "Twelve men killed Mome Diggs. They always said it would take 12 men to kill him.".

Mome Diggs was said to have given Jesse James his favorite race horse, "Stonewall". James was looking at at picture or painting of that horse on the wall when he was shot. He had let his guard down.

When a member of the gang, Bill Ryan got drunk and was captured, the James brothers were near Nashville, Tennessee. They gathered their families and Jesse went to Mississippi and Frank to Texas. Frank sent his wife to California. He would later give an account of his travels. He would later meet up with his wife in Nelson County, Kentucky. He was tried twice and acquitted both times.He went to Greensboro, North Carolina and stayed at the McAdoo House. He then went to Salem, now Winston-Salem, to look for work. There, he contracted diptheria. After recovering, he went to Jonesboro, North Carolina, or present day Sanford. Frank's wife Anna Ralston was from North Carolina, and her brother attended law school in Raleigh.

Frank was working at a mill in Norfolk, Virginia when he heard Jesse had been shot. Having more states wanting his arrest for violations in each of them, Frank surrendered himself in Missouri and was found "Not Guilty." At his trial in Alabama, he had a black juror, and was also found not guilty. After the trial, the gentleman came up to him, and the juror told him, "I sure am glad I met you." Frank replied, "I sure am glad I met you."

Frank said at his trial, "My intentions were to go to North Carolina and remain there.

So this was the tale of the James Gangs connections to North Carolina. The James Gang members from Stanly County and Union County were Merriman Little and Mome Diggs. Not your ordinary fellas. Handsome and full of derringdo, they inspired lies and legends. Criminals, for certain, but to many distraught and destroyed families after the war, they embodied a spirit of rebelliousness and bravado that many others would not and could not undertake. Modern day Robin Hoods, they were called.

Mome Diggs is buried in the Peachland cemetery. Merriman Little is buried on a hilltop in the old Davis cemetery in Union County.

Jesse James was rumoured to have had a girlfriend in Rockingham County, North Carolina, and also another in Caswell. His wife Zerelda died in 1890. Were there any little unknown J.J. descendants out there? We many never know.


  1. Buford's Barbershop is in Oakboro; Big Lick to be exact. Not Marshville.

  2. Thank you Mr. Williams. My notes came from Mr. Ganis's presentation. I must have gotten the location of that one wrong.

  3. Thanks for writing this! Mome Diggs was my great-great uncle, and I looked everywhere to try to find the story of how he was killed. Your blog is the only place where there is any detail on the story! So thank you :)

  4. My great grandmother told me about sitting on Jesse's lap when she was a little girl
    She died ony 11th birthday July 24, 1054. Mr Little was her grandfather.