by Matthew C. Hulbert
In 1860, Edward M. Samuel, 53, was a respected businessman and the president of a successful bank in Liberty, Missouri. He claimed $30,000 of real estate in several different counties and boasted a personal net worth of $20,000 (roughly equivalent to $580,000 in 2015 currency per the CPI). Samuel had a large family and an attractive home in downtown Liberty; he was a charter member of the Board of Trustees of William Jewell College and had been the Treasurer of that institution since 1851. Moreover, he owned six slaves—three male, three female, ages ranging from 12 to 70. Indeed, on the eve of the Civil War, it appears that Edward Samuel had not only gotten by, but actually thrived, in a region rocked by more than a decade of political uncertainty and violent border strife.
Though a slaveowner, he was not a Democrat. Since the 1830s, he’d been a Whig. In 1860, though, he served as an elector for the Bell/Everett ticket in 1860. Nor was he a Confederate sympathizer; rather, Samuel was well-known in Liberty and surrounding areas as a diehard Unionist and a defender of the United States Constitution. In April 1862, a regretful former secessionist even penned an open letter to Samuel in the St. Louis Republican and the Liberty Tribune that lauded the banker’s dedication to the Union and called for the eradication of “all bands of outlaws and guerrilla parties that now infest our state.”
In June 1863, Samuel himself wrote to Kentucky Governor James F. Robinson to request an appointment as Commissioner of Deeds for Kentucky in Missouri. Robinson granted the request. With so many Kentucky transplants in Western Missouri, this was a sound business decision. But Samuel also affirmed everything said in the aforementioned letter; he described himself to Robinson as “a loyal man, unconditionally for the Govt & the Union.” Advertising this stance, truthful as it were, was not always a sound decision in Clay County—a place where the sons of numerous slaveowners fought as pro-Confederate guerrillas and likely didn’t appreciate being slated for extermination in the newspaper. Regardless, Samuel did just that — and he did so often.
But his good luck couldn’t last forever and, as the war slogged through its third year, the fates turned against Edward Samuel. On at least one occasion in September 1863, Edward Samuel had to temporarily flee his home for fear of being murdered by pro-Confederate rivals. By 1865, he abandoned Liberty altogether, finding safety in the Unionist stronghold of St. Louis. In February 1866, a group of armed men believed to include Archie “Little Arch” Clements, Frank James, the Pence Brothers (Bud and Donnie), and several other ex-Confederate guerrillas withdrew $60,000—at gunpoint—from the Clay County Savings Association. This was the very same bank once run by Edward Samuel in Liberty. Despite many popular historians wishing otherwise, Jesse James almost certainly didn’t participate in the robbery. (He was recovering from a serious bullet wound at the time.) Even so, this group of former bushwhackers constituted the core of what would become his James-Younger Gang. That criminal enterprise would go on to be one of the most notorious in American history.
Much as it must have pained Edward Samuel to see his once-flourishing financial institution violated by banditti, his move to St. Louis marked a return to personal affluence and public illustriousness. In 1867, he founded the Commercial Bank at the corner of Second and Olive Streets. That venture was described as “very prosperous” and Samuel himself was described as having family relations “so pleasant” and a level of financial security “so enviable.” Though no longer the Treasurer of William Jewell College, he did fill that role for the Missouri Stock and Bond Board. To outsiders, it looked as though Samuel had figured out how to thrive in yet another chaotic environment.
That appearances could be deceiving was never truer than in the case of Edward Samuel. In September 1869, he settled his entire account with the bank. On a morning soon after, he climbed out of bed “in the best of spirits,” “partook of a hearty breakfast,” and then made for the outhouse. There, he leaned over the bench, produced a straight razor, and opened a three inch gash across his own throat. The finely-honed steel severed his right carotid artery and both jugular veins. Samuel bled immensely and died; the corpse remained in place until his wife, Sarah, discovered the grisly scene. It was later revealed—in his obituary, for the whole world to see—that the “direct cause of the tragedy was the excessive pain which he experienced” as a result of “the piles.”
In other words, Edward Samuel had survived the turbulent 1850s in Western Missouri—a period dominated by border ruffians, fanatical jayhawkers, and a sword-wielding John Brown. Then he managed to live through the entire Civil War, almost all of it as an Unconditional Unionist in decidedly pro-Confederate guerrilla country. And he did so while building not one, but two healthy fortunes—the second to replace what was lost of the first in 1865. Edward Samuel did all of this, only to be driven to suicide by a case of (apparently incurable) hemorrhoids. If that isn’t the most nineteenth century thing you’ve ever heard, I don’t know what is.
With Samuel’s demise behind us, events at the Clay County Savings Association are worth a few moments more of our time. Led by Pulitzer-winner T. J. Stiles, many historians have recently come to accept that the early robberies committed by the James-Younger Gang were not simple cash grabs or get rich quick schemes. Jesse James and his comrades weren’t a band of cowboy Robin Hoods, striking a symbolic blow for labor in an age of rapid post-war industrialization. No, these were politically-motivated assaults carried out by highly-trained, well-armed veterans of domestic combat. Put another way, at least in the beginning — when the gang largely consisted of former guerrillas — these were acts of pro-Confederate terrorism that fit well in the context of other anti-Reconstruction, pro-Lost Cause paramilitary organizations of the 1860s and 1870s.
As his letter to James Robinson in the CWG-K archive iterates, Edward M. Samuel was just the sort of political target the James brothers had in mind. In the end, though they undoubtedly would have enjoyed a third chance to dispatch Samuel in some macabre fashion, the guerrillas-turned-outlaws only managed to take his bank. He took care of the rest himself.
Matthew C. Hulbert is an Assistant Editor of the Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition.