Al J. Jennings, the Robber

Bank Robbery
R: William Tilghman. K: William Tilghman. D: Al J. Jennings, Frank Canton, Quanah Parker. P: Oklahoma Natural Mutoscene Company. USA 1908

“One of the few instances where actors playing the lawmen and the robbers actually were the lawmen and the robbers: William Tilghman was a famous and respected U.S. marshal on the Oklahoma frontier; Al J. Jennings was a convicted train robber who took up acting after having been released from prison; Frank Canton was a widely feared gunfighter; Heck Thomas was a legendary sheriff; Quanah Parker was the son of an Indian father and a white mother who led several Indian revolts.”

“Al J. Jennings (1863-1961) was born in Tazewell County in Virginia on November 25, 1863. He ran away from home at the age of 10 and went to Cincinnati because, he said, his father killed his pet squirrel. He then drifted west to Colorado, where he signed on as a hand on Jim Stanton’s ranch in Trinidad, where he learned to handle a gun. Standing five feet, five inches tall, Al Jennings made up for his medium stature with bravado and an outspoken nature. Al had three brothers, who were all respected citizens, although one, Fred, later joined him in banditry. At one time his father was a circuit court judge. Jennings studied law and was admitted to the bar in Kansas in 1884. In 1892 he won election as county attorney in El Reno, Oklahoma. There was a feud between Al’s brother Ed and another man, and one evening, Ed was shot from behind. As he was dying, he asked Al to avenge him. A trial was held, and Ed’s alleged assassin was found not guilty. Al then devoted his life to revenge.
Soon, Al Jennings was in trouble himself. As he told it in later years, members of the Norman gang, who were clients of his law practice, held up a train. Although Al asserted that he was not with them during the daring escapade, he was incriminated, and even his father believed him to be guilty. Oklahoma authorities put a price of $20,000 on his head, at which time Al Jennings decided to become a bandit in earnest. He joined the Norman gang and became their leader. Many train robberies later, the Norman gang was caught while trying to blow a Wells Fargo safe in an express car. Under a life sentence, Jennings was dispatched to the Ohio State Penitentiary. While in jail, he made the acquaintance of Ohio industrialist Mark Hanna, who was a friend of the warden. Hanna believed Jennings’ contention that his life of crime started when he was unjustly accused, and he persuaded his friend, President William A. McKinley, to commute the sentence to five years. In 1907 he received a full pardon from President Theodore Roosevelt. Jennings returned to Oklahoma, where he ran for public office. He narrowly lost the race for prosecuting attorney in the same county which had posted the $20,000 reward for his capture, dead or alive, years earlier. Later, in 1914, he ran an unsuccessful race for governor of the state in the Democratic primary and finished third.
Jennings on the Screen: Drawing upon his experience and a seemingly unquenchable thirst for publicity, he appeared in many films, of which The Bank Robbery, produced by the Oklahoma Natural Mutoscene Company in 1908 and which re-enacted Jennings’ robbery of the Bank of Cache, in the Oklahoma city of that name, was perhaps the first. (…)”
© 1995 Q. David Bowers

Four years earlier, Philadelphia:

The Bold Bank Robbery
R: Jack Frawley. B: Jack Frawley. P: S. Lubin. USA 1904