James Babe was born July 4, 1839, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of Peter and Mary.
Both of James’ parents were reportedly born in Pennsylvania, and presumably married there. In the mid-1850s James left Philadelphia and moved to Elmira, New York where he worked for some five or six months on the Williamsport & Elmira Railroad, but by late 1857 or early 1858 he had moved west to Jackson, Jackson County, Michigan where he worked briefly in a livery stable. From Jackson he moved to Kalamazoo and worked for several weeks for Henry Dake at the Dake Hotel. some years later James claimed that he couldn’t make any money in Kalamazoo, so he settled on the old Widoe farm near the Taylor plaster mills outside of Grand Rapids, afterwards moving to Cascade.
He was living in the Grand Rapids area in 1858 when he was arrested for larceny on November 23, 1858, and was found guilty. He was sentenced to a $10.00 fine or 30 days in jail. The Enquirer reported that “Babe not being able to raise the ‘tin’ was marched over to the Cross Bar Hotel”. Babe remarked 18 years later that he had never been to prison and was in jail but once “for drunkenness and stealing. That was the only crime I was ever arrested for, except for a family quarrel, when I choked my father-in-law and brother-in-law.”
By 1860 James was working as a farmer and living in Grand Rapids.
He stood 5’7” with hazel eyes, dark hair and a dark complexion and was 21 years old and probably still living in Grand Rapids when he enlisted in Company A on May 13, 1861. George Miller, also of Company A and a tentmate in the winter of 1861-62, described Babe as “a jovial fellow”, a comrade “who, ever since the battle of Bull Run, when he hears anything said about cavalry, pretends to be awfully scared and commences to tremble all over, and by his odd motions keeps us laughing continually.” Babe was detailed as Brigade saddler on August 11, 1861, and was serving as a Brigade teamster on December 31, 1861. He was still detached as a Brigade teamster from July of 1862 through July of 1863, and in November he was with the Third Brigade (which included the Third Michigan) still working as a teamster.
James reenlisted on December 23 1863, at Brandy Station, Virginia, crediting Grand Rapids, and was subsequently absent on a 30-day veterans’ furlough. Curiously, he was reported to have married Malina Gorham on December 15, 1863, in Ada, Kent County, thus placing him in Michigan before he reenlisted and therefore before he would have been allowed to go home on veteran’s furlough. Nevertheless, they had at least one child, a son John. James probably returned to the Regiment on or about the first of February and was transferred to Company A, Fifth Michigan Infantry upon consolidation of the Third and Fifth Michigan Regiments on June 10, 1864, where he continued to serve with the Brigade wagon trains through December.
In January of 1865 he was absent on furlough, and in February he was transferred, probably as a teamster, to the Quartermaster department where he remained until he was mustered out on July 5, 1865, at Jeffersonville, Indiana.
After the war James returned to the Grand Rapids area and, according to a statement he gave in 1876, settled on a farm in Cannon, Kent County where he remained for nearly a year, before moving to Grand Rapids where he lived for a few months before moving to Rockford, Kent County. He then worked for about 18 months at George French’s shingle mill in Cedar Springs, Kent County, after which he returned to the plaster mills near Grand Rapids. His wife left him sometime around 1872, “because”, he claimed some years later, “her folks coaxed her away.”
He was living in Grand Rapids in 1874, and at one point had served as a deck hand on the river steamer Nebraska under Captain Moran who would later become the chief of police of Grand Rapids. In 1875 he was employed by Jeremiah W. Boynton in the construction of the Grand Rapids & Reed’s Lake railway, and when that was completed he worked on the line as a conductor until the close of the season when he was then employed in constructing the west side line of the road and drove a car on that line after its completion in late April of 1876.
On May 16, 1876, James was arrested in Conger, a station on the Grand Rapids & Indiana railroad line just north of the Kent County line, and was charged with arson. It was alleged that Babe and two other men were hired by Boynton to burn Boynton’s flouring mill in Alaska, Kent County, in mid-September of 1872.
According to the Eagle of May 17, 1876, There were some suspicious circumstances connected with the fire, but not enough to warrant the officers in proceeding at that time to an arrest for incendiarism.” The chief of police undertook surveillance of several individuals and “Later, one James Babe, who had been in the employ of Manager J. W. Boynton, on the Reed’s Lake Street Railway, in various capacities, happened, in conversation with an acquaintance, to suggest incendiarism as a means for relieving himself of financial difficulties [with the mill], and that he would attend to such a job for a consideration. From such hints he dropped, his acquaintance was led to believe that he had attended to such work before and knew how to act.
Babe’s friend informed the police and it was decided that the friend would continue to press Babe on additional details regarding the burnings. During further talks with Babe it was learned that he had in fact burned the mill at Alaska as well as a dwelling in Lockwood. Chief Moran took the train north of Grand Rapids a few miles to Conger where he found Babe and arrested him.
James confessed right away and told Moran that Fayette McIntyre, whom he knew from Alaska and “with whom he was boarding in Caledonia, approached him and offered a chance to make some money if he could keep a secret. He said he could, when McIntyre said that J. W. Boynton had offered him $200 for burning his grist mill [in Alaska], to enable him to get the insurance, and that, for reasons he explained, he could not set the fire; that if he, Babe, would do it he should have half the money, or $100; that he gave him, Babe, instructions, and the bargain was consummated and the mill burned.” Furthermore, Babe alleged that he had struck another bargain with Boynton to burn a piece of property in Lockwood, from which Boynton collected $1,000 and that he was to pay Babe $75 or $100. That property was burned in 1874. Chief of Police Moran arrested Jeremiah Boynton and LaFayette McIntyre, “two local, well- respected citizens”.
During his testimony on May 17, 1876, Babe said, in part, that McIntyre approached him because
he was liable to fainting spells and feared he might be attacked with one of them and thus be burned up in the mill. He said the mill must be burned soon -- I think within a week. Subsequently -- I think two days later - he asked me if I would burn the mill, and said if I would not he must do it himself, as the job must be done. He told me it [the mill] was fixed for burning, where there were empty barrels, a can of oil, etc., for starting the flames, in the mill, that I should not try to save anything, and that Boynton would be at the Rapids, and it must be done while he was there. I told him the night before I burned it that it would be done. I found the empty barrels mentioned under the grain spout where they weighed the grain, and the kerosene oil in the upper part of the mill. There was nearly a gallon of the oil. I entered the mill about 11 o’clock at night, I think it was Saturday night, set the fire, and then hurried home as fast as I could with the empty oil can. I went to bed and slept until morning. Afterward he [McIntyre] paid me $40, coming to me in my field where I was husking corn, and said that he got it of Boynton, and that it was a part of the $200 which Boynton had agreed to pay him for the job. Afterward he gave me $20 more, and the balance of $40 was applied on board, as my children and I were boarding at McIntyre’s” (his wife having just recently left him).
On July 1, 1876, McIntyre was found not guilty. His attorney argued that if indeed he was involved with the burning of the mill, he did so with the consent of its owner, Boynton, and Judge Hoyt ruled that Boynton had the full “‘use and occupation’” of the mill. “It was not arson,” read the opinion, “for a man to burn his own uninhabited building, or to hire another to do it, unless the act was done with the intent to defraud, and the information did not allege such intent.”
James, however, was found guilty but with extenuating circumstances, and apparently served no time in jail.
By 1880 James was listed as a widower and working as a fireman in a mill in Grand Haven, Ottawa County, a curious job for one convicted of arson. In any case, that same year he was living in the Eighth ward with the family of Henry Johnson. James eventually left Michigan and moved south. By 1890-91 he was working as a laborer and living at 262 Lafayette in New Orleans, Louisiana. He was still in New Orleans when he applied for a pension in August of 1892, through an attorney in Kansas City, Missouri; he claimed to be suffering at the time from a right inguinal hernia. The pension was re-filed in New Orleans in July of 1894, reopened in May of 1895 and rejected, no reason being given.
By late fall of 1897 James was still residing in New Orleans when he resubmitted his pension application, and he was living in New Orleans in early 1898 when he was at last awarded a pension (no. 982,043), at the rate of $6.00 per month, dated February of 1898; by 1900 it had been increased to $12.00 per month.
By 1900 James had returned to Michigan and may have resided briefly in Corning, Allegan County before he entered the Michigan Soldiers’ Home (no. 3473) on October 10, 1900. He worked as a laborer most of his life, and listed himself as a widower when he entered the Home.
James died at the Home on January 18, 1903, of organic pulmonary heart disease, and was interred in the Home cemetery: section 4 row 14 grave no. 38.