The Life & Times of Jesse James

The Life & Times of Jesse James

The Life & Times
of Jesse James

Jesse James: the name resounds down through western history; the Robin Hood of the West; Jesse and his brother Frank were the boldest robbers in the West; two brothers that were only fighting for their rights after the Civil War; Jesse never shot anyone except in self defence. This is one way of looking at the Jesse James myth.

But how about looking at the Jesse James myth this way?

Jesse James: robbed the rich only to benefit himself; shot people while robbing banks to spread fear about the James Gang; robbed anyone they could for personal gain; used their Civil War experiences as an excuse for their vile actions; came from a dysfunctional family with homicidal tendencies; were out and out killers even for the violent times in which they lived.

Well, as ever, neither of these views comes very near the truth. Maybe we should take another look at Jesse James and his place in western history?

Family History

In 1841 Robert James married Zerelda Thompson in Kentucky. Very soon after the wedding the couple moved to Clay County, Missouri and settled near Kearney about 30 miles northeast of Kansas City. Their first child was born on January 10th 1843 and was named Alexander Franklin James. Their second child was born in 1845 but lived only one month. Their third child, Jesse Woodson James arrived on 27th September 1847 to be followed by a sister Susan Lavinia born November 29th 1849.

Jesse James circa 1882

Jesse and Frank’s father set off for the goldfields of California in 1850. Rumour had it that Robert’s reason for leaving was not so much that he wanted to get rich but rather it was to get away from his nagging wife. Zerelda was known to be very domineering and had been called “one of the worst women of the state”. Robert, who was a Baptist minister, contracted fever very soon after arriving in California and died in August 1850 at the age of (1)32.

Zerelda married for the second time in September 1852 to Benjamin Simms but this second marriage was also a disaster. It seems that Ben, who was quite a bit older than Zerelda, did not get along with his stepchildren, or with his wife for that matter. Ben was killed when he fell from his horse, which was probably a happy release!

Zerelda married for the third and last time in September 1855 to Dr. Reuben Samuel. Although he was a medical doctor and had his own practice, Zerelda eventually got him into farming by the simple formula of nagging him until he agreed. She owned a farm of 200 acres and had six slaves at the time of her marriage to Reuben and it seems likely that she was the one that instilled the “Southern code” into her children. There is no doubt she was a very domineering and demanding woman and was to play a large part in influencing the subsequent lives of her two sons Frank and Jesse James.

Frank and Jesse’s Childhood

There was nothing in their early life that suggested what was to follow. They attended school and most of the other children seemed to get on with them. They played, fished, swam, rode horses and helped around the farm when needed. In fact they had a very ordinary up-bringing for that time in Western America. There was one person who made quite an impact on the two young boys. He was ‘Wild Bill Thomason” who was the brother of their mother’s (2)stepfather.

Frank & Jesse James

“Wild Bill” cut quite a figure around Clay County even in those days. He had served in the Mexican War and had been cited for combat bravery but when he turned up at the Samuel’s farm he was a (3)“Mountain Man”. He walked around wearing beaded buckskin clothing with his hair hanging down to his waist, and at six feet tall he was hard to miss. What little boys would not have been impressed with such an uncle?

Uncle ‘Wild Bill” taught both the boys how to shoot with rifle and pistol, how to ride bareback and also how to use bows and arrows just like the Comanche Indians, skills that would serve the two boys very well in later in life.

The boys were brought up in a very strange and violent time in the history of the West. America was divided over the question of slavery. Most Northerners wanted the abolition of slavery whereas most Southerners did not. Now it seems almost impossible to believe that a large part of the American nation, whose constitution stated that ‘all men were created equal’, could go on condoning slavery. The issue of slavery, which had been ignored by the Foundling Fathers, rumbled on for years. Congress and the Senate had looked at the problem many times and in 1820 they came up with (4)The Missouri Compromise – but the arguments still went on.

In 1852 Harriet Beecher Stowe published her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Life Among the Lowly that sold over a million copies in the first twelve months. Its portrayal of slave life aroused both Northerners and Southerners alike, but for very different reasons. Northerners were confronted for the first time with the reality of slavery and Southerners saw it as an attack on their way of life.

Frank and Jesse were brought up on a diet of hate in what was called ‘Bleeding Kansas Time’. The issue was: should Kansas be admitted to the Union as a slave or free state, and the troubles spilt over into Missouri. Starting around 1850 proslavery men who were called ‘Border Ruffians” fought with abolitionists called ‘Jayhawkers’. It became a very bloody and violent time in both Kansas and Missouri. No one could opt out and inevitably the Samuel/James family had to choose which side to support. They chose the wrong one. Basically, the proslavery men were Democrats and the abolitionists were Republican and the Samuel/James family chose the Democrats.

When the Republican nominee, Abraham Lincoln, won the election in November 1860 war was inevitable. In January 1861 many Southern States seceded from the Union and formed what was to become the Confederated States of America. War broke out on April 12th 1861 when Fort Sumter was attacked in Charleston harbour. The war was to have a profound impact on the lives of Frank and Jesse James.

Historical Notes on Border States

When the Civil War started in 1861 President Lincoln was desperate to keep what were called ‘The Border States’ in the Union. In the context of the American Civil War the Border States were slaves states that did not declare secession from the Union. These were Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri. The Civil War was not fought over the issue of slavery. The main issue was whether a state could withdraw, or secede from the Union. Lincoln famously said, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all slaves I would do it and if could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I wish to do is preserve the Union.” Slavery did not become one of the issues until later in the war.

The Civil War Years

Frank had just turned 18 when the Civil War started and Jesse was 14. They had been brought up on a diet of hatred and violence preceding the war so both had built-in prejudices. They were out and out southern sympathisers as were many other people in the Border States. Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri provided troops for both sides of the conflict and one such soldier on the confederate side was Frank James.

William Clarke Quantrill

Frank joined the Pro-Southern Missouri Guard in May 1861. Jesse’s mother forbade Jesse to even think about joining as he was too young. Some boys did lie about their age and fought on both sides in the early part of the war but Jesse was not one of them. Frank fought in two battles in the West, the first being Wilson’s Creek on August 1861, which ended in a Confederate victory. His second taste of war was at the battle of Pea Ridge on December 31st 1862, ending on January 1st 1863. This time the battle was a Union victory so having had enough of soldiering Frank left and went back home.

Later in 1863 Frank rode with William Quantrill’s so called ‘confederate guerrillas’ and was known to have taken part in one of the most notorious guerrilla attacks in the war. On Friday 21st August 1863 Quantrill led around 450 men in an early morning attack on the town of Lawrence, Kansas, killing over 100 innocent men and boys and burning down a great part of the town. It is generally accepted that Frank shot some of the victims.

Jesse also rode with Quantrill later in the war but ended up in “Bloody Bill Andersons” band that was, if anything, worse than Quantrill’s lot. William Quantrill was mortally wounded on 10th May 1865 but the guerrillas kept fighting after Lee surrendered at Appomattox. Jesse was known to have killed quite a few men before the war was over. Frank also killed some men at this time when riding with the Border ruffians. Killing was just a way of life for the James boys.

William T. Anderson “Bloody Bill”

Jesse was shot in the chest on two occasions and the last wound, which was by far the worst, happened just before the official end of hostility. Jesse was nursed at his family home (then in Rulo, Nebraska ) by his Mother and cousin, Zerelda Zee Mimms (named after Jesse’s mother and know as ‘Zee’).

After The War

The Civil War ended in April 1865 and from August till October 1865 Jesse had a relapse and was again nursed by Zee. It was at this time the pair secretly got engaged. The times in Missouri just after the war were very turbulent but it seems that young Jesse ‘got religion’ and joined the Baptist Church in 1866. Although Frank was still on the wild side and had trouble settling back into a life without war, the brothers managed to stay out of major trouble until 1868.

Missouri after the war had its fair share of lawless men who had spent most of the war fighting as guerrillas where life was on the edge, and violence and killing were almost a daily occurrence. These men who lived by the law of the gun might now be diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder but in those days they were simply labelled outlaws.

On February 3rd 1866 in Liberty, Missouri, a bank was robbed in broad daylight. This was the first bank robbery in peacetime and during the raid a young man, George Wymore, was killed. He was to be the first of many who fell victim to the guns of outlaws in Missouri. This robbery in later years would be attributed to “The James Gang” but it is likely that the raid was organised and executed by a gang of ex-guerrillas lead by Cole Younger.

In 1867 Jesse went to see an eminent doctor who told him that he would die from his war wounds and should go home and prepare himself for death. However Jesse recovered but carried the bullet in his lung for the rest of his life. In late 1868 Frank and Jesse went to visit their Uncle Drury Woodson James who lived in California so Jesse could spend time in the warm springs of Paso Robles that were reputed to have curative properties. The warm springs seemed to help Jesse as later in the year the boys returned home and he pronounced himself cured.

In Russellville, Kentucky, the Bank of Nimrod L. Long was robbed on 20th March 1868 and here again the name of Cole Younger pops up. Younger, and his brothers were to play a large part in the James Boys’ life and legend.

It is probable that the James boys were involved in some low level crime at this time in their lives. The James boys’ activities are rather hard to pin down, as there were lots of former ex-guerrillas perpetrating all kinds of lawlessness at this time in the history of Missouri. Many of these robberies and hold-ups were retrospectively attributed to ‘The James Boys’ but there is very little proof one way or the other. However, there is one fact that we do know about: in September 1869 Jesse asked for his name to be taken off the membership list of the Mount Olive Baptist Church. Maybe Jesse felt that a life of crime and killing would not sit well with his membership of the Baptist Church or maybe he just had his fill of “goin’ to meetin’s”, but from this time on it does appear that Jesse began to pursue his life of crime in earnest.

On December 7th, 1869 three men robbed the bank in Gallatin, Missouri. Both Jesse and Frank were later identified and the third man was probably Clell Miller but that fact has never been properly substantiated. Frank and Jesse entered the bank while the third man acted as a lookout. When Jesse saw the cashier he thought it was Major Samuel P. Cox who in the late war had killed “Blood Bill Anderson” with whom Jesse had ridden. Without a second’s thought Jesse shot and killed the cashier. In fact the cashier was Captain John Sheet and not Major Cox. I think this is where we get the first inkling that Jesse was not the Robin Hood of the West but was just a young man who, being brought up in violent times, shot first and asked questions later. The bandits got away with only $700 but now had a murder on their record.

Two men rode to Liberty to enlist the help of a Deputy Sheriff John S. Thomason in tracking down the outlaws. Thomason was the nephew of both Robert Thomason, stepfather of the James Boy’s mother Zerelda and of ‘Wild Bill’ Thomason who had taught Frank and Jesse to ride and shoot. Thomason took up the pursuit and was accompanied by his son William.

They tracked Frank and Jesse to the Samuel/James farm in Clay County but the James Boys escaped on fast horses. During the chase that followed, Thomason dismounted so he could get a better shot at the fleeing outlaws but his horse bolted so he was left on foot. Thomason returned to the farm to get another mount but Zarelda would not let him have a horse and said she would die first before he could have one. Thomason replied, “You should have died years ago” and just took horse. It seems there was not a lot of family love on that occasion.

It was after this robbery and killing that Jesse first wrote to the Kansas City Times setting out his version of events saying that he was nowhere near Liberty on the day of the robbery. His mother, like all good mothers, claimed he was on the ranch in Clay County and she could, if needed, get her evidence corroborated by other members of her family. What is strange about the letter is that it never mentioned brother Frank, which leads me to believe that Jesse wanted all the attention on himself. He also claimed that if he could get a fair trial he would turn himself in but he was afraid that if he did he would be lynched like other former guerrillas. Before being published Jesse’s letter was heavily edited and ‘improved’ by a heavy drinking ex-confederate officer, (5)John Newman Edwards who then editor of the Kansas City Times.

Historical Notes on Newspapers and Their Part in the Making of Myths and Legends in the Old West

Like today, newspapers in the Old West had very definite political leanings especially in the period after the Civil War. The other thing to bear in mind is that newspapers were the mass media of the day, being widely read and passed from friend to friend and there were even public readings for people who were illiterate. Today it’s “if you see it on the telly it must be true” but in the Old West it was newspapers that held that power. There are many cases of Westerners becoming famous when the Eastern Press took up the stories: Billy the Kid; Wild Bill Hickok; Wyatt Earp; Bat Masterson and Geronimo were just a few who hit the headlines back East. The other thing to be aware of is that the Wild West was as far removed from the Eastern States then as it is by history from us now. The newspaper reading public in the East devoured the ‘goings on out West’. Outlaws and Lawmen made copy and newspaper reporters did not spend much time checking facts, many indeed resorted to embellishments when the story line was a bit thin. Jesse James realised the power of the press and used it, along with help from John Newman Edwards and many others in the Democratic press. The Democratic press favoured the confederate point of view while the Republican press were decidedly union or government leaning.

The Legend Starts to Grow

In September 1872 Edwards wrote, for the Kansas City Times, a wonderful load of old bunkum entitled “The Chivalry of Crime”. The article about outlaws explained, “what they did we condemn but the way they did it we cannot help admiring”. He also intimated that the bandits were driven to their way of life by the way officers of the law treated them and planted the idea that they gave a lot of their ill-gotten gains to the less fortunate in society. So the myth of Jesse James as a latter-day ‘Robin Hood’ started to grow.

There is not very much evidence of Jesse and Frank’s movements from 1872 onward. They probably carried out some quite low level crime to help pay the bills and at this time got in tow with the Younger Brothers. It was the James/Younger gang that was to make the big headlines in the years to come.

The James/Younger Gang

The Blevins House on the north side of the railroad tracks as it appeared around 1920

There was a stage robbery in early January 1874 near the town of Hot Springs, Arkansas and this time the passengers were robbed. The leader of the gang at the time was thought to be Cole Younger so there was a good chance that the James boys would have been along. On the robbery it was alleged that the gang asked if any of the passengers were southerners and had fought for the Confederacy. When a man called Crump said he had fought for the Confederacy his money and watch were given back to him. The gang leader, probably Cole Younger, said they did not want to rob Confederate veterans. They said it was the northerners who had driven them into lawlessness and they would make them pay for it. So the legend of Jesse as the ‘Robin Hood of the West’ grew just a little bit more.

On January 31st 1874 there was a celebrated train Robbery at (6)Gads Hill, Missouri. Five masked men held up the Little Rock Express stealing over $6000 from the baggage car and passengers. As the bandits were about to leave, one of them, probably Jesse James, gave a note to the engineer, William Wetton, for publication in the Saint Louis Dispatch. It stated that this robbery was “The most daring robbery on record”. Here was Jesse blowing his own trumpet again! Edwards also added his weight to the myth in an editorial writing “The men at Gads Hill swooped down and took a few thousand dollars of surplus money, and were gone like the wind, the tale of their exploits a nine-day wonder.” I think it is safe to say that the passengers who were robbed would not have agreed with the statement about “surplus money”!

Later in 1874 four bandits held up the Obocock Brothers Bank in Croydon, Iowa. The robbers got away with around $6000, quite a haul in those days, and the raid was attributed to Frank and Jesse along with Cole Younger and Clell Miller. There is still some doubt about who it was who actually carried out the raid as Jesse, of course, sent a denial of any involvement to the Kansas City Times. “As to Frank and I robbing a bank in Iowa or anywhere else, it is as base a falsehood as ever was uttered from human lips….”. Clell Miller was arrested but found not guilty for lack of evidence. However, the upshot was the bank engaged the (7)Pinkerton Detective Agency to track down the bandits. This was to have a profound impact on the James boys’ life.

The Pinkerton Effect on the Brothers

On January 25th 1875 a closed train arrived and stopped just outside of Kearney, Missouri, carrying a party of men and their horses numbering anything from (8)four to eight in the employment of the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Alan Pinkerton had been trying to track down Jesse James for several years without any luck. Several of his operatives had been killed and he had spent a lot of money in the search as well as losing quite a lot of credibility into the bargain. His latest information put the James boys at the Samual/James farm just outside of Kearney. The avowed intent of the Pinkerton men was to kill Jesse and Frank and to burn the farm to the ground.

Zerelda Elizabeth Cole James Simms Samuel 1825 – 1911

The posse arrived at the farm in the early evening and attacked the farm with ‘Greek Fire’, an early form of hand grenade. As it was very snowy the wood of the farm was wet so the fire failed to take effect. However one of the ‘grenades’ exploded inside the farm and parts of the bomb hit Zerelda in the right arm fracturing her right wrist, resulting in her having to have the lower part of her arm amputated. Another bit of the bomb hit thirteen-year-old Archie Payton Samuel in the midriff who died two days later as a result of his injures. As it turned out Frank and Jesse were not at home so Pinkerton came in for a lot more criticism and it did give John Newman Edwards lots to write about!

After this event Pinkerton almost gave up the hunt for the James Boys but he was always happy to pass on any information that came his way to other parties involved in the hunt for the famous outlaws.

The Northfield Bank Raid

On Thursday September 7th 1876 eight men, Jesse and Frank James, Cole, Bob and Jim Younger, Clell Miller, Charley Pitts and Bill Stiles rode into Northfield Minnesota with the avowed intent of robbing the bank. At around 2pm Charley Pitts, Bob Younger and one of the James boys entered the bank while Cole Younger and Clell Miller stood guard outside. The other three men remained by the bridge on the other side of the square.

The attempt to rob the bank turned into an unmitigated disaster when the cashier Joseph Haywood refused to open the safe. One local man tried to enter the bank but Clell Miller ordered him not to. This man, Mr Allen ran round the corner and shouted, “Get your guns boys, they’re robbing the bank!” Soon after, assistant cashier Alonzo Bunker was wounded when he fled out of the back door but was able to shout that the bank was being robbed. Northfield citizens were fully aroused by now. A Mr Manning, who ran a hardware shop, got a rifle and started to fire at the bandits. He shot the horse from under Charley Pitts and wounded Cole Younger in the hip. Manning also killed Bill Styles and shot Bob Younger in the right arm.

The iron bridge over which the James-Younger Gang rode into Northfield

The three outlaws inside the bank, hearing all the gunshots outside, decided the time to leave had come. At this point the James brother in the bank killed cashier Haywood by shooting him in the head. It has never been established which of the James brothers was in the bank but it seems likely that it was Jesse who had the reputation of shooting first and asking questions afterwards.

As they exited the bank they ran into an unarmed Swedish immigrant called Nicolas Gustafson and shot him to death. Mounting their horses the gang tried to get out of Northfield as fast as possible, Clell Miller being shot dead as he tried to get away. The robbery was a total shambles and the bandits fled with three wounded and two of their number dead.

A massive manhunt ensued, forcing the gang to split up, Frank and Jesse going their own way. Finally after many adventures they managed to get back to Missouri. Fourteen days after the attempted robbery the Younger brothers along with Charley Pitts were cornered. In the ensuing fight Charley Pitts was killed and the three Younger boys were badly wounded. After their surrender all three ended up in prison. The James-Younger gang was destroyed.

After the disastrous Northfield Bank raid the James boys decided to keep a low profile for a while. In mid 1877 Jesse arrived in the town of Waverly about 70 miles west of Nashville using the alias John David Howard and purporting to be a farmer and grain speculator. Frank ended up in Nashville using the alias Ben Woodson and turned to farming. Frank always found it easer to drop the life of crime. He soon became well liked in the area and was known as a hard-working farmer. Jesse, however, never wanted to do an honest day’s work so turned to gambling and running racehorses, pastimes he was decidedly not cut out for. February 1878 saw the birth of twins to Zee and Jesse but they died after a few days. Jesse continued with his gambling and racehorses and got deeper and deeper into debt. In the summer of ‘78 he bought a small herd of cattle but when his cheque bounced things went from bad to worse.

Sometime around the end of 1878 or early 1879 Jesse and Zee moved in with Frank and Annie on the farm they were renting in the Nashville area. In July of that year Zee had a baby girl they named Mary. After the birth of baby Mary, Jesse got a hankering to get back to his former life, so in mid ’79 he recruited a new gang and set off once again on his life of crime. Frank however was very happy farming so did not join his reckless younger brother.

Back to the Life of Crime

On Oct 8th, 1879 at the small whistle stop train station of Glendale, which is now in Independence, Missouri, Jesse and his new gang struck. The members of the gang were Tucker Bassham, Bill Ryan, Dick Liddil, Wood Hite (who was Jesse’s cousin) and Ed Miller (who was Clell Miller’s brother – Clell having been killed in the Northfield Bank fiasco). The gang thought they had hit good times when the train messenger told them the bag they were making off with contained $60,000. The gang rode on a few miles and broke into an empty house to divide the loot. However when the sack was opened it turned out there was only $6,000 in bank notes and the rest of the money was in nonnegotiable securities. After the raid, as ever, Jesse left a note for the local papers stating that the raid had been carried out by “The James Brothers” and five other made up names. When Frank read this in the papers he was furious with his younger brother as he had found a nice new peaceful way of life and had no desire to return to his old outlaw ways.

After the raid on the Glendale train the gang spilt up but Jesse, with the help of a couple of the gang, carried out a string of small crimes. There were at least two stagecoach holdups and two raids in western Mississippi on small-time stores, none of which produced much money, so Jesse went back to his gambling and horse racing.

The Muscle Shoals Robbery

On March 6th, 1881 Jesse, along with Wood Hite and Bill Ryan, set off from Nashville on the long ride to the Muscle Shoals Canal that was in the process of construction in Northern Alabama. The canal was being dug to improve traffic on the Tennessee River and the construction called for a lot of workmen, all of whom needed paying. Jesse thought the payroll might make a good target. The trip was around 130 miles and took the trio five days to complete.

On the morning of 11th March Alexander Smith, who worked for the construction company, collected $4,371 in cash, $500 in gold, and $419 in silver from the local bank and then headed back to Muscle Shoals on horseback. Around mid-afternoon on March 11th Jesse and his two companions robbed Smith and then forced him to ride with them until it was dark. He was then released and the following day raised the alarm. The gang, riding hard, reached the outskirts of Nashville on the afternoon of the 13th and then split up, Bill Ryan making his way into Nashville. Jesse and Hite spent the next three days hiding out before making their way to Nashville.

Jesse and Hite thought they had got away with the robbery until two weeks later things started to go wrong. The cause of the problem was that Bill Ryan had decided to make his way to Kentucky. After being caught in a thunderstorm he stopped at a saloon, only about nine miles north of Nashville, to take shelter. There, after kicking up a ruckus, he was arrested for being drunk and disorderly. When arrested he had two six-guns and a large amount of jewellery plus an expensive gold watch. He was also carrying $1,400 in cash! That was a large amount for anyone to be carrying in those days so the authorities took a great deal of interest in this man who called himself ‘Tom Hill.’

Historical Notes

Times out West were changing and so were people’s attitudes. The idea that the outlaws, the James brothers included, were still fighting for their rights concerning what happened to them during and after the civil war was no longer applicable. The war had been over for 16 years and most of the new wave of outlaws were not ex-confederate soldiers with a grievance. Most of the new outlaws were too young to have fought in the war so that argument did not hold up anymore. The political landscape had also changed with politicians now looking for votes from a younger electorate. The James’ gang and their like were rapidly running out of time and sympathy.

The James Boys Back on the Run

Jesse and Frank, along with their families, made a quick getaway from Nashville in early March 1881 when the news broke that Bill Ryan had been arrested. Dick Liddil, who first got wind of the arrest, joined them in their flight. Frank was very upset about having to leave and was as mad as hell with Jesse for screwing up his plans to become an honest hardworking man. As neither of the brothers had any means of income the only path left was outlawry. The impression comes through that Jesse was quite happy with this turn of events.

As the two families and Liddil were making their way back to Missouri the news arrived that Bill Ryan had been charged with the Muscle Shoals robbery. In early June Ryan was transported to Missouri to stand trial for the Glendale train robbery. He was also wanted back in Alabama for the Muscle Shoals (9)holdup. There was a good chance that Ryan might talk to save his skin.

When they arrived back in Missouri Jesse took some time to look around for potential targets. He finally came up with the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad near a town called Gallatin in north east Missouri. Twice a week the railroad took a large shipment of cash to the bank in Gallatin. The raid was attempted on the 15th July about two miles or so outside of Gallatin. This time the gang consisted of the James brothers, Wood and Clarence Hite and Dick Liddil. They had chosen the wrong day, for when they opened the safe it contained less than $700. When the spoils were handed out each man received around $126 for which, during the holdup, two men, the conductor and a passenger, had been killed.

The press again went into overdrive with the news that the James Gang were on the loose again. Needless to say, John Newman Edwards got in on the act but times had changed and he was very much side tracked. The rail companies put up a reward of $5,000 for any of the gang and $10,000 each for Jesse or Frank being arrested and convicted. It was ironic that that the reward for Jesse and Frank was probably more than the total they had stolen in the long life of crime. Fame of any kind can be strange thing.

Their next robbery was on September 7th only a few miles from the Gallatin holdup. This time it was the turn of the Chicago and Alton railroad to capture the limelight. Once again Jesse got it wrong because when the safe was opened in the express car it contained less than $400, so the decision was taken to rob the passengers.

By this time many people travelling by train had become aware of train robberies so when the conductor told them the train was being robbed they tried to hide money and valuables in and around the coach. On this occasion it led to a rather amusing exchange between the bandits and one of the female passengers. When she offered them her gold watch and chain she was told they did not want it. Then one of the gang remarked “The next time we undertake a job like this we will have a lady to search the lady passengers.” The feisty lady replied, “No sir, you will never have a lady. You may have a woman, or a man dressed as one, but never a LADY!” What the gang did not know was she had hundreds of dollars stuffed into her stocking tops! I guess this exchange could have come out of any five-cent novel but, as ever, truth is stranger than fiction.

When the gang left and divided up the spoils each man took about $150 for all their troubles. However, there was one very important addition to the gang on this raid and his name was Charley Ford. He would go on to play a very big part in the Jesse James legend.

The End of the Road for Jessie James

Jesse was losing his grip on reality and was becoming paranoid, and he had reason to be as his gang began to turn on each other. In a plea-bargain Tucker Bassham, ex member of the James gang, gave evidence that Bill Ryan took part in the Glendale Train robbery. Ryan was sentenced to 25 years on September 26th 1881. In December of that year Dick Liddil got into an argument with Wood Hite when Hite accused him of stealing some of the spoils from one of the train robberies. In the ensuing gun fight Liddil, with the help of the Ford brothers, shot and killed Hite.

The end of the road for Jesse James

Both the Ford brothers and Dick Liddil felt sure that if Jesse ever found out that they had killed Jesse’s cousin he would come looking for vengeance. The last straw was in February 1882 when Clarence Hite was arrested in Tennessee then sent to Kansas City, Missouri and charged with robbery. This marked the end of the remaining James Gang.

In 1881 Frank moved his family to Lynchburg, Virginia, and told his younger brother that his bandit days were definitely at an end. Jesse, with his family, moved back to Kansas City but subsequently went on to St. Joseph, Missouri, where he rented a house. Charley Ford accompanied Jesse and family to St. Joseph.

On January 13th 1882 Charley Ford had a meeting with Governor (10)Tomas Crittenden and talked about possibly ending Jesse James’ bandit days. Ford was offered $5,000 to capture Jesse.

In March, desperate for money, Jesse and Charley went looking for a bank to rob and decided on a bank in Platte City, Missouri. Earlier Jesse asked Charley if he knew anyone who might join the two of them to help carry out the robbery and Charley had suggested his brother, Bob. Both the Ford brothers moved in with Jesse and family while the last minute plans were discussed. Ostensibly, the Ford brothers were in the house to guard against anyone trying to kill Jesse, as he felt more and more isolated. He had said on a few occasions that he would like to have given up outlawry but added, “I expect to be a bandit as long as I live.”

On the morning of Monday April 3rd Jesse read in the newspaper that Dick Liddil had surrendered. When Jesse read the news he said that Liddil was a traitor and should be hung. He now knew that all his gang had been killed or were in custody and I think he must have had an inkling that time was running out for him. However, he still had the Ford boys so the planned robbery was still on. After having breakfast they went out to the yard to get the horses ready. Jesse said he was getting warm so took his jacket off. He then said that one of the neighbours might see him with two guns in shoulder holsters and become suspicious, since he had told them that he was a businessman, so he took off the revolvers as well. He then went back into the house and noticed that a picture needed straightening so stood on a chair to do the job. At that point both the Ford brothers went for their guns. Bob was the fastest and shot one bullet into the back of Jesse’s head killing him instantly.

Jesse’s body was put on public display in Kearney where hundreds of people came to pay their last respects (or just to gawk) at the most famous outlaw the West had ever known. He was laid to rest on the James farm where he had been born 34 years earlier.

The Aftermath of the Killing of Jessie James

Soon after the shooting the Ford brothers contacted Governor Crittenden to claim the reward and to surrender to the authorities. In one day they were charged with murder and sentenced to death by hanging. Two hours later Governor Crittenden granted them a full pardon. This suggests that Crittenden knew the brothers intended to kill Jesse rather than capture him as agreed at their meeting early in the year. The implication was that Governor Crittenden had conspired in the killing of a private citizen. Jesse had never been brought before a court of law so was technically still a private citizen. This was a stigma that stuck with Crittenden for the rest of his life.

Charley Ford had a great deal of trouble being ‘the brother of the man who killed Jesse James’ so turned to morphine. He took his own life just two years later in May 1884. Bob Ford lasted a few years more before being shot by (11)Edward O’Kelley on June 8th 1892 whilst running his tented saloon in Creede, Colorado.

The Surrender of Frank James

Frank James on Farm, aged 70

Frank James learnt about his brother’s killing from the newspaper coverage while he was living in Lynchburg, Virginia. Frank had had enough of life as a bandit so he surrendered himself, with the help of the ever-present John Newman Edwards, to Governor Crittenden in October 1882. Back in Independence, Missouri, he was greeted almost as a hero and entertained lots of people in his jail cell.

After a little more than two years in prison, followed by a number of public trials, he was finally found not guilty of all charges which was probably one of the great miscarriages of justice ever. He was released in March 1885.

Whichever way you look at it Frank was a very lucky man. His brother was dead and most of the gangs he had ridden with were either dead or in prison. He led the rest of his life quietly, died on February 18th 1915 and was buried on the James farm next to his brother. He had just turned 72 when he was laid to rest. The truth died with him but the legend still goes on.

So was Jessie James a good or bad guy?

Well, the answer is, as ever with the old West stories, not clear either way! He was certainly NOT the Robin Hood of the old West. There is absolutely no evidence that he ever gave anything to the poor. Yes, on a couple of occasions he did not take money from confederate veterans but that hardly gives him Robin Hood status. Was he a killer? Yes, he shot and killed quite a few of the men who got in his way, without a second thought. Yes, he was a good family man but so was Genghis Khan so that’s not working much in his favour. Was he the most successful bandit the old West ever produced? Well, again no. Not all of the robberies went very well, in fact, some were absolute disasters, and when you add up all the money taken from all the robberies he never made a fortune. So why is he still held by many people, even today, to be ‘The best outlaw the West ever produced’. The answer is……publicity! He was the first outlaw to make use of the press in a big way. The press was much more powerful than television is today and it was also very good at manipulating the truth to sell newspapers. Jesse, with the ever-present John Newman Edwards, whose contribution to the James legend cannot be underestimated, made the myth what it is today. May I also add that Hollywood has done a very good job of obscuring the truth as well! However, it has produced some great movies, true or otherwise!


(1) Zarelda liked to be called Zarelda Cole James after her first marriage to Robert. After Robert’s death a neighbour described her as “a buxom country lass, with no over-nice sense of delicacy, brimming full of fun and a daring horsewoman and a good dancer and not afraid of the devil himself.” She was also a good ‘catch’ as she had inherited 200 acres and 6 slaves.

(2) Zarelda’s mother, Sallie Lindsay Cole was first married to James Cole. After his early death she remarried Robert Thomason.

(3) ”Mountain Men”, as they were called, lived by trapping beaver and hunting mainly in the Rocky Mountains, hence the name “Mountain Men”. There were never many of them and they lived a solitary hard life and found that the Indian buckskin was the best thing to wear year round. When they wandered back ‘East’ they always stood out in the crowd and I think probably loved every minute of it.

(4) Leading up to The Missouri Compromise of 1820 there were many tensions between pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions in the US Congress and across the country. It all came to a head in 1819 when Missouri requested admission to the Union as a slave state, which threatened to upset the balance between slave and free states. Congress came up with a two-part compromise, granting Missouri’s request but also admitting Maine as a free state. At the same time it also passed an amendment that drew an imaginary line across the former Louisiana Territory. This established a boundary between free and slave regions. It remained in force until the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 when the lines were redrawn.

(5) John Newman Edwards was born in Virginia in 1839. At the outbreak of the Civil War he joined the confederate army and rose to the rank of Major. He became adjutant to General Joseph Shelby and at the end of the war accompanied Shelby, with around 1,000 of his troops, down to Mexico rather than surrender to Union forces, so earning them the name “The Undefeated”. He returned to Missouri in 1867 and turned to journalism supporting Jesse James on every occasion he could. He married and had two sons and a daughter. He died of alcoholism in 1887 at the age of 50.

(6) Gads Hill is in Wayne County in South West Missouri about halfway between the two towns of Des Ark to the north and Piedmont to the south. This was the first train robbery carried out in the State of Missouri. At the time of the robbery newspapers estimated the amount stolen was between $2,000 and $22,000, which left a lot of leeway for the reporters to get the facts right! In fact the amount was nearer $6,000.

(7) Allen Pinkerton was born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1842 and emigrated to America in 1842. He founded Pinkerton Detective Agency in 1849. He first came to prominence during the Civil War when spying for General McClellan, the then head of the Union Army. Pinkerton’s letterheads had one unblinking eye as a logo, which led to the term ‘Private Eye’.

(8) As Pinkerton had several of his operatives already killed by the James faction, I think the number of Pinkerton men would have been nearer eight than four. However, as much of the “Legend” about Jesse James is hearsay, one number is as good as any other.

(9) When Bill Ryan was arrested for the Muscle Shoals robbery the local enforcement officers discovered that he was wanted for the Gadshill Train robbery so Missouri had first claim on him. Later he was sent back to Alabama to stand trial for the Muscle Shoals job as well.

(10) Tomas Theodore Crittenden served as a Colonel of the 7th Missouri Militia Cavalry Union Army during the Civil War. He was elected to the US House of Representatives for the 7th Congressional District in 1872 and again in 1876. He was elected as Governor of Missouri in 1880.

(11) Edward O’Kelley has gone down in history as the ‘The Man who killed Robert Ford’. He was born on July 6th 1836 in Harrisonville, Missouri. O’Kelley never gave an explanation of why he killed Robert Ford. What we do know is he spent 8 years in prison in Colorado for the crime. He was shot to death on the 13th January 1904 in Oklahoma City by police officer Joe Burnett. The policeman fired two shots and killed O’Kelley thus making Burnett “The man who killed the man who killed the man who killed Jesse James.”

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