Rick Mann writes about the life and death of the American outlaw, Jesse James.
Jesse Woodson James was born September 5, 1847 while Alexander Franklin James was born four years earlier on January 10, 1843. Both were born in Clay County, Missouri to the Reverend Robert James and his wife Zerelda. Robert, a Baptist minister and farmer, had moved there with his wife from Kentucky. However, in 1850, Mr. James passed away. Zerelda remarried to a doctor named Reuben Samuel in 1855, and he moved onto the James farm. In 1861 the American Civil War began. Frank was 18 and Jesse 14. Unlike many other states, Missouri was not clear-cut in its affiliation to either the Union or Confederate cause. Many wealthy and large landowners owned slaves and Missourians would serve on both the Union and Confederate sides depending on their convictions. The James family had acquired at one time as many as seven slaves to grow tobacco on their well-appointed farm, making their affiliation very pro-Confederate.
On May 4, 1861, Frank joined the Missouri State Guard, which opposed the Union troops. He was later injured and released from duty. He then joined a guerilla band of soldiers known as Quantrill’s Raiders and in 1863 Union forces came to the James farm attempting to obtain information on Frank’s whereabouts. The soldiers hung and tortured Dr. Samuel, but he survived. This infuriated the brothers and Jesse, now aged sixteen, went on to join Frank’s current guerilla band led by “Bloody Bill Anderson.”
Terrible atrocities were committed by both sides in Civil War Missouri leaving many young men scarred and feeling they had their lost their identities in their own home state. Missouri was left in shambles after the war and pro-Union Republicans took over every elected office in the state by not allowing Democrats to vote or hold any public office. A short time after the war had ended Jesse was shot in the chest, without provocation, by Union supporters and left to die. He was badly wounded and his first cousin Zee Mims nursed him back to health, starting a nine-year courtship that later led to their marriage. By 1866 Jesse and Frank, as well as some their old guerilla comrades, had taken all they could stand of the imposed drab Union way-of-life and decided to start striking back with their guns.
American History Is Made and the Outlaw Years Begin
On February 14, 1866 the James Gang conducted the first daylight armed bank robbery in U.S. history. Their target was the Clay County Savings Assoc. in Liberty, Missouri, where they took $57,000 in cash. During the robbery Jesse shot a bystander and claimed he had robbed the bank to get the deed to the family’s farm back. The same year they robbed another bank in Lexington, MS and several more robberies in the next few years. Within a couple of years, the authorities had rounded-up most of Jesse’s war comrades. By 1868 the brothers formed a new alliance with their old Civil War veteran friends, brothers Cole, Bob, and Jim Younger, forming the James-Younger Gang.
Many more robberies followed and by 1869, Jesse became famous as a symbol of Rebel defiance against the Reconstruction. He became more brazen and taunted bank owners and other Union-backed executives by writing editorials to the newspapers about his Confederate views and the war he felt that he was raging against them. A Kansas CityTimes editor named John Newman Edwards was campaigning to return the old Confederates to power in Missouri and he started and perpetuated the “Robin-Hood” image that Jesse came to be known for. He would publish as many of Jesse’s editorials as he could and write articles making Jesse and the gang out to be true Rebel patriots. The James-Younger gang robbed banks, stagecoaches, express offices, and even a fair in Kansas City. Their remarkable string of robberies extended from Iowa to Texas and from Kansas to West Virginia. Along the way it is said that Jesse shot fifteen people – he was not the saint he was often made out to be.
Change In Criminal Tactics
By the mid-1870s bank robbery was becoming a risky venture. Rewards offered by the state of Missouri prompted much greater vigilance by local law enforcement and citizens. Security was increased with time lock safes replacing the older combination ones. Jesse, Frank, and Cole decided to stop robbing banks until public vigilantism waned.
The post offices, banks, express companies, and supply companies depended now on railroads to ship their payrolls and precious cargoes across the nation. There right in front of them was the gang’s answer to new profits and riches: the railroads. Frank decided to do some research on the subject; he boarded and rode several trains traveling between Omaha and Chicago. He noted that the train would be carrying $100,000 in gold by the time it reached Adair, Iowa. With this information at hand, on July 20, 1873 they set out to rob the train.
The gang derailed the train with stolen track tools, causing the engineer to be thrown under the locomotive where he was crushed to death. Jesse led the charge to the express car where to their dismay they found only $2,000. The gold had come thru on a train before sunrise. They went ahead and proceeded to rob the passengers of all their valuables and then rode off back into the woods. On January 31, 1874 the gang robbed a train in Gads Hill, Missouri in a most novel way. The masked gang arrived at the train station and rounded-up waiting passengers and railroad employees into a storeroom. They threw a switch that made the train stop, then boarded each coach and robbed all the passengers and employees of their money and valuables. The day’s take turned out to be $10,000.They were sixty miles away by the time a posse was organized to come after them.
Politics and the Pinkerton’s
Normal law enforcement had proved ineffective in apprehending the gang so that by 1874, the Missouri Governor, Thomas Crittendon, and Express companies and bank owners turned to the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. (There were no national law enforcement agencies at this time). The founder and leader of the agency, Alan Pinkerton, took on the case as a personal vendetta. Working with Old Unionists, on January 25, 1875, they staged a raid on the James’ family farm in which a firebomb was thrown into the house. It exploded, killing one of James’ juvenile half-brothers and injuring one of his mother’s arms so badly that it had to be amputated.
Pinkerton denied that his intent was to burn down the house. Two detectives were sent to infiltrate the gang and both turned-up dead. These moves backfired and did more than all of Edward’s articles combined to turn the gang into sympathetic figures in the eyes of the public. A bill for amnesty was narrowly defeated and the gang was lavishly praised. By this time, former Confederates were allowed to vote again and they voted for a limit on how much the governor could offer in reward money for the capture of fugitives.
Return to Bank Robbery-the Northfield Raid
On Thursday, September 7, 1876, the James-Younger gang returned to bank robbery. They attempted their most daring raid to date, on the First National Bank of Northfield, MN. Cole and Bob Younger later stated that this bank was selected because of its connection with two Union generals and radical Republican politicians. At 2:00 p.m., Frank and Jesse went in to rob the bank, but the bank’s clerk, Joseph Heywood, refused to open the safe, falsely claiming that it was on a time lock.
Meanwhile outside, a local merchant, J.S. Allen, had discovered the robbery and alerted the citizens of the whole town. Many of them, Scandinavian immigrants and ex-Civil War veterans, arrived heavily armed with rifles and shotguns. Jesse shot the un-armed Heywood in the head before leaving empty-handed, and upon their exit they encountered a massive hail of gunfire. The gang narrowly escaped, leaving Clell Miller and Bill Chadwell (Stiles/alias) shot dead.
Manhunt, Death, and Imprisonment Ends the James-Younger Era
The citizens of the town formed a posse and a massive manhunt began that lasted several weeks and covered more than 2,000 square miles. The James brothers split off from the rest of the gang and escaped over four hundred miles to Missouri, but the Younger brothers were captured, and Charlie Pitts was killed in a gunfight two weeks later after being surrounded in a swamp near Madelia, Minnesota. All three Younger brothers pleaded guilty to murder charges and were sentenced to life in the Stillwater, MN Prison. Bob Younger died of consumption while incarcerated in 1889. Cole and Jim Younger were paroled after twenty-five years on October 19, 1902 with the condition that they remain in Minnesota. A year later, in 1903, Cole was pardoned with the condition that he leave Minnesota and never return. Jim Younger could not accept the conditions of his parole and committed suicide in 1903.
The James-Younger gang was no more. Frank and Jesse moved their families to the Nashville, TN area and lived under the names of Thomas Howard and B.J. Woodson. Frank seemed to be happy living a law abiding life and never re-joined the gang. After a few years however, Jesse, short on cash, grew restless for the criminal life. It was time to form a new gang.
Restlessness Leads to a New Gang
Jesse formed another gang, without Frank, in 1879 culminating in the robbery of a Chicago and Alton Railroad train at Glendale, Missouri on October 8, 1879. They’d expected a stash of about $60,000 and were disappointed to find only $6,000. Despite this disappointing “take”, Jesse was proud that they had all worked like a bunch of old pros. The new gang consisted of Jesse, Ed Miller, Wood Hite, Bill Ryan and Tucker Bassham. However, unlike the original gang, this gang was not a group of battle-hardened ex-guerilla warriors. They turned against each other or were arrested. Jesse was forced (in his mind) to kill one member, Wood Hite, and force another man out.
Nonetheless, this gang embarked on a spree of crimes including a federal payroll in Alabama, as well stagecoach robberies and two more train robberies. However, with the net closing in, Jesse and the gang moved back to their home State of Missouri where Jesse and his family rented a house near St. Joseph and lived under another alias. Frank had moved to safer territory in Virginia after deciding not to re-join the gang. It was now 1881, and Jesse was so worried about his safety that he recruited and moved two new members of his gang, brothers Charlie and Bob Ford, into his house for added protection.
Increased Pressure and Bounties
Jesse James’ last crime spree was the final straw for the Pinkerton’s and the governor of Missouri, Thomas Crittenden. An award of $10,000 on each of their heads (considered huge at the time) was offered for Jesse and Frank James, brought in dead or alive. This was the largest bounty ever offered (at the time) for any American outlaws. Jesse was blending into society using his alias, Thomas Howard, and felt a little better by having the Ford brothers in his house, but little did he know that Robert (Bob) Ford had been in secret negotiations with the governor to kill him and collect the reward money. Crittenden had made catching the outlaws his top priority, even declaring his intention in his inaugural address. On April 3, 1882, after eating breakfast, the Fords and Jesse went back into the sitting room where Jesse noticed a crooked picture on the wall. Jesse had removed his gun belt before the meal. He stood-up on a chair to straighten it and Robert Ford (allegedly) shot him in the back of the head killing him instantly.
The Alleged Assassination
The news of the assassination proved to be a national sensation. The Ford brothers turned themselves in and to their amazement were found guilty and sentenced to hang. However, within two hours of sentencing, Governor Crittendon granted them a full and complete pardon. This raised the suspicion that the Governor knew that the brothers fully intended to kill and not just capture Jesse. The Fords collected a portion of the reward money, and fled Missouri. They lived as men continually having to watch their own backs. Once again, the killing had startled the public and increased the legendary status of Jesse. Charlie Ford committed suicide in May 1884 and on June 8, 1892, Robert was shot to death in a Colorado bar he had purchased.
Frank Surrenders and Faces Judgment
In September 1882, five months after the supposed killing of Jesse, Frank boarded a train to Jefferson City, Missouri where he had an appointment with the Governor in the state capitol. He placed his gun and holster into the governor’s hands and explained:
“I have been hunted for twenty-one years, have literally lived in the saddle, have never known a day of perfect peace. It was one long, anxious, inexorable, eternal vigil. Governor, I haven’t let another man touch my gun since 1861.”
With this, Frank surrendered. It was said that Alan Pinkerton was also in attendance and that Frank “slugged him in the jaw” and stated something to the effect that “I told you that you would never catch us!” Frank was tried twice – once in Missouri and once in Alabama. Confederate General Joe Shelby testified on his behalf at the Missouri trial and after Frank and he shared an emotional embrace in the courtroom, no Missouri jury was ever going to convict him. He was also acquitted in the Alabama trial.
Frank lived out the rest of his life honestly. At one time he teamed-up with Cole Younger, after his prison release, and together they joined the public-speaking circuit. Frank eventually moved back to the James family farm giving tours for twenty-five cents a head. He died there at the age of 72 on February 18, 1915.
Many feel that Jesse’s death was a conspiracy and that the person killed was not, in fact, Jesse James. Autopsy records and photographs showed the body did not match the actual height and weight of Jesse. One popular theory maintained that bounty hunters were ramping up their efforts due to the ever-growing rewards being offered on his head. The Sheriff of Clay County mysteriously took custody of the body, even though he had no jurisdiction. It was said that he recruited former James Gang members to assist him in moving the body back to the James family farm where it was ultimately buried. The sheriff was even one of the paw bearers at the funeral. Many conspiracy theorists feel that Jesse lived out his life with his family on a farm in northwest Missouri under an assumed name.
There was an actual Jeremiah M. James that lived to be 88-years old in Kansas. After his death, his daughter discovered (hidden in a secret closet) jewelry and trinkets that appeared to belong to Jesse James and appeared in photographs of Jesse and his mother Zerelda. He passed away in 1935. Facial recognition software has been used to compare pictures of Jeremiah (at age 86) and a young Jesse. There was a high probability that the two were the same sharing many of the same facial characteristics. This was in stark contrast to the comparison of the photo of Jesse’s corpse and the actual picture of a young Jesse. There were many differences that lead to the conclusion that the two subjects were not one of the same.
Civil War Connections
The Knights of the Golden Circle was a large underground organization of Confederate sympathizers and former slave owners that was very active in keeping the Confederate cause alive in the post Civil War era. Their ultimate goal was to create a society where slavery once again existed in the southern United States, Mexico, Cuba, and the Caribbean. A U.S. government report estimated 20,000 to 40,000 members in Missouri alone. The KGC believed that it was only a matter of time before the south would once again rise to power and flourish. This was the reason that so many pro-Union companies and banks were targeted and robbed or harassed. Theorists believe that Jesse was an underground operative for the KGC and that the actual purpose of his crimes was to raise money for the organization. He would rob a bank, a train, a stagecoach, etc. and then bury the money in remote locations. Sentinels were hired and paid by means of a buried Mason jar, known as a paycheck for guarding the treasure site.
Legends and Conclusions
The assassination of Jesse James, whether real or staged, closed one of the most savage and infamous crime sprees in American history, spanning sixteen years from 1866 to 1882. The average nineteenth century criminal’s career usually lasted barely two or three years. It also showed how folk-lore status for a brutal and savage criminal could be created by the press and public sentiment. A folk song, The Ballad of Jesse James,became popular following his reported death. These crimes occurred in an era when the only communication was by telegraph and a few telephones and most received their news by way of a weekly newspaper. It was much easier then for a fugitive to simply move into an area, live under an assumed name, and just blend in to society. Welcome to town Mr. Howard, or perhaps even Mr. James.
See also The Killing of “Wild Bill” Hickok