Jesse James was a hero of the American West but also a cold-bloodied killer, a pro-slavery rebel who fought in the vicious internecine struggle on the Kansas-Missouri border during the Civil War he refused to surrender at the end of it, and was determined to continue it by any other means. His subsequent bank raids and train robberies were written up as the acts of a Southern patriot but he gradually became a man out of time and by the end he had been robbed of his kudos and therefore his protection, and he knew it.
Jesse Woodson James was born in the small town of Kearney in Clay County, Missouri, on 5 September 1847. His father, Robert, a Baptist Minister, died when Jesse was aged just 2 and the family, Jesse, his elder brother Alexander Franklin James, and his younger sister Susan Lavernia were raised by their formidable mother, Zerelda.
She was to remarry twice in Jesse’s lifetime, first, briefly, to Benjamin Simms, and then in 1855 to a doctor, Reuben Samuel. These liaisons were to provide Jesse with a further four half-brothers and sisters.
Missouri was a Border State where tensions ran high between pro and anti-slavers after the Kansas-Nebraska Act had left the slavery issue to be settled by those on the ground.
Jesse’s father had owned slaves who he used to grow and harvest the tobacco on the farm. Likewise, his step-father Reuben Samuel was also a slave owner and it was clear from an early age where the young Jesse’s sympathies lay.
Upon the outbreak of the Civil War, Frank James left the family home to join pro-Southern guerrillas, in particular Quantrell’s Raiders.
Encouraged by his close friend, the notorious Bloody Bill Anderson’s Second-in-Command Archie Clement, Jesse joined the gang in 1863 when he was aged just 15.
Along with his brother Frank he is believed to have been present when Quantrell set ablaze the town of Lawrence and killed 180 civilians; and he was definitely a participant in the Centralia Massacre when Bloody Bill Anderson with around 80 guerrillas stopped a train carrying 23 unarmed Union soldiers returning home on leave, lined them up and made them kneel before executing them.
Jesse, it was said, joined in the subsequent mutilation of their bodies.
It was also around this time that he became acquainted with many of the men who would go on to form the James Gang, in particular the Younger Brothers.
Because of Jessie and Frank’s pro-rebellion activities during the war the James family were expelled from their land and forced to leave their home, and it grieved the young Jesse greatly that his family were made to suffer for his actions and that he was unable to defend them. Furious with the Federals for penalising innocent women and children he was determined to punish them again and again – it was an anger that never left him.
Upon the conclusion of the war both Jesse and Frank would not accept the surrender and refused to hand over their weapons. In the fire fight that followed Jesse received a wound to the chest that almost killed him but both he and Frank managed to make their escape.
Jesse was unable to accept the fact that the South had been defeated in their struggle to secede from the Union and refused to acknowledge the abolition of slavery. He remained devoted to the peculiar institution and vowed to shoot any black man he found not fulfilling the role of a slave.
The end of the Civil War had left Missouri effectively lawless and in a state of turmoil, fertile ground for the soon to be James Gang.
Despite the loudly mouthed platitudes of reconciliation the slaves had been freed and now made up the majority of the State Militia, known ex-Confederates were barred from voting and holding public office, Northern carpetbaggers bought up land and asset-stripped abandoned farms, Federal placemen governed the State as if it were a colony, and Frank and Jesse James remained wanted men.
On 13 February 1866, Archie Clement and his gang robbed the bank in the town of Liberty (now acknowledged as the first peacetime bank robbery in American history) and it is almost certain that Jesse and Frank James participated. Later that same year Clement returned and robbed the town itself, killing the Mayor and two others in the process.
Archie Clement, who was only 5’2″ tall and was therefore known as “Little Arch” had taken over command of Bloody Bill Anderson’s gang following his death in October 1864, and as far as he was concerned the Civil War had never ended.
In 1866, elections for public office were held throughout the State of Missouri and the disbarment of known ex-Confederates from the electoral roll should have ensured a resounding Republican victory but Clement with more than a hundred of his fellow Confederate Bushwackers through acts of violence and intimidation ensured that the elections went the way of the pro-slavery Democrats.
On 13 December 1866, Clement led his men in a show of force through the streets of the Missouri State Capital of Lexington. Major Bacon Montgomery, in charge of the State Militia declined to confront Clement instead placating him and accepting his de facto authority.
Perhaps lulled into complacency, Clement returned alone to Lexington later that night to drink in the saloons.
Learning of this, Montgomery determined to arrest him and surrounding the saloon with troops demanded Clement’s surrender. Having previously refused to surrender to the Union Army, Little Arch was never going to give himself up to Bacon Montgomery and he came out fighting as dodging the bullets that whistled past him and tore at his clothes he managed to mount his horse riding furiously down Main Street firing as he went. But not far from safety his horse slowed, he writhed in the saddle, and slumped to the ground. Unable to move his arms he tried to pick up his pistol with his teeth.
One of his pursuers approached cautiously but seeing him lying there bleeding profusely and breathing only with difficulty lowered his pistol saying:
“Arch, you are dying, what shall I do with you?”
“I have done what I said I would always do, that I’d die before I ever surrendered.”
He was just nineteen years of age.
Following Archie’s death his old friend Jesse James was more than willing to take up his mantle but he didn’t come to prominence or capture the public imagination until his cause was taken up by a pro-Confederate journalist from Kansas, John Newman Edwards.
He would write up Jesse’s escapades portraying him as an honourable man who was leading Southern resistance to Northern exploitation and oppression. He loudly trumpeted and hailed his achievements and regularly published Jesse’s his letters justifying his actions.
Jesse, his brother Frank, the Younger Brothers and various other ex-Confederate guerrillas now made up what was to become known as the James Gang and they now embarked upon a series of spectacular bank, train, and stagecoach robberies not just in Kansas and Missouri but as far away as Iowa, Texas, and West Virginia.
On 21 July 1873, they robbed the Rock Island Train at Adair in Iowa, killing two men. While doing so they wore Ku Klux Klan outfits in open defiance of President Grant’s proscription of the organisation.
Often the James Gang would play to the gallery and on one memorable occasion they even robbed a State Fair.
Jesse rarely robbed civilians which earned him the reputation as a Robin Hood character, though there is no evidence that he ever gave money to the poor, or to anyone else come to that other than perhaps his family.
In December 1869, Jesse and Frank on their own robbed the Davis County Association Bank in the town of Galatin, Missouri, though it was less a robbery than it was attempted murder for he wasn’t interested so much in the money as he was in killing a Director of the Bank, Samuel P Cox, whom he blamed for setting the ambush that had resulted in the death of Bloody Bill Anderson. He had previously vowed to personally kill Cox and during the robbery he thought he had done so when he shot dead the bank cashier in cold-blood. But it was a case of mistaken identity.
On 24 April 1874, Jessie remained at home long enough to marry his cousin Zerelda Mimms whom he had known for many years.
Her frequent attempts to persuade her husband to give up his life of crime were to go largely ignored but then for Jessie every robbery and every murder was about more than just financial gain, it was political, ideological, and a patriotic act.
Such was the reputation and fame of the James Gang that their every move and action was reported in newspapers across the country – some people even wanted to be robbed by them. Their notoriety also brought them to the attention of the Authorities however, who were determined to bring them to justice, and one man in particular became obsessed with doing so.
Allan Pinkerton, the emigre Scotsman who had founded the Pinkerton Detective Agency and had been the main source of Intelligence gathering for the Union Army during the Civil War, now decided to target the James family home and he kept it under constant surveillance.
However, when Agents who were sent to ingratiate themselves with the family and infiltrate the Gang were later found murdered, a furious Pinkerton decided to act.
On the night of 25 January 1876, Pinkerton Agents fire-bombed the James family home and in an ensuing explosion Jesse’s mother Zerelda lost an arm and his younger brother Archie was killed.
People were outraged across the country that the Government was so desperate for revenge that it was willing to target and murder children. Pinkerton, for whom bringing the James Gang to justice had become an obsession, had overstepped the mark and his reputation was in tatters.
Jesse was more popular than ever and the events of early 1876 were to be the high-water mark of his fame, but things were soon to take a decided turn for the worst.
On 7 September 1876, the James Gang entered the town of Northfield, Minnesota with the intention of robbing the First National Bank.
Jesse, still continuing the Civil War by proxy had specifically targeted the bank because he knew there were a great many ex-Union Generals on its Board of Directors. As far as he was concerned this was yet another nest of vipers that had to be purged, or at least punished.
Jesse as always had planned the raid in advance but on this occasion it quickly began to unravel.
The bank cashier refused to be intimidated and falsely claimed that he could not open the safe because it was on a time- lock. He was pistol-whipped and severely beaten as a result but still he insisted he couldn’t open it. When another cashier tried to escape from the bank he was shot dead.
Hearing the commotion townspeople now began to gather outside and the Younger Brothers who were guarding the bank and denying anyone entry now fired into the air to disperse the crowd. Much to their astonishment some of the locals began to fire back.
Jesse now decided that they should make their escape while they still could but before doing so he shot the uncooperative cashier in the head.
Jesse and his men now fled firing as they did so but two of the Gang were killed and all were wounded.
Jessie James was a disciplined guerrilla fighter who rarely drank and did not permit his Gang to do so when they were on a raid. When it transpired that some of the Gang had been drunk on the morning of the robbery he was furious. It was not a good idea to anger Jessie James but on this occasion he had little opportunity to retaliate.
In the subsequent manhunt another Gang member was killed and the rest captured. Only Frank and Jessie escaped.
The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid as it has since become known had been a fiasco and it was to prove the beginning of the end for the James Gang. No longer seen as latter-day Robin Hoods they were now demonised as cold-bloodied killers and in the immediate aftermath of the raid death, defection, and imprisonment effectively destroyed the original James Gang.
For many people the Civil War was becoming a distant memory and those who had previously fought now just wanted to rebuild their lives. Others who wished to continue the war were at best an inconvenience, perhaps remembered with affection, but no longer to be admired or tolerated.
No longer, the darling of the Southern press, abandoned by John Newman Edwards, and shorn of his popularity as the Robin Hood of the West, Jesse tried to settle down to an ordinary life with his wife and two small children. But this was to prove impossible.
Under constant fear of arrest and paranoid about the prospect of betrayal he lived in a secret address under an assumed name but unable to find work he soon became desperate for money.
Against the advice of his wife and family who emphasised his responsibilities as a father he decided to form a new Gang but unlike his previous comrades the new Gang members had no links to his past and no Confederate affiliations.
Increasingly suspicious of all those around him the $5,000 bounty on his head only increased his paranoia.
Emotionally unstable and unpredictable, Jesse had already murdered one member of his Gang whom he thought might betray him and now insisted that the two others, the brothers Bob and Charley Ford, stay with him at his home where he could keep an eye on them.
Unknown to Jesse the betrayal had already occurred and Bob Ford had been in negotiations with the Missouri State Governor Thomas P Crittenden to bring him to justice.
On 3 April 1882, as he and the Ford Brothers were discussing the preparations for another robbery, Jesse suddenly removed his coat and gun-belt, something he never did, and mounted a chair to straighten a picture. As he did so Bob Ford, prompted by his brother Charley, took out his pistol and shot Jesse in the back of the head. He died instantly.
It is unknown why Jesse decided to disarm and turn his back on people he plainly did not trust. Perhaps he was testing their fidelity or maybe it was just time to die.
Bob and Charley Ford had committed cold-bloodied murder but they did nothing to hide what they had done. Indeed, Bob wired the Governor demanding his share of the reward. Instead, much to their astonishment, they were arrested, tried, and convicted of murder but sentenced to hang by a Missouri Court they were to be pardoned by Governor Crittenden.
Having received just a fraction of the reward both Bob and Charley were forced to flee Missouri in fear of their lives. But there was no place to hide from what they had done.
On 6 May 1884, Charley Ford, consumed with guilt committed suicide.
Bob Ford briefly tried to cash in on his fame but constantly looking over his shoulder soon descended into a life of alcoholism and bar-room brawls. He was shot to death following just such a brawl in the town of Creed, Colorado, on 8 June, 1892.
Upon learning of his brother’s death Frank James surrendered himself to Governor Crittenden on the promise of a fair trial, and he was indeed acquitted of all charges despite being just as culpable as his brother Jesse had ever been.
He now disappeared into obscurity making a living doing mostly menial jobs and only tried to cash in on his brother’s fame when late in life he was no longer able to work. He died on 18 February 1915, aged 72.
Following his death the legend of Jesse James just grew and grew and not all who had known him displayed the same reluctance to cash in on his fame as his brother Frank had.
His mother Zerelda was certainly eager to do so and she had inscribed on his tombstone the epitaph:
“In Loving Memory Of My Beloved Son, Murdered By A Traitor And Coward, Whose Name Is Not Worthy To Appear Here.” She then charged people 25 cents a time to see it.
As a postscript, in 1948, a man named Frank J Galton, who at a hundred years old would have been around the right age and had indeed been a Southern guerrilla fighter during the Civil War, claimed to be Jesse James. He said that he had conspired with the Ford brothers to shoot dead a member of the Gang and pass the body off as himself as part of an elaborate plan to fool the Authorities.
His claims were never verified and were later dismissed by the James family.