The outlaw Jesse James is one of the most notorious criminals of the American Wild West. His crimes garnered national attention, making him famous worldwide. He remains a legend even over a century after his death.
Jesse Woodson James was born in Clay County, Missouri in 1847. His father, Robert James, was a Baptist minister and a slave-owning hemp farmer. Jesse grew up with two siblings, brother Frank James and sister Susan.
After Robert's death, Jesse's mother remarried Dr. Reuben Samuel and the couple had four more children together. They transformed the James farm to focus on cultivating tobacco.
The Civil War
When America was wrought with the Civil War, the James family sided with the confederacy. The Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 brought a lot of violence to the area, creating local militia on the Missouri/Kansas borders who were pro and anti-slavery.
By 1861, Missouri was full of guerilla warfare, leading Frank to join one of the confederate militia groups. This decision brought Union supporters right to his family's doorstep. They tortured his stepfather Reuben for information on Frank's group's whereabouts, briefly hanging him to drag the truth out. They also lashed a teenage Jesse to spill his brother's secrets. According to legend, this could have been the event that inspired Jesse to set out and fight the Union with his brother.
The James brothers joined up with William "Bloody Bill" Anderson's group who led them to fight in the Centralia Massacre, which killed roughly 22 Union soldiers.
A life of crime
Missouri was still divided after the end of the war, and Jesse and his brother Frank were furious at the war's outcome. They decided to keep the fight going. The brothers participated in various bank robberies until Jesse's name became public knowledge in 1969 during a robbery in Gallatin, Missouri. Though the robbery resulted in little cash, Jesse killed the cashier who he mistakenly believed to be the militia general who killed "Bloody Bill" during the war. After Jesse and Frank escaped the scene, they were mentioned in the newspaper. And Jesse loved being a prominent criminal.
Jesse formed a relationship with John Newman Edwards, editor of the Kansas City Times. Edwards would publish letters from James to the public, some claiming innocence, some publicly supporting the confederacy.
The James gang
Frank and Jesse took up with Cole Younger and his younger brothers John, Jim and Bob, as well as some other confederate supporters, including Clell Miller. The James-Younger Gang was born. The gang members robbed banks and stagecoaches through Iowa, Texas, West Virginia, and various states in between. Jesse was the most public face of the group and he started to get cocky.
In 1873, the gang decided to turn to train robbery. The group derailed a train in Iowa and stole today's equivalent of $64,000. Other train robberies were a bit more gentle for the public, only stealing what was in the train's safe.
In addition to presenting himself as a "Robin Hood" figure, Jesse and his gang would occasionally ham up their robberies to make it a show for those in attendance.
Beginning of the end
In 1876, Jesse and the gang decided it was time to branch out from their usual territory. They decided to head to Minnesota and rob the First National Bank of Northfield. The holdup was a catastrophe. The bank teller refused to open the safe and when half of the gang tried to clear the streets outside the bank, the townspeople fought back. Two gang members were shot down and a massive manhunt ensued. Other than the James brothers who narrowly escaped, the entire gang was killed off.
The brothers lived under false names and tried getting back in the game with a new gang, but eventually, Frank just wanted to settle down back in Missouri with a life of crime behind him.
Jesse settled down with his wife, Zee Mimms, and they had two children together, Jesse Jr. and Mary Susan James. Despite his attempts, normal life was not for Jesse James. He craved the attention that came with his former life.
He picked up with Charley and Robert Ford, who moved in with his family in their St. Joseph, Missouri home. In 1982, the Ford brothers made a deal with Missouri's Governor Crittenden to catch James once and for all. James stood on a chair to either straighten or dust a picture on the wall. While he was facing the wall, Robert Ford shot him in the back of the head. James was only 34 years old.
Jesse's death became national news with people traveling to his family's St. Joseph house to catch a glimpse of his grave. Rumors of his survival also circulated around the United States, turning the character of Jesse James into a legend.
The story of Jesse James has been retold throughout history in a number of books and films. In 2008, Brad Pitt portrayed the Missouri outlaw in the critically-acclaimed film The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford.
Editors Note: This article was originally published on June 23, 2020.
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