Jesse Woodson James (September 5, 1847 – April 3, 1882) was an American outlaw, gang leader, bank robber, train robber, and murderer from the state of Missouri, and the most famous member of the James-Younger Gang.

Despite popular depictions of James as a kind of Robin Hood, robbing from the rich and giving to the poor, there is no evidence that he and his gang used their robbery gains for anyone but themselves.

A celebrity even when he was alive, Jesse James became a legendary figure of the Wild West, after his death.

Brad Pitt gave a remarkably nuanced portrayal of the outlaw in “The Assassination of Jesse James by The Coward Robert Ford” – the 2007 film that earned critical acclaim and an Oscar nomination, despite its clunky title.

Video is courtesy of YouTube:

That’s how Hollywood saw it.

Here’s what history has to tell us:

Jesse’s Early Life

Jesse Woodson James was born in Clay County, Missouri, near the site of present day Kearney, on September 5, 1847. He had two full siblings: his older brother, Alexander Franklin “Frank”, and a younger sister, Susan Lavenia James.

His father, Robert S. James, was a commercial hemp farmer and Baptist minister in Kentucky, who migrated to Bradford, Missouri, after marriage to Zerelda Mimms, and helped found William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri. He was prosperous, acquiring six slaves and more than 100 acres (0.40 km2) of farmland.

Robert James traveled to California during the Gold Rush to minister to those searching for gold, and died there when Jesse was three years old.

After Robert James’ death, his widow Zerelda remarried twice, first to Benjamin Simms and then in 1855 to Dr. Reuben Samuel, who moved into the James home.

Jesse’s mother and Reuben Samuel had four children together: Sarah Louisa, John Thomas, Fannie Quantrell, and Archie Peyton Samuel. Zerelda and Reuben Samuel acquired a total of seven slaves, who served mainly as farmhands in tobacco cultivation in Missouri.

Prelude to War

The approach of the American Civil War overshadowed the James-Samuel household.

Missouri was a border state, sharing characteristics of both North and South, but 75% of the population was from the South or other border states.

Clay County was in a region of Missouri later dubbed “Little Dixie,” as it was a center of migration from the Upper South. The county counted more slaveholders, who held more slaves, than other regions of the state. In Missouri as a whole, slaves accounted for only 10 percent of the population, but in Clay County they constituted 25 percent.

After the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, Clay County became the scene of great turmoil, as the question of whether slavery would be expanded into the neighboring Kansas Territory came to dominate public life. Numerous people from Missouri migrated to Kansas to try to influence its future.

American Civil War

After a series of campaigns and battles between conventional armies in 1861, guerrilla warfare gripped the state, waged between secessionist “bushwhackers” and Union forces which largely consisted of local militia organizations (“jayhawkers”).

There was an escalating cycle of atrocities, on both sides. Guerrillas murdered civilian Unionists, executed prisoners and scalped the dead. Union forces enforced martial law with raids on homes, arrests of civilians, summary executions, and banishment of Confederate sympathizers from the state.

The James-Samuel family took the Confederate side, at the outset of the war.

Frank James joined a local company recruited for the secessionist Drew Lobbs Army, and fought at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek – though he fell ill and returned home soon afterward.

In 1863, Frank was identified as a member of a guerrilla squad that operated in Clay County. In May of that year, a Union militia company raided the James-Samuel farm, looking for Frank’s group. They tortured Reuben Samuel by briefly hanging him from a tree. According to legend, they lashed young Jesse.

Quantrill’s Raiders

Frank eluded capture and was believed to have joined the guerrilla organization led by William C. Quantrill. It is thought that he took part in the notorious massacre of some 200 men and boys in Lawrence, Kansas, a center of abolitionists.

Frank James followed Quantrill to Texas over the winter of 1863–1864. In the spring, he returned in a squad commanded by Fletch Taylor. After they arrived in Clay County, 16-year-old Jesse James joined his brother in Taylor’s group.

In the summer of 1864, Taylor was severely wounded, losing his right arm to a shotgun blast. The James brothers joined the bushwhacker group led by Bloody Bill Anderson.

The Clay County provost marshal reported that both Frank and Jesse James took part in the Centralia Massacre in September, in which guerrillas killed or wounded some 22 unarmed Union troops; the guerrillas scalped and dismembered some of the dead.

The guerrillas ambushed and defeated a pursuing regiment of Major A.V.E. Johnson’s Union troops, killing all who tried to surrender (more than 100). Frank later identified Jesse as a member of the band who fatally shot Major Johnson.

As a result of the James brothers’ activities, the Union military authorities made their family leave Clay County. Though ordered to move South beyond Union lines, they moved across the nearby state border into Nebraska.

After Anderson was killed in an ambush in October, the James brothers separated. Frank followed Quantrill into Kentucky; Jesse went to Texas under the command of Archie Clement, one of Anderson’s lieutenants.

He is known to have returned to Missouri in the spring. Jesse was shot while trying to surrender, when he ran into a Union cavalry patrol near Lexington, Missouri, suffering a life-threatening chest wound.

After the Civil War

At the end of the Civil War, the Republican Reconstruction administration passed a new state constitution that freed Missouri’s slaves. It temporarily excluded former Confederates from voting, serving on juries, becoming corporate officers, or preaching from church pulpits.

The atmosphere was volatile, with widespread clashes between individuals, and between armed gangs of veterans from both sides of the war.

Jesse recovered from his chest wound at his uncle’s boardinghouse in Harlem, Missouri, where he was tended to by his first cousin, Zerelda “Zee” Mimms (named after Jesse’s mother).

Jesse and his cousin began a nine-year courtship, culminating in marriage.

Meanwhile, Jesse’s old commander Archie Clement kept his bushwhacker gang together, and began to harass the Republican authorities.

These men were the likely culprits in the first daylight armed bank robbery in the United States during peacetime – the robbery of the Clay County Savings Association in the town of Liberty, Missouri, on February 13, 1866. This bank was owned by Republican former militia officers who had recently conducted the first Republican Party rally in Clay County’s history. One innocent bystander – a student of William Jewell College (which James’s father had helped to found) – was shot dead on the street during the gang’s escape.

It remains unclear whether Jesse and Frank took part in this caper.

After their later robberies took place and they became legends, there were those who credited them with being the leaders of the Clay County robbery. It has been argued, however, that Jesse was at the time still bedridden with his wound. No concrete evidence has surfaced to connect either brother to the crime, or to rule them out.

Archie Clement continued his career of crime and harassment of the Republican government, to the extent of occupying the town of Lexington, Missouri, on election day in 1866. Shortly afterward, the state militia shot Clement dead – an event James wrote about with bitterness, a decade later.

The survivors of Clement’s gang continued to conduct bank robberies over the next two years.

In 1868, Frank and Jesse James allegedly joined Cole Younger in robbing a bank at Russellville, Kentucky.

Fame and Notoriety

Jesse James did not become famous until December 7, 1869, when he and (most likely) Frank robbed the Daviess County Savings Association in Gallatin, Missouri. The robbery netted little money, but it appears that Jesse shot and killed the cashier, Captain John Sheets, mistakenly believing him to be Samuel P. Cox, the militia officer who had killed “Bloody Bill” Anderson during the Civil War.

James’s self-proclaimed attempt at revenge, and the daring escape he and Frank made through the middle of a posse shortly afterward, put his name in the newspapers for the first time.

The 1869 robbery marked the emergence of Jesse James as the most famous of the former guerrillas and the first time he was publicly labeled an “outlaw.” Missouri Governor Thomas T. Crittenden set a reward for his capture.

This was the beginning of an alliance between James and John Newman Edwards, editor and founder of the Kansas City Times. Edwards (a former Confederate cavalryman) was campaigning to return former secessionists to power in Missouri.

Six months after the Gallatin robbery, Edwards published the first of many letters from Jesse James to the public, asserting his innocence. Over time, the letters gradually became more political in tone, denouncing the Republicans and voicing James’ pride in his Confederate loyalties.

The letters turned Jesse James into a symbol of Confederate defiance of Reconstruction.

The James-Younger Gang

The James brothers joined with Cole Younger and his brothers John, Jim and Bob, as well as Clell Miller and other former Confederates to form what came to be known as the James-Younger Gang.

With Jesse James as the public face of the gang (though with operational leadership likely shared among the group), the gang carried out a string of robberies from Iowa to Texas, and from Kansas to West Virginia. They robbed banks, stagecoaches and a fair in Kansas City, often in front of large crowds – even hamming it up, for the bystanders.

On July 21, 1873, they turned to train robbery, derailing the Rock Island train in Adair, Iowa and stealing approximately $3,000 (about $55,000 in today’s money). For this, they wore Ku Klux Klan masks, deliberately taking on a potent symbol years after the Klan had been suppressed in the South by President Grant’s use of the Force Acts.

The gang’s later train robberies had a lighter touch. In only two train hold-ups did they rob passengers, because James typically limited himself to the express safe in the baggage car. Such techniques reinforced the Robin Hood image that Edwards created in his newspapers, but the James gang never shared any of the robbery money outside their circle.

The Pinkertons

The Adams Express Company turned to the Pinkerton National Detective Agency in 1874 to stop the James-Younger gang. The Chicago-based agency worked primarily against urban professional criminals, as well as providing industrial security, such as strike breaking.

Joseph Whicher, an agent dispatched to infiltrate Zerelda Samuel’s farm was found killed, shortly afterwards.

Two others (Captain Louis J. Lull and John Boyle) were sent after the Youngers. Lull was killed by two of the Youngers in a roadside gunfight on March 17, 1874. Before he died, Lull fatally shot John Younger. A deputy sheriff named Edwin Daniels also died in the skirmish.

Allan Pinkerton, the agency’s founder and leader, took on the case as a personal vendetta. He began to work with former Unionists who lived near the James family farm.

On the night of January 25, 1875, Pinkerton staged a raid on the homestead.

Detectives threw an incendiary device into the house; it exploded, killing James’s young half-brother Archie (named for Archie Clement) and blowing off one of the arms of the James family’s matriarch Zerelda Samuel. Afterward, Pinkerton denied that the raid’s intent was arson, but biographer Ted Yeatman located a letter by Pinkerton in the Library of Congress in which Pinkerton declared his intention to “burn the house down.”

The raid on the family home outraged many, and did more than all of Edwards’s columns to create sympathy for Jesse James.

The Missouri state legislature only narrowly defeated a bill that praised the James and Younger brothers and offered them amnesty. Allowed to vote and hold office again, former Confederates voted to limit reward offers that the governor could make for fugitives. This extended a measure of protection over the James-Younger gang.

The James-Younger Gang’s Downfall

On September 7, 1876, the James-Younger gang attempted a raid on the First National Bank of Northfield, Minnesota.

The gang’s attempt began at about 2 p.m., but the robbery was bungled because several gang members had been drinking that morning – something Jesse James would never have permitted, had he been present in Northfield. This was the primary reason why Jesse James was never indicted for the Northfield crimes.

Northfield residents had seen the gang members leave a local restaurant near the mill shortly after noon, and they testified in Faribault at the Younger brothers’ trial that they smelled of alcohol, and that gang members were obviously under the influence.

To carry out the robbery, the gang divided into two groups. Three men entered the bank, two guarded the door outside, and three remained near a bridge across an adjacent square.

The robbers inside the bank were thwarted, when acting cashier Joseph Lee Heywood refused to open the safe, falsely claiming that it was secured by a time lock – even as they held a bowie knife to his throat, and cracked his skull with a pistol butt. Assistant cashier Alonzo Enos Bunker was wounded in the shoulder as he fled out the back door of the bank.

Meanwhile, the citizens of Northfield grew suspicious of the men guarding the door, and raised the alarm.

The five bandits outside fired in the air to clear the streets, which drove the townspeople to take cover and fire back from protected positions. Two bandits were shot dead, and the rest were wounded in the barrage.

Inside, the outlaws turned to flee. As they left, one shot the unarmed cashier Heywood in the head. Historians have speculated about the identity of the shooter, but have not reached consensus on his identity.

The gang barely escaped Northfield, leaving two dead companions behind. They killed two innocent victims, Heywood, and Nicholas Gustafson, a Swedish immigrant from the Millersburg community west of Northfield.

A massive manhunt ensued.

The James brothers eventually split from the others, and escaped to Missouri.

The militia soon discovered the Youngers and one other bandit, Charlie Pitts. In a gunfight, Pitts died, and the Youngers were taken prisoner.

Except for Frank and Jesse James, the James-Younger Gang was destroyed.

The Aftermath

Later in 1876, Jesse and Frank James surfaced in the Nashville, Tennessee, area, where they went by the names of Thomas Howard and B. J. Woodson, respectively.

Frank seemed to settle down, but Jesse remained restless. He recruited a new gang in 1879 and returned to crime, holding up a train at Glendale, Missouri (now part of Independence, Missouri), on October 8, 1879.

This robbery was the first of a spree of crimes, including the holdup of the federal paymaster of a canal project in Killen, Alabama, and two more train robberies.

But the new gang did not consist of battle-hardened guerrillas; they soon turned against each other or were captured, while James grew paranoid to the point where he scared away one of his gang, and is believed to have killed another.

With the authorities growing suspicious, the brothers returned to Missouri where they felt safer.

In December 1881, Jesse rented a house at 1318 Lafayette Street, in Saint Joseph, Missouri – not far from where he had been born and raised. Frank, however, decided to move to safer territory, heading east to Virginia.

The Assassination of Jesse James

With his gang nearly annihilated, James trusted only the Ford brothers, Charley and Robert. Although Charley had been out on raids with James, Bob was an eager new recruit.

For protection, James asked the Ford brothers to move in with him and his family.

James had often stayed with their sister Martha Bolton and (according to rumor) he was “smitten” with her.

James did not know that Bob Ford had conducted secret negotiations with Thomas T. Crittenden, the Missouri governor, to bring in the famous outlaw.
Barred by law from offering a sufficiently large reward, Crittenden had turned to the railroad and express corporations to put up a $5,000 bounty for Jesse or Frank.

On April 3, 1882, after eating breakfast, the Fords and James prepared to depart for another robbery. They went in and out of the house to ready the horses.

As it was an unusually hot day, James took off his coat, then removed his firearms, lest he look suspicious.

Noticing a dusty picture on the wall, he stood on a chair to clean it. Bob Ford shot James in the back of the head.

James’ two previous bullet wounds and partially missing middle finger served to positively identify his body.

A Legend, Even in Death

The murder of Jesse James became a national sensation.

The Fords made no attempt to hide their role. Indeed, Robert Ford wired the governor to claim his reward.

Crowds pressed into the little house in St. Joseph to see the dead bandit, even while the Ford brothers surrendered to the authorities – but they were dismayed to find that they were charged with first degree murder. In the course of a single day, the Ford brothers were indicted, pleaded guilty, were sentenced to death by hanging, and two hours later were granted a full pardon by Governor Crittenden.

The governor’s quick pardon suggested that he knew the brothers intended to kill James, rather than capture him. The implication that the chief executive of Missouri conspired to kill a private citizen startled the public, and added to James’ notoriety.

After receiving a small portion of the reward, the Fords fled Missouri.

Rumors of Jesse James’s survival proliferated almost as soon as the newspapers announced his death. Some said that Robert Ford killed someone other than James, in an elaborate plot to allow him to escape justice. These tales have received little credence, then or later.

James’ mother Zerelda Samuel wrote the following epitaph for him: In Loving Memory of my Beloved Son, Murdered by a Traitor and Coward Whose Name is not Worthy to Appear Here.

James’s widow Zerelda Mimms James died alone and in poverty.

Jesse and his cousin Zee had two children who survived to adulthood: Jesse Edward James (b. 1875) and Mary Susan James (later Barr) (b. 1879). Twins Gould and Montgomery James (b. 1878) died in infancy.

Jesse, Jr., became a lawyer who practiced in Kansas City, Missouri, and Los Angeles, California.

That’s your story, for now.

Next time, we’ll look at “the dirty little coward who shot Mr. Howard”, as the famous old folk song puts it.

Till then.