IN LOVING MEMORY OF MY BELOVED SON
MURDERED BY A TRAITOR AND COWARD
WHOSE NAME IS NOT WORTHY TO APPEAR HERE
- epitaph from the tomb of Jesse James
September 5, 1847 - April 3, 1882
The quintessential American "Wild West" outlaw.
Jesse James was born on September 5, 1847 in Kearney, Missouri on the James family farm to Robert and Zerelda James. Jesse was their second son, preceded by his older brother Frank. Robert James was a Baptist minister of some renown; he helped to found William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri. However, his greed and less-than-stellar marriage to Zerelda caused Robert to abandon his family in 1849; he headed to California to get rich in the gold rush. Robert fell victim to food poisoning and died in California in 1850.
As was the standard at the time, Zerelda quickly remarried, marrying Benjamin Simms in 1851, but fate befell Benjamin, too; he died in a horse accident in 1854. Luckily, Zerelda's third husband, Dr. Reuben Samuel, remains her husband for the rest of her life.
Unsurprisingly, this tumultuous early childhood had a profound effect on Jesse, who primarily looked to his older brother Frank as a father figure. In 1861, Frank signed up for the Confederate Army at the age of eighteen and it wasn't long before Jesse set off to follow his brother.
The Civil War: Planting the Seeds of a Life of Crime
As the Civil War progressed, the Confederacy realized quickly that without employing guerilla tactics, they would lose the western front of the war. So, in 1862, Frank was dispatched to Kansas to join a guerilla group headed by William Clark Quantrill, and along the way to Kansas, he stopped in Missouri to pick up Jesse and take him along.
By 1863, Jesse had become an understudy in Quantrill's group, and when the group tore through Lawrence, Kansas in the summer of 1863, massacring more than two hundred unarmed men and boys, a fifteen year old Jesse was likely riding along with them. After the experience, Jesse became a formal member of "Bloody" Bill Anderson's guerilla brigade that was fighting in Missouri in early 1864.
Clearly, Quantrill's lawless behavior had a great impact on the boys, whose family viewed Quantrill as a hero; Zerelda and Reuben named their third child Fannie Quantrill in his honor. Likely, Jesse (and Frank, to a degree) saw Quantrill as a man to look up to, and his take-no-prisoners behavior further steered them down their legendary path.
On September 20, 1864, "Bloody Bill" and his men attacked a train in Centralia, Missouri, killing at least twenty four unarmed Union soldiers and taking everything of monetary value from the train. After being chased by a small group of Union cavalry, "Bloody Bill's" group cornered the Union troops and massacred most of them. This is the day of Jesse's first credited murder at age seventeen; he killed Union Major A. V. Johnson, who was a passenger on the train.
The James-Younger Gang
In the waning days of the Civil War, Jesse and Frank returned to Nashville, Tennessee where they were involved in the transfer of power back to the Union Army. During this process, Jesse was involved in a few petty crimes, mostly involving gambling; in September, he refused to surrender to a soldier and was shot in the chest.
By early 1866, Jesse returned to Missouri, where he and Frank made the acquaintance of Cole and Jim Younger, two brothers who, like Frank and Jesse, had fought for the Confederacy in guerilla situations. On February 13, 1866, Frank, Cole, and Jim robbed the Clay County Savings Bank in Liberty, Missouri for $72,000 (a huge sum in those days), killing a seventeen year old boy who recognized Frank and began to shout his name in the street. Jesse is rumored to have been involved with the crime, but other reports suggest that Jesse was instead at home still nursing his gunshot wound.
To this point, Jesse had only been involved in guerilla warfare and perhaps this single robbery, but already his legend had started to grow. While Jesse left the area to travel to New York and then to San Francisco (to seek the grave of his father), several newspaper articles and a few dime novels were written about his exploits and when the Mitchell Bank in Lexington, Missouri was robbed, Jesse and Frank were blamed although neither were even in the state at the time.
In 1868, the gang reunited in Kentucky, fearing that the heat in Missouri was getting too hot. The gang robbed the Southern Deposit Bank in Russelville, Kentucky on March 20, 1868, taking $14,000, and then began to travel around the Midwest for the next several years as outlaws.
During the next several years, the gang commits countless small thefts and a few larger ones. Of note is a robbery in 1869 of a cashier at the Davies County Savings Bank in Gallatin, Missouri, where they only make $700 but kill the cashier. By 1873, the gang had been involved in at least a dozen bank and cashier robberies of various sorts, but they were about to be involved in the crimes that would cement Jesse James' legacy in American history.
On July 21, 1873, Jesse led the gang on their first train robbery. The gang used techniques that Jesse had learned attacking trains during the Civil War; they wrecked the train, shot the engineer, then proceeded to lift $3,000 from passengers of the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railroad near Adair, Iowa. This theft led the James brothers to conduct countless stagecoach and train robberies over the next several years as something of a diversification of their business.
On April 24, 1874, Jesse married his first cousin, Zee Mimms, in Kearney, Missouri. They would go on to have a son, Jesse Edward James, on August 31, 1875. Throughout the start of a family, Jesse continued to be involved in the robbery business, and countless dime store books and newspaper articles helped to build a large myth around the man which today is almost indistinguishable from fact.
The End of the Tour
What goes up must come down, they say, and the ball began to drop for Jesse on September 7, 1876. The whole James-Younger gang attempted to rob the First National Bank of Northfield, Minnesota, and when the cashier refused to open the safe, Jesse pointed a pistol at the man's head, shooting and killing him. The shot alarmed several people in the bank, who started shouting and quickly a posse was formed, chasing the James-Younger gang out of town. Two members of the gang were killed and most of the rest were shot with varying degrees of severity; Cole and Jim Younger were both shot several times and were caught two weeks later, but Jesse and Frank managed to escape into Iowa and eventually southwards to Missouri.
After this failure, Jesse and Frank stuck primarily to robbing trains for the next several years until 1881, when both were convinced to at least temporarily abandon the criminal life and settle down with their families. On December 24, 1881, "Tom Howard" and his family rented a house in St. Joseph, Missouri, where they lived quietly with two "family friends," Robert and Charles Ford.
On April 3, 1882, Bob Ford enters the house he shared with "Tom Howard" and, while "Tom" is straightening a painting on the wall, Bob shoots "Tom" in the back, killing him instantly. Bob loudly rides around the town, telling everyone that he just shot and killed Jesse James, and is eventually pardoned for the murder.
As with anyone notorious, rumors persisted for many years that Jesse hadn't been killed by Bob Ford and actually lived out his life under an assumed name. There is some belief that the man actually shot by Bob Ford was Charles Bigelow, who was rumored to be having an affair with Jesse's wife at the time of the death. Many believe that Jesse lived in Guthrie, Oklahoma until 1948, and in 1951 a man by the name of Frank Dalton claimed on his deathbed to be Jesse James; Dalton was 103. It's hard to tell for sure due to the lack of accurate historical records. In 1995, the body buried in the grave of Jesse James in Missouri was exhumed and DNA testing indicated a 99.7% likelihood that the body was indeed Jesse James.