“I consider, Jesse James the worst man, without any exception, in America. He is utterly devoid of fear and has no more compunction about cold blooded murder than he has about eating his breakfast.”
– Allan Pinkerton, 1879
“We called him outlaw, and he was – but fate made him so. When the war closed Jesse James had no home…hunted, shot, driven away…a price upon his head – what else could the man do…except what he did?…When he was hunted he turned savagely about and hunted his hunters.”
– John Edwards, Editor, Sedalia Democrat in an obituary for Jesse James
These are two very different contemporary viewpoints on the same man: the outlaw Jesse James who was killed on today’s date, April 3 in 1882. Edwards was writing from the viewpoint of James’ own people, the men and women of his native Missouri, who loved James and saw him as a kind of avenger for the wrongs done to the state by the Union government. Mr. Pinkerton was writing from the view of a man whose employees, the agents of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, had been repeatedly thwarted, and in many cases killed by this wily and evasive outlaw. The fact is that both men had it right.
Jesse & Frank James – Products of Civil War Missouri
Jesse Woodson James was born on September 5, 1847. His father was a preacher who died when Jesse was two years old. His mother, Zerelda (above), was a formidable and very strong-willed woman to whom Jesse and his brother in crime, Frank would be devoted all of their lives. He grew up in a prosperous farm community near the towns of Kearney and Liberty in western Missouri a little north of Kansas City. In addition to Frank, he had a younger sister, Susan, and four half siblings from his mother’s remarriage to Dr. Rueben Samuels.
Missouri was the scene of some of the most bitter and murderous guerrilla fighting of the Civil War which would come along when Jesse was a mere 14 years old. Missouri was a border state during the Civil War, meaning that while it did not join the states which seceded from the Union, it residents were bitterly divided throughout the conflict. While the Union forces were officially in charge there from 1862 onward, Confederate Guerrilla bands such as those lead by William Quantrill, and “Bloody” Bill Anderson were constantly raiding the Union forces, as well as the towns of Union sympathizers and murdering whomever they found with either. It was with these forces that Jesse and his brother Frank learned to shoot, kill and also to hideout in the countryside or amongst sympathetic towns. When the war came to an end in 1865, he put these skills to use.
The James Gang(s) Set the Standard for Outlaws of the “Old West”
Gathering around himself with his brother Frank other Confederate guerrilla veterans who nursed a deeply held sense of grievance against the Union government and it’s harsh rule of Missouri James formed a gang of outlaws. These ruthless men would spend some fifteen years between 1866 and 1881 cutting a swath of bank, train and stagecoach robberies across the central west of the U.S. And they were the first ones to do it. All of these fabled criminal acts of the old west were first done by the James gang, which had different members at different times, but always Jesse (above, top) and Frank (above, bottom) at the center of planning and execution.
Frank was a square jawed, blue eyed young man of 20 when their outlaw days began. He had a decidedly intellectual bent, being an avid reader of Shakespeare. Jesse was three years younger, was blue eyed and had a thinner face than Frank. He was slightly shorter than his brother and sturdier, although he was said to have the face of a schoolgirl, complete with eyes which he batted frequently, the result of a childhood ailment. Gathering around them various combinations of fellow outlaws, including most often the brothers Cole and James Younger, they perfected the technique of familiarizing themselves with their targets, banks, railroads, and stagecoaches and the people who worked in them. Then once they had pulled off their heist they would be gone as quickly as they had arrived, dispersing most often to hideouts either in caves or local homes that they had carefully selected ahead of time. And the fact that they chose banks and railroads which were seen by the local population as agents of the cruel Union government meant that they could count on the support of most of the local population; they would be silent, and would give no information either to the US government or to the Pinkerton Detectives whom they sent to ferret the James gang out of hiding. Nobody who stood in their way could expect to survive. The James boys would kill quickly and without mercy anybody who tried to stop them.
The Northfield Minnesota Raid and Jesse’s Demise
Still, the fact that they found Pinkerton about wherever they went in their home area of Missouri may have been the reason that the James gang attempted a robbery in Northfield Minnesota on September 7, 1876. The robbery had as usual, been meticulously planned, and all of the locations thoroughly scouted in advance. Unfortunately for the James Gang, they had not taken into account that the local population in Minnesota wouldn’t be so friendly as their former Confederate sympathizers in Missouri had been. Because once the shooting started, the gang found themselves under fire from all sides by local townspeople. The result was a total failure of the robbery, and the decimation of the Gang. Both Jesse and Frank survived but were wounded. The two James boys went into hiding, and evaded capture for a long time. But eventually a mole was successfully placed near enough to Jesse to get a clear shot at him. On April 3, 1882 Robert Ford, a newer gang member who had been bribed enough to turn on Jesse was sitting at Jesse’s table. Ford knew that Jesse was suspicious of him. So when Jesse turned his back to adjust a picture hanging on the wall (artist conception above), Ford struck. As Ford himself later wrote:
“˜As he stood there, unarmed, with his back to me, it came to me suddenly, “˜Now or never is your chance. If you don’t get him now, he’ll get you tonight. “˜ Without further thought or a moment’s delay I pulled my revolver and levelled it as I sat. He heard the hammer click as I cocked it with my thumb and started to turn as I pulled the trigger. The ball struck him just behind the ear, and he fell like a log, dead.”
Ford was tried for murder in the killing and was convicted. But he was pardoned by Missouri Governor Crittendon. He was killed ten years later by a James sympathizer. Frank James turned himself in to that same Governor Crittendon on Oct. 5, 1882, and was later acquitted of murder by a highly sympathetic Missouri jury. He was only 40 years old at the time. He could have continued as an outlaw, but chose not to. He would live on until 1915 taking advantage of his notoriety as the one time outlaw to make a living (as pictured above) as the honored guest at any number of functions, but never again taking part in any outlaw-type activities.
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by Paul Trachtman, Time Life Books, New York, 1974.