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Jesse James – The Last Rebel of the Civil War?
By Mel Maurer
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2008, All Rights Reserved

Editor's Note: The article below is the text from Mel Maurer's presentation to the Roundtable on May 14, 2008.


“Jesse James,” said Carl Sandburg, “is the only American who is classical, who is to this country what Robin Hood…is to England, whose exploits are so close to the mythical…”

While it’s true that much of the Jesse James story is pure myth, it’s also true that much of it is based on facts – but with fiction and fact so now entangled - it’s almost impossible to separate them.

Jesse James, about 1876

So who was this Jesse James?

“I consider,” Robert Pinkerton of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, said in 1879, “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.”

“We called him outlaw,” wrote John Edwards, editor of the Sedalia Democrat in an obituary, “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.”

Somewhat divergent views, yet for the most part, both are true.

Jesse James, painted alone on a blank canvas becomes just another outlaw.  However, portrayed within the tumultuous times in Missouri – he becomes something more. Some of the most defining times in our country became the music of his violent life: conflict between slavery and opposition to it, the terrible war between ourselves, emancipation, heavy-handed reconstruction, the expansion and corruption of the railroads – even the very beginning of industrialization.

I don’t admire Jesse James, but an examination of his life and times provides an interesting perspective on an important part of our country during the Civil War Era and its aftermath.

Jesse James - Pop Culture Icon

I first met Jesse – at least one of the fictional ones - in a 1938 movie which I saw with my older brother, Dick, in 1948 during a Saturday afternoon matinee. The dashing Tyrone Power was Jesse and the wise Henry Fonda was his older brother, Frank. Its story was, in effect, a western version of Robin Hood.

What a great guy he was - and so was his brother. They were abused on their little farm by unionists and the evil railroad. Their mother was even killed in a raid on their house – who wouldn’t want to avenge actions like that? And vengeance they got - while robbing trains and banks along the way.

There have been over 70 movies and TV shows about Jesse or including Jesse since then. He’s been played by such well known people of several generations such as: Robert Wagner, Rob Lowe, Roy Rogers, Audie Murphy, James Dean, Clayton Moore, who later became The Lone Ranger, Robert Duvall – maybe the only bald Jesse and the meanest on screen, George Reeves who would later become Superman, Robert Preston – before “The Music Man,” we assume that Jesse didn’t sing in this one but if he did maybe the song was, “Seventy-six dead men led my big parade.”

Included in Jesse James movies are: “Jesse James meets Frankenstein’s Daughter” and “The Outlaw is Coming” with the Three Stooges and “Alias Jesse James” wherein Bob Hope as an insurance salesman, sells Jesse a life insurance policy and then tries to get it back.

Most recently, Brad Pitt was Jesse in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” Brad is good and mostly authentic in this one although he’s ten years too old for the role. (And no, I didn’t plan this talk to attract Angelina Jolie as Brad did when he became Jesse.)

The first movie about Jesse was made in 1920 and starred his son, Jesse, billed as Jesse James Jr. He was an attorney in Los Angeles at the time (that apple didn’t fall far from the tree) and was one of the film’s producers.

TV series featuring him include: "The Brady Bunch," "Little House on the Prairie," "The Twilight Zone," "MacGyver," “You Are There,” a Jesse James TV series, and "My Favorite Martian" - to name just a few.

There were also various stage presentations – some even starring his killers right after his death. He was also the hero in many dime novels and the subject of numerous books, and countless articles over the years.

Songs about Jesse include: Woody Guthrie’s tribute, “Jesse James,” Hank Williams Jr. sang, “Frank and Jesse knew how to rob them trains, they always took from the rich and gave to the poor, they might have had a bad name but they sure had a heart of gold.”  Cher sang of him with, “Just like Jesse James,” Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen among many others have included Jesse and his exploits in some songs.

Mark Twain, once wrote, perhaps in making fun of what we now call “celebrity,” that “Greatness may be classed as the ability to win recognition.” He went on to say that he was once making a “purchase in a small town in Missouri when a man walked in and…came over with out-stretched hand and said. ‘You’re Mark Twain, ain’t you?” Twain nodded that he was and the man said: “Guess you and I are ‘bout the greatest in our line.” Confused, Twain asked the man who he was. He relied: “I’m Jesse James.”

American Genocide

Jesse did win recognition as a rebel guerilla-fighter in the Civil War, a robber of banks, trains and stagecoaches - and as a cold blooded merciless killer - but also, in the minds of many, as the last “Rebel of the Civil War”, a symbol of ongoing rebellion that brought hope to those who still believed in the Lost Cause.

Jesse James at 17 when he was riding with William Quantrill and Bloody Bill Anderson

Jesse Woodson James was born on September 5, 1847. The son of a preacher who died when he was only two, and a strong mother, Zerelda, who became the matriarch of the family. He was raised in a proud slave-holding family on a fairly well to do farm near the towns of Kearney and Liberty in western Missouri just 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.

As horrible as our country’s Civil War was, the war in Missouri (a southern, northern, western state) was even worse, except for total lives lost. It was a state with many factions with almost every faction fighting another. Its Civil War began in the 1850s.

Internal fighting and border wars, with those in the Kansas territory, made life very dangerous for many western Missourians – neighbors fought neighbors and every brutal attack brought even more brutal reprisals.

No one was spared. Just plowing your field could bring death - and the night could see your house burned and your cattle run-off. It was nothing less than American genocide on all sides. It was also in this area that noted abolitionist John Brown in 1856 – before he went “a molding in his grave,” led his sons on a raid against pro-slavery settlers – brutally murdering five farmers with their swords.

The ongoing internal battles and border conflicts in the Kansas territory, by anti-slavery forces – called “Jayhawkers,” and pro-slavery people called “Free-soilers” or "Bushwhackers,” preordained the U.S. Civil War, as both sides sought power after the end of the Missouri Compromise in 1854, with the enactment of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

When the compromise ended, slavery would in the future be decided by popular sovereignty - and support for each position was sought by violence. The Kansas territory was a desired prize for both sides, becoming known as “Bleeding Kansas.”
Many of those with southern sympathies in Missouri, while wanting to fight for the South once the big war began, were afraid to leave their families under the control of the union, so home guards were formed to protect their interests. Frank James, at age 18, joined one of these in 1861. These Guards or Watches protected their families and retaliated against opposing forces - they were accountable to no one.


Related Links:

Jesse James biography at Wikipedia

Jesse James documentary at PBS

James-Younger Gang at St. Louis Civil War

Friends of the James Farm


 
 

A leader of one of these groups, 24 year old Ohio-born William Quantrill organized several hundred men under his leadership offering his services to the Confederacy. He and his men were sworn into service in 1862 under the Confederacy’s Partisan Ranger Act – and were acknowledged to be an important part of the Southern cause in Missouri.

Frank James eventually became one of Quantrill’s men and was with Quantrill for his notorious raid on Lawrence, Kansas, in August of 1863, where they slaughtered 150 defenseless men and boys. “Kill. kill, kill,” Quantrill ordered – “the only way to cleanse Lawrence is to kill.”  Most of his men were under 21 – “there has never been a more reckless lot of men,” Frank, later said. Another gang member also said that “the most brutal thing in the world is your average 19 year old boy.”

William Quantrill's raid on Lawrence, Kansas, August 21, 1863,
as depicted in
Harper's Weekly

In reprisal for guerrilla actions, the pro-Union militias raided suspected guerrillas’ families including the James’ farm in May of 1863 - looking for information on Frank. During the raid they pulled the James’ stepfather, up and down from a tree by his neck, until he gave them some information on Frank. They also ran down 15-year-old Jesse in a field whipping him until his back was said to “Look like geography.” Jesse’s mother was also roughed up. She was pregnant with a daughter she would later name – Fannie Quantrill Samuels.

Some weeks later, the family, along with other pro southern families, was exiled by unionists to Nebraska. Jesse, then 16, went to ride with Quantrill and later with his successor, Bloody Bill Anderson. Bill was noted for chopping the heads off his enemy with his pirate’s sword and who, along with his men, carried the scalps of many victims on his saddle bags. Bloody Bill would say of the young Jesse: “Not to have any beard, he is the keenest and cleanest fighter in the command.” Jesse would respond to this praise with idol worship of Anderson.

Jesse was with the guerrillas in August of 1864 when he was shot in the chest. He carried the bullet in his body for the rest of his life.  However, he was well enough just weeks later to ride with Bloody Bill on a raid into the town of Centralia near Columbia Missouri. They terrorized its residents, and passengers on an arriving stage. They then burned the train depot and stopped a train carrying 25 unarmed Union troops. They took the uniforms from these men for their own use - and then shot them down at point-blank range before leaving town.

Later that day, a mounted infantry under Major Johnson arrived and, upon learning what happened, left in pursuit of Bloody Bill and his men. When they found them, the major ordered his men to dismount for their attack – a big mistake – the mounted guerrillas charged the soldiers killing over 100 of them – including Major Johnson. Later, Jesse was identified as the one who killed the major.

This would be the biggest engagement of Jesse’s career as a Confederate guerilla. Two months after this battle, Bloody Bill was killed by forces led by Major S.P. Cox in an ambush. The days of the guerrillas were coming to an end with many of the irregulars heading towards Louisiana and Texas. Quantrill and his men headed to Kentucky, where Quantrill was killed. His men, including Frank James, then surrendered and were paroled to go home.

While Frank had gone to Kentucky, Jesse went to Texas staying there until the spring of 1865. Jesse and some others were on their way to surrender in Missouri when some Union soldiers opened fire on them and, for the second time, Jesse was shot in the chest.

His wound was serious. He was first taken to his mother’s house in Nebraska and then to his uncle’s house outside of Kansas City, where he was nursed back to health by his cousin, Zee Mimms, to whom he became engaged. They would marry 9 years later.

Guerrilla Turned Outlaw

The first years after the official end of the war were especially tough for southerners in Missouri. The well named Radical Republicans controlled the provisional government, adopting a state constitution that effectively disenfranchised everyone who had anything to do with the Confederacy – making them second-class citizens.

Political resentments, along with economic hard times in the state, added new wounds to old, extending the overall societal recovery - especially for those who fought as irregulars or guerillas. They lived in fear of official retribution.

Jesse and Frank James, about 1872.

Jesse and Frank could have, as most other guerillas did, gone home, tended their family farm and lived peaceful lives. They did go home – their family was now back on their Missouri homestead – and they even seemed to have settled down as Jesse joined a Baptist church and was baptized.

However, to paraphrase a song, “How are you going to keep them down on the farm after leading such exciting lives,” they soon joined up with some former colleagues to begin their criminal careers.

Their lives over the next 16 years preclude even a brief mention of every one of their crimes, so I will just review a few representative examples of their work - if it can be called that. It’s also not really known how many crimes they actually committed – once they had achieved some notoriety they were accused of more murders and robberies than they could have committed – not even these guys could be in two places at once. But, as it is with celebrity, if someone got robbed, some seemed to feel it was more worthwhile if it was by Jesse James.

It’s believed that the first bank they robbed was in Liberty, Missouri. It was in February 1866, as about 12 men rode into town, with some taking look-out positions, as two of them, wearing Union Army overcoats walked into the Clay County Savings Bank. Cashier Greenup Bird was at his desk and his son, William, was making change when he saw a revolver was pointed at his head. The robbers then jumped over the counter and cleaned out the vault leaving the Birds in it as they fled.

Leaving the bank with almost $60,000 in greenbacks, national currency, government bonds and gold and silver coins The robbers shot at two bystanders, killing one – as the rest of the gang fired into the air and rode away.

Other similar robberies followed throughout 1866 and 1867 – in Missouri and surrounding states - and then in Russellville, Kentucky in March 1868. A Louisville detective, investigating that robbery, was one of the first to identify the Jameses along with their cousins the Youngers as strong suspects in the robbery.

Jesse began his bandit career as a member of a gang led by Arch Clement who he rode with as a guerrilla but he soon rose to a leadership position at age 19 when Clement was killed. After that, Jesse either led gangs or shared leadership with some of his cousins – the Youngers, especially Cole Younger, another former guerrilla.

Bob, Jim, and Cole Younger with their sister Henrietta

Whatever doubt that the James boys were involved in bank robberies was eliminated when they robbed the Davies Bank in Gallatin, Missouri in December 1869. This bank job left enough real evidence to file charges against the James brothers. After this, their names, with rewards on their heads, would be tied to crimes in Missouri and elsewhere.

Jesse walked into this bank and asked former Union Army Captain John Sheets the cashier and principal owner of the bank to change a $100 bill. Then Frank entered the bank and said, “If you write out a receipt I will pay you that bill,” as if making a deposit. When Sheets sat down to write the receipt, Jesse pulled out his revolver and shot Sheets through the head and heart. Both robbers then fired at a bank clerk but he managed to escape - sounding an alarm.

Townspeople quickly responded – opening fire on them as they came out of the bank. They ran to their horses but Jesse couldn’t quite get on his excited horse and was dragged about 40-feet before he could untangle his foot from the stirrup. He then jumped up behind Frank on his horse. After getting out of town they stole a horse from a farmer to continue their getaway. (A side note – this farmer, Daniel Smoote would later sue Jesse and receive Jesse’s fine horse in a settlement. And, as far as is known – Mr. Smoote and his lawyer lived long lives.)

Horses did not wear license tags but fine horses, such as the one that Jesse rode to the bank were known, as were their owners, so some well armed citizens of Gallatin, along with the sheriff, went to the James farm to arrest the boys. As they approached the house – in a real movie moment - the doors to the stable burst open with Frank and Jesse roaring out on their mounts, jumping some fences and getting away under fire from the small posse.

It’s been said that Jesse had gunned-down banker Sheets believing him to be S.P. Cox, the man who led the troops that killed Bloody Bill. True or not, the robbery and killing took on a political revenge motive – many southerners approved.


William Quantrill

 

Bloody Bill Anderson

 

Arch Clement

 

Zerelda "Zee" Mimms

 

 

The Birth of a Legend

Jesse also got his first mention in the paper when the Liberty Tribune wrote that the horse left behind at Gallatin was “Identified as belonging to a young man named James. The man with him was his brother and both are desperate and determined men having much experience in horse and revolver” He had his first taste of notoriety, and as a symbol of ongoing rebellion, he loved it.

Jesse would owe most of his favorable fame and transformation into a symbol of the southern cause to John Edwards, a former Confederate officer, a writer and an editor of several papers after the war. He saw in Jesse an opportunity to create a rallying point for opposition to the oppression of the ruling Radical Republicans.

After the nearly botched robbery of a ticket booth at a fair in Kansas City by the James gang, during which a little girl was shot in the leg, Edwards wrote of it in a front page story in the Kansas City Times: “It was one of those exhibitions of superb daring that chills the blood and transfixes the muscles of the looker-on with a mingling of amazement, admiration and horror…it was a deed so utterly in contempt of fear that we are bound to admire it and revere its perpetrators for the very enormity of their outlawry.”

As if to sanction his views, Edwards, a few days later, wrote an editorial entitled: “The Chivalry of Crime.” In it he wrote of the robbery: “There are things done for money and revenge of which the daring of the act is the picture and the crime is the frame…A feat of stupendous nerve and fearlessness, that makes one’s hair rise to think of it…it becomes chivalric, poetic; superb!”

“These are men…who learned to dare when there was no such word as quitter in the dictionary of the Border… Guerrilla-bandits such as this belong to another time.”  He goes on to describe the time as that of King Arthur and his Knights of the Roundtable. As author, T. J. Stiles writes in his excellent book on Jesse and his times: “By painting the outlaws as knights, Edwards presented them as the embodiments of the Confederate ideal.”

Jesse was so moved by Edwards’ words of support that he had to add his, in a letter to the paper – which read in part: “Some editors call us thieves. We are not thieves, we are bold robbers...I am proud of the name…(we) rob the rich and give to the poor.” He signed the letter with the names of some famous bandits in European history.

“We never kill, only in self defense… but if a man is fool enough to refuse to open a vault when he is covered with a pistol, he ought to die. If someone gives alarm, or resists, he gets killed.”

- Jesse James in a letter
to John Edwards in response
to Edwards' newspaper article glorifying James' exploits

His letter also provides other insights into his thinking as a bandit: “We never kill," he wrote, “only in self defense… but if a man is fool enough to refuse to open a vault when he is covered with a pistol, he ought to die. If someone gives alarm, or resists he gets killed.”

That said, he went on to denounce the Republican Party and the Grant administration – “Just let a party of men commit a bold robbery and the cry is to hang them but Grant and his party can steal millions and it is all right… Grant’s party has no respect for anyone, they rob the poor and give to the rich…”

T.J. Stiles calls the Edwards-James writings the climax of the bandit glorification campaign – “a masterful conclusion to a skillfully conducted propaganda effort.” He says that it marked, “the maturation of Jesse James as a self conscious political symbol.”

Jesse enjoyed his new found status, becoming obsessed with his public image, seeking ways to get into the news. “He read newspapers constantly and frequently wrote letters to newspapers - and would even plan robberies based on his perception of the public reaction.”

Jesse James, despite his neat name, would have probably just been another bad guy but for Edwards’ promotion of him - and Edwards would have been just another writer without his attachment to Jesse. Instead, with the continuing propaganda campaign, Jesse became a hero to many, while Edwards became a powerful influence within the Democratic Party as a Confederate spokesman.  Jesse had, in one author’s words, under Edwards’ influence: “Grown in sophistication and ambition, both criminal and political.”

The James gang then turned their attention to another source of money and political influence – to what some called, “the arteries of the Union” – the railroads and express companies. Not only would they attack the so called “monetary pulse” of the country with their robberies but the ever growing power and the corruption of the railroads ,at the expense of the people - Jesse’s people.

The gang hit their first train in July of 1873 in Iowa. Selecting a site on the tracks that curved, forcing the train to slow down, they pried out spikes holding the track in place and tied ropes to the rails. That night, as the five o’clock express approached, they pulled the rails out, causing the engine to brake while they peppered it with bullets. The engine crashed off the tracks while the cars jack-knifed to a stop. The crash snapped the neck of the engineer, killing him.

Each of the six bandits had a job – some walked beside the cars yelling at passengers to get down or be shot, two went into the passenger cars and two – Jesse and Cole Younger entered the express car. Jesse hollered: “If you don’t open the safe or give me the key, I’ll blow your head off.” He got the key.  (An aside: during one train robbery, one robber asked the passengers if any of them were widows or preachers – none raised their hands. “Too bad,” he said, “we don’t rob preachers or widows.” Several hands were then raised. “Too late!” He said.)

The gang also robbed stagecoaches. They probably would have robbed gas stations and convenience stores if they had existed back then. While claiming to rob from the rich to give to the poor, there’s no record they ever gave anything to anyone. The closest they may have come to this was paying people that put them up during their various escapes after robberies.

Despite ever increasing reward money, the gang usually never came close to getting caught. Between robberies, they would melt back into some kind of daily life and, of course, if anyone knew who they were knew they would pay with their lives - if they ever told anyone.

Jesse and Frank lived in a number of towns with their families, including Nashville. Jesse married in 1874 eventually having a son and a daughter – but losing twins at birth. Frank also married that year and he would have a son. It helped in their private lives that very few knew what they looked like.

Jesse later wrote about his marriage, giving the facts of it and saying that, “both of us married for love and there can be no doubt about our marriage being a happy one.”

As an adult Jesse was 5’8” tall and weighed 155 pounds. He was vain about his appearance and was a health nut. He worked out with weighted pins and worried about his ever thinning chestnut brown hair – trying various cures for growing baldness. He also drank vegetable juices and potions.

His short beard was trimmed in the style of physicians of the day and his hair well trimmed. His eyes were blue with a slight green tint. You wouldn’t have wanted to be looking into those cold eyes when his gun was pointed at you.

He smoked cigars - and rarely drank anything alcoholic stronger than beer. He allegedly never cheated on his wife – some madams disputed those stories - or swore in the presence of ladies or ever raised his voice with children.

He had two incompletely healed bullet holes in his chest and another in his thigh and the nub of his middle left finger was missing - shot off. He also had a slightly twisted left foot from when his foot got caught in that stirrup after the Sheet’s killing.

He was a Democrat, left-handed with a high, thin voice like a contralto which was said to “Twang like a catgut guitar whenever he got excited.” He owned 5 suits – which was unusual then, along with colorful brocaded vests and cravats.

He knew the books of the bible and could recite psalms and poems. He could also sing religious hymns well enough that he once worked as a choirmaster for a month. (You may not have wanted to miss practice with him in charge.)

He was: intimidating, reckless, serene, rational, lunatic - almost simultaneously. It was said that when he entered a room, heads turned in his direction, when he walked down aisles in stores clerks backed away and if he neared animals they moved away from him. I think he may have also had a gambling problem.

“He never regretted his robberies or his many killings – at least 17 - but would pout about slanders or slights. He had a great need for attention and could be overly genteel and polite to disguise what he thought was his too humble origins.”

He was well-versed on current events and, as previously noted, often wrote letters to editors of various papers. (Just for the record – while I may have wanted to be like the Tyrone Power version of Jesse as a 10-year-old, I ended up being like Jesse only as a writer of letters to the editor.)

The famous Pinkerton Detective Agency was called in several times to catch the James-Younger gang – one time even sending a somewhat naïve agent to try to infiltrate the James farm as a laborer. The local sheriff told him not to try it or he would surely die. When the arrogant young man started to say that he knew that the boys weren’t at home anyway – the sheriff cut him off saying: “It don’t matter, their mother will kill you if the boys don’t.” The boys did. At least two other Pinkerton agents would also die at their hands.

Their mother, Zerelda, was always defending her sons, either saying they were innocent or justified in their actions no matter how criminal they were. She, along with Edwards, was chiefly responsible for the legend of Jesse as the abused farm boy, the heroic guerrilla and victim of Union aggression after the war.

And then one night in January of 1875 she became an even more important part of the story when several fire bombs were tossed into her house. One exploded - killing 9-year-old Archie Samuels - Jesse’s half brother, and mangling Zerelda’s right hand which had to amputated.

The raid was thought to have been led by Pinkerton agents – the attack on the family and the killing of an innocent child brought sympathy and support to the family. Support for the state’s outlaws, which had been dwindling, was now renewed. The legislature even considered bills of amnesty for the James boys.

No story about the Jameses, however brief, is complete without including their last action as the James-Younger gang. The notorious attempted bank robbery in Northfield, Minnesota, in September of 1876.

The bank in Northfield, Minnesota which the James-Younger Gang attempted and failed to rob, September, 1876.

Eight gang members rode into town, three waited on its outskirts, three entered the First National Bank and two waited outside. When the cashier refused to open the vault, his throat was cut and then he was shot – most likely by Jesse.  Another cashier escaped to sound an alarm.

Since many in town were aware of the number of strangers seen around town in the days leading up to the robbery, they were ready when the first alarm was heard.  The street was cleared immediately when some townsmen began shooting at the look outs – two outlaws along with one civilian were killed in the action, as the rest of the gang escaped.

The Minnesotans organized their biggest manhunt to that date to track down the fleeing bandits, eventually killing one and capturing Cole, Jim and Bob Younger. Jesse and Frank escaped. They left the Youngers, after Cole and Jesse argued about abandoning or even killing the severely wounded Bob Younger, who was slowing them down.

Some say they went to Minnesota to avenge the part a Minnesotan played in the raid on the James farm. It’s also been said they picked the bank they did because it was owned by former Yankee officers - Ames and Butler. But it’s just as likely that one of their gang from the state had convinced them the bank was an easy mark, promising he could lead them safely away in an escape. Four men died, three men received life sentences, two escaped - and no money was taken.


John Newman Edwards
 
 
 
 
 
 

The End of An Era and the Death of Jesse James

After awhile, maybe as long as three years, the Jameses put together a new gang and continued their robbing ways for several more years.

But the times and politics began to change. The election of Thomas Crittenden, as governor in 1880 - a democrat - but also the candidate of the railroads and their political friends was the beginning of the end for Jesse.

The era of the “Social bandit” – however romantic - was coming to an end. Gradually, members of the James gang were arrested, and some became traitors – none more so than young Bob and Charley Ford. They were relatively new members of Jesse’s gang who were to go with him to rob a bank in Platte City, Missouri.

It was April 3, 1882. The Fords were staying with Jesse and his family – the respectable Thomas Howard family - in a house in St. Joseph, Missouri. After Jesse took off his guns belt and stood on a chair to dust a picture, Bob took out his .44 caliber revolver, pointed it at the back of Jesse’s head and pulled the trigger. Jesse heard the noise of the gun cocking, and was turning his head towards it, as the bullet hit him – “disintegrating his skull just behind his left ear.”

Some more modern views of Jesse’s death – with him uncharacteristically taking off his gun belt, and exposing his back to the Ford brothers – have him committing suicide by assassin. Several books seriously consider this as a possibility. They write that Jesse was tired of being on the run etc., and wanted to end it all.

Jesse James' death photo

I have a hard time believing he wanted to die, although he might have preferred death by assassin to death by Pinkerton. My view is that he took off his guns believing the Fords to be cowards. I think he just dared the brothers, wanting them to see what he thought of them to clearly establish his leadership. Jesse was a risk taker, and he just took one too many risks – paying with his life.

Bob Ford, through some kind of arrangement with the governor, had killed Jesse becoming the “Dirty little coward that shot Mr. Howard.” Charley would commit suicide a few years later and Bob - still later would be gunned-down in a saloon.

It’s estimated that Jesse James' various gangs stole about $250,000 but Jesse died leaving his family penniless. (He should have bought that insurance policy from Bob Hope.)

Not long after Jesse’s death Frank surrendered to the governor – handing him his guns. He was tried twice – murder and robbery - but was acquitted both times by friendly juries and lack of evidence. He would live long enough that in the early 1900s, when Cole Younger was released from prison, he and Cole would briefly front the Cole Younger-Frank James Wild West Show. Jesse’s wife, still poor, died in 1900, his mother in 1911 and Frank in 1915.

Jesse was buried and reburied several times over the years - almost as if he kept escaping from the grave. Yes, it really is Jesse in that grave or at least the few pieces of bones that are left of him after so many years. DNA has proved that and they even found the bullet he carried in his body. His various funerals and reburials were always those of a Confederate soldier. You can still visit the family farm, the house he died in, and his grave.

The Journal of American History once wrote that “It is not much of an overstatement to say that if the James brothers had not existed they would have been invented for indeed the legend is primarily a tale untouched by truth.”

I’ve tried as best I can in my research to filter out the truth but it’s been like panning for it in a stream of fiction.  That truth is that Jesse James faced no more hardships than did thousands of other men in Missouri and elsewhere who did not become killers or thieves. He was “The last rebel of the Civil War” only in his mind, his mother’s propaganda, the writings of John Edwards and in the minds of some oppressed southern people – but as such, he did succeed as a symbol of the southern cause and resistance that helped the south eventually come back into power several years into reconstruction.

Ironically, with his charisma, intelligence, leadership ability, and interest in public affairs, had he stayed on the farm, he no doubt one day would have been successfully involved in politics - and today we might be talking about governor James, senator James or even president Jesse James.


Robert Ford
Thomas Theodore Crittenden

Sources: (Roll-over any book title to bring up more information on that book; click the book title to purchase from Amazon.com.  Part of the proceeds from any book purchased from Amazon through the CCWRT website are returned to the CCWRT to support its education and preservation programs.)

Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War
by T. J. Stiles

Jesse James: The Man and The Myth
by Marley Brant

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
by Ron Hansen

Jesse James Was His Name; or, Fact and Fiction concerning the Careers of the Notorious James Brothers of Missouri
by William A. Settle, Jr

 

The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable