See biographies by R. Love (1926) and T. J. Stiles (2002); H. Croy, Jesse James Was My Neighbor (1949, repr. 1962); C. W. Breihan, The Complete and Authentic Life of Jesse James (1953, repr. 1970); J. L. James, Jesse James and the Lost Cause (1961); W. A. Settle, Jesse James Was His Name (1966).
Jesse Woodson James (September 5, 1847—April 3, 1882) was an American outlaw in the border state of Missouri and the most famous member of the James-Younger Gang. After his death, he became a legendary figure of the Wild West, although his robberies benefited only him and his band. Recent scholarship places him in the context of regional insurgencies of ex-Confederates following the American Civil War rather than a manifestation of the frontier.
After Robert's death, Jesse's mother Zerelda remarried, first Benjamin Simms and then a doctor named Reuben Samuel. After their marriage in 1855, Samuel moved into the James home. James had two full siblings: his older brother, Alexander Franklin "Frank" James, and a younger sister, Susan Lavenia James. In addition, Reuben Samuel and Zerelda eventually had four children: Sarah Louisa Samuel (aka Sarah Ellen), John Thomas Samuel, Fannie Quantrell Samuel, and Archie Peyton Samuel.
The approach of the American Civil War overshadowed the James-Samuel household. Missouri was a border state between the North and South, but Clay County lay in a region of Missouri later dubbed "Little Dixie", where slaveholding and Southern identity were stronger than in other areas. It had been settled chiefly by migrants from the Upper South who brought their cultural practices, including slaveholding, with them. Robert James owned six slaves; after his death, Zerelda and Reuben Samuel acquired a total of seven slaves who raised tobacco on the farm. Clay County became the scene of great turmoil after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, when the question of whether slavery would be expanded into the neighboring Kansas Territory dominated public life. Much of the tension that led up to the American Civil War centered on the violence that erupted in nearby Kansas between pro- and anti-slavery militias.
The James-Samuel family took the Confederate side at the outset of the war. Frank James joined a local company recruited for the secessionist Missouri State Guard, and fought at the battle of Wilson's Creek, though he fell ill and returned home soon afterward. In 1863, he 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 and, according to legend, beat young Jesse. Frank escaped. He is believed to have joined the guerrilla organization led by William C. Quantrill, and to have taken part in the notorious massacre of some 200 men and boys in Lawrence, Kansas. Contrary to legend, there is no evidence that Jesse ever rode with Quantrill's Raiders, as they would later be known.
Frank followed Quantrill to Texas over the winter of 1863–4, and returned in the spring in a squad commanded by Fletch Taylor. When they arrived in Clay County, 16-year-old Jesse joined them. In the summer of 1864, Taylor was severely wounded, losing his right arm to a shotgun blast. Frank and Jesse joined the bushwhacker group led by Bloody Bill Anderson. Jesse suffered a serious wound to the chest that summer, but the Clay County provost marshal reported that both Frank and Jesse took part in the Centralia Massacre in September, in which some 22 unarmed Union troops were killed or injured, scalping and dismembering some of the dead. The guerrillas ambushed and defeated a pursuing regiment of Union troops, killing all who tried to surrender. As a result of the James brothers' activities, their family was exiled from the state of Missouri by the Union military authorities. Anderson was killed in an ambush in October. Frank followed Quantrill into Kentucky; Jesse went to Texas under the command of one of Anderson's lieutenants, Archie Clement, and returned to Missouri in the spring. Contrary to legend, Jesse James was not shot while trying to surrender, rather, he and Clement were still trying to decide on what course to follow after the Confederate surrender when they ran into a Union cavalry patrol near Lexington, Missouri, and Jesse suffered a life-threatening chest wound.
The end of the Civil War left Missouri in shambles. The conflict split the population into three bitterly opposed factions: antislavery radical Unionists, who became the Republican Party; the proslavery conservative Unionists, who became the Democratic Party; and the secessionists. The radicals had pushed through a new state constitution that freed Missouri's slaves but temporarily excluded the former Confederates from voting, serving on juries, becoming corporate officers, or preaching from church pulpits. The atmosphere was volatile, with widespread violence between individuals, armed gangs of radicals, and those bushwhackers who remained under arms.
Jesse, bedridden with his chest wound, was tended to by his first cousin, Zerelda "Zee" Mimms, named after his own mother, who remained in exile in Nebraska until August 1865. Jesse and Zee began a prolonged courtship, leading to their marriage nine years later. Meanwhile, Jesse's commander, Archie Clement, kept his bushwhacker gang together, and began to harass radical authorities. These men were the likely culprits in the first armed bank robbery in the United States in peacetime, holding up 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, was shot dead on the street during the gang's escape. It remains unclear whether Jesse and Frank James took part; it has been argued that Jesse remained bedridden with his wound, and no concrete evidence has surfaced to connect either brother to the crime. Archie Clement, however, 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. The state militia shot Clement dead shortly afterward, an event that Jesse wrote about with bitterness a decade later.
The survivors of Clement's gang continued to conduct bank robberies over the next two years, though their numbers dwindled through arrests, gunfights, and lynchings. On May 23, 1867, for example, they robbed a bank in Richmond, Missouri in which they killed the town's mayor and two others. It remains uncertain whether either of the James brothers took part. In 1868, Frank and Jesse James allegedly joined Cole Younger in robbing a bank at Russellville, Kentucky. Jesse James did not become famous, however, until December 1869, when he and (most likely) Frank robbed the Daviess County Savings Association in Gallatin, Missouri. The robbery netted little, but Jesse (it appears) shot and killed the cashier, mistakenly believing the man to be Samuel P. Cox, the militia officer who 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 robbery marked Jesse James's emergence as the most famous of the former guerrillas turned outlaw. It started an alliance with John Newman Edwards, a Kansas City Times editor who was campaigning to return former Confederates to power in Missouri. Edwards published Jesse's letters and made him into a symbol of Confederate defiance of Reconstruction through his elaborate editorials and favorable reporting. He also reported false information to throw law enforcement off the bandits' trail. Jesse James's own role in creating his rising public profile is debated by historians and biographers, though politics certainly surrounded his outlaw career and enhanced his notoriety.
Meanwhile, the James brothers, along with Cole Younger and his brothers John, Jim, and Bob; Clell Miller, and other former Confederates, now constituting the James-Younger Gang, continued a remarkable 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 stole approximately $3,000 ($51,000 in 2007). Their later train robberies had a lighter touch—in fact only twice in all of Jesse James's train hold-ups did he rob passengers, because he typically limited himself to the express safe in the baggage car. Such techniques fostered the Robin Hood image that Edwards was creating in his newspapers.
Allan Pinkerton, the agency's founder and leader, took on the case as a personal vendetta, working with former Unionists who lived near the James' family farm. He staged a raid on the homestead on the night of January 25, 1875. An incendiary device was thrown inside by the detectives; it exploded, killing James's young half-brother Archie (named for Archie Clement) and blowing off one of the arms of mother Zerelda Samuel. Afterward, Pinkerton denied that the raid's intent was arson, though 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 bloody fiasco did more than all of Edwards's columns to turn Jesse James into a sympathetic figure for much of the public. A bill that lavishly praised the James and Younger brothers and offered them amnesty was only narrowly defeated in the state legislature. Former Confederates, allowed to vote and hold office again, voted a limit on reward offers that the governor could make for fugitives, extending a measure of protection over the James-Younger gang. (Only Frank and Jesse James previously had been singled out for rewards larger than the new limit.)
On September 7, 1876, the James-Younger gang attempted their most daring raid to date, on the First National Bank of Northfield, Minnesota. Cole and Bob Younger later stated that they selected the bank because of its connection to two Union generals and Republican politicians: Adelbert Ames, the governor of Mississippi during Reconstruction, and Benjamin Butler, Ames's father-in-law and the Union commander of occupied New Orleans. As it turns out, Ames was a stockholder in the bank, but Butler had no direct connection to it.
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 merely 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 Heywood in the head. The identity of the shooter has been the subject of extensive speculation and debate, but remains uncertain.
The gang barely escaped Northfield, leaving their two dead companions behind, along with two innocent victims (Heywood and a Swedish immigrant from the Millersburg community west of Northfield named Nicholas Gustafson). A massive manhunt ensued. The James brothers eventually split from the others and escaped to Missouri. The Youngers and one other bandit, Charlie Pitts, were soon discovered. A brisk gunfight left Pitts dead and the Youngers all prisoners. The James-Younger Gang was destroyed, except for Frank and Jesse James.
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, on October 8, 1879. The robbery began a spree of crimes, including the hold-up of the federal paymaster of a canal project in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and two more train robberies. But the new gang did not consist of old, battle-hardened guerrillas; they soon turned against each other or were captured, while James grew paranoid, killing one gang member and frightening away another. The authorities grew suspicious, and by 1881 the brothers were forced to return to Missouri. In December, Jesse rented a house 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.
(Some sources seem to indicate the "Glendale, Missouri" link above is incorrect. The robbery may have occurred in Jackson County, MO. between Independence and Blue Springs near the Little Blue River. The Glendale, Missouri linked above was founded years after the robbery occurred.)
With his gang depleted by arrests, deaths, and defections, Jesse James thought that he had only two men left whom he could trust: brothers Robert and Charley Ford. Charley had been out on raids with Jesse before, but Bob was an eager new recruit. To better protect himself, Jesse asked the Ford brothers to move in with him and his family. Little did he know that Bob Ford had been conducting secret negotiations with Thomas T. Crittenden, the Missouri governor, to bring in the famous outlaw. Crittenden had made capture of the James brothers his top priority; in his inaugural address he declared that no political motives could be allowed to keep them from justice. Barred by law from offering a sufficiently large reward, he had turned to the railroad and express corporations to put up a $5,000 bounty for each of them.
On April 3, 1882, after eating breakfast, the Fords and James prepared for departure for another robbery, going in and out of the house to ready the horses. It was an unusually hot day. James removed his coat, then declared that he should remove his fire arms as well, lest he look suspicious. James noticed a dusty picture on the wall and stood on a chair to clean it. Robert Ford took advantage of the opportunity, and shot James in the back of the head.
The murder of Jesse James was 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. The Ford brothers were later tried and convicted. They were sentenced to death by hanging, but, two hours later were granted a full pardon by Governor Crittenden.
The governor's quick pardon suggested that he may have been aware that the brothers intended to kill, rather than capture, Jesse James. (The Ford brothers, like many who knew James, never believed it was practical to try to capture such a dangerous man.) The implication that the chief executive of Missouri conspired to kill a private citizen startled the public and helped to create a new legend around James.
The Fords received a small portion of the reward and fled Missouri. (Some of the bounty went to law enforcement officials who were active in the plan.)
Charley Ford committed suicide on May 6, 1884 in Richmond, Missouri. Bob Ford was killed by a shotgun blast to the throat in his tent saloon in Creede, Colorado, on June 8, 1892. His killer, Edward Capehart O'Kelley, was sentenced to life in prison. O'Kelley's sentence was commuted because of a medical condition, and he was released on October 3, 1902.
Zerelda Samuel selected an epitaph for Jesse James that stated: In Loving Memory of my Beloved Son, Murdered by a Traitor and Coward Whose Name is not Worthy to Appear Here.
None of James's biographers has accepted them as plausible. James's widow Zee died alone and in poverty. The body buried in Kearney, Missouri as Jesse James was exhumed in 1995 and tested for DNA. The report, prepared by Anne C. Stone, Ph.D., James E. Starrs, L.L.M., and Mark Stoneking, Ph.D., stated the remains were consistent with the DNA of Jesse James's relatives.
During the Populist and Progressive eras, James became a symbol as America's Robin Hood, standing up against corporations in defense of the small farmer, although his robberies benefited only him and his band. This "heroic outlaw" image is still portrayed in films, as well as songs and folklore. He remains a controversial symbol in the cultural battles over the place of the Civil War in American history. Historians place him among the insurgent guerrillas and vigilantes following the Civil War. In the end, the at-first-cowered people of a town actually fight back against the James gang and send them packing in tar and feathers.
Another Belgian comic series, Les Tuniques Bleues ("The Blue Coats"), is set during the American Civil War. Again the emphasis is on humour, though there is also a good deal of drama. An adventure published in 1994 had the main protagonists, Sergeant Cornelius Chesterfield and Corporal Blutch of the Union Army, confronting the infamous William Quantrill and his henchmen Jesse and Frank James.
In his worshipful adaptation of the traditional song "Jesse James", Woody Guthrie magnified James's hero status. Guthrie borrowed the tune for his outlaw hero ballad "Jesus Christ". "Jesse James" was later covered by the Irish band The Pogues on their 1985 album Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash, and by Bruce Springsteen on his 2006 tribute to Pete Seeger, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions.
A somewhat different song titled "Jesse James," referring to Jesse's "wife to mourn for his life; three children, they were brave," and calling Robert Ford "the dirty little coward who shot Mr. Howard," was also the first track recorded by the "Stewart Years" version of the Kingston Trio at their initial recording session in 1961 (and included on that year's release "Close-Up").
Echoing the Confederate hero aspect, Hank Williams, Jr.'s 1983 Southern anthem "Whole Lot Of Hank" has the lyrics "Frank and Jesse James knowed how to rob them trains, they always took it from the rich and gave it to the poor, they might have had a bad name but they sure had a heart of gold."
Warren Zevon's 1976 self-titled album Warren Zevon includes the song "Frank and Jesse James", a romantic tribute to the James Gang's exploits, expressing much sympathy with their "cause". Its lyrics encapsulate the many legends that grew up around the life and death of Jesse James. The album contains a second reference to Jesse James in the song "Poor Poor Pitiful Me" with the lyric "Well, I met a girl in West Hollywood, I ain't naming names. She really worked me over good, she was just like Jesse James." Linda Ronstadt covered the song a year later with slightly altered lyrics, but still containing the Jesse James reference, and it became a minor hit for her.
In her album Heart of Stone (1989), Cher included a song titled "Just Like Jesse James", written by Diane Warren. This single, which was released in 1990, achieved high positions in the charts and sold 1,500,000 copies worldwide.
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's album Uncle Charlie and His Dog Teddy features the song "Jesse James," ostensibly recorded on a wire recorder.
Jon Chandler has also written a song about Jesse and Frank James entitled "He Was No Hero," written from the perspective of Joe Hayward's widow cursing Bob Ford for cheating her out of killing Jesse James.
Around 1980 a concept album titled The Legend of Jesse James was released. It was written by Paul Kennerley and starred Levon Helm (The Band) as Jesse James, Johnny Cash as Frank James, Emmylou Harris as Zee James, Charlie Daniels as Cole Younger and Albert Lee as Jim Younger. There are also appearances by Rodney Crowell, Jody Payne, and Roseanne Cash. The album highlights Jesse's life from 1863 to his death in 1882. In 1999 a double CD was released containing The Legend Of Jesse James and White Mansions, another concept album by Kennerley about life in the Confederate States of America between 1861-1865. Interestingly, Kennerley was an Englishman.
The Cleveland rock trio The James Gang is named after Jesse's notorious group.