The gang was centered in the state of Missouri. Membership fluctuated from robbery to robbery, as the outlaws' raids were usually separated by many months. At various times, it included the Younger Brothers (Cole, Jim, John, and Bob), the James Brothers (the infamous Jesse James and his brother Frank), Clell Miller, Arthur McCoy, Charlie Pitts, John Jarrette (who was married to Cole's sister Josie), and Bill Chadwell (alias Bill Stiles). Contrary to frequent report, the James brothers and Younger brothers were not related, at least not by blood. Starting in 1879, after the demise of the James-Younger Gang, The James brothers committed further crimes with Clell Miller's brother Ed, the Ford brothers (Robert and Charles), Bill Ryan, Dick Liddel, and the Hite Brothers Wood and Clarence.
The James-Younger Gang had its origins in a group of Confederate bushwhackers who fought in the bitter partisan conflict that wracked the divided state of Missouri during the American Civil War. This group's postwar crimes began in 1866, though it did not truly become the "James-Younger Gang" until 1868 at the earliest, when the authorities first named Cole Younger and both the James brothers as suspects in the robbery of the Nimrod Long bank in Russellville, Kentucky. It dissolved in 1876, after the capture of the Younger brothers in Minnesota after the ill-fated attempt to rob the Northfield First National Bank. Three years later, Jesse James organized a new gang and renewed his criminal career, which came to an end with his death in 1882. During the gang's period of activity, it robbed banks, trains, and stagecoaches in Missouri, Kentucky, Iowa, Texas, Arkansas, Kansas, and West Virginia.
The James and Younger brothers belonged to slave-owning families with ties to the South. Zerelda Samuel, the mother of Frank and Jesse James, was an outspoken partisan of the South, though the Youngers' father, Henry Washington Younger, was believed to be a Unionist. Cole Younger's initial decision to fight as a "bushwhacker," or Confederate, is usually attributed to the death of his father at the hands of Union forces. He and Frank James are both believed to have fought under one of the most famous bushwhacker leaders, William Clarke Quantrill, though Cole eventually joined the regular Confederate army. Jesse James began his guerrilla career in 1864, at the age of sixteen, fighting alongside Frank under the leadership of Archie Clement and "Bloody Bill" Anderson.
At war's end, Frank James surrendered in Kentucky; Jesse James surrendered after being shot through the lung outside of Lexington, Missouri; and Cole Younger returned from a mission to California. Quantrill and Anderson had both been killed. The James brothers, however, continued to associate with their old guerrilla comrades, who remained together under the leadership of Archie Clement. It was likely Clement who, amid the tumult of Reconstruction in Missouri, turned the guerrillas into outlaws.
That crime began a string of robberies, many of which were linked to Clement's group of bushwhackers. The hold-up most clearly linked to the group was of Alexander Mitchell and Company in Lexington, Missouri, on October 30, 1866, which netted $2,011.50. Clement was also linked to violence and intimidation against officials of the Republican government that now ruled the state. On election day, Clement led his men into Lexington, where they drove Republican voters away from the polls, and secured a Republican defeat. A detachment of state militiamen was dispatched to the town. They convinced the bushwhackers to disperse, then attempted to capture Clement, who still had a price upon his head. Clement refused to surrender, and was shot down in wild gunfight on the streets of Lexington.
Despite the death of Clement, his old followers remained together, and robbed a bank across the Missouri River from Lexington in Richmond, Missouri, on May 22, 1867 in which the Town Mayor and two lawmen were killed. This was followed on March 20, 1868, by a raid on the Nimrod Long bank in Russellville, Kentucky. In the aftermath of the two raids, however, the more senior bushwhackers were killed or captured. This set the stage for the emergence of the James and Younger brothers, and the transformation of the old Clement crew into the James-Younger Gang.
On December 7 1869, Frank and Jesse James are believed to have robbed the Davies County Savings Association in Gallatin, Missouri. Jesse is suspected of shooting down the cashier, John W. Sheets, in the mistaken belief that he was Samuel P. Cox, the Union militia officer who had ambushed and killed "Bloody Bill" Anderson during the Civil War. The notoriety of the crime, a dramatic escape through the midst of a posse a few days later by the James brothers, and letters to the press that followed, written by Jesse, made Jesse James famous. He would only grow more famous, and notorious, until his death more than a decade later.
On April 29, 1872, the gang robbed a bank in Columbia, Kentucky. One of the outlaws shot down the cashier, R.A.C. Martin, who refused to open the safe. On September 23, 1872, three men (identified by former bushwhacker Jim Chiles as Jesse James and Cole and John Younger) robbed a ticket booth of the Second Annual Kansas City Industrial Exposition, amid thousands of people. They took some $900, and accidentally shot a little girl in the ensuing struggle with the ticket seller. The crime was praised by Kansas City Times editor John Newman Edwards in a famous editorial entitled, "The Chivalry of Crime." He soon published an anonymous letter from one of the outlaws, believed to be Jesse James, that referred to the approaching presidential election. "Just let a party of men commit a bold robbery, and the cry is hang them. But [President Ulysses S.] Grant and his party can steal millions and it is all right," the outlaw wrote. "They rob the poor and rich, and we rob the rich and give to the poor."
On May 27 1873, the James-Younger gang robbed the Ste. Genevieve Savings Association in Ste. Genevieve, Missouri. As they rode off they fired in the air and shouted, "Hurrah for Hildebrand!" Samuel S. Hildebrand was a famous Confederate bushwhacker from the area, who had recently been shot dead in Illinois.
On July 21, 1873, the gang carried out its first train robbery, derailing a locomotive of the Rock Island Railroad near Adair, Iowa. Engineer John Rafferty died in the crash. The outlaws took $2,337 from the express safe in the baggage car, having narrowly missed a transcontinental express shipment of a large amount of cash.
On November 23, 1873, John Newman Edwards published a lengthy glorification of the James brothers, Cole and John Younger, and Arthur McCoy, in a twenty-page special supplement to the St. Louis Dispatch, his new newspaper. Most of the supplement, entitled "A Terrible Quintet," was devoted to Jesse James, the gang's public face, and the article stressed the outlaws' Confederate loyalties.
In January 1874, the outlaws were suspected of holding up a stagecoach in Bienville Parish, Louisiana, and later another between Malvern and Hot Springs, Arkansas. At the latter, the gang returned a watch to a Confederate veteran, saying, "Northern men had driven them to outlawry, and they intended to make them pay for it." On January 31, 1874, the gang robbed a southbound train on the Iron Mountain Railroad at Gads Hill, Missouri. For the first of only two times in all their train robberies, the outlaws robbed the passengers; in both instances, their usual target, the safe in the baggage car belonging to an express company, held an unusually small amount of money. On this occasion, the outlaws reportedly examined the hands of the passengers, to ensure that they did not rob any working men.
The Adams Express Company, which owned the safe robbed at Gads Hill, hired the Pinkerton National Detective Agency to capture the outlaws. On March 11, 1874, John W. Whicher, the agent sent to investigate the James brothers, was found shot to death alongside a rural road in Jackson County, MIssouri. Two other agents, John Boyle and Louis J. Lull, accompanied by Deputy Sheriff Edwin B. Daniels, posed as cattle buyers as they tracked the Youngers. On March 17, 1874, the trio was stopped by John and Jim Younger on a rural stretch of road near Monegaw Springs, Missouri. Boyle escaped, Lull and Daniels were shot, and John Younger was killed by Lull. Daniels died on the spot, but Lull lived long enough to testify before a coroner's inquest before succumbing to his wounds a few days later.
The Pinkerton deaths added to the growing embarrassment suffered by Missouri's first postwar Democratic governor, Silas Woodson. He issued a $2,000 reward offer for the Iron Mountain robbers (the highest reward usually offered for criminals was $300) and persuaded the state legislature to provide $10,000 for a secret service fund to track down the famous outlaws. The first agent, J. W. Ragsdale, was hired on April 9, 1874. On August 30, 1874, three of the gang held up a stagecoach across the Missouri River from Lexington, Missouri, in view of hundreds of onlookers on the bluffs of the town. Two of the robbers were identified by a passenger as Frank and Jesse James. The acting governor, Charles P. Johnson, dispatched an agent selected from the St. Louis police department. In early September, the agent caught up to Jesse James and Jim Younger on a rural road in Ray County, though they escaped after a sharp but indecisive gunfight on horseback.
The gang next robbed a train on the Kansas Pacific Railroad near Muncie, Kansas, on December 8 1874. It was one of the outlaws' most successful robberies, gaining them $30,000. A new addition to the gang, William "Bud" McDaniel, was captured by a Kansas City police officer after the robbery, and later was shot during an escape attempt.
On the night of January 25, 1875, the Pinkertons surrounded the James farm. Frank and Jesse James had likely been there earlier, but had already left. The Pinkertons threw an iron incendiary device into the house, which exploded when it rolled into a blazing fireplace. The blast nearly severed the right arm of Zerelda Samuel, the James boys' mother (the arm had to be amputated at the elbow that night), and killed their 9-year-old half brother, Archie Samuel. On April 12, 1875, an unknown gunman shot dead Daniel Askew, a neighbor (and former Union militiaman) who had provided the Pinkertons with a base for their raid. Allan Pinkerton now abandoned the chase after the James-Younger Gang.
On May 13 1875, the outlaws robbed a rural store north of Clinton, Missouri for $300. On September 1 1875, the gang ventured to Huntington, West Virginia, to rob the bank there. Tom McDaniels (brother of Bud) and Tom Webb joined the crew for the raid, but McDaniels was killed by a posse and Webb was caught.
Also in 1875, the two James brothers moved to the outskirts of Nashville, Tennessee, probably to save their mother from further raids by detectives. Once there, Jesse James began to write letters to the local press, asserting his place as a Confederate hero and martyr to Radical Republican vindictiveness.
The Rocky Cut raid set the stage for the final act in the history of the James-Younger Gang: the famous Northfield, Minnesota raid. The target was the First National Bank of Northfield, located far outside of the gang's usual territory, which previously had included only the South and the Border States. The bank itself was not unusually rich. According to public reports, required of all national banks, it was a perfectly ordinary rural bank. Shortly after the robbery, Bob Younger declared that they had selected it because of its connection to two Union generals and Radical Republican politicians: Benjamin Butler and Adelbert Ames. Ames had just stepped down as governor of Mississippi, where he had been strongly identified with civil rights for freedmen, and had recently moved to Northfield, where his family owned a mill and a large amount of stock in the bank. One of the outlaws "had a spite" against Ames, Bob said. Cole Younger said much the same thing years later.
Frank and Jesse James, Cole, Jim and Bob Younger, Charlie Pitts, Clell Miller, and Bill Chadwell took the train to St. Paul and Minneapolis at the beginning of September 1876. They divided into two groups, one going to Mankato, Minnesota and the other to Red Wing, on either side of Northfield. They purchased horses and scouted the terrain around the town. On September 7 1876, at 2 p.m., they attempted to rob the bank. Three outlaws entered the bank, and the other five stood guard outside. The citizens realized a robbery was in progress and took up arms. Shooting from behind cover, they poured a deadly fire on the outlaws, killing Miller and Chadwell, and wounding the Youngers (particularly Bob, who suffered a shattered elbow). They also shot Bob Younger's horse. One of the outlaws shot a bystander dead. Inside the bank, cashier Joseph Lee Heywood refused to open the safe, and was murdered in cold blood for his resistance. The infamous failure of the raid is celebrated every year in Northfield as Defeat of Jesse James Days.
The surviving outlaws rode out of town and took to the woods. After several days of dodging the pursuing Minnesotans, who had joined posses and picket lines by the hundreds, the gang had only reached the western outskirts of Mankato. They decided to split up. (Despite persistent stories to the contrary, Cole Younger told interviewers that they all agreed to the decision.) The Youngers and Pitts remained on foot, moving west, until finally they were cornered near Madelia, Minnesota. In the gunfight that followed, Pitts was killed and the Youngers wounded further. The Youngers surrendered, and pleaded guilty to murder in order to avoid execution.
The James brothers, on the other hand, secured horses and fled west across southern Minnesota, turning south just inside the border of the Dakota Territory. In the teeth of hundreds of pursuers and a nationwide alarm, they successfully returned to Missouri. The James-Younger Gang, however, was no more.
Accordingly, he gathered up new recruits and returned to a life of crime. On October 8, 1879, Jesse led his new men in robbing the Chicago and Alton Railroad near Glendale, Missouri. Unfortunately, one of the raw recruits, Tucker Basham, was captured by a posse. He told authorities of how he had been recruited by Bill Ryan.
On September 3, 1880, Jesse James and Bill Ryan robbed a stagecoach near Mammoth Cave, Kentucky. On October 5, 1880, they robbed the store of John Dovey in Mercer, Kentucky. On March 11, 1881, Jesse, Ryan, and his cousin Wood Hite robbed a federal paymaster at Muscle Shoals, Alabama, taking $5,240. Shortly afterward, a drunk and boastful Ryan was arrested in Whites Creek, near Nashville, and both Frank and Jesse James fled back to Missouri.
On July 15, 1881, Frank and Jesse James, Wood and Clarence Hite, and Dick Liddil robbed the Rock Island Railroad near Winston, Missouri for $900. Train engineer William Westfall and a passenger were killed by one of the outlaws. On September 7, 1881, Jesse James carried out his last train robbery, holding up the Chicago and Alton Railroad. For only the second time, the gang held up the passengers when the express safe proved to be nearly empty. With this new outbreak of train robberies, the new governor of Missouri, Thomas T. Crittenden, convinced the state's railroad and express executives to put up the money for a vast reward for the James brothers.
Creed Chapman and John Bugler were arrested for participating in the robbery on September 7, 1881. Though they were confirmed as having participated in the robbery by convicted members of the gang neither were ever convicted.
In December 1881, Wood Hite was killed by Dick Liddil in an argument over Martha Bolton, the sister of the Fords. Bob Ford, not yet a member of the gang, assisted Liddil in his gunfight. Ford and Liddil, with Bolton as an intermediary, made deals with Governor Crittenden. The authorities soon arrested Wood Hite's brother Clarence, who made a confession but died of tuberculosis in prison. Ford, on the other hand, agreed to bring down Jesse James in return for the reward. On April 3, 1882, Ford shot Jesse behind the ear. Bob and his brother Charley surrendered to the authorities, pleaded guilty, and were promptly pardoned by Crittenden.
Only two cases were to come to trial – one in Gallatin, Missouri for the July 15, 1881 robbery of the Rock Island Line train at Winston, Missouri in which the train engineer and a passenger were killed and other trial was in Huntsville, Alabama for the March 11, 1881 robbery of a United States Army Corps of Engineers payroll at Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
James was found not guilty by juries in both cases (July 1883 at Gallatin and April 1884 at Huntsville). Missouri was to keep jurisdiction over him with other charges but they never came to trial and they kept him from being extradited to Minnesota.
Bob Younger died in prison of tuberculosis at age 36 in 1889. Cole and Jim were both paroled in 1901 but Jim could not cope and shot himself to death the next year. He was 54. Cole lived until 1916, when he died at age 72. The Youngers remained loyal to the Jameses when they were in prison and never informed on them. They ended up being model prisoners and in one incident helped keep other prisoners from escaping during a fire at the prison.
Frank James died in 1915 at age 72.