Jesse Woodson James (September 5, 1847 – April 3, 1882) was an American outlaw and the most famous member of the James-Younger gang. He became a figure of folklore after his death. He is sometimes labeled a gunfighter, mostly inaccurately, since he was a poor shot. Alexander Franklin James (January 10, 1843 – February 18, 1915) was an American outlaw and older brother of Jesse James. The brothers’ exploits, albeit criminal, became part of Southern folklore, in which they are depicted as having stood up against corporations in defense of the small farmer (a role they never played during their lifetimes). This image is still seen in films, as well as songs and folklore. The brothers remain a controversial symbol in the cultural battles over the place of the Civil War in American history, in which the South and the North revered different heroes.
Jesse Woodson James was born in Clay County, Missouri, near the site of present day Kearney. His father, Robert James, was a farmer and Baptist minister from Kentucky, who helped found William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri. Robert James traveled to California to prospect for gold and died there when Jesse was three years old. After his father’s death, his mother, Zerelda (nicknamed Zee), remarried, first to Benjamin Simms, and then to a doctor named Reuben Samuel. After their marriage in 1855, Samuel moved into the James home.
In the tumultuous years leading up to the American Civil War, Zerelda and Reuben acquired a total of seven slaves and had them grow tobacco on their well-appointed farm. In addition to Jesse’s older brother, Alexander Franklin “Frank” James, and younger sister, Susan Lavenia James, Jesse gained four half-siblings: Sarah Louisa Samuel (sometimes Sarah Ellen), John Thomas Samuel, Fannie Quantrill Samuel, and Archie Peyton Samuel. Sarah later married a man named John C. Harmon.
Frank James was also born in Kearney, Clay County, Missouri, to Baptist minister Reverend Robert Sallee James (July 7, 1818–August 18, 1850) and his wife, Zerelda Cole (January 29, 1825–February 10, 1911) who moved there in 1841. Frank was the first of three children.
As a child, Frank developed an interest in his late father’s sizable library, particularly in the works of his favorite author, William Shakespeare. Census records show that Frank attended school throughout his childhood, and he reportedly wanted to become a teacher.
American Civil War
In 1861, when Frank James was eighteen years old, the American Civil War began. Missouri was soon caught up in the war. Though a majority of Missourians probably did not want the state to secede from the Union, a significant number nevertheless had pro-Confederate sympathies (including the outspoken Zerelda Cole). Missourians would serve in the armies of both sides and a pro-Union faction challenged the state’s elected pro-Confederate governor. Frank James joined the Missouri State Guard on May 4, 1861, opposing the Union troops who intended to gain control of the divided state.
The State Guard’s first major engagement was the Battle of Wilson’s Creek on August 10, 1861. The state troops fought under Major General Sterling Price and alongside with the Confederate troops of Brigadier General Ben McCulloch. They numbered in all about 12,000 men. Opposing them was the Army of the West under Union Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon, totaling 5,400 men. Lyon was killed leading a charge, and his army, under Major General Samuel D. Sturgis, then retreated to Springfield, Missouri. The battle cost the Confederates 1,095 men and the Union 1,235 men, and allowed the victorious Confederates to advance farther north.
On September 13, 1861, Sterling Price’s State Guard, including Frank James, besieged Lexington, Missouri, garrisoned by 3,500 men of the Union army, under Colonel James A. Mulligan. On September 20, Price’s men finally attacked, and by the early afternoon Mulligan and his men had surrendered. The Confederates had lost 100 men, while the Union forces’ losses were estimated at 1,774 men. The Battle of Lexington was the second major victory for the State Guard, and the Confederates gained control of southwestern Missouri by October.
Frank James fell ill and was left behind when the Confederate forces later retreated. He surrendered to Union forces, was paroled and was allowed to return home. However, he was arrested by the local pro-Union militia and not released until he signed an oath of allegiance to the Union.
A bitter guerrilla conflict was soon being waged across the state between bands of Confederate irregulars (commonly known as bushwhackers) and the Federal forces. By early 1863, Frank had joined a guerrilla band led by a former saddler named Fernando Scott. Before long he had switched to the infamous William Clarke Quantrill, attacking both the Union forces and their civilian Union supporters in western Missouri. Sometime between 1862 and 1863, Frank met “Cole” (Thomas Coleman) Younger.
The warfare was savage, with atrocities committed by both sides. Militiamen searching for Frank and Fernando Scott’s band, for example, raided the James-Samuel farm and briefly (but not fatally) hanged Dr. Reuben Samuel, Frank’s stepfather, in 1863, torturing him to reveal the location of the guerrillas. Shortly afterward, Frank joined Quantrill’s band in the August 21, 1863, Lawrence Massacre.
While visiting the farm, soldiers were also rumored to have beaten young Jesse. Shortly after that, in 1864, Jesse joined a guerrilla unit led by “Bloody Bill” Anderson, who led the Centralia Massacre. Jesse joined at about the same time Anderson’s group split from Quantrill’s Raiders, so there is some uncertainty regarding whether Jesse James ever served under Quantrill.
Quantrill and Anderson were said to be two of the fiercest and most courageous guerrilla leaders during the war.
After the Civil War
The end of the Civil War left Missouri in shambles. The pro-Union Republicans took control of the state government keeping the Democrats from voting or holding public office. Jesse James was shot by Union cavalrymen when he attempted to surrender a month after the war’s end in 1865, leaving him badly wounded. During his recovery, his attractive first cousin, Zerelda “Zee” Mimms (named after his mother), nursed him back to health, and he started a nine-year courtship with her. She eventually became his wife. Meanwhile, some of his old war comrades, led by Archie Clement, refused to return to a peaceful life and border violence continued to flare up in deeply divided Missouri. The James brothers would make a transition from guerrilla raiding to robbing. Jesse prided himself in his horses, selecting only the finest and flashiest as his stead, including some certified racehorses.
On February 13, 1866, this group (possibly including James, though he may still have been recovering from his wound) conducted the first armed robbery of a U.S. bank in post-Civil War times and the first successful daytime bank robbery, holding up the Clay County Savings Association in the town of Liberty, in which a bystanding student of William Jewell College was killed. They staged several more robberies over the next few years, though state authorities (and local lynch mobs) decimated the ranks of the older bushwhackers.
By 1868, Frank and Jesse James joined Cole Younger in robbing a bank at Russellville, Kentucky. But Jesse did not become famous until December 1869, when he and Frank (most likely) robbed the Daviess County Savings Association in Gallatin, Missouri. The robbery netted little, but James (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’ 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 James’ emergence as the most famous of the former guerrillas turned outlaw, and it started an alliance with John Newman Edwards, a Kansas City Times editor who was campaigning to return the old Confederates to power in Missouri. Edwards published Jesse’s letters and made him into a symbol of Rebel defiance of Reconstruction through his elaborate editorials and praising reporting. Jesse James’ 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, 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 where a young girl was hit by a stray bullet, often in front of large crowds, even hamming it up for the audience. On July 21, 1873, they turned to train robbery, derailing the Rock Island train in Adair, Iowa and holding it up wearing Ku Klux Klan hoods. This led to the death of the engineer and the bandits made off with $4000 from the train and $600 from the passengers. Their later train robberies had a lighter touch—in fact only twice in all of Jesse James’ 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. Jesse James is thought to have shot 15 people during his approximately 15 year bandit career.
Express companies turned to the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, in 1874, to stop the James-Younger Gang. The Chicago-based agency worked primarily against urban professional criminals such as counterfeiters, safe crackers, con men, and sneak-thiefs. The former guerrillas, supported by many old Confederates in Missouri, proved to be too much for them. One agent (Joseph Whicher) was dispatched to infiltrate Zerelda Samuel’s farm and turned up dead shortly afterward. Two others (Louis J. Lull and John Boyle) were sent after the Youngers; Lull was killed by two of the Youngers in a roadside gunfight on March 17, 1874, though he killed John Younger before he died.
Allan Pinkerton, the agency’s founder and leader, took on the case as a personal vendetta. Working with old Unionists around Jesse James’ family’s farm, he staged a raid on the homestead on the night of January 25, 1875. An incendiary device thrown inside by the detectives exploded, killing James’ young half-brother, Archie Samuel, and blowing off one of James’ mother’s arms. Afterward, Pinkerton denied that the raid’s intent was to burn the house down.
However, a 1994 book written by Robert Dyer entitled, Jesse James and the Civil War in Missouri, contains the following: “In early 1991, a Jesse James researcher named Ted Yeatman found an interesting letter among the papers of the Pinkerton Detective Agency. The letter was written by Allan Pinkerton to a lawyer working for him in Liberty, Missouri, named Samuel Hardwicke. In the letter Pinkerton tells Hardwicke that when the men go to the James home to look for Jesse they should find some way to ‘burn the house down.’ He suggests they use some type of firebomb.”
The bloody fiasco did more than all of Edwards’s columns to turn Jesse James into a sympathetic figure for much of the public. The James brothers were glorified, while the detectives were portrayed very negatively. 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 the governor could make for fugitives (when the only reward offers higher than the new limit previously made had been for the James brothers). But Frank and Jesse married (Jesse to his cousin Zee Mimms in April 1874 and Frank to fellow Missourian Annie Ralston) and moved to the Nashville, Tennessee, area, probably to save their mother from further assaults. Zarelda Samuel always swore that her sons were innocent of the crimes attributed to them.
Downfall of the gang
On September 7, 1876, the James-Younger gang attempted their most daring raid to date, on the First National Bank in Northfield, Minnesota. Cole and Bob Younger later stated that they selected the bank because of its connection to two Union generals and Radical Republican politicians: Adelbert Ames, the governor of Mississippi during Reconstruction, and Benjamin Butler, Ames’s father-in-law and the stern and hated Union commander in occupied New Orleans.
However, the robbery was thwarted when 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. The citizens of Northfield had taken notice and were arriving with guns. Before leaving the bank, Frank James shot the unarmed Heywood in the head. When the bandits exited the bank, they found the rest of their gang dead or wounded amid a hail of gunfire. Suspicious townsmen had confronted the bandits, ran to get their arms, and opened up from under the cover of windows and the corners of buildings. The gang barely escaped, leaving two of their number and two unarmed townspeople (including Heywood) dead in Northfield. 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 sentenced to life terms. Except for Frank and Jesse James, the James-Younger Gang was destroyed.
Jesse and Frank returned to the Nashville area, where they went by the names of J.D./Thomas Howard (his wife Zee went by the alias Josie and he called his son, Jessee, Jr., “Tim”) 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 Chicago and Alton 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.
With his gang depleted by arrests, deaths, and defections, Jesse thought he had only two men left whom he could trust: brothers Bob 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 Jesse James. Crittenden had made the 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. Public support for the criminals was also waning. Barred by law from offering a sufficiently large reward, he had turned to the railroad and express corporations to put up a $10,000 bounty for each of them.
On April 3, 1882, as James prepared for another robbery in Platte City the next day, he climbed a chair to dust a favorite picture of a racehorse. It was a rare moment. He had his guns off, having removed them earlier when the unusual heat forced him to remove his coat. As he moved in and out of the house, he feared the pistols would attract attention from the passers-by. Seizing the opportunity, the Ford brothers drew their pistols. Bob was the fastest, firing a shot into the back of Jesse’s head, killing him instantly as he fell from the chair.
The assassination proved a national sensation. The Fords made no attempt to hide their role. As crowds pressed into the little house in St. Joseph to see the dead bandit, they surrendered to the authorities, pleaded guilty, and were sentenced to hang. However, they were promptly pardoned by the governor. Indeed, the governor’s quick pardon suggested that he was well 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 create a new legend in James.
The Fords received a portion of the reward (some of it also went to law enforcement officials active in the plan) and fled Missouri. Zerelda, Jesse’s mother, appeared at the coroner’s inquest, deeply anguished, and loudly denounced Dick Liddil, a former gang member who was cooperating with state authorities. Charles Ford committed suicide in May 1884. Bob Ford was later 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. Because of health problems, his sentence was commuted, and O’Kelley was released on October 3, 1902.
Jesse James’s epitaph, selected by his mother, reads: In Loving Memory of my Beloved Son, Murdered by a Traitor and Coward Whose Name is not Worthy to Appear Here.
Five months after the murder of his brother Jesse in 1882, Frank boarded a train to Jefferson City, Missouri, where he had an appointment with the governor in the state capitol. Placing his holster in Governor Crittenden’s hands, he explained, “I have been hunted for twenty-one years, have literally lived in the saddle, have never known a day of perfect peace. It was one long, anxious, inexorable, eternal vigil.” He then ended his statement by saying, “Governor, I haven’t let another man touch my gun since 1861.”
Accounts say that Frank surrendered with the understanding that he would not be extradited to Northfield, Minnesota.
Frank was tried for only two of the robberies/murders—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 the 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. 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.
In the last thirty years of his life, James worked a variety of jobs, including as a shoe salesman and then as a theater guard in St. Louis—one of the theater’s spins to attract patrons was their use of the phrase “Come get your ticket punched by the legendary Frank James.” In 1902, former Missourian Sam Hildreth, a leading thoroughbred horse trainer and owner, hired James as his betting commissioner at the Fair Grounds Race Track in New Orleans.
In his final years, he returned to the James Farm, giving tours for the then-significant sum of 25 cents. He died there an honorable and respected man on February 18, 1915, aged 72 years.
Jesse married his cousin Zerelda Mimms. They had four children: Jesse James, Jr. (Jessee Edwards) (b. August 31, 1875), Gould James (b. 1878), Montgomery James (b. 1878), and Mary Susan James (b. 1879). Twins Gould and Montgomery died in infancy. Mary would go on to wed a farmer. Zee Mimms died in 1900. Jesse Jr. wrote a book about his father and also created a movie on him, which failed. He would go on to become a well-respected attorney and died March 26, 1951.
Frank married Annie Ralston. They had one child, a son named Robert Franklin who was born February 6, 1878.
Zarelda Samuel gave tours of her farm and Jesse’s grave after his death. In 1902, she had Jesse buried under an eight foot tall monument, which was eventually destroyed by souvenir seekers. Zee Samuel died in 1911.
Rumors of survival
Rumors of Jesse James’s survival proliferated almost as soon as the newspapers announced his death. Some said that Ford did not kill James but someone else, in an elaborate plot to allow him to escape justice. Some stories say he lived in Guthrie, Oklahoma, as late as 1948, and a man named J. Frank Dalton, who claimed to be Jesse James, died in Granbury, Texas, in 1951, at age 103. Some stories claim the real recipient of Ford’s bullet was a man named Charles Bigelow, reported to have been living with James’ wife at the time. Generally speaking, however, these tales received little credence, then or now; Jesse’s wife, Zee, died alone and in poverty. The corpse of James itself was initially identified by scars he was known to have had on his chest, as well as the missing tip of his left middle finger. The body buried in Missouri as Jesse James was disinterred in 1971, when DNA was just emerging and results proved inconclusive. The remains were again exhumed in 1995 and, according to a report by Anne C. Stone, Ph.D.; James E. Starrs, L.L.M.; and Mark Stoneking, Ph.D. titled Mitochondrial DNA Analysis of the Presumptive Remains of Jesse James, does appear to be the remains of Jesse James. They were reburied with full Confederate honors on October 28, 1995. A court order was granted in 2000 to exhume and test Dalton’s body, but the wrong body was exhumed. Some people believed that Jesse James hid in the attic of a two story house in Dublin, Texas, while he was hiding from the law.
During their lifetimes, Jesse and Frank James were largely celebrated by former Confederates, to whom they appealed directly in letters to the press. Indeed, some historians credit Jesse with contributing to the rise of Confederates to dominance in Missouri politics (by the 1880s, for example, both U.S. Senators from the state had been identified with the Confederate cause). Jesse’s return to crime after the fall of Reconstruction, however, was devoid of political overtones, but it helped cement his place in American memory as a simple but remarkably effective bandit. During the Populist and Progressive eras, he emerged as America’s Robin Hood, standing up against corporations in defense of the small farmer (a role he never played during his lifetime. This image is still seen in films, as well as songs and folklore. Although he remains a controversial symbol in the cultural battles over the place of the Civil War in American history, he is regarded as a hero by the neo-Confederate movement. Banks and trains were considered foreign, Yankee institutions that were being forced upon a crippled, Reconstruction South.
Aaron Mittenthal, the future grandparent of composer Aaron Copland, who would go on to romanticize the life of the contemporary outlaw Billy the Kid in his 1938 ballet, hired Frank James to work at Dallas wholesale and retail dry-goods store. It was James’ running off with the store’s profits that convinced the Mittenthals to leave Texas and return to New York City.
Irish-American Lucchese Family associate Jimmy Burke named his two sons, Frank James Burke and Jesse James Burke, after the James brothers.