A hero or desperado?On February 1, 1874, Missouri newspapers carried the banner headline, "The Most Daring Train Robbery on Record!" The report went on to tell of a gang of heavily armed, uncommonly tall men, riding handsome horses, who had the previous day seized the Iron Mountain Railroad flag station in tiny Gads Hill, Missouri. The writer said that the brazen bandits had thrown the signal switches, stopping the southbound express to Little Rock and taking $22,000 in cash and gold from the train's safe.
Though the gang was not identified, everyone recognized the stylish work of Jesse Woodson James and his brother Frank. In fact, the news bulletin itself was penned by Jesse, who left his handwritten press release with the train engineer just before riding off into the woods with the loot. Jesse believed in publicity, for he knew that much of his success in Missouri was dependent upon the tacit approval of its rustic citizens. Poor and struggling farmers for the most part, they idolized him and his cohorts as symbols of bold defiance against the authorities.
Learning the TradeJesse James learned his wild and wily ways as a teenaged guerrilla in the Civil War "army" of William Quantrill. This gang of adventurers, working nominally for the Confederate cause in Union held Missouri, robbed Union mail, ambushed federal patrols, and attacked shipping along the Missouri River with a speed and brutality that the Union regulars could seldom match. As Quantrill's men were never on any payroll - indeed, the Confederate army officially disavowed any connection with them - the guerrillas supported themselves by any means available, including robbery and extortion.
In 1864 the 17 year old Jesse joined one of Quantrill's squads, a gang of cutthroats under the command of "Bloody Bill" Anderson, following his older brother Frank and his cousin, Cole Younger, both veteran bushwhackers. Anderson had much to teach them about planning raids, carrying out intelligence gathering missions, deploying attackers for maximum advantage, and using horses and small arms to deadly effect.
Anderson soon came to regard Jesse James as the "keenest and cleanest fighter in the command," a judgment confirmed in a bloody encounter with Union troops at Centralia, Missouri, on September 27, 1864. The guerrillas halted a passing train, stole $3,000 in Union currency, and slaughtered more than 225 armed Union troops. James, riding hard with the reins of his horse in his teeth and firing a six shooter in each hand, reportedly killed three of the enemy.
When the war ended, Confederate guerrillas like Jesse and Frank James were not offered amnesty, as were the regulars, but were declared outlaws and ordered to give themselves up for prosecution. Frank did so and was soon paroled, but Jesse was shot by federal soldiers outside of Lexington, Missouri. Seriously wounded, he was allowed to be carried home to his mother's farm in Kearney, Missouri, presumably to die. But Jesse was soon on the road to recovery, and as his strength returned, he and Frank, cousin Cole, and three others of the Younger clan decided to take up where they had left off, plundering at will, only this time going after a different enemy: banks, railroads, and large landowners.
Pursuing a Bloody TradeOn February 13, 1866, the James brothers launched their new careers in nearby Liberty, Missouri, with the holdup of the Clay County Savings Bank. While eight gang members took up defensive positions on the main street, Frank and Jesse went into the bank, their guns drawn, and ordered the cashier to open the vault and fill the wheat sacks they carried with cash and securities. Then, with an estimated $60,000 in their possession, the gang mounted up and rode out of town. None of the outlaws was recognized; and, when a citizen posse attempted to follow their trail, it was stopped by a blizzard. After dividing the spoils, each of the bandits slipped back to his family homestead where he did his best to avoid attracting attention. For more than three years, the gang pursued its bloody trade deliberately but infrequently, and without serious interference. Along the way they killed the mayor of one town, several bank clerks, and a score or more bystanders, collecting enough money to live comfortably. Though many privately suspected the James and Younger brothers, there was so much local sympathy for the gang's activities that no one dared testify against its members.
Then, in December 1869, the James brothers' luck changed when they raided a bank in Gallatin, Missouri. The ordinarily cool Jesse shot the cashier, who reminded him of a despised Union officer, and the noise of gunfire drew a crowd to see what was happening. The brothers barely escaped the hail of bullets fired by the townspeople, and in the melee Jesse's mount became skittish and galloped off, throwing Jesse from his saddle and dragging him some 30 feet. When Jesse finally freed himself, he was able to climb up behind Frank on another horse and get away. But Jesse's horse was caught and its owner's identity established for certain. Jesse and Frank decided it was time to lie low, and this they did for nearly two years.
When they did resume their raiding parties, it was in the next state, at Corydon, Iowa, in June 1871. The Corydon escapade turned out to be one of the easiest holdups of their career, and the outlaws enjoyed themselves immensely. Stopping briefly at the church on their way out of town, Jesse interrupted the minister to announce that "some riders" had just robbed the town's bank. "You folks best get down there in a hurry," said the bandit to the astonished worshipers. In the next three years the James brothers grew ever bolder, as one success followed on another. On September 26, 1872, they rode into the giant fairgrounds at Kansas City and, before huge crowds, stole the cash receipts rumored to be about $10,000. Then, to be sure that their exploits were duly appreciated, they rode through the throngs, shooting over their heads like some kind of Wild West circus act.
Going for Higher StakesNot long after the raid on the fairgrounds, the brothers decided to try their hands at robbing trains. As the gang's first target, they chose the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific express, which was scheduled to run eastbound with $100,000 in gold on July 21, 1873. On a curving stretch of railbed near Council Bluffs, Iowa, the gang pulled a section of track out of line. Before the approaching train's engineer had a chance to slow down, the engine overshot the curve and ran off the tracks, the following coaches crunching one into the next. One trainman died and a dozen passengers were injured. The James brothers boarded the baggage car and ordered the clerks to open their safes, only to discover that the gold had gone through ahead of schedule and that just a few thousand in federal notes remained. In subsequent attempts they did far better. In addition to the $22,000 carried off from the Gads Hill train robbery in January 1874, they netted $135,000 in three other train robberies.
As the roaster of crimes grew and local law enforcement officers did little or nothing to apprehend the outlaws, the bankers and railroad interests took matters into their own hands and hired the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. But because Allan Pinkerton himself had been closely allied with the Union cause, having set up a secret service for the Union army, his men were regarded as enemies among the large segment of Missouri society still sympathetic to the defeated Confederacy. The detectives were placed at further disadvantage by having no photographs of any of the alleged culprits to help them track their quarry without local help. The James gang, by contrast, had no trouble spotting Pinkerton men nor any compunctions about shooting them dead when the opportunity presented itself.
Three Pinkerton operatives were murdered in a single week early in 1874. Stepping up its efforts, the agency laid plans to surround the Kearney homestead where the James brothers' remarried mother, Mrs. Zerelda Samuel, lived on the presumption that they would trap Jesse and Frank during a filial visit. Hearing rumors that the James boys were already on the premises, one of the agents lobbed a bomb into the house. But all they managed to accomplish was to blow off Mrs. Samuel's right arm and kill Jesse's eight year old half brother, Archie. The outlaws were safely ensconced in Tennessee at the time. The vicious bombing only improved Jesse's reputation as a social martyr.
Forced into HidingThe gang's luck ran out during a bank robbery in Northfield, Minnesota, on September 7, 1876. Two of the James gang were killed on the spot; a third died in a fight with a posse sent after them. The three Younger brothers were wounded and captured several days later. Frank and Jesse were the only ones to escape, and because they were now more earnestly sought by the law than ever, they decided that their only recourse was to take new names and hide out once more.
Had the James brothers remained incognito, Jesse might have died in bed of old age. But three years after disappearing, he and Frank formed a new gang and began stirring up more excitement. Missouri's new governor, Thomas T. Crittenden, put a price of $5,000 on the arrest of Jesse or Frank James, with added amounts if either were convicted for robbery or murder.
Robert and Charles Ford, two recent recruits to the James gang who felt none of the loyalty that their predecessors had known, found the offer too good to refuse. Bob Ford secretly went to Crittenden and won a promise of amnesty in return for delivering Jesse James. The two Fords then paid a social call on Jesse and his family, who were living in St. Joseph, Missouri, under the assumed name of Howard. James was delighted to see his comrades in arms and invited them to stay a while. The Fords waited several days until they found Jesse unarmed, of all improbable circurnstances, the moment came one morning when the outlaw took off his gun belt, climbed up on a chair, his back to Bob Ford, and began dusting a picture on the wall. Slowly, Ford drew his weapon, aimed at Jesse's head, and pulled the trigger. The bullet killed him instantly.
Five months later, 39 year old Frank James surrendered on his own, laying his gun belt before the governor with a ceremonial flourish. Crittenden promised him a fair trial; and, perhaps because the public had been so outraged by the treacherous nature of Jesse's assassination, Frank was acquitted of all charges. He lived out the rest of his life in peace.
The Jesse James legend lives on. To generations of Americans, the outlaw was remembered as a brazen hero who stole from the rich to give to the poor but fell victim to the unjust power of the state. It was an image perpetuated in dime novels, folk ballads, and theatrical entertainments. That he and his cohorts in fact made no distinction between rich and poor, murdered a dozen or more innocent people, and created a climate of fear and disorder in many parts of the West simply did not fit the populist image, and, consequently, was left out of the telling.