Jesse Woodson James (September
5, 1847 - April 3, 1882), American outlaw, was born in Kearney, Missouri.
His father, Robert James, was a Baptist minister who helped found William
Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri.
At seventeen, James left his native Missouri to fight as a Confederate
guerilla in the American Civil War as part of Quantrill's Raiders, participating
in raids in Kansas. He once killed eight men in a single day. After the
war, he returned to his home state and led one of history's most notorious
outlaw gangs. He was wounded while surrendering at the end of the war,
and later claimed to have been forced into outlawry because his family
had been persecuted in the war.
With his brother Frank James and several other ex-Confederates, including
Cole Younger and his brothers, the James gang robbed their way across
the Western frontier targeting banks, trains, stagecoaches, and stores
from Iowa to Texas. Eluding even the Pinkerton National Detective Agency,
the gang escaped with thousands of dollars. James is believed to have
carried out the first daylight bank robbery in peacetime, stealing $60,000
from a bank in Liberty, Missouri.
Then on July 21, 1873 the James-Younger gang pulled off the first successful
train robbery in the American West by taking US$3,000 from the Rock Island
Express in Adair, Iowa.
Despite their criminal and often violent acts, James and his partners
were much adored. Journalists, eager to entertain Easterners with tales
of a wild West, exaggerated and romanticized the gang's heists, often
casting James as a contemporary Robin Hood. While James did harass railroad
executives who unjustly seized private land for the railways, modern biographers
note that he did so for personal gain -- his humanitarian acts were more
fiction than fact.
On September 7, 1876, the James gang attempted to rob a bank in Northfield,
Minnesota. The townspeople returned fire, and all of the members of the
gang except for Frank and Jesse James were killed, wounded or captured
in a wooded ravine along the Watonwan river just south of La Salle, Minnesota.
Jesse James had married his own first cousin, named Zerelda after his
mother, after a nine-year courtship. They had two children, Jesse Edwards
and Mary. She and Frank James' wife tried to get the brothers to take
on a more normal life, and with a $10,000 reward on his head, Jesse and
his wife moved to Saint Joseph, Missouri to hide out, where he lived under
the assumed name of Tom Howard and rented a house for $14 a month.
In April 1882, Jesse James recruited Robert and Charles Ford to help him
rob the Platte City bank. While James stood on a chair in his home in
St. Joseph to straighten and dust a picture, the Ford brothers drew their
guns. Robert Ford's shot hit James in the back of the head, ending his
outlaw days for good. Ford hoped to claim the $10,000 offered for James's
capture but received only a fraction of the reward and was charged with
murder. He did, however, secure himself a place in Western outlaw lore
which lives on in literature, song, and film.
James' epitaph, selected by his mother, read: IN LOVING MEMORY OF MY BELOVED
SON, MURDERED BY A TRAITOR AND COWARD WHOSE NAME IS NOT WORTHY TO APPEAR
The Ford brothers were sentenced to hang but were pardoned by the governor
of Missouri. Charles Ford committed suicide two years later, and Robert
Ford was killed in a bar room brawl in Creede, Colorado, in 1892.
Rumors have persisted that Ford did not kill James, but someone else.
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 the age of 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.
The body buried in Missouri as Jesse James was exhumed in 1995 and DNA
analysis gave a 99.7% probability that it was Jesse James. A court order
was granted in 2000 to exhume and test Dalton's body, but the wrong body
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