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Jesse James: Biography, Facts, & Things You Didn't Know About The Wild West Legend

People | February 13, 2021

American outlaw Jesse James, circa 1870. (MPI/Getty Images)

Between 1866 and 1879, Jesse James terrorized the people and wallets of America. From Minnesota to West Virginia, he robbed banks, trains, and stagecoaches, becoming one of the most successful bank robbers in U.S. history.

Jesse James's Early Life

Baptist minister Robert James probably would have been surprised by his sons' chosen career path, but he died three years after Jesse was born on September 5, 1847 in Missouri, so he didn't get much say in the matter. Jesse and his brother, Frank, actually started out as soldiers, though not exactly honorable ones. While Jesse was too young to fight in the Civil War, Frank fought for the South, terrorizing Union households, attacking Union supporters, raiding encampments, and stealing supplies with a band of Confederate guerrillas.

In retaliation, the Union Army sent a group of militiamen to the James family farm to rough up Jesse and torture his stepfather, and Jesse vowed revenge. Although he was just a skinny 16-year-old, he joined a guerrilla group led by William "Bloody Bill" Anderson in spring 1864. Under Bloody Bill's leadership, Frank and Jesse James took part in numerous raids and attacks, including the Centralia Massacre, where Bloody Bill's guerrillas slaughtered two dozen unarmed Union soldiers.

Clay County Savings in Liberty, Missouri. (Americasroof/Wikimedia Commons)

Blood And Money

After the Civil War, Frank and Jesse James had trouble settling back into farm life, aching to recapture the thrill of their guerrilla days. On February 13, 1866, the brothers and a few friends strolled into the Clay County Savings Association in Liberty, Missouri, pistol whipped the bank teller, and fled with about $60,000 in cash, gold, and savings bonds, shooting and killing a passerby during their escape. Now with a taste for blood (money), James walked into the Daviess County Savings Association in Gallatin, Missouri on December 7, 1869 and asked the teller for change for a $100 bill before pulling out his revolver and shooting the man twice. He then shot a witness who attempted to flee and grabbed a bunch of bank papers before he and Frank rode out of town with a posse of men in hot pursuit.

Of course, the papers were worthless, but that barely mattered. It was the Gallatin bank robbery that rocketed the exploits of the James brothers to America's front pages, and Jesse loved the attention so much that he designed his robberies to get as much media coverage as possible, even leaving press releases behind at the scenes of his robberies. The Jameses' fellow ex-Confederates framed them as modern-day Robin Hoods, taking down the system to help oppressed Missourians (spoiler: they didn't), and helped them evade capture. One newspaper even allowed Jesse James to speak in his own words in a series of letters, in which he declared, "We are not thieves, we are bold robbers."

Robert Ford, c. 1883. (Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)

The Coward Robert Ford

It wasn't all guns and money. Jesse got married in 1874 to his first cousin, Zerelda "Zee" Mimms, with whom he had two children, and both Frank and Jesse James were described as loyal and loving husbands and devoted fathers. Still, they had business to attend to, and in September 1876, Jesse bit off more than he could chew when he and his gang attempted to rob a bank far outside their normal territory in Northfield, Minnesota. They underestimated the townsfolk, who fought back and killed two of the gangsters while the rest escaped and captured everyone else except Frank and Jesse shortly thereafter. The brothers fled to Tennessee, where they lived under the names Thomas Howard and B.J. Woodson.

In 1879, Jesse returned to his life of crime with a new gang and his old name, but times were different. Missouri was no longer controlled by Union Republicans, so he couldn't exactly have been said to be fighting the power, and the governor of Missouri placed a $10,000 bounty on his head. A new member of his gang, Robert Ford, secretly met with the governor and agreed to take Jesse down for the bounty money.

On the morning of April 3, 1882, Ford visited Jesse at his home in St. Joseph, Missouri, and while James's wife and children were in another room, he turned his back on Ford to adjust a picture hanging on the wall and Ford shot him in the back of the head. After Ford announced to the authorities that he had killed the infamous outlaw, he was rewarded with a conviction of murder and sentenced to death, but he was pardoned by the governor. It was the least he could do, really: Ford received only a fraction of the reward money he was promised. In a bizarre postscript, Frank James actually turned himself into authorities, but since they had little evidence to tie him to the robberies, they let him go. He lived out the rest of his days as a farmer and family man.

Tags: 1800s | crime | famous people

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.