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

By | February 11, 2021

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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.

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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."