Jesse Woodson James (September 5, 1847 to April 3, 1882) … was born in Clay County, Missouri, near the site of present day Kearney. As an adult Jesse was of medium height, of slender but solid build, with a bearded, narrow face, and prominent blue eyes. Until his later years, when he became abnormally suspicious and moody, he was good-natured and jocular, though quick-tempered. He always justified his outlawry on the alleged ground that he had been driven into it by persecution. Doubtless, given the treatment of former Confederate soldiers by Unionists in the post-war Reconstruction period, Jesse’s claim was not completely imaginary.[I] In fact, corrupt, post-war Republican administrations[II] pushed other young men into outlawry, notably William Bonney, otherwise known as “Billy the Kid”. (Jacobsen, 1997)[III]
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 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-sibling: Sarah Louisa Samuel (Sarah Ellen), John Thomas Samuel, Fannie Quantrill Samuel, and Archie Peyton Samuel. Sarah later married a man named John C. Harmon. The James farm was visited in 1863 by Federal troops looking for information regarding Confederate guerrilla groups. The soldiers beat young Jesse and hanged his stepfather (who survived). 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 Jessie James ever served under Quantrill.
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 in cold blood by Union militia when he attempted to surrender after the war’s end, leaving him badly wounded. His first cousin, Zerelda “Zee” Mimms (named after Jesse’s mother, so James called her “Zee”), nursed him back to health, and he started a nine-year courtship with her. She eventually became his wife. Meanwhile, some of Jesse’s old war comrades, led by Archie Clement, another of the bushwhacker leaders once allied with Quantrill, refused to return to a peaceful life.
In 1866, this group conducted the first armed robbery of a US bank in post-civil war times, holding up the Clay County Savings Association in the town of Liberty. During this raid, Jesse deliberately shot a by standing student of William Jewell College. (See Wellman, 1961). The only reason Jesse robbed the bank was to get back the deed to his land. The gang staged several more robberies over the next few years, though state authorities (and local lynch mobs) had decimated the ranks of the older bushwhackers.
In 1868, Frank and Jesse James joined Cole Younger in robbing a bank at Russellville, Kentucky. Jesse did not become famous, however, until December 1969 , when he and Frank 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. The Liberty (MO) Tribune of December 17, 1869 tells the story of the James’ brothers narrow escape from one Sheriff Thomason. The robbery marked James’s 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 supportive 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, Bob and Jim, 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, often in front of large crowds, even hamming it up for the bystanders. In 1873, they turned to train robbery, derailing the Rock Island train in Adair, Iowa. 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 bandit career.
The notoriety of the James brothers brought many attempts to bring them to justice. The Governor of Missouri posted a reward of $1,000 each “…for the arrest and delivery of Jesse James and Frank James.” 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 as well as targeting unions and breaking strikes. 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, with all but his hands eaten by the hogs that freely roamed the area. 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 (an event depicted in the film, The Long Riders (1980).
Allan Pinkerton, the agency’s founder and leader, took on the case as a personal vendetta. Working with old Unionists around Jesse James’ family farm, he staged a raid on the homestead on the night of January 25, 1875. An incendiary device thrown inside by the detectives exploded[IV], killing James’ young half-brother 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 (ISBN-13: 0826209597) 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 letters 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.”
This letter illustrates just how far Pinkerton was willing to go in his vendetta against the James brothers, but the move backfired. The bloody fiasco did more than all of Edwards’ columns to turn Jesse James into a sympathetic figure for much of the public. 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.
Jesse and his first cousin, Zerelda “Zee” Mimms married on April 24, 1874, and had four children: Jesse James, Jr. (b. 1875), Gould James (b. 1878), Montgomery James (b. 1878), and Mary Susan James (b. 1879). Twins Gould and Montgomery died in infancy. His surviving son was raised by his mother to become a lawyer, and he spent his career as a respected member of the Kansas City, Missouri, bar. On September 7, 1876, the James-Younger gang attempted their most daring raid to date, on the First National Bank of 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’ father-in-law and the stern Union commander in occupied New Orleans. However, the gang had been casing other locations in the area as well.
The robbery was thwarted when Assistant Cashier Joseph Lee Heywood, left in charge while the bank officers attended the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, 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. Unbeknownst to the gang, the vault was unprotected at the time of the robbery, the inner door closed but unlocked. Meanwhile, the citizens of Northfield had taken notice of the robbery and were arriving with guns.[V] 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 fired from under the cover of windows and the corners of buildings. The gang barely escaped, leaving two of their number and two unarmed townspeople (Heywood and a Swedish immigrant) dead in Northfield. A massive manhunt ensued. The James brothers eventually split from the others and escaped to Missouri. The Youngers and on other bandit, Charlie Pitts, were soon discovered. A brisk gunfight left Pitts dead and the Youngers all prisoners. Except for Frank and Jesse James, the James-Younger Gang was destroyed.
Jesse and Frank went to the Nashville, Tennessee area, where they went by the names of Thomas Howard 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 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 grow paranoid, killing one gang member and frightening another away. 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. 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.
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, 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 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 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. Charley 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 his health problems, his sentence was commuted, and O’Kelley was released on October 3, 1902.
Jesse James’ 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. …
During his lifetime, Jesse James was largely celebrated by former Confederates, to whom he appealed directly in his letters to the press. Indeed, some historians credit him 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). His 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 remarkable 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 … This image is still seen in films, as well as songs and folklore. …
Rumors of Jesse James’ 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 body buried in Missouri as Jesse James was exhumed in 1995 and, according to a report by Anne C. Stone, PhD, James E. Starrs, L.L.M; and Mark Stoneking, PhD titled Mitochondrial DNA Analysis of the Presumptive Remains of Jesse James, does appear to be the remains of Jesse James. 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.
J. Frank Dalton stated in his application for a Confederate veteran’s pension that he had been born in Goliad, Texas and had served as a Confederate irregular with William C. Quantrill. But he also liked to claim that he was the famous US Marshall Frank Dalton, who had been killed in a gunfight with many witnesses in 1887. Dalton would later change his story and claim he was the noted Jesse James.
Beginning in 1949, J. Frank Dalton’s story was promoted and encouraged by the proprietors of Meramec Caverns (“Jesse James ‘Hideout’) near Stanton, Missouri. Henry J. Walker later wrote a book supporting Dalton’s claims, calling it Jesse James “the Outlaw” (1961)
No historian has ever taken Dalton’s claims seriously, and his knowledge of details the real Jesse would have been aware of was notably lacking. Dalton’s claim is often connected to a tale of hidden gold and a plot to revive the Confederacy in the years after the Civil War. Homer Croy, who knew the James family and had interviewed members of Jesse’s gang, ridiculed Dalton in his book Jesse James Was My Neighbor. Croy wrote that he once asked Jesse James Jr if any of his alleged fathers had even come to visit them. Jesse Jr, who sometimes played a cowboy in silent films, smiled and replied, “Not a one.”
In an attempt to put an end to the dispute, the body buried in Missouri as Jesse James was exhumed in 1995 and the DNA analysis resulted in a 99.7% probability that they were indeed those of the outlaw. Still unwilling to accept this, Dalton’s proponents got a court order in 2000 to exhume and test Dalton’s body to solve the mystery “once and for all.” Unfortunately, the wrong body was exhumed, and Dalton’s remains have yet to be tested.
The real problem with the 1995 exhumation and Mitochondrial DNA testing is that the chain of evidence is not from the grave. Professor of Law and Forensic Sciences James E. Starrs of George Washington University in Washington, D.C. did the test. Since no bones or teeth from the grave could be used, he got Judge Vic Howard to order the tooth encased in the Tupperware container in 1978 at the James Farm to be exhumed. When the container was unearthed, it was discovered that the tooth that was supposed to be there was missing! … The results of the 1995 exhumation and DNA testing proved one thing and only one thing: Nothing. …
It is true that the tooth and hair used in the DNA test definitely came from a James family member, but which family member? No one knows. …
There are other problems with the 1995 exhumation, too. Remains exhumed in 1978 from the original grave of Jesse James revealed a 34 to 42 year old Caucasian who died from 100 to 150 years ago and had noticeable dental problems. The 1995 exhumation gave the height as between 5 feet 8 inches and 5 feet 10 inches. The bullet found in the 1995 exhumation was not believed to be the one which killed him. When Jesse was trying to surrender at the end of the Civil War, he was shot from a 1851 Colt Navy Revolver, a common sidearm used during and after the Civil War, and there exists a report that a bullet he received was not recovered by the doctor who treated him, so the bullet found in the grave could have been this bullet. …yet where was the .45-caliber bullet that was claimed to be the fatal bullet fired by Bob Ford …? Further, Jesse did not use tobacco products, yet the man in the grave certainly did. The teeth examined from the 1995 exhumation showed that they were corroded and heavily stained from tobacco use. It would appear that the man buried on the James farm in 1882 and the man exhumed in 1995 was the same man, but he could not possibly be Jesse James.
In June 1863, a squad rode into the yard of the farm and accused Reuben Samuel of being disloyal to the cause and hiding guerrilla troops. They bound his hands behind his back, looped a noose over his head, and hung him from a nearby coffee tree. They hoisted hum up and down, trying to get him to say where Frank and the Rangers were hiding. Gasping for breath, Dr. Samuel said nothing, so the group tied one end of the rope to the tree trunk and left him dangling, choking to death. They then found Zerelda, who was five months pregnant with Fannie, and tried to make her talk. When she refused, they threw her across the room in a wall. The soldiers next went looking for Jesse. They found him plowing a field and immediately surrounded him, demanding to know Frank’s whereabouts. When they realized he would not cooperate, they drove him through the corn rows, lashing his back with a rope so severely that it was crisscrossed with bloody welts, and his shirt hung in bloody tatters. He crawled home, where he found his mother trying to revive her husband. Zerelda had managed to cut Dr. Samuel down, but he suffered brain damage from the incident and would later have to be institutionalized. …
Myth Blaster Verdict:
Chronology of Jesse James by Floyd D.P. Oydegaard
James L. Courtney by Betty Dorsett Duke
Betty Dorsett Duke’s article and Book About Jesse James
Profile of Dr. James Starrs – Forensic Science
Pinkerton National Detective Agency – Wikipedia
Federal Bureau of Investigation – Jesse James File
Jesse James Buried in Granbury, Texas by Gary Hancock
Dime Novels – Stanford University
Jesse James Was My Neighbor by Homer Croy (eBay book sale)