Jesse James: Unexpected Death of an Old West Outlaw

From last week’s blog about a homicidal son, we return this week to the Old West. Jesse James was a notorious bank and train robber. You might expect him to have died as a result of his violent calling. However, Robert Ford, one of his own men, gunned him down from behind.

The Early Years of Jesse James

Jesse Woodson James was born on a farm near Kearney, Missouri in 1847. Jesse was only fourteen at the beginning of the Civil War. He stayed home while his older brother Frank joined Confederate guerrilla forces operating in western Missouri and eastern Kansas. Frank eventually found his way into the guerrilla band led by the infamous William Clarke Quantrill. Quantrill’s Raiders were responsible for a particularly gruesome massacre of pro-abolitionists at Lawrence, Kansas on August 21, 1863. Jesse, by then sixteen, joined his brother in late 1863 or early 1864.

A young Jesse James in 1864 (Library of Congress)
A young Jesse James in 1864 (Library of Congress)

The end of the Civil War in 1865 did not bring peace to Missouri. Clay County, the James brothers’ home, had supported the Confederacy. This did not sit well with the occupying Union forces. Supporters always said that it was harassing Federal soldiers who drove the James brothers to crime. Perhaps that was true, or maybe they simply had a predilection for lawlessness. Regardless, the brothers began participating in and then engineering a series of robberies. In 1869, Jesse and Frank teamed up with their cousin Cole Younger and his brothers to form the James-Younger gang.

A later studio portrait of Jesse James (Library of Congress)
A later studio portrait of Jesse James (Library of Congress)

Outlaws and Badmen

The James-Younger gang was reasonably successful at robbing stores and banks. Then they decided to strike out in a new direction. On July 21, 1873, they robbed a Rock Island Railroad train at Adair, Iowa. For this robbery, the donned Ku Klux Klan garb. But this was just a disguise; they never had any serious association with the Klan.

The Cole-Younger gang came to an ignoble end on April 24, 1874. The gang planned to rob the First National Bank of Northfield, Minnesota. But the citizens of Northfield fought back fiercely. Frank and Jesse barely escaped with their live from the bungled robbery attempt. The other gang members were either killed or captured. The Northfield raid effectively destroyed the Cole-Younger gang. Jesse and Frank headed to Nashville, Tennessee (where Jesse took the name “Thomas Howard”). Frank seemed to want to settle down, but Jesse remained restless.

Jesse migrated to St. Joseph in northwestern Missouri, where he teamed up with brothers Charley and Robert Ford. Jesse trusted the Fords although, according to Robert, he had begun to harbor suspicions about them. Also, Robert was secretly negotiating with Missouri governor Thomas Crittenden to turn Jesse in. The large reward offered by the State of Missouri and the railroads had proved too tempting. Jesse didn’t know this, of course.

The “Dirty Little Coward” Shoots Jesse James

It is doubtful that many of his neighbors realized that the man who lived with his family at 1318 Lafayette Street in St. Joseph, Missouri was really the infamous badman Jesse James.

Jesse James's home at 1318 Lafayette Street, St. Joseph, Missouri
Jesse James’s home at 1318 Lafayette Street, St. Joseph, Missouri

On the morning of April 3, 1882, as his mother made breakfast, Jesse took off his gun belt and turned away to dust off a picture. Seizing his chance, Robert Ford shot Jesse in the back of the head, killing him instantly. A popular ballad about the event included these lines:

Well, that dirty little coward that shot Mr. Howard
He laid poor Jesse in his grave


Ford himself came to a bad end ten years later. One Edward O’Kelley fired both barrels of a shotgun into him in Creede, Colorado.

Frank James survived. He surrendered to authorities and was acquitted in trials in Missouri and Alabama. He was never extradited to or tried in Minnesota for the deaths that resulted from the botched Northfield raid. Thereafter he worked odd jobs, including that of AT&T telegraph operator. He retired to the family farm where he conducted tours for twenty-five cents a head. He died there on February 15, 1918 at the age of 72.

Frank James in his later years
Frank James in his later years

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