Jesse James – Hero or Cold Killer?

Authenticated by a forensics expert, this handed-down photo shows Jesse James (right) and his killer, Robert Ford
Authenticated by a forensics expert, this handed-down photo shows Jesse James (right) and his killer, Robert Ford

by Ray Setterfield


September 5, 1847Jesse James, the infamous American outlaw, was born on this day. Though depicted by some as a Robin Hood figure – taking from the rich and giving to the poor – over a sixteen-year period James and his gang robbed and murdered people in a half-dozen states.

He claimed to have killed 17 people and was certainly responsible for 12 murders. There is no evidence that he handed on the spoils of his crimes and it is believed that he and his gang kept the money for themselves.

The James family owned a 100-acre farm in Clay County, Missouri, and used slave labour to grow hemp and breed sheep. When the American Civil War broke out, as slave owners with Southern roots the James family naturally supported the Confederacy.

When Jesse was about 15, Union soldiers seeking information attacked the James household, injuring Jesse and hanging the boy’s stepfather from a tree. This incident is believed to be the spark that led to Jesse joining Confederate guerrillas.

At the end of the war, Jesse was shot by Union cavalrymen as he attempted to surrender. His cousin, Zerelda Mimms, whom he later married, nursed him back to health while some of his former war comrades took to robbing banks and stagecoaches. Once well, Jesse began his career as an outlaw.

With his brother, Frank, he joined Cole Younger and his brothers, all former Confederate guerrillas. The James-Younger gang conducted a string of robberies from Iowa to Texas, and from Kansas to West Virginia.

They robbed banks, stagecoaches, and even a fair in Kansas City. In 1873 they turned to robbing trains, the first at Iowa. There, they pried up part of the track and boarded the crashed train wearing Ku Klux Klan masks.

Disappointed that the train safe contained only $2,000, the gang then stole cash and valuables from passengers, bringing the total haul to $3,000 – about $60,000 in today's money. The train engineer was killed during the raid.

The James gang’s “Robin Hood” image was carefully nurtured by newspaper editor John Newman Edwards who wanted the Confederates to regain power in Missouri.

He wrote elaborate editorials praising James as a Robin Hood figure and making him a symbol of Confederate defiance during the period when Unionists were in charge of state government.

His favourable news articles included this report from the Kansas City Times on 29 September, 1872: “[The James gang] are men who might have sat with Arthur at the Round Table, ridden in tourney with Sir Lancelot, or won the colours of Guinevere”.

The portrait of James as a hero figure was dented around this time when an eight-year-old girl was shot during one of his robberies. Possibly as a PR move, or through genuine remorse, he wrote (anonymously) in a public letter:

"It is true that I shot a little girl, though it was not intentional, and I am very sorry that the child was shot; and if the parents will give me their address through the columns of the Kansas Times, I will send them money to pay her doctor’s bill.”

Eventually, Jesse – who had adopted the alias of “Thomas Howard” – drew new men into his gang as he continued to rob trains and hold up banks. They were not war comrades, but thugs with no loyalty to the Confederate cause.

They included Robert Ford, who had secretly talked to the State Governor about a reward for killing James. In April, 1882, as Jesse stood to adjust a picture hanging on the wall of his home, Ford shot the 34-year-old outlaw in the back and killed him. Tried and found guilty of murder, Ford was pardoned by the Governor.

Soon after James was buried his mother began giving tours of their home, even selling souvenirs. For 25 cents visitors could buy a pebble from his grave in the front yard.

A gravestone epitaph read: “In Loving Memory of my Beloved Son, Murdered by a Traitor and Coward Whose Name is not Worthy to Appear Here”.

Over the years James became the source of countless songs, books, articles, festivals and movies. Clay County continues to promote the James family home, charging $8.00 to tour the Jesse James Farm and Museum. Visitors can still purchase a pebble for 25 cents!

Published: August 29, 2018


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