Jesse James was probably one of the most notorious and well known criminals in American history. If someone mentions train and bank robbers, Jesse James is probably the first name that will come to mind. Many people think of him as a folk hero and a “gentleman bandit” when in reality he was a murdering, robbing thug. Many people think that it was the railroad coming through his farm that turned him to a life of crime when in reality he was already a criminal when that happened. Too young to fight in the Civil War, Jesse James was just sixteen years old when he joined up with “Bloody” Bill Anderson.
Some say it was the treatment that they received from Union soldiers that turned the James boys to a life of crime and others say it was the lure of easy money. Born in 1847 in Missouri, Jesse and Frank were raised on a farm that owned slaves and they grew up as Southern sympathizers. Frank joined the Confederate Army in 1861 at the outset of the Civil War at the age of 18 and was later discharged. After his discharge, he joined up with Quantrill’s Raiders and was a part of the horrific raid on Lawrence Kansas. It is unclear if Jesse was a part of the raid but he was heard to be bragging about it later on.
A group of Union soldiers reportedly came onto the farm where Jesse was living and they demanded information about the whereabouts of Quantrill’s Raiders and when Dr. Samuels, Jesse’s stepfather refused to give up any information, he was tortured and hung and Jesse, at the age of fifteen, was horse whipped by the soldiers. Dr. Samuels survived the torture and the hanging.
It was a little while after this that Jesse joined up with Bloody Bill Anderson and on September 20, 1864, he and Frank were a part of the bloody attack in Centralia, Missouri where citizens were robbed while waiting for a train that was coming in. There were more than a hundred men in Anderson’s charge and when the train pulled in, about twenty-four unarmed and wounded Union soldiers were dragged from the train and mercilessly killed. Then about three miles or so south of Centralia, the guerillas ambushed a Union Army detachment that were following Bloody Bill and over one hundred twenty federal soldiers were slaughtered. About a month later, in October, the guerillas were attacked by Union soldiers. Bloody Bill himself was killed and decapitated and Jesse and Frank were able to escape. Then in May of 1865, Jesse James rode into Lexington, Missouri carrying a white flag so he could surrender but was shot in the chest by one of the Union soldiers that occupied the town. Jesse survived this attack In February of 1866, Frank and Jesse James met with Cole Younger to plan their first bank robbery.
Over the next few years, the gang took part in twelve bank robberies, seven train robberies, four stage-coach robberies and other criminal acts. During these crimes at least eleven citizens were killed by the gang. When the gang tried to rob a bank in Northfield, Minnesota, the citizens of the town were ready and opened fire during the robbery on the gang as they tried to escape. Frank and Jesse were the only two men of the gang that escaped unharmed. In1881, Jesse tried to go straight and was married to a woman named Zee and he rented a house under the alias of Tom Howard in St. Louis, Missouri. There was a bounty of 10,000 dollars placed on the head of Jesse James by Governor Crittenden. Jesse was not working then but he was trying to live a normal life and even went to church every Sunday.
He soon contacted Bob and Charlie Ford to join him to rob banks again as his money was running out. Bob Ford decided he wanted to collect the reward money instead and shot Jesse in the back of his head as he stood on a chair and straightened a picture frame. Bob Ford was arrested, charged with murder and was sentenced to death, but Governor Crittenden soon pardoned him and paid him the reward money. Wrought with fear that Frank James was going to hunt the Fords down and kill them, Charlie Ford eventually committed suicide and Bob Ford was later killed in a bar room brawl. It was said that Jesse had robbed banks and trains and gave some of his money to the poor but none of these statements could ever be verified.
Jesse James left behind a legacy that would be unmatched by anyone in history. Good or bad, the James gang is an integral part of our history. Was Jesse James driven to crime by war atrocities or was it the lure of easy money? Was Jesse James an American folk hero, a modern day Robin Hood or was he simply a murderer and a robber? Read my article, check out the links and you be the judge.