Jesse Woodson James
1847 - 1882
American outlaw Jesse Woodson James was a colourful bandit whose
escapades made him a legendary figure of the Wild West.
Jesse James was born near Kearney, Mo., on Sept. 5, 1847, the
son of a Baptist minister. Little is known about Jesse's
childhood except that his father left the family in 1850 to
minister to the gold prospectors in California and died soon
after his arrival there. The three James children grew up on a
Missouri farm with a stepfather.
As slave owners with origins in Kentucky, James's entire family
were Southern sympathizers. So, during the Civil War, he joined
the Confederate guerrilla band known as Quantrill's Raiders in
1863 or 1864. Returning to Missouri in 1865, Jesse and his
brother Frank found that, although the Civil War was officially
over, Missourians were still belligerent. In 1866 the James
brothers joined forces with the Younger brothers to form an
For 16 years Jesse James and his gang robbed trains and banks in
Missouri, Kentucky, and the midwestern states. Killings
accompanied these activities, and James was hunted by the law.
Of necessity, he was always on the run. His daring exploits
during these years captured the imagination of the public, and
all sorts of legends sprung up about him.
On April 23, 1874, occurred the one documented event in James's
life: he married Zerelda, or Zee, Mimms near Kearney, Mo. In
time they had two children.
The most famous bank robbery attempted by the James-Younger band
was at the First National Bank of Northfield, Minn., on Sept. 7,
1876. The bank clerk, who refused to open the safe, was savagely
murdered; then the gang tried to escape. In the shoot-out that
followed, two of the band were killed. A posse captured the
three Younger brothers. Jesse and Frank James, both wounded,
escaped. After they recovered, they continued robbing and
Finally the governor of Missouri offered a $10,000 reward for
the capture of the James brothers. At this time Jesse was living
with his family in St. Joseph, Mo., under the name of Thomas
Howard. Robert and Charles Ford, youthful recruits in the outlaw
band, were staying for a few days with the James family. Robert
had been in contact with authorities about the reward for
several weeks. On April 3, 1882, when Jesse put his guns down to
climb on a chair to straighten a picture, Robert Ford shot him
in the back of the head and killed him. Soon after, Frank James
turned himself in.
Jesse Woodson James (September 5, 1847 - April 3, 1882),
American outlaw, was born in Kearney, Missouri. His father,
Robert James, was a Baptist minister who helped found William
Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri.
At seventeen, James left his native Missouri to fight as a
Confederate guerrilla in the American Civil War as part of
Quantrill's Raiders, participating in raids in Kansas. He once
killed eight men in a single day. After the war, he returned to
his home state and lead one of history's most notorious outlaw
gangs. He was wounded while surrendering at the end of the war,
and later claimed to have been forced into outlawry because his
family had been persecuted in the war.
With his brother Frank James and several other ex-Confederates,
including Cole Younger and his brothers, the James gang robbed
their way across the Western frontier targeting banks, trains,
stagecoaches, and stores from Iowa to Texas. Eluding even the
Pinkerton National Detective Agency, the gang escaped with
thousands of dollars. James is believed to have carried out the
first daylight bank robbery in peacetime, stealing $60,000 from
a bank in Liberty, Missouri.
Then on July 21, 1873 the James-Younger gang pulled off the
first successful train robbery in the American West by taking
US$3,000 from the Rock Island Express in Adair, Iowa.
Despite their criminal and often violent acts, James and his
partners were much adored. Journalists, eager to entertain
Easterners with tales of a wild West, exaggerated and
romanticized the gang's heists, often casting James as a
contemporary Robin Hood. While James did harass railroad
executives who unjustly seized private land for the railways,
modern biographers note that he did so for personal gain--his
humanitarian acts were more fiction than fact.
On September 7, 1876, the James gang attempted to rob a bank in
Northfield, Minnesota. The townspeople returned fire, and all of
the members of the gang except for Frank and Jesse James were
killed, wounded or captured.
Jesse James had married his own first cousin, named Zerelda
after his mother, after a nine-year courtship. They had two
children, Jesse Edwards and Mary. She and Frank James' wife
tried to get the brothers to take on a more normal life, and
with a $10,000 reward on his head, Jesse and his wife moved to
Saint Joseph, Missouri to hide out, where he lived under the
assumed name of Tom Howard and rented a house for $14 a month.
In April 1882, Jesse James recruited Robert and Charles Ford to
help him rob the Platte City bank. While James stood on a chair
in his home in St. Joseph to straighten and dust a picture, the
Ford brothers drew their guns. Robert Ford's shot hit James in
the back of the head, ending his outlaw days for good. Ford
hoped to claim the $10,000 offered for James's capture but
received only a fraction of the reward and was charged with
murder. He did, however, secure himself a place in Western
outlaw lore which lives on in literature, song, and film.
James' epitaph, selected by his mother, read: IN LOVING MEMORY
OF MY BELOVED SON, MURDERED BY A TRAITOR AND COWARD WHOSE NAME
IS NOT WORTHY TO APPEAR HERE.
The Ford brothers were sentenced to hang but were pardoned by
the governor of Missouri. Charles Ford committed suicide two
years later, and Robert Ford was killed in a bar room brawl in
Creede, Colorado, in 1892.
Rumors have persisted that Ford did not kill James, but someone
else. 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 the age of 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.
The body buried in Missouri as Jesse James was exhumed in 1995
and DNA analysis gave a 99.7% probability that it was Jesse
James. A court order was granted in 2000 to exhume and test
Dalton's body, but the wrong body was exhumed
Jesse James was born on September 5, 1847 in Kearney, Missouri.
His father was a minister at a local Baptist church.
When Jesse was seventeen he joined the Confederate Army to help
fight for independence from the union. He served the entire
Civil War in a group of raiders led by the notorious William
Clarke Quantrill. The group of men rode horseback into Kansas,
conducting raids and harassing union sympathizers. The raids
were quite violent and he once killed eight people on the same
When the unit finally surrendered to union forces, Jesse
suffered minor wounds. After the war ended, he returned to
Missouri and formed a gang of outlaws. The gang became known as
the James Gang and included his brother Frank and several people
that had been in Quantrill's Raiders.
Jesse conducted the first robbery in Liberty, Missouri, making
off with an astounding $60,000. The gang started moving west,
stopping in Adair, Iowa to rob a train for $3,000. The James
Gang continued west, leaving a trail of crime in its wake. They
robbed stagecoaches, banks, trains, and stole everything they
could take with them. Their reputation grew quickly and caused
many people to chase them, but the gang managed to evade
Although the gang was violent and caused a lot of mayhem, they
received a lot of media attention that created a lot of fans.
The press wrote about him as if he was a hero, sometimes
describing him as a Robin Hood of sorts. However, in truth he
committed crimes not to help others, but for his own personal
The gang's string of successes came to an end when they
attempted to rob a bank in Northfield, Minnesota on September 7,
1876. A militia formed to fire at the gang, killing some of them
and capturing everyone else except for Jesse and his brother.
The two fled and returned home to Missouri, where the two met up
with their wives.
Their wives managed to convince the brothers to lay low and live
normally for a while. Jesse and his wife moved to Saint Joseph,
Missouri and he changed his name to Tom Howard since he had a
$10,000 price on his head.
Jesse couldn't handle the slow-paced lifestyle of hiding out for
long, however. In April of 1882, he began seeking out people to
help him rob a bank in Platte City. After asking around, he
found two brothers named Robert and Charles Ford and invited
them to his house in order to discuss how best to perform the
operation. The men came to his house on April 3, 1882, but Jesse
did not know that they had plans of their own.
During the meeting, Jesse noticed a picture on his wall was
crooked and stood on a chair to correct it. When he had his back
turned, the two men drew their pistols and shot him. Robert's
bullet hit Jesse in the back of the head, killing him instantly.
They had expected to receive the full $10,000 reward, but were
only given a small amount of money and charged with murder. They
were sentenced to hang for murdering Jesse, but the governor of
Missouri pardoned them.
Jesse was buried in his hometown cemetery and his mother wrote
the following epitaph: "In loving memory of my beloved son,
murdered by a traitor and coward whose name is not worthy to
appear here." Rumors grew that Jesse had not actually been
killed and the body was someone else's, but forensic experts
exhumed the body in 1995, arriving at the conclusion that the
body was indeed Jesse James.
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This web page was last updated on:
11 December, 2008