The Jacana

 Great Lives Site


Back to Jacana

Great Lives index


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 outlaw band.

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 killing sporadically.

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.


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 day.

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 capture.

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 gain.

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.










This web page was last updated on: 11 December, 2008