The assassination of Jesse James

Jesse James, Robert Ford, wild west, old west
After 1876, life wasn’t the same for Jesse James.

That year he and his gang got badly shot up while trying to rob a bank in Northfield, Minnesota. The Northfield Raid left three gangmembers dead and three more in jail. Only Frank and Jesse James got away. Frank left for the East, swearing he’d go straight, and left Jesse very much alone. Most of his friends from his Civil War days were dead or disappeared, and as he gathered a new gang he had to pick men of lesser caliber: two-bit horse thieves and petty crooks who dreamed of making the big time. Among them were brothers Charles and Robert Ford.

Jesse’s only comfort in his later years was his family. He had married his first cousin, Zerelda. She had been named after his mother, so Jesse called her “Zee” to differentiate between the two Zereldas. Their uncle presided at their wedding. Jesse also had a young son, Jesse James, Jr., and a daughter named Mary. Neither child knew their real names. They thought their last name was Howard and that their father was some sort of businessman. Zee knew the truth, of course, and she also knew that she didn’t trust the Ford brothers.

Charlie may have helped Jesse rob a train at Blue Cut in 1881, but Robert was as yet untested. Some biographers say the brothers had been avid horse thieves before meeting Jesse, but despite these credentials Jesse never seemed to trust the Fords. He kept a close eye on the two as they shared a house with him in St. Joseph, Missouri.

He was right to mistrust them. Robert Ford had secretly met with Missouri governor Thomas Crittenden and agreed to kill Jesse in exchange for a pardon and the $10,000 reward on Jesse’s head. This was a huge sum at a time when a decent horse went for $100 and a good farm sold for a few thousand. The Fords kept quiet and waited their chance. Days stretched into weeks as they stayed under the watchful eye of the famous outlaw. They knew they were no match for him in a face-to-face fight, yet they got no chance to surprise him.

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Jesse was planning a bank job with the Fords when on April 3, 1882, the news came that Dick Liddel, a former gangmember, had been arrested and given a full confession. Jesse’s suspicions of the Fords grew as he wondered why the Fords hadn’t told him the news before he read it in the newspaper. As Robert Ford later recounted, he knew he had to kill Jesse now or never. Jesse had killed gangmembers before, and wouldn’t hesitate to do it again.

Then the Fords witnessed a miracle. It was a hot day, and Jesse removed his coat. This revealed the revolvers strapped to his belt. Not wanting to arouse the suspicions of his neighbors, he did something the Fords had never seen him do before: remove his weapons. Even better, he got up on a chair to dust a picture.

With Jesse’s back turned, the Fords had their chance. Both drew their weapons. Robert was faster and shot Jesse in the back of the head, killing him instantly. Leaving Jesse’s family to mourn his death, they hurried to a telegraph office and sent a message to Crittenden saying the job was done. Much to their chagrin they were arrested, found guilty of murder, and sentenced to hang. The governor quickly pardoned them, but they never received their full share of the reward money.

Public reaction was mixed. While Jesse James’ popularity had dropped, most people thought the Fords were cowardly for shooting him in the back. A popular song called Robert Ford a “dirty little coward”. In all fairness, the Fords could have never taken Jesse in a fair fight, and Jesse had killed his share of unarmed men.

Jesse became even more of a legend after his death, while the Fords went down in history as traitors. Jesse James books and photographs sold like mad. The one above is a stereoscopic image of Jesse in his coffin. Stereoscopic photos could be put in a special viewer and appeared as 3D images. Many families had one in their living rooms with images of foreign lands and natural wonders. Now people could buy images of the dead outlaw for a bit of grisly after-dinner entertainment.

The Fords went on tour re-enacting the scene of Jesse’s assassination, but sometimes they were booed. Charles later killed himself and Robert moved to Creede, Colorado, a mining town where he opened a saloon. There on June 8, 1892 Edward O’Kelley, a local criminal who had had a couple of fights with Ford, walked into his saloon with a shotgun and killed him. He served several years in jail but was eventually pardoned. O’Kelley himself was killed in Oklahoma City in 1904 with police officer Joe Burnett. The policeman died a peaceful death, thus ending a cycle of killing stretching back more than twenty years.

The Jesse James home is now a museum displaying memorabilia from his life. There’s also a bullet hole high up on the wall that was supposedly made by Robert Ford’s gun. This is yet another bit of myth-making that’s grown up around Jesse James. The coroner’s inquest clearly stated that the bullet lodged just above his eye. Still, it’s a fascinating museum for any fan of the Old West.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: On the trail of Jesse James.

Coming up next: The unquiet grave of Jesse James

[Photo courtesy Library of Congress]