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.

%Gallery-108446%

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]

Jesse James’ greatest escape

Jesse James, Northfield, old west, wild westJesse James was riding high. After the end of the Civil War he had rocketed to fame by committing a string of daring robberies in Missouri and neighboring states. In a region where ex-Confederates still felt bitter over losing the war, this former Confederate guerrilla earned sympathy and support. One of their own was striking back at the Yankees, and it didn’t matter that some people got hurt in the process.

The James gang is an early example of political spin. Jesse James wrote angry letters to the press, claiming he had been persecuted by the government and forced into a life of crime, while at the same time insisting he was innocent. He was helped by newspaperman John Newman Edwards, a former Confederate officer who wrote laudatory articles about the James boys and their friends.

So as the James gang robbed trains, banks, and stagecoaches, part of the population cheered. Soon dime novel writers began to write books about them, describing exploits that never occurred, and their fame grew even higher. But in 1876 Jesse James finally went too far.

He had a bold plan. The First National Bank in Northfield, Minnesota, was supposed to have a lot of money, but even more important was that it held the savings of Adelbert Ames, a former Union officer and Northern politician who had tried (and failed) to give blacks equal rights in Mississippi during Reconstruction. Ames was the kind of Yankee Jesse and his friends hated.

Jesse and Frank James set out with a group of fellow ex-guerrillas: Clell Miller, Charlie Pitts, Bill Chadwell, and the Younger brothers Cole, Jim, and Bob. After riding hundreds of miles from Missouri to Minnesota, they scouted the area and on September 7 they struck. Frank, Jesse, and one other entered the bank while the rest guarded the entrance. One robber, probably Jesse, vaulted over the counter and pulled a gun on the three employees.

%Gallery-108420%Then everything went wrong. The bank employees insisted the safe was locked with a time lock and couldn’t be opened. Actually it was unlocked, but the bandits never checked. Instead they rummaged around the counter and found less than thirty dollars.

Meanwhile, the guards outside stopped a citizen from going into the bank, roughing him up in the process. Another man saw this, put two and two together, and started shouting that the bank was being robbed.

Now the James gang’s own fame defeated them. Everyone in those days feared the gang would come to their town and so kept their guns handy. Soon the bank robbers standing guard outside found themselves being sniped at from windows and doorways. Miller and Chadwell fell mortally wounded, and the others got shot as well. They opened up with their six-shooters, but the citizens kept firing. The local sheriff, caught without a weapon, even threw rocks. As a group of drunks fled a nearby saloon, one of the robbers took careful aim and killed one of them.

The fight set off a panic inside the bank. One cashier got shot in the head, and another ran for a side door and got away with only a minor gunshot wound. The robbers ran out to their friends outside and galloped off.

Soon several posses were in hot pursuit. In a running battle that lasted more than a hundred miles and several days, the James gang tried to shake off their pursuers, but the telegraph sent the news all around the countryside and everyone kept watch. Frank and Jesse split off from the rest of the group. The stole a series of horses and at one point had to crawl across a railroad bridge right under the noses of a posse that was guarding it. Eventually they got away, but the Younger brothers and Charlie Pitts got cornered in a stand of trees by a large posse. In a furious gunfight Pitts was killed and all the Younger brothers seriously wounded. Half dead and low on ammunition, they gave up. Luckily for them Minnesota didn’t have the death penalty. All received long prison sentences.

Every year, on the weekend after Labor Day, Northfield celebrates The Defeat of Jesse James Days with reenactments, a rodeo, parade, and carnival. The citizens of Northfield are as caught up with Jesse James fever as much as the modern-day rebels of rural Missouri, but in a very different way. They’re proud of their motto, “Jesse James slipped here”.

It was the second-to-last time he slipped.

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

Coming up next: The assassination of Jesse James!

[Photo courtesy user Elkman via Wikimedia Commons]

Frank James and the Civil War Battle of the Hemp Bales

Frank James, Jesse James, Civil War
Jesse James must have been jealous of his older brother Frank. Jesse was only 13 when the Civil War started. Frank was 18, the perfect age to go off to war. Coming from a slave-owning farm family Frank naturally joined the Confederate army.

Many Missourians, especially city dwellers and the large German immigrant community, remained loyal to the North, while the majority of rural farmers supported the South. Most people actually wanted peace, but attitudes hardened as events spiraled out of control in the spring and summer of 1861. When Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to quell the rebellion, Missouri’s governor defiantly refused. Then the Unionist General Nathaniel Lyon captured a group of state guardsmen camped near St. Louis, fearing they planned to capture the city’s federal arsenal. The capture went off without a hitch (except for Lyon being kicked in the stomach by his own horse) but when Lyon’s troops marched their prisoners back into town they got attacked by a secessionist mob. A soldier and about twenty civilians died in the ensuing riot.

The secessionist government fled, soon replaced by a loyal state government, and the Missouri State Guard under General Sterling Price declared their loyalty for the South. Lyon led his Union forces from St. Louis west along the Missouri River valley, took the state capital of Jefferson City, and defeated a small State Guard force at the Battle of Boonville, one of the first battles of the Civil War. Price retreated with the State Guard to the southwestern part of the state to organize and train his green troops.

One of his new recruits was Frank James. He arrived with a group of Clay County boys, some armed with shotguns and squirrel rifles, others with nothing. They all itched for a chance to fight the Yankees. They didn’t have to wait long. On August 10, 1861, Lyons’ Union forces attacked Price’s Confederate camp at Wilson’s Creek. The Union soldiers came in from two sides, and as cannonballs flew through the State Guard tents, Frank James and his companions marched off to face the enemy.

%Gallery-108346%He and his unit charged up a hill overlooking their camp on which Lyon had placed the bulk of his force. Almost immediately the position earned the name “Bloody Hill”. Missourians fought each other through thick underbrush, attacking and counterattacking for hours. Meanwhile the second pincer of the Union attack was being wiped out to the south of camp. The battle tipped in the rebels’ favor, Lyon fell dead from a bullet, and the Union army retreated.

The fight left more than 1,200 casualties on each side, but the rebels exulted in their victory and marched into the center of the state towards the Missouri River port of Lexington. If they could take it, they’d control the river and the most populous pro-secession region in Missouri.

Col. James Mulligan, a tough Irish-American, had 3,500 Union soldiers at Lexington. While Price’s Confederates numbered more than 12,000, Mulligan decided to fight anyway. He dug trenches and earthworks atop a hill with a commanding view of the town. A stone building that served as a Masonic College added extra protection. The rebels arrived on September 13 and immediately surrounded the position. For a week they sniped at the Union troops on the hill. Volunteers swarmed in from the countryside to join Price. An account tells of how one local, an old man, arrived every morning with an antiquated flintlock rifle and a packed lunch, spent the day blasting away at the Yankees, and went home every evening.

Inside the fort Mulligan and his men grimly held on. No help came, and after a few days the rebels cut off their water supply. They threw back several determined attacks, and when the rebels heated up their cannonballs in an attempt to set the Masonic College on fire, Mulligan sent a boy with a shovel running around inside the college building, picking up the red-hot iron balls and chucking them out the window.

Frank James must have been getting nervous by this point. It had been a week and the fort still hadn’t fallen. Sooner or later a Union relief force would show up and there’d be real trouble. Then someone hit upon a clever idea. Missouri was one of the nation’s largest hemp regions. The cannabis plant was used for rope, paper, cloth, and many other purposes besides the recreational smoking that eventually got it banned. The harvest had just been brought in and the river port was filled with heavy bales of hemp. The rebels made a wall of these bales, soaked them with water so they wouldn’t be set on fire by hot lead, and started moving this wall up the hill.

Mulligan’s Union soldiers soon discovered these bales were bulletproof. Even cannonballs only rocked them. From behind the wall of hemp Frank James and his friends were able to get better shots at the defenders and the Union casualties began to mount. The noose tightened. Cut off, low on water, and with no help in sight, the defenders finally surrendered. Marijuana had won a victory for the Confederacy.

It wouldn’t last long. General Price realized his position was too exposed and headed back south. Frank fell sick with measles, a potentially fatal illness in those day, and got left behind. He was captured, gave an oath of loyalty to the Union, and returned home. Soon he was back in the saddle, however, joining William Quantrill’s guerrillas. Later he followed one of Quantrill’s lieutenants, Bloody Bill Anderson, and his younger brother Jesse joined him.

Frank and Jesse James’ war years were the beginning of their training as America’s most famous outlaws. They learned to ride, shoot, and hide out in the woods. Fellow members of Bloody Bill’s group formed the core of their bandit gang. With these experienced warriors they’d blaze across half a dozen states and into American folklore.

Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield has a museum and tours. The Battle of Lexington State Historic Site also has a museum (with a hemp bale they had to get special permission to import) and is in the center of a fine old town with lots of historic buildings. Check them out for more information about two Civil War battles that aren’t very well known outside of Missouri.

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

Coming up next: Jesse James’ greatest escape

[Image of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek courtesy user Americasroof via Wikimedia Commons]

Jesse James robs his first bank

Jesse James, Liberty bank, James gang, Frank James, jesse jamesThe Civil War was over. In Missouri, defeated Confederate soldiers trudged home and tried to pick up their lives. This was harder in Missouri than many states. Many discovered their land had been seized during the war for nonpayment of taxes, and now Union veterans farmed their fields. New Missouri laws forbade ex-Confederates from voting, holding public office, teaching, or even preaching. Former rebels were left bitter and marginalized.

Former guerrillas like Frank and Jesse James felt even more bitter. Their war had been more brutal than most people’s, and adjusting to defeat and peacetime wasn’t in their nature. Jesse bore at least three wounds from the war. The tip of the middle finger of his left hand had been shot off. The most accepted story of how this happened was that he shot it off himself while loading a pistol. Being a good Baptist, Jesse wouldn’t swear even in this situation, and shouted out “Dingus!”, which became his nickname for the rest of his life. The second injury was a bullet through the chest courtesy of a German immigrant who objected to having his saddle stolen.

The third injury is a source of mystery. In 1865, as the war was winding down, Jesse got shot through the lung. Some reports say he got this in a gunfight, but Jesse himself later spread the story that he was shot by Union troops while trying to surrender at the end of the war. This story served two purposes: it made him look like the victim of Yankee oppression, and it acted as an alibi for the first daylight bank robbery in the United States in peacetime.

At 2pm on February 13, 1866, it was snowing in Liberty, Missouri. The Clay County Savings Association was open as usual. The bank’s cashier, Greenup Bird, sat at his desk. His son William sat at another desk to his left. Nobody else was in the bank when two men wearing Union army overcoats walked in and warmed their hands by the stove. After a moment one went up to the counter and asked for change for a ten-dollar bill. William got up to help the customer and was greeted with a pistol pointed at his face. The other man also drew his revolver and both leapt over the counter, telling the astonished father and son that they better be quiet or else.

%Gallery-108291%One robber gave William a smack with his gun and pushed him into the vault, demanding the money. Meanwhile the second robber told Greenup to give him the cash on his desk. Once they’d taken all the money, the robbers pushed the two bank workers into the vault and shut the door. They neglected to lock it, however, and after a few tense moments Greenup and William came out, opened a window, and shouted that the bank had been robbed.

At that moment a group of about a dozen mounted men galloped past. One fired at a pedestrian who was also sounding the alarm. This was George Wymore, a student at Liberty College. Ironically, one of the founders of this college was none other than Robert Sallee James, Frank and Jesse’s father. The bullet tore through George’s body and he fell to the sidewalk dead.

Townspeople quickly formed a posse, but the robbers got away. Back at the bank, Greenup and William tallied their losses: almost $60,000, more than $3.5 million in today’s value. There was no insurance in those days, no FDIC. Many farmers and merchants lost their life savings. Greenup and William lost their jobs when the bank failed.

Everyone thought that ex-guerrillas had done the deed. The robbers’ trail led to a crossing of the Missouri River frequently used by bushwhackers during the war. Plus everyone knew the guerrillas rode fine horses and carried revolvers just like the robbers had. Several suspects were named, all former members of the bushwhacker band of Bloody Bill Anderson. Frank and Jesse were part of that band too. Most scholars of the James gang are convinced that Frank helped rob the bank that day, but did Jesse? The two leading James biographers disagree. Ted Yeatman, author of Frank and Jesse James: The Story Behind the Legend, thinks Jesse was still bedridden from his lung wound. T.J. Stiles, author of Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War, thinks Jesse exaggerated the seriousness of his injury in order to have an alibi for his early crimes.

Whatever the truth, the robbery has become part of the Jesse James legend. The Jesse James Bank Museum in Liberty has restored the bank to what it was like in 1866, complete with the original vault and safe. An easy day trip from Kansas City and the Jesse James farm at Kearney, it offers a glimpse into a time when the wounds of the Civil War were still raw.

So what was the war like for Frank and Jesse James? We’ve already looked at Jesse James in the Civil War, but what was it like for his older brother Frank, who was in the war from the very beginning? Come back tomorrow for that part of the story.

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

Coming up next: Frank James: the war years!

The Jesse James farm

Jesse James, Frank James
Jesse James grew up both lucky and unlucky. His father, Baptist preacher Robert Sallee James, owned a prosperous farm in Clay County. His slaves cultivated hemp and other cash crops, and Jesse and his older siblings Frank and Susan grew up in comfort. Robert kept a large library and both his sons became avid readers. Frank loved Shakespeare, while Jesse was more devoted to the Bible and newspapers.

The boys’ luck quickly changed. Although Robert had founded a successful Baptist church and was respected by his neighbors, he wasn’t content. In 1850 he decided to go to the gold fields of California to preach to the miners. Jesse James, then only two years old, clutched his leg and begged him not to go. Robert went anyway, and within a few months had died.

This was a financial disaster for the James family. It turned out Robert had left many debts and some of the family possessions had to be auctioned off. Jesse’s mother Zerelda, a tough Southern woman, married a wealthy farmer named Benjamin Simms, a man twice her age. This saved the financial situation but did not stabilize the children’s lives. Simms rejected his stepchildren and made them move into a relative’s home. Simms soon died by falling off a horse and Zerelda, showing little grief, married mild-mannered physician Reuben Samuel. The children moved back to the farm and Samuel treated them as if they were his own.

All should have gone well, but Clay County was on the border of the Kansas Territory. In the 1850s, there was a bitter fight over whether Kansas would be admitted into the Union as a slave state or a free state. Immigrants from the north arrived armed, ready to make Kansas free, while Missouri “border ruffians” crossed the border to disrupt local elections and skirmish with the Free-Staters. Kansas “Jayhawkers” raided Missouri, freeing slaves and killing slave owners. As slave owners themselves, the James family wanted Kansas to become a slave state. The majority of Missourians agreed with them, although a growing minority were outspoken abolitionists.

%Gallery-108204%Bleeding Kansas, as the fight was called, was the precursor to the Civil War. When the Confederacy formed in 1861, Missouri’s governor and much of the legislature wanted to join, but they met fierce resistance. Soon there were two Missouri state governments on opposite sides of the Civil War. Jesse was still a boy, but Frank was old enough to enlist in the Missouri State Guard, a Confederate outfit. He saw fighting at Wilson’s Creek and Lexington, both Confederate victories, then fell ill and was left behind and captured. Frank swore loyalty to the Union and went home, but when the Unionist state government required that all able-bodied men join a local Union militia, he fled and became a guerrilla under the command of William Quantrill.

Quantrill’s band of guerrillas, often called “bushwhackers”, terrorized Unionist civilians and attacked Union patrols. They became famous for their lightning raids and merciless persecution of Unionist civilians. Their worst atrocity was attacking Lawrence, Kansas, a center of abolitionism, and killing 200 mostly unarmed men and boys.

Everybody knew Frank rode with Quantrill. The local Union militia, the same one Frank had refused to join, showed up at the James farm. They had heard Frank and the bushwhackers were camped nearby. Finding 15 year-old Jesse working in the field, they demanded to know where Frank was. When he refused to tell, they beat him. The militia had better luck with Reuben Samuel. They put a noose around his neck, threw the rope over a high branch, and hauled him up. Just before he passed out, they dropped him back down, then hauled him up again. Eventually Samuel revealed where Frank was. The militia rode off in pursuit, but the bushwhackers got away.

Jesse never forgot that beating, and when he was sixteen he joined the bushwackers. He became one of the toughest of a tough crew and participated in the Centralia Massacre in 1864. His mother Zerelda stayed at home throughout the war, helping her boys on the sly and giving the militia a severe tongue lashing any time they appeared on her property. A local Union commander called her “one of the worst women in the state.”

After that the James farm never knew peace. Frank and Jesse, unable or unwilling to adjust to life after the war, continued their guerrilla activities as outlaws. They lived more or less openly on the farm. Many of their neighbors supported them as loyal Southerners, while others were too afraid to cross them. One night in 1874, a group of Pinkerton detectives, thinking Frank and Jesse were home, snuck up to a window and threw a bomb inside. The explosion mangled Zerelda’s arm and killed eight-year-old Archie Samuel, Frank and Jesse’s half brother.

In 1882 Jesse was assassinated by Robert Ford and Frank gave himself up shortly thereafter. He was found innocent of all charges (this was a time before fingerprinting and CCTV) and settled down to a peaceful life. Zerelda stayed at the farm until her death in 1911, giving tours of the farm for the curious. She even sold pebbles from Jesse’s grave for 25 cents. When she ran out of pebbles, she’d go down to the nearby creek and get some more.

At the James Farm Museum just outside of Kearney you can still buy a pebble from Jesse’s grave, and they still cost 25 cents. The visitor’s center explains the life and times of Frank and Jesse and displays many artifacts from the family. Hidden behind a screen of trees the James farm looks much as it was, lovingly restored in the 1970s by James devotees and filled with family heirlooms. The legend lives on there, as it does in many other spots where the James brothers fought, robbed, and died in Missouri.

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

Coming up next: Jesse James robs his first bank!