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!

Jesse James: the birth of a legend

Jesse James, Wild West. Old West, bushwhacker, guerrilla, Civil WarLegends often start quietly, with ordinary people making ordinary decisions that change history. In 1946 in Tupelo, Mississippi, a working-class mother gave her son a guitar for his birthday. Elvis Presley wanted a bicycle, but he started practicing music anyway. In 1913, an unknown music hall comedian named Charlie Chaplin decided to try his luck with the new medium of motion pictures. His first films were unremarkable. One doesn’t even exist anymore.

The beginning of the legend of Jesse James was anything but quiet.

By 1864 the Confederate cause in Missouri was struggling to survive. The Confederate army had been kicked out of Missouri and the northern half of Arkansas, but while the Union army had captured the region, they had a hard time controlling it. Bands of rebel guerrillas called bushwhackers ambushed Union patrols, attacked isolated outposts, terrorized Unionist civilians, burned bridges, and cut telegraph wires. The bushwhackers bragged that the soldiers only controlled the towns, while they controlled everything else.

One of the toughest bushwhacker bands was led by William T. Anderson, who both friends and enemies called “Bloody Bill”. His heavily armed guerrillas scoured central Missouri, killing civilians and soldiers alike and riding through the land with their victims’ scalps dangling from their saddles. Fighting alongside Bloody Bill were two brothers from Clay County named Frank and Jesse James.

Jesse was only 16, his older brother was 21. The photograph here shows Jesse during that time, cocky and experienced beyond his years, gripping a Colt Navy revolver, the favored bushwhacker weapon. In September of 1864 the guerrillas got an important message from the Confederate army. General Sterling Price was leading an invasion of Missouri from the Confederate-held territory to the south. The goal was no less than to take St. Louis and return Missouri to the Confederacy. The bushwhackers were ordered to wreck as much havoc as they could to disrupt the Union defenses.

%Gallery-108006%Bloody Bill received the order while camping in Boone County near the little town of Centralia, population 100, located on the North Missouri Railroad. At dawn on September 27th, Anderson rode into town with thirty men, whooping and shooting their pistols. Anderson wanted to destroy the railroad and read the newspapers for information on troop movements. His men went from building to building, demanding breakfast and stealing from stores. A lucky bushwhacker found a keg of whiskey and they all started drinking. A stagecoach passing through town was robbed at gunpoint.

At noon the bushwhackers heard the whistle of an approaching train. They piled wood onto the track and fired at the engine, forcing it to stop. On board were 23 unarmed Union soldiers on furlough or sick leave. The guerrillas hustled them out of the train and stole their uniforms. As the men stood there in their underwear, Anderson asked if there was an officer in the crowd. Sgt. Thomas Goodman stepped forward, thinking he was about to die, but the guerrillas shoved him aside and gunned down his comrades instead. They also shot a German man who was unlucky enough to be wearing a blue shirt. One account says the German didn’t speak enough English to convince the guerrillas he was a civilian. It probably wouldn’t have mattered; the rebels hated German immigrants because they were abolitionists.

As one of the bushwhackers tied up Goodman to keep for a prisoner exchange, several men, perhaps even Frank and Jesse James, robbed the train and found a large amount of money on board. This may have been their very first train robbery, and they wouldn’t forget the bundles of cash it earned them. Anderson ordered his men to set fire to the train and send it off down the track. Then the rebels saddled up, filling up some boots with whiskey so they could share it with their friends back at camp.

That afternoon, Union Major A.V.E. Johnson led 158 men of the 39th Missouri Infantry into Centralia. He left some men to restore order in town and headed out in pursuit. Not far outside town he spotted some galloping away. Johnson hurried after them.

That was exactly what the bushwhackers wanted. They drew Johnson over a low rise and into a field surrounded on three sides by woods. At one end of this cul-de-sac stood a line of mounted guerrillas, Bloody Bill and the James brothers among them. Hidden among the trees on either side were more bushwhackers. At an order they converged on the soldiers.

Johnson may have been easily fooled, but he wasn’t easily scared. He dismounted his men, formed them in line, and fired a volley at the approaching horsemen. Only three guerrillas fell, including one man who got shot through the head and splattered his brains on Frank James’ boot. Now the guerrillas closed, firing rapidly with their revolvers, getting off several shots before the soldiers could reload their single-shot muskets.

The guerrillas smashed through the panicked soldiers. Frank recalled in a later interview that Jesse traded shots with Maj. Johnson and killed him. Within moments all the soldiers were down and the bushwhackers set to work collecting scalps. Some of their comrades rode back into Centralia and annihilated Maj. Johnson’s other group of soldiers.

In his memoirs, Sgt. Goodman recalled, “Men’s heads were severed from their lifeless bodies, exchanged as to bodies. . .or sat grinning at each other from the tops of fence stakes.”

The 39th lost 116 killed and only two wounded. Any wounded man the guerrillas came upon was killed. Six other Union soldiers disappeared, probably dying a lonely death in the woods.

Frank and Jesse James continued their rampage through central Missouri and other bushwhacker groups did the same in other parts of the state. One night Sgt. Goodman was able to slip away. He was lucky; many more Union men were killed in the ensuing days. The bloodshed the guerrillas caused didn’t do much to help General Price’s invasion, however. He suffered an early defeat at the Battle of Pilot Knob, which delayed and weakened his force so much that he didn’t try to attack St. Louis. Marching west through the center of the state, he got increasingly hemmed in by gathering Union armies and suffered a devastating defeat at the Battle of Westport close to Kansas City. His army limped south back to Arkansas, never to return.

Jesse James’ war never stopped, though, and he remained an active guerrilla until the very end. It’s not clear whether he scalped his enemies like many in Bloody Bill’s crew, but he certainly felt no guilt at their fate. An incident two years before left him with the burning conviction that the Yankees had it coming. That earlier incident, almost as brutal as the Centralia Massacre although on a smaller scale, may be the real beginning of the legend of Jesse James.

This is the first of my new series: On the Trail of Jesse James.

Coming up next: The James farm!

[Photo courtesy Library of Congress]

Four New Mexico gems worth visiting

New Mexico – the “Land of Enchantment.” This beautiful state is a popular tourist destination, no doubt, but there are plenty of amazing gems hidden in New Mexico’s dusty desert corners that are well worth checking out. Most visitors here come to Santa Fe for great shopping and Southwest style or head to Taos to visit one of the nation’s oldest Native American pueblos or go skiing. But the central and southern parts of the state have some amazing places worth more than just a glance in a guidebook. Here are four amazing lesser-known sights in New Mexico that are worth a visit.

White Sands National Monument
Ever heard of the alien-like white gypsum dune fields at White Sands? Few people have. But it is one of the most fantastic, unusual places to visit on earth. 275 square miles of snow white desert dunes spread across this part of Central New Mexico in a beautiful and positively lunar landscape. A circular drive takes visitors through the most accessible parts of the monument, or you can park your car and take a short (or long) hike through the more remote dunes. A fun way to enjoy the beauty of White Sands is by sledding down one of the dunes, which with their snow-like glow, will really make you feel like you’re in a winter wonderland.

White Sands National Monument is located along U.S. Highway 70 east of Las Cruces. A visitor center greets cars here and sells maps, sleds and books. Entrance fees are $3 per person.
Gila National Forest and Wilderness
Pronounced ‘hee-la’, the Gila National Forest is named for the tributary river of the Colorado River (think Grand Canyon) that flows through the area. Within the sprawling borders of this 3.3 million acre protected area in Western New Mexico, you’ll find everything from dense alpine forest to bubbling hot springs.

The Gila Wilderness was once home to ancient Native American cultures, such as the Mogollon and Apache tribes. The tribes left the remains of their settlements in cave dwellings, carved into the sides of desert mountains, and fantastic petroglyphs, giving us a glimpse into the daily lives of ancient people. Exploring the Catwalk Recreation Trail, you’ll maneuver along a series of elevated platforms once used by area miners, providing great views of narrow canyons and local wildlife.

The Gila National Forest and Wilderness is accessible from a number of entrance areas, depending on which activity you’re interested in. Camping can be done throughout the park, while the cliff dwellings, as well as a series of hot springs, are located in the southern part of the forest near Silver City, NM. The Catwalk Trail is closest to the town of Glenwood on NM 174. Entrance fees vary.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Reserve
Unless you are a bird fanatic, you probably haven’t heard Bosque del Apache, a unique stretch of wetlands that sprawls through the central portion of New Mexico. The term ‘Bosque del Apache’ is Spanish for ‘Apache woodlands’, dating to a time early in New Mexico’s history when Spanish conquerors noticed that local Apache tribes often camped along the lush shores of this watery area. Today, the Bosque (‘bos-kay’), as it is known to locals, is a major migratory stopping point, where thousands of species of birds, including Sandhill Cranes, stop during their annual flights north and south.

A driving loop ($5/vehicle) takes visitors on a one-hour scenic tour of the Bosque, where you can stop to take in the spectacular views of flora and fauna reflected in the Bosque’s serene waters. Be sure to bring your camera and binoculars.

Billy the Kid’s Grave
Billy the Kid, one of the most infamous gunslingers of the Old West, is buried in the tiny town of Fort Sumner in the eastern part of New Mexico. Billy the Kid spent most of his short young life riding through New Mexico with a band of outlaws known as The Regulators. He participated in the Lincoln County Wars, and was arrested for murder and broke out of jail several times. Eventually, he was gunned down by local lawman Pat Garrett in Fort Sumner and laid to rest here. The Kid’s headstone has been the object of much speculation and thievery, and was stolen a number of times before finally being caged in over its current spot in Fort Sumner, on top of the Kid’s remains.

It is free to visit Billy the Kid’s grave, which makes for an easy stop when driving through Fort Sumner on NM 60/84. Don’t be fooled by the rather tawdry Billy the Kid Museum located along the main road, which charges an entrance fee to view photographs and a replica grave. Instead, just east of town, follow Billy the Kid Rd. south for about 5 miles until you see the Old Fort Sumner Museum. The tombstone is located in the graveyard behind the museum and is accessible for free.