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Who Was Jesse James?

Jesse James on Robert Redford's American West
Jesse James (right) as depicted in Robert Redford's American West

Confederate guerrilla, bank robber, gang leader and murderer, Jesse James – the more famous James brother – was the stuff legends were made of, but things might not have always turned out that way. Born on September 5, 1847, in Kearney, Missouri, Jesse Woodson James belonged to a prestigious farming family. Their father, Reverend Robert James, was a Baptist minister.

In 1850 Reverend James passed away and the family became destitute. Two years later Jesse’s mother, Zerelda Cole James, married Benjamin Simms, a wealthy, older man. Simms disliked the Jackson children – Jesse, his older brother Frank and their younger sister Susan – and they were sent to live with another family. Zerelda soon left the marriage, reclaimed her brood and returned to the James’ family farm. She married her third husband, Dr Reuben Samuel, in 1855, with whom she had four more children.

During the Civil War, Frank joined the Confederate guerrillas (or “Bushwhackers”). In May 1863, 16-year-old Jesse and his stepfather were ambushed at the family farm by Union militiamen looking for Frank and his group. Reuben Samuel was tortured (they briefly hung him from a tree) and Jesse – reportedly – was lashed. Later that year, Jesse also turned guerrilla, and he and Frank joined “Bloody Bill” Anderson’s gang, taking part in the killing and mutilation of scores of Union soldiers.

In May 1865, near the end of the civil war, Jesse was shot in the chest by Union cavalry near Lexington, Missouri. His first cousin Zerelda Mimms – his future wife – nursed him back to health from his near-fatal injury.

After the Civil War had ended, Jesse, Frank and other surviving Bushwhackers, formed the James-Younger Gang. Jesse reached celebrity status in 1869, after he murdered a cashier during a Gallatin bank raid, wrongly believing him to be Samuel Cox, the Union commander who had killed Bloody Bill in 1864. The press labelled Jesse an “outlaw” for the first time and the state governor offered rewards for the James brothers’ capture. At the same time, the gang members were hailed by many Missourians, as heroes furthering the Confederate cause. John Newman Edwards, an influential news editor, took up Jesse’s cause. Through his collective press coverage, including letters Jesse wrote to the paper himself, the Robin Hood myth was born. For the next seven years, the gang carried out a string of raids across the State, robbing banks, stagecoaches and even a Kansas City fair; often playing up theatrically to watching crowds. By all accounts, Jesse and his Merry Men kept all spoils for themselves.

Jesse married Zerelda Mimms in 1874, following a nine-year courtship. Their son Jesse Edward James was born in 1875 and their daughter Mary Susan James was born in 1879. Despite his life of violent crime, Jesse was said to be a loving husband and father.

In 1874, the Pinkerton National Detective Agency (whose founder, Allan Pinkerton, had previously uncovered a plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln) was hired to hunt Jesse’s gang. After more than one Pinkerton detective was killed in their pursuit, things got personal. On January 25, 1875, Pinkerton agents caused an explosion in the James family farm, killing Jesse’s eight-year-old half-brother and blowing off part of his mother’s arm. The attack prompted outrage, heightening public support for the James brothers; so much so, a bill was nearly passed offering them amnesty. Jesse and Frank launched a revenge campaign against neighbours who had assisted the raid, and it is believed one man was killed in retribution. In the fallout, Pinkerton abandoned his manhunt.

The James-Younger Gang was destroyed in the aftermath of their failed heist of First National Bank of Northfield, Minnesota in 1876. During the attempt, two gang members were killed in a shoot-out and the others fled. Two weeks later, the Younger brothers were captured and another gang member was killed. The only ones still at large, the James brothers fled to Nashville, Tennessee.

Jesse soon grew restless and formed a new gang in 1879, which quickly began to implode. Some members turned in on each other, some were captured and one, Jesse is believed to have killed. Following a two-year crime spree, Tennessee Authorities were closing in and Jesse and Frank returned to Missouri in 1881.

In early 1882, Bob and Charley Ford – the only gang members Jesse still trusted – arranged with the Missouri Governor to assassinate him for a reward. The brothers were actually living with Jesse and his family at the time after Jesse had invited them for protection.

On April 3, 1882, Jesse James was dusting a picture on the wall in his rented home, when Bob shot him in the back of the head. Zerelda and their two children were in another room.

Jesse’s ghost lived on, with rumours he had faked his own death persisting for over a century. In 1995, his grave was exhumed and DNA testing confirmed the celebrated outlaw’s remains were almost certainly inside.