Missouri ~ Jesse James, Bandit or Folk Hero?
Jesse James and his brother Frank were born during the strife of the Civil War in American history and circumstances helped to shape their lives. Were they folk heroes as some thought or were they simply robbers and bandits who had gone astray?
The legends about these two brothers are widespread and persist despite facts.
The log cabin part of the home in Kearney, Missouri was where Jesse was born in 1847 to Zerelda and Robert James.
Robert James was a Baptist preacher who ended up owning a 275 acre farm with some sheep and cattle. They also had seven slaves who assisted with the farm labor.
The (Jesse) James FarmhouseClick thumbnail to view full-size
Robert left his family consisting of three children and wife behind to join in the California gold rush in 1850 which is where he died at age 32 of some gold camp plague.
Although his family was left rather well off for that day and time, this left his children fatherless.
Zerelda was a strong willed woman from all accounts and her boys could do no wrong in her opinion.
Zerelda married a local farmer by the name of Benjamin Simms but apparently he was not a good father figure and a divorce would have ensued, but he died prior to that occurrence.
Her third marriage was more successful. Dr. Reuben Samuel was a physician who preferred to be engaged in farming.
This suited Zerelda as she liked her husband to stay closer to home than her first minister husband had been able to do.
The Samuel's proceeded to have 4 children together. At the time of the first birth, a girl by the name of Sarah, Jesse was already 11 years of age and his brother Frank was almost 16.
Narrated history of Jesse James
Jesse and Frank were hearty farm boys and they quite naturally learned how to hunt and became proficient at handling guns and knives. The James boys had also grown up knowing how to ride horses.
But circumstances were about to change their normal rural farming existence. The ensuing Civil War would not only leave scars all across the American landscape, but it forever changed this family.
The American Civil War
Missouri was a so called border state leading up to the Civil War. There were anti-slavery states surrounding them on three sides. In Clay County where Jesse and his family lived, 25% of the population were slaves. So this was a well developed way of life for these farmers and they weren't about to be ordered and told that they would have to change their means of making a living.
Pro and anti-slavery militias had been formed and much guerrilla warfare ensued between the border states with civilians being killed and homes being ransacked and looted. Emotions were high and one dastardly act gave reason for another to be initiated.
Missouri ultimately sided with the North and the Union but families were torn apart in making the decision of which side to take on this issue. The slaves were well treated on the James Farm and even stayed there by choice after the Civil War was ended and they were officially freed.
Frank James (Jesse's older brother) had joined the secessionist Frank Drew Lobbs Army and fought on the Confederate side. He fought at the battle of Wilson's Creek but soon became ill and went home to recover.
Frank was not at home when soldiers from the Union army tried to capture him. They supposedly whipped Jesse; abused his mother and hung his step-father twice in an effort to gain information about Frank's whereabouts all to no avail. This certainly spurred Jesse's hatred of the Union side and he soon joined guerrillas fighting for the Confederates.
His step-father did not die at that time. Jesse's mother nursed him back to health but he was never mentally the same after the attempted hangings.
Jesse did his part to fight against the Union soldiers and was almost killed with a severe chest wound in the process. A cousin of his helped nurse him back to health and that cousin Zerelda eventually became his wife bearing him two children.
After the Civil War, the brothers joined in with other discontented young men and formed gangs who started robbing banks, stagecoaches and trains.
Jesse and his gang were outlaws and became well known for their escapades of bank hold ups and other robberies. Unfortunately over the course of time some bank clerks were killed during the commission of their crimes.
John Newman Edwards who was the editor and founder of the Kansas City Times newspaper had agreed to publish letters from Jesse James stating his being innocent of charges. Jesse laid out the case that he was not responsible for the crimes of which he was accused and this may have actually been correct in many instances.
The public who read these newspapers started to identify with Jesse James and his brother Frank who repeated many times that they would turn themselves in to authorities except for the fact that they feared instant retribution and felt as though they would never get a fair trial.
As the legend grew of the James Gang and the James - Younger Gang (which Frank and Jesse had also joined at one time), they were blamed for robberies all the way from Iowa to Texas and from Kansas to West Virginia. They literally could not have been in all those places at the same time according to eyewitness accounts placing them at each robbery. Thus their reputations kept growing.
The Pinkerton National Detective Agency was enlisted to try and capture Jesse James and other members of the gang. He had escaped often and at one point, Allan Pinkerton took on the assignment almost as if it was a personal vendetta.
Large rewards were placed upon their heads for their capture.
At one point the Pinkerton Agency got word that Jesse was in his home and an explosive incendiary device was thrown into the house. As was the case in so many instances, the tip was wrong and Jesse was not there.
But the explosion killed his half brother Archie and damage to his mother's arm caused it to be amputated in order to save her life.
Of course the newspapers picked up this account and the public outcry resulted in rewards ultimately being reduced when posting wanted fliers.
In the meantime stories flourished...most of them fictional...regarding the James brothers and their escapades. Some of the accounts portrayed them as good guys who only robbed from the rich giving to the poor. None of this can be documented as ever having actually taken place.
After both brothers had married they tried to settle down living under assumed names. They each had families and children at this point in their lives. Jesse used the name of Thomas Howard. Frank, his brother, became known as B.J. Woodson.
But the lure of doing occasional robberies was in Jesse's blood. Many of his other gang members had been captured through the years or killed.
He had taken up with a couple of brothers by the names of Robert and Charley Ford. Unbeknown to Jesse, Robert was in collusion with the Governor of Missouri to claim the reward for capturing Jesse James.
One day when Jesse and the Ford brothers were making preparations for another robbery, Jesse supposedly stopped to dust a picture frame inside his home. Bob Ford took the opportunity to shoot Jesse in the back of his head and Jesse died.
He was identified by his Civil War wounds and the tip of a finger that was missing. The public was incensed at this cowardly act. The Ford brothers were actually charged with murder but were exonerated in the end.
His mother Zerelda Samuel had his body buried on the James Farm where she could keep watch over it. She was afraid because of the notoriety people might have tried to snatch Jesse's body. Crowds of people did come to visit Jesse's grave and Zerelda was there to tell each person the story of her very good son who had been forced to become a person living outside of the law due to circumstances beyond his control.
An interesting side note: The average coffin in those days cost $25. Jesse's coffin cost $250 and was paid for by the State of Missouri as Jesse was considered to be somewhat of a hero.
Frank James who lived quietly finally gave himself up to the law and with the help of a brilliant legal team was acquitted of all charges. He ended up his life hosting thousands of visitors to the farm where he and his famous brother had grown up.
Jesse's body was finally moved into the town of Kearney to rest beside his wife upon her death and was interred in the Mt. Olivet Cemetery in 1902. He has a Confederate gravestone marking the head of his grave and that of his wife.
My mother, niece and I visited his grave as well as his the graves of his half brother, Archie and his mother and step-father when we stopped in Kearney to learn more about Jesse James and see his birthplace.
Because of so many romanticized versions of stories told and the Robin Hood image that was portrayed, the legend of Jesse James and his brother Frank will continue to live. His story is forever intertwined with the Civil War and its aftermath.
What do you think of Jesse James?
Jesse James (movie) trailer
© 2009 Peggy Woods