Who Was Jesse James?
Jesse James and his brother Frank served for the Confederate Army before embarking on criminal careers in the Old West. The James brothers made a name for themselves as bank and train robbers, leading the James-Younger gang. Gang member Robert Ford killed Jesse James in 1882, after which James became a legend of the Old West.
American outlaw, robber and legendary figure Jesse Woodson James was born on September 5, 1847, in Kearney, Missouri.
Jesse and his brother Frank James were educated and hailed from a prestigious family of farmers. Their father, the Reverend Robert James, was a Baptist minister who married Zerelda Cole James and moved from Kentucky to Missouri in 1842. In the summer of 1863, the James farm was brutally attacked by Union soldiers.
Jesse was 16 when he and Frank became Confederate guerrilla soldiers, riding alongside William Quantrill and “Bloody Bill” Anderson.
Partners in Crime
Some historians accuse Jesse and Frank of being cruel to Union soldiers, while others argue that it was the brutal treatment the brothers received that turned them to a life of crime. Either way, they rebelled against harsh postwar civil legislation and took the law into their own hands. They began robbing trains, stagecoaches and banks that were owned or operated by a Northern institution.
There has been speculation that the boys and their gangs were like Robin Hood, robbing the rich and giving to the poor, but there is no evidence for that. Most likely, they kept the money for themselves. From 1860 to 1882, the James Gang was the most feared band of outlaws in American history, responsible for more than 20 bank and train robberies and the murders of countless individuals who stood in their way. They stole an estimated $200,000. They were legends in their own time, popular in Missouri for actively trying to further the Confederate cause.
On December 7, 1869, the gang robbed the Gallatin, Missouri, bank. Jesse asked to change a $100 bill, and thinking that the banker was responsible for the death of Bloody Bill, shot the man in the heart. Local newspapers labeled the actions vicious and bloodthirsty and called for the gang’s capture. From that robbery to the end of their careers, members of the James Gang had a price on their heads, dead or alive.
In 1874, Jesse married his longtime sweetheart and first cousin, Zerelda, and had two children. Both James brothers were known as good family men who loved their wives and spent time with their children, but they still continued their life of crime.
Though protected by their community, they were always on the move. Even after other members of the gang had been killed, and their friends the Youngers had been sent to prison for 25 years, in 1879, the James brothers planned one more robbery with Charlie and Bob Ford. Little did they know that Governor Crittenden of Missouri had put together a reward fund so large that the Fords had turned traitor to earn it.
After breakfast on April 3, 1882, Jesse turned to straighten a picture on a wall of his home, and Bob shot Jesse in the back of the head. Jesse died instantly at age 34. People in Missouri were outraged at the method used to capture him and considered it a cowardly assassination. Within three months, Frank surrendered to Crittenden. The juries would not convict on the meager evidence, so Frank resumed a quiet life.
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