Jesse James: Death of a Wild West Outlaw

Outlaw Jesse James was murdered in his Missouri home by fellow gang member Robert Ford on this day in 1882. Learn more about his notorious life and death.
Icons of the Wild West: Jesse James

Icons of the Wild West: Jesse James

Jesse James was no hero, despite what the dime novels depicted, nor did he have a charitable Robin Hood complex as some may have suggested. James, along with his younger brother Frank, were out to get rich by breaking all the rules. The brothers were Confederate guerrillas during the Civil War and for 10 years (1866-1876) led a gang that infamously robbed banks and murdered throughout the Midwest.

But on April 3, 1882 Jesse James' robbing and killing spree would come to an end. Hungry for notoriety and the $10,000 reward money promised to him by Missouri Governor Thomas T. Crittenden, fellow gang member Robert Ford decided to betray and murder James in cold blood.

Agreeing to do one last bank heist with James, Robert and his brother Charley had gone over to James' house to discuss logistics. While reading the newspaper, James learned that one of their fellow gang members (and Ford's friend), Dick Liddil, confessed to helping kill Wood Hite, who was James' cousin. (It was Ford who actually shot Hite.) Surprised that the Ford Brothers hadn't mentioned the matter, James became suspicious of them but didn't say a word. Instead, he walked over to the living room and began cleaning a dusty picture on the wall. As legend has it, it was then that Robert Ford cocked his pistol and shot James in the back of the head.

Jesse James was dead at the age of 34.

As secretly promised to the Ford Brothers, Governor Crittenden immediately pardoned them for the murder of James, but the swiftness of the pardon were bad optics for them, and the two fled Missouri despite only receiving a small portion of the prize money. Charley eventually committed suicide in 1884, but as for Robert — some might say his demise was karmic. After hopscotching from town to town, Ford opened up a saloon in Creede, Colorado. In June 1892 a man named Edward O'Kelley walked into his saloon, offered him a quick greeting ("Hello, Bob"), and then shot him dead with a sawed off shotgun. Ford died instantly.

Jesse James' gravesite is located in Kearney, Missouri. His mother had the following epitaph inscribed for him: "In Loving Memory of my Beloved Son, Murdered by a Traitor and Coward Whose Name is not Worthy to Appear Here."