Jesse James - Folklore Hero or Cold-Blooded Killer?
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When Jesse James was still alive, America already loved him, for in him,
there was adventure in an otherwise dull, slowly-turning-scientific age.
Late in America’s second century, the man rebelled against a society that
he didn’t like and became a folk hero. In the mid 1860’s
journalists, eager to entertain Easterners with tales of the
exaggerated and romanticized the gang’s heists. Jesse James was touted as
being the modern day Robin Hood because it was said that he robbed from the rich and was
kind to the poor.
At the time, his exploits
were relished by those who could do no more than fantasize about
living such an adventurous life. This obviously remains true today, as
thousands of people are intrigued by not only Jesse James, but by the
many outlaws who carved out the western frontier.
However, while Jesse was many things,
including being a sometimes kind man, a dapper dresser, and a prankish
charmer, he was also a cold-blooded murderer, robber, horse thief, and terrorist. He and his gang were very dangerous men.
Jesse James' parents, Robert Sallee James and Zerelda Elizabeth Cole
James were originally from Stamping Ground, Kentucky where the two met
at a revival meeting. Married on December 28, 1841, Robert James
continued his schooling and graduated from Georgetown College. After Robert’s graduation the young family relocated to the
Centerville area of Clay County,
Missouri. Centerville would later be known as Kearney.
With the help of neighbors, Robert and Zerelda, "Zee”, as she was more
commonly known, built a log cabin in the wilderness and began to carve
out a farm. Robert became the pastor of a small Baptist Church
outside of Kearney. Reverend James was a well-liked and
respected man in the community who helped found William Jewel College
in Liberty, Missouri. Zee, who stood six feet tall, was known as a
hard-working, strong-willed farm woman. Their first son, Alexander
Franklin "Frank” James was born at the family farm on January 10,
1843. Three more children quickly followed. Robert James,
Jr. was born at the farm on July 19, 1845 but died just 33 days later. Jesse Woodson James was born on September 5, 1847 and Susan Lavenia
James was born on November 25, 1849.
early 1850, the Reverend James was asked to serve as chaplain on a
wagon train of local men headed west
California in search of gold. On April 12 he left the farm
in Zee’s care and headed west with the intent of preaching to the
crowds of gold miners who had gathered there. The minister never
made it back to Missouri.
Shortly after arriving in California
on August 1, 1850, the Reverend contracted a fever, as a result of
drinking contaminated water. On August 18, 1850 the minister died of
cholera at a Placerville, California
gold camp and was buried in an unmarked grave.
Years later Jesse
would go in search of his father’s resting place but was unsuccessful.
Zerelda inherited the farm
which she continued to own until her own death years later. But for the
moment she was a widow, left with three young children. Frank, the oldest
one was seven years old when his father died.
married a second time to man named Benjaman Simms, a neighboring
farmer on September 10, 1852. The marriage proved to be an unhappy one, mainly
because of Simms' behavior towards the two boys. His lack of affection
for them and his use of corporal punishment which Zerelda did not
approve of, resulted in the failure of the marriage. Zee was a
woman of strong opinions who fiercely guarded her sons from criticism. After a series of arguments between the couple Zerelda started
procedures for a divorce, an unusual move for the time. This didn't
prove necessary since Simms was killed on
January 2, 1854 in a horse accident.
third marriage to Dr. Archie Reuben Samuel took place in 1855. The physician was well-to-do, docile, and allowed his wife to make the
important family decisions. When it came to the children, Zee
made all the decisions. Dr. Samuels purchased additional
adjoining property and the James’ holdings grew. The family
purchased slaves to help them in the running of the farm.
In his youth, Frank
was said to be a taciturn, withdrawn Bible-reading boy. He developed
an interest in his late father’s sizeable library, particularly the
works of William Shakespeare. Frank
reportedly wanted to become a school teacher. Quite to the contrary,
was described as generous, noble-hearted, and assertive, with a
prankish charm. Dr. Samuel taught both boys horse-riding and
shooting skills. Both boys worked on the farm through their
teenage years, enjoying a normal family life.
1861, when Frank
turned eighteen, any thoughts of pursuing a higher education came to
an end when Missouri became rife with the conflict and violence of the
Civil War. Missouri was torn in two directions – the majority of the state’s settlers
came from the south, yet her economy was linked directly to the north.
voted against a secession from the
Union, there were a
of people with
Confederate sympathies in the state which led to the
formation of two separate governments with different allegiances. The
family, on both the paternal and maternal sides, had been slave-owners for
years which formed their allegiance. Missourians would serve in the
armies of both sides of the war until its end in 1865; Frank
joined the Missouri State Guard on May 4, 1861, fighting for the
In 1862, the
illegitimate son of Dr. Archie Reuban Samuel
is born out of wedlock by one of the slaves. The mulatto boy was
raised as part of the Samuel family.
While in the
Missouri State Guard,
Frank served in
the Battle of Lexington where an estimated 1,774 Union troops lost their
lives. A large victory for the State Guard, the Confederates took
control of Southwestern Missouri in
At some point after the battle Frank returned home, presumably
because of injury or illness. There he was arrested by a local militia of
supporters. He was released when he signed a statement of allegiance to
the Union. But by July, 1862 he had instead joined the Missouri Partisan
William Clark Quantrill. Quantrill's
Raiders were Confederacy supporters who used Guerrilla tactics. They were
active in the
War between Missouri and
were attacking both the regular Union army and various militia of Union
supporters active in the two states.
Quantrill's raids gained
the attention of other desperados. By 1863, Quantrill recruited others
who joined his company including
"Bloody” Bill Anderson, the
James brothers, and the
Younger Brothers. In the summer of 1863 Quantrill set his sites on
Kansas - the location of his most
Early on the morning of August 21, 1863,
Quantrill along with his
murderous force of about 300, descended on the still sleeping town of
Incensed by the free-state headquarters town, Quantrill set out on his
revenge against the Jayhawker community.
and Jesse James
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In this carefully orchestrated early morning raid he and
his band, in four terrible hours, turned the town into a bloody and
blazing inferno unparallel in its brutality.
Quantrill and his
bushwhacker mob of raiders began their reign of terror at 5:00 a.m.,
looting and burning as they went, bent on total destruction of the town,
then less than 3,000 residents.
By the time it was over, they had killed approximately 180
men, and left Lawrence nothing more than smoldering ruins.
Frank James and Cole Younger were with
Quantrill during the raid. Though there is no evidence that
with the murderous party, he was said to have bragged about it later.
Just three months after the Lawrence raid, a party of
Union soldiers invaded the Samuel farm looking for
information about the location of Quantrill's
camp. Jesse, who was just fifteen at the time, was questioned, then horse-whipped when
he refused to answer the soldiers’ questions.
Dr. Samuel, who also denied knowing where the raiders' camp was located, was dragged from his house and was repeatedly hanged from a tree in
the yard. Somehow, the doctor managed to survive the interrogation.
No doubt out of hatred and anger over this event,
Jesse joined "Bloody” Bill Anderson’s guerilla forces at the age of sixteen. "Bloody Bill” was a
Quantrill lieutenant who led a raid on Centralia,
Missouri on September 27, 1864. More than 100 armed guerillas descended upon Centralia, a community of less than 100 people, intent
upon robbing the train. While waiting for the train, they terrorized local civilians, robbing and burning stores and killing a civilian who had attempted to defend a young woman.
The stage from Columbia came in to the community and they robbed the passengers.
When the train finally arrived,
twenty-four unarmed and wounded
Union soldiers were dragged from the
train by the frenzied ruffians and were murdered in front of the
horrified citizens of the town. The guerrillas then set fire to
the Centralia depot, sacked and set fire to the train and then sent it
on its way, west, with no crew aboard, to later crash and be
The band of
guerrillas was followed by an experienced Federal Infantry, led by
Union Major A.V.E. Johnson. About three miles south of Centralia, the
Union forces were
bushwhacked by the band and were nearly annihilated. Over 120
federal troops were killed. Only three of the guerrilla forces were
reported to have been killed in the battle.
were part of the battle south of Centralia, though it is disputed that
they took part in the massacre of unarmed soldiers earlier in the day.
is said to have killed Union Major Johnson, and is "credited” with taking the lives of seven
other men on that tragic day. (paragraph updated April 2012)
In late the spring of 1865, Jesse
rode into Lexington, Missouri carrying a white flag. He
was shot in the chest when he attempted to surrender by occupying
troops. Afterwards, he went to Rulo, Nebraska to recuperate from his
wound before returning to Missouri.
The vicious violence of the Civil War
had taken its toll upon Missouri. A total of 1,162 battles
and skirmishes were fought in the state during the official years of the
Civil War, a total exceeded only by Virginia and Tennessee.
James family were slave
owners, they were said to have been kind to their slaves, often allowing
the children to sleep in the main house. When the war was over, the
former slaves remained at the farm long after they were set free.
Jesse was living in Kansas City,
Missouri with his aunt in 1865, when he
fell in love with his cousin, Zerelda Mimms.
mother was the sister
of Robert James, Jesse James' father, making them first cousins. Zee, as she was more familiarly
called, was actually named for Jesse's mother. This; however , did not stop the
pair from beginning to court.
was known as a very reliable young man, always dressing well, reading his
bible and regularly attending church. He never swore or took the Lord’s
name in vain, preferring when he was angry to make up his own swear words.
His favorite was "Dingus", which his brother Frank quickly nicknamed him.
With the bloody war finally over, Frank and Jesse
turned to outlawry. Claiming to have been forced into a life
of crime because the family had been persecuted during the war,
Frank and Jesse
became the leaders of a band of
outlaws which included the
Younger Brothers, Jim Reed, and other ex-Confederates.
justified much of his actions by his hatred of the Industrial
North, feeling as if he were continuing the fight through his
outlaw activities. Beginning in 1866, the gang robbed their
way across the
Western frontier for the next fifteen years.
robbery occurred on February 13, 1866 at the Clay County Saving
Association Bank in Liberty, Missouri. The first
daylight robbery during peacetime, the gang made off with over
$60,000 in cash and bonds in bonds. As they made their escape, gunfire
erupted and an innocent 17 year-old boy, by the name of
Wymore, was killed.
For the next several years, the gang continued in their crime spree
robbing 8 more banks and a Kansas City Ticket office before robbing
their first train. (See the list of banks on the
James Gang Timeline.)
Not limiting who they robbed or killed, sometimes innocent by-standers
were wounded or lost their lives while witnessing one of their crimes.
During these years, the gang was constantly trailed by the Pinkerton
Despite their criminal and
often violent acts, James and his partners were much adored. In 1866
and 1867 John Newman contributed to the fame of the outlaws by writing
glorifying articles and "dime novels.” Journalists, eager to
entertain Easterners with tales of a wild West, exaggerated and
romanticized the gang's heists, often casting James as a contemporary
While James did harass railroad executives who unjustly seized private
land for the railways, modern biographers note that he did so for
personal gain. Any humanitarian acts were more fiction than
"Jesse James (partly)
turned to crime as a means of exacting revenge on all things Yankee"
-- Time-Life Books' The Wild West.
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