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Jesse James - Folklore Hero or Cold-Blooded Killer?

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Jesse James in 1864When 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 Wild West, 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.


In early 1850, the Reverend James was asked to serve as chaplain on a wagon train of local men headed west to 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.


Zerelda JamesZerelda 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.


A 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, Jesse 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.



In 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 WarMissouri  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.


Though Missouri voted against a secession from the Union, there were a significant number of people with Confederate sympathies in the state which led to the formation of two separate governments with different allegiances. The James 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 Confederacy.


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. 

William Clark QuantrillWhile 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 October, 1861.


At some point after the battle Frank returned home, presumably because of injury or illness. There he was arrested by a local militia of Union 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 Ranger's of William Clark Quantrill. Quantrill's Raiders were Confederacy supporters who used Guerrilla tactics. They were active in the Border War between Missouri and Kansas 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 Lawrence, Kansas - the location of his most infamous destruction.


Early on the morning of August 21, 1863, Quantrill along with his murderous force of about 300, descended on the still sleeping town of Lawrence. Incensed by the free-state headquarters town, Quantrill set out on his revenge against the Jayhawker community.


Frank and Jesse James as boys

Frank and Jesse James in Carrolton, Illinois.

This image available for photographic prints  and downloads HERE!

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 Jesse was 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.


William "Bloody Bill" AndersonNo 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 destroyed.

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.

Both Frank and Jesse 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. Jesse 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 Union 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.


Though the 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.


Zerelda Mims JamesJesse was living in Kansas City, Missouri with his aunt in 1865, when he fell in love with his cousin, Zerelda Mimms. Zerelda's 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.


He 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.


Jesse 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.


The first James-Younger bank 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 George 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 Detective Agency.


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 Robin Hood. 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 fact.


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"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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