Best known as the “dirty little coward” that killed Jesse James, Robert Newton Ford, was born January 31, 1862, in Ray County, Missouri, one of seven children of James Thomas Ford and Mary Ann Bruin. The wiry young boy became enamored of the daring exploits of Jesse James and finally got a chance to meet him in 1880. He and his older brother, Charles, began hanging on to the James Gang’s outer fringes. By this time, the ranks of the outlaw gang members had been diminished due to deaths, captures, and men simply moving on to other endeavors. So, when the two brothers wanted to join the gang, Jesse let them; however, neither played a very large role.
Charles allegedly participated in the Blue Cut robbery near Glendale, Missouri, on September 7, 1881. It was to be the last train robbery of the James Gang, netting the six members some $3,000 in cash and jewelry taken from the passengers. Also participating in the robbery were Frank and Jesse James, Dick Liddel, and brothers Clarence and Wood Hite.
Of Robert Ford’s participation in any of the James Gang robberies, there is no record, and he was thought to be mostly a “hanger-on,” doing odd jobs and maybe holding the horses while the others perpetrated the crime.
A few months later, in November 1881, Jesse moved his wife and family to St. Joseph, Missouri, renting a house in the name of J.D. Howard. As a member of the respected community, Jesse had plans to take up a straight-and-narrow life. However, he wanted to pull off one last bank robbery of a bank in Platte County, Missouri, hoping to make enough money to retire and become a gentleman farmer.
But, the State of Missouri had had enough, and about this same time, Missouri Governor Thomas Crittendon rewarded $10,000 for any information leading to the capture of Frank or Jesse James.
In January 1882, two James Gang members — Wood Hite and Dick Liddel, on the run from the law, took refuge in the home of Martha Bolton, Bob Ford’s widowed sister. One day at breakfast, Hite and Liddel began to argue while Ford sat by watching. The dispute soon accelerated with the feuding pair drawing their guns. The sound of four rapid shots from Hite’s gun soon echoed through the room, one of which struck Liddel in the leg. Dick returned the fire, falling to the floor and hitting Hite in the arm. In the meantime, Bob Ford drew his gun and, being Liddel’s close friend, fired one shot, hitting Hite in the head. Collapsing to the floor, Wood Hite died just a few minutes later. Ford then wrapped the corpse in a blanket, carried it outside, and, placing it on a mule, took it into the woods, where he buried Hite in a shallow, unmarked grave. This killing, coupled with Ford’s greed and desire for notoriety, would be a death sentence for Jesse James.
When word of the shooting reached authorities, Ford was arrested, but when he informed detectives that he had access to the much-wanted Jesse James, he was released. Next, Ford secretly met with Missouri Governor Thomas T. Crittenden, who told him that if he killed the notorious outlaw, he would receive a full pardon for the Hite murder and the killing of James and the reward money. Ford agreed to perform the deed and next met with the Sheriff of Clay County, where the two formulated a plan to get Jesse James.
By March of 1882, some James Gang members began to turn themselves in, leaving Jesse with little left to plan a bank robbery besides Charlie and Bob Ford. Though he instinctively distrusted Robert Ford, he followed through, and on the morning of April 3, 1882, he was having breakfast with the Ford brothers in his home.
Afterward, the men went to the parlor, where Jesse outlined his plans to rob the Platte City, Missouri Bank. When Jesse noticed that a framed needlepoint picture, done by his mother, was hanging crookedly on the wall, he stood on a chair to adjust the picture. Suddenly he heard the sound of Bob Ford’s cocked pistol and turned slightly. Bob then shot Jesse just below the right ear, and Jesse toppled to the floor dead. Jesse was 34 years old.
Initially, Ford was charged with murdering both Wood Hite and Jesse James, but true to his word; Governor Crittenden pardoned him while he stood trial for the murder.
As to the money, he received only a fraction of the reward. Returning to their hometown of Richmond, Missouri, Bob, and Charles were not greeted kindly, as residents found the killing of Jesse James so distasteful that they made life unbearable for the two brothers.
When he heard that Frank James was searching for them and planned to kill them in revenge for his brother’s death, Charles Ford began to move from town to town. For the next two years, he ran like a scared rabbit, changing his name several times until finally, he could take it no more and committed suicide in 1884.
In the meantime, Bob Ford capitalized on his betrayal of Jesse James, taking to the stage and appearing in an act entitled Outlaws of Missouri. Night after night, Ford retold his story, carefully omitting that he had shot James in the back. But, this charade was short-lived as he was greeted with catcalls, jeers, hoots, and challenges. Ford later took off to Las Vegas, New Mexico, where he operated a saloon for a time before moving on to Creede, Colorado.
Sometime after arriving in Creede, Ford was in a saloon providing a boxing fight and betting heavily on the prizefighter who lost; he became furious. In a drunken rage, he decided he would kill the prizefighter, and in preparation, he and a man named Joe Palmer, a member of the Soapy Smith gang, began to shoot out windows and street lamps along Main Street. Soapy Smith helped Ford and Palmer escape before they could be arrested. The two men were banned from returning, but with the help of friends and business partners, they were soon allowed to back into Creede.
On May 29, 1892, he opened a Ford’s Exchange dance hall. But luck was not with Ford, and just six days later, on June 6, the entire business district, including Ford’s dancehall, burned to the ground. Wasting no time, Bob reopened another saloon a few days later makeshift-shift tent.
The very next day, June 8, in walked a man named Edward O’Kelley with a sawed-off shotgun. As Ford’s back was to the door, O’Kelley said, “Hello, Bob,” and as Ford turned around to see who had addressed him, O’Kelley shot him with both barrels, killing him instantly. Some historians speculate that Soapy Smith was involved in Ford’s death, perhaps talking O’Kelley into the act. Ford was buried in Creede but was later exhumed and reburied in his hometown of Richmond, Missouri.
In the meantime, O’Kelley was arrested and tried for murder. He was convicted and given a twenty-year sentence in the Colorado Penitentiary. However, after serving ten years, he was released in 1902. Two years later, in January 1904, lawmen shot O’Kelley down in the streets of Oklahoma City.
“Bob Ford, I don’t trust; I think he is a sneak, but Charlie Ford is as true as steel.”
— Jesse James