Jesse James – Folklore Hero or Cold-Blooded Killer?

Lawrence, Kansas Massacre

Lawrence, Kansas Massacre

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. The conflict is known as the Lawrence Massacre.

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 guerrilla 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 fewer 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 into the community and they robbed the passengers.

"Bloody Bill" Anderson

“Bloody Bill” Anderson

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, Missouri 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.

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. Afterward, 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 Mimms James

Zerelda Mimms James

Jesse 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.)

Pinkerton Agents

Pinkerton Agents

Not limiting who they robbed or killed, sometimes innocent bystanders 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.

In fact, they could be ruthless. On December 7, 1869, the gang held up the Davies County Savings Bank in Gallatin, Missouri. The teller, a man by the name of John Sheets, was a former Union officer who was said to have been involved in the death of “Bloody” Bill Anderson. Jesse hated him and shot the man in the back of the head. When clerk William McDowell ran for the door, he too was shot but survived the whole affair. Making off with only $700, a $3,000 reward was placed on their heads.

Jesse James

Jesse James

By the early 1870s, robbing banks was getting riskier as banks increased their security with time lock vaults. But that didn’t slow down the gang – they turned to stagecoach and train robbery.

The James-Younger Gang robbed their first train near Adair, Iowa on July 21, 1873. During the robbery, they wrecked the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad Train and overturned the engine. The train engineer died in the accident and the gang made off with $3,000 from passengers and funds retrieved from the express car.

By 1874 Jesse’s crimes were a chief issue in Missouri’s campaign: whether or not to suppress outlawry so that “capital and immigration can once again enter our state.”  But nothing was done; his raids continued.

After nine years of courtship, Jesse James married Zerelda Mimms, on April 24, 1874. The wedding ceremony was performed by Methodist Minister William James, Jesse’s uncle and held in Kansas City. While honeymooning with his bride Zee on the Gulf of Mexico at Galveston, Texas, a reporter from the St. Louis Dispatch, did what the Pinkertons had failed to do, track down Jesse.

In June of 1874, Frank married Annie Ralston in Omaha, Nebraska. Though the brothers settled down for a time with their new brides, the gang was blamed for almost every bank, stagecoach, or train robbery that occurred almost anywhere in the west. Zerelda, the ever protective mother, began her own public relations campaign, spreading the folksy tales of the James gang and their roles as Robin Hood figures, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor.

2 thoughts on “Jesse James – Folklore Hero or Cold-Blooded Killer?”

  1. I love the way Kathy Weiser cleans up this story to cover up the truth. Yes, a lot of what she said is true but a lot of things were left out to disguise the truth as well. I especially like the way she calls the Kansas Jayhawkers a “community.” They were a community like MS 13 is a community. Much like right now, in our present political climate, things were heating up between the polar opposites of the North and South. They had fundamental differences that could have been handled by a strong leader which Abe Lincoln was not. Just as we see violence heating up in our country now, violence began to escalate at the Missouri Kansas border. Since the Confederate states were falling into disfavor with the new vocal abolitionists, Kansas took it upon itself to begin raiding confed Mo. a full 2 years before war was ever declared. They burned homes, killed and raped citizens and stole millions of dollars worth of property and hauled it by wagon loads to their center of operations in Lawrence Kansas. This is why the James boys and others did a raid on the city. The people of this city were getting rich off the stolen property of the people of Missouri. This was conveniently left out by the author, Kathy Weiser. The government did not stop any of this carnage by Kansas. Bloody Bill Anderson’s two little sisters, aged 10 and 12 were kidnapped and held in a shack which collapsed on them killing one and paralyzing the other. This is when Bill Anderson got his new name. Cole Younger’s father was murdered delivering the mail. Jesse James was nearly beaten to death when he was 15 years old and plowing corn. His stepfather who was a doctor was strung up in a tree to hang, but somehow survived. William Quantril was a school teacher. Jim Younger was the son of a wealthy Missouri farmer. He didn’t need to rob stage coaches. After the war, Jesse James tried to surrender to the authorities but was shot in the chest holding up a white flag. After this, they all went outlaw. I don’t blame them one damn bit. By the way, I am a direct descendant of Jesse James and proud of it. Looks like me and my kids are just in time for the second civil war. Bring it on. We need some more heroes in the family.

    1. With sincere, due respect… you are not seeing the forest for the trees when you make a broad comment on Kathy’s intentions as our editor from one single article. You should broaden your knowledge of us and how we have presented the border war. I suggest starting with Bleeding Kansas & the Missouri Border War, and then visit the Civil War main page for additional articles. We have strived to present both sides fairly, and look at this horrible period through a “historical” lens only. As for the rest, I pray neither of us ever see the horrors of Civil War and suggest you make sure to make your feelings known at the ballot box, whatever you believe.

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