Jesse James – Folklore Hero or Cold-Blooded Killer?

James Home in Kearny, Missouri by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

James Home in Kearney, Missouri by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

By 1875, Alan Pinkerton had become infuriated by the agency’s failure to arrest even a single member of the gang. The agency had been hired in 1871 by several bankers and railroad owners to track down the deadly James-Younger Gang. In January 1875 a Pinkerton agent Jack Ladd was posing as a field hand at work on the farm across the road from the James Farm. The farm, belonging to neighbor Dan Askew, served as a hideout for the Pinkerton spy. One afternoon, the agent thought he spotted Jesse and Frank at the farmhouse, though actually the brothers were miles away.

On January 26, six Pinkerton reinforcements surrounded the farmhouse and tossed a smoke bomb into the house, in an attempt to lure them out.

Archie Samuel

Archie Samuel

However, Archie Samuel, thinking it was a loose stick from the fire, tossed it “back” into the fireplace and the “bomb” exploded. The blast killed the young boy and wounded Zerelda’s hand so badly; she later had to have it amputated.

Contemporary newspaper reports of the time simply reported the device as a “bomb” and the public was incensed. However, the public wasn’t the only ones who were angry. On April 12, 1875, Dan Askew, the neighbor who had sheltered Jack Ladd, the Pinkerton Spy, was found with a bullet in his brain at his home. Later in the same month, Jack Ladd was also found shot and killed.

After moving around for a while, Jesse and Zee welcomed their first child – Jesse Edward on August 31, 1875, on a leased farm near Waverly, Missouri. Jesse and Zee used the aliases, Thomas and Mary Howard. Jesse dyed his light-colored hair dark and grew a beard to conceal his real identity while laying low for many months, and took to farming with his wife. But, not for long. It was at this farm where the plans for the Northfield Minnesota Raid were devised.

The James Brothers, the three Younger Brothers, two Quantrill veterans named Clell Miller and Charlie Pitts and a local outlaw named Bill Chadwell all traveled north, lured by Chadwell’s tales of easy pickings in his home state. Right down Jesse’s alley, he liked the idea of taking on a northern bank. Planning on making Mankato their first target, Jesse was recognized and they quickly left town.

Northfield, Minnesota Raid

Northfield, Minnesota Raid

Riding in pairs, they headed for Northfield, 50 miles to the northeast. Meeting on the outskirts of town on September 6, 1876, they cased the First National Bank, making plans to rob it first thing in the morning.

Two days before Jesse’s 29th birthday, on September 7, 1876, the James-Younger Gang attempted to rob the First National Bank of Northfield, Minnesota. The attempted robbery was to be the demise of the infamous James-Younger Gang. When ordered to open the safe, bank cashier, Heyman, refused to do so and ducked down.

Angered, Jesse put a pistol to his head and shot him. The shot was heard beyond the bank and when the bank alarm began to go off the Northfield citizens opened fire upon the gang. Charley Pitts and Bill Chadwell were killed. Cole, Jim and Bob Younger were badly wounded but managed to escape. However, they were captured just one week later, just east of Mankato. The Younger Brothers were sentenced to life terms in prison. Frank and Jesse escaped back to Missouri, unharmed.

Jesse James Family

Jesse James Family

On February 6, 1878, Frank and Annie James give birth to Robert James and on June 17, 1879, Jesse and Zee gave birth to a daughter they named Mary Susan who was born in Nashville, Tennessee where Jesse and Zee stayed with Frank and Annie for a time.

With new gang members, the robberies continued over the next several years including a stage hold-up near Mammoth Cave, Kentucky and a bank robbery in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and a train robbery in Winston, Missouri.

Jesse James Home in St. Joseph, Missouri

Jesse James Home in St. Joseph, Missouri

Shortly after the gang’s last train robbery on September 7, 1881, at Glendale, Missouri, Jesse moved his family to St. Joseph, Missouri. Renting a house on 1318 Lafayette Street on December 24, 1881, the family settled in under Jesse’s assumed name of Tom Howard. With a $10,000 reward over his head, Zee tried to get Jesse to take on a more normal life. And Jesse agreed, right after one last great bank robbery in Platte County, Missouri. Jesse had finally decided to retire, hopefully with enough money to become a gentleman farmer.

Planning the robbery with Bob and Charles Ford, whom Jesse had worked with in the past, the Ford brothers visited the James home in St. Joseph on the morning of April 3, 1882. Outlining his plans for the robbery with Bob and Charles in the parlor of his home, Jesse noticed that a framed needlepoint picture, done by his mother, was hanging crookedly on the wall. Standing on a chair to adjust the picture, Jesse turned slightly as he heard the sound of Bob Ford’s cocked pistol. Bob shot Jesse just below the right ear and Jesse toppled to the floor dead. Jesse was 34 years old.

Robert "Bob" Ford

Robert “Bob” Ford

At the sound of the gunshot, the children ran into the room, being the first to reach him. Zee followed, trying desperately to stop the blood. Bob Ford was already out the door and Charles spent a few moments trying to tell her how the gun had gone off accidentally. Then, he too, made a quick exit, running after his brother.

Robert Ford killed James for two reasons. The first was that Ford had killed a man by the name of Wood Hite in January of 1882. When word of the shooting resulted in Ford’s arrest he informed the officers that he had access to the much wanted Jesse James. In a deal made secretly with Governor Thomas T. Crittenden, the governor promised Ford a pardon for the Hite murder if he would kill James. There was also a $10,000 reward on Jesse’s head that Ford hoped to collect.

After his death, Jesse was packed on ice and taken by train to Kearney, where he was displayed and viewed by hundreds of friends, admirers, and curiosity seekers. Later he was buried on the family farm in a plot near the house so that Zerelda could keep an eye out for trespassers or souvenir hunters. His tombstone read:

Jesse James' mother Zerelda, at his grave on the James Farm

Jesse James’ mother Zerelda, at his grave on the James Farm

In Loving Memory of My Beloved Son,

Murdered by a Traitor and Coward whose name is not worthy to appear here.

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 and residents found the killing of Jesse James so distasteful that they made life unbearable for the two brothers.

Charles Ford fled Richmond when he heard that Frank James was searching for them to kill them in revenge for his brother’s death. Charles kept running from town to town for the next two years, changing his name several times. He finally committed suicide in 1884.

In the meantime, Bob Ford was capitalizing on his betrayal of Jesse James, taking to the stage, 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 and then Creede, Colorado, where he was shot down in his own saloon on June 8, 1892.

During their 15-year crime spree, the James-Younger Gang committed 26 holdups making off with more than $200,000 and killed at least seventeen men.

Frank James

Frank James

On October 4, 1882, Frank James surrendered to Missouri Governor Thomas Crittendon. The 39-year-old bandit marched into the governor’s office and took off his gun belt, placing it before Crittenden and saying: “Governor Crittenden, I want to hand over to you that which no living man except myself has been permitted to touch since 1861.” Frank was tired of the outlaw life – of being hunted for over twenty years, of living in a saddle, of knowing no peace.

Universal sympathy for Frank James and his family was exhibited by the public.  After a number of long trials, Frank was acquitted on all counts.  Returning home to the James Farm, he took up a number of peaceful pursuits, working as a horse trainer and a racetrack starter.

Jesse’s mother, Zerelda, allowed tourists to view the grave of her son for 25 cents and sold rocks from his grave. Legend has it that when the rock supply ran low, she simply restocked from the river.  She also gave paid tours of the farm shortly after Jesse’s death, a practice that was continued by Frank in later years.

Zee James, who had suffered from deep depression after her husband’s death, died in 1900.

Zerelda James at her Farm

Zerelda James at her Farm

Later, when Zerelda could no longer live alone, her son’s body was moved to the Mount Olivet Cemetery in Kearney, Missouri and placed next to his wife on July 29, 1902.  Frank James was present at the re-burial of his brother.

In 1903 Frank James appeared in a small Wild West show with his friend Cole Younger, who had been released from prison in 1901.

On February 10, 1911, Zerelda Samuel, after visiting Frank and Annie at their home in Oklahoma, suffered a heart attack on the train back to Kearney at the age of 86.  She is buried at the Mt. Olivet Cemetery next to sons Jesse and Archie, husband Reuben, and daughter-in-law Zee.

Frank James, at the age of 72, died from natural causes at the James Farm on February 18, 1915.  His wife Annie Ralston James spent her widowhood at the farm.


© Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated September 2019.

Also See:

Jesse James Dead

Jesse James Dead

Jesse James Timeline

James Younger Gang – Terrorizing the Midwest

Jesse James Missouri Attractions

Haunting of the James Farm

Robert Ford – Jesse James’ Killer

Zee James – Jesse’s “Poor” Wife

The Infamous Younger Brothers


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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