Jesse James – Folklore Hero or Cold-Blooded Killer?

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.

James Farm in Missouri, Kathy Weiser

James Farm in Missouri, Kathy Weiser

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.

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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