Jesse James – Folklore Hero or Cold-Blooded Killer?

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 Farm

Zerelda James 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 November 2018.

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

William Quantrill – Renegade Leader of the Missouri Border War

Quantrill – The Man, the Myth, the Soldier

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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