Jesse Woodson James was an American outlaw, gang leader, bank robber, train robber, and
murderer from the state of Missouri and the most famous member of the James-Younger Gang.
Already a celebrity when he was alive, he became a legendary figure of the Wild West
after his death. Some recent scholars place him in the context of regional insurgencies
of ex-Confederates following the American Civil War rather than a manifestation of frontier
lawlessness or alleged economic justice. Jesse and his brother Frank James were Confederate
guerrillas during the Civil War. They were accused of participating in atrocities committed
against Union soldiers. After the war, as members of one gang or another, they robbed
banks, stagecoaches, and trains. Despite popular portrayals of James as a kind of Robin Hood,
robbing from the rich and giving to the poor, there is no evidence that he and his gang
used their robbery gains for anyone but themselves. The James brothers were most active with their
gang from about 1866 until 1876, when their attempted robbery of a bank in Northfield,
Minnesota, resulted in the capture or deaths of several gang members. They continued in
crime for several years, recruiting new members, but were under increasing pressure from law
enforcement. On April 3, 1882, Jesse James was killed by Robert Ford, who was a member
of the gang living in the James house and who was hoping to collect a state reward on
James’ head. Early life
Jesse Woodson James was born in Clay County, Missouri, near the site of present day Kearney,
on September 5, 1847. Jesse James had two full siblings: his older brother, Alexander
Franklin “Frank”, and a younger sister, Susan Lavenia James. Across a creek and up a hill
from the house on the right was the home of Daniel Askew, where Askew was killed on April
12, 1875. Askew was suspected of cooperating with the Pinkertons in the January 1875 arson
of the house (in a room on the left). James’s original grave was on the property but he
was later moved to a cemetery in Kearney. The original footstone is still outside, although
the family has replaced the headstone. His father, Robert S. James, was a commercial
hemp farmer and Baptist minister in Kentucky, who migrated to Bradford, Missouri, after
marriage and helped found William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri. He was prosperous, acquiring
six slaves and more than 100 acres (0.40 km2) of farmland. Robert James traveled to California
during the Gold Rush to minister to those searching for gold and died there when Jesse
was three years old. After Robert James’ death, his widow Zerelda
remarried twice, first to Benjamin Simms and then in 1855 to Dr. Reuben Samuel, who moved
into the James home. Jesse’s mother and Reuben Samuel had four children together: Sarah Louisa,
John Thomas, Fannie Quantrell, and Archie Peyton Samuel. Zerelda and Reuben Samuel acquired
a total of seven slaves, who served mainly as farmhands in tobacco cultivation in Missouri.
Historical context The approach of the American Civil War loomed
large in the James-Samuel household. Missouri was a border state, sharing characteristics
of both North and South, but 75% of the population was from the South or other border states.
Clay County was in a region of Missouri later dubbed “Little Dixie,” as it was a center
of migration from the Upper South. Farmers raised the same crops and livestock as in
the areas they migrated from. They brought slaves with them and purchased more according
to need. The county counted more slaveholders, who held more slaves, than other regions of
the state. Aside from slavery, the culture of Little Dixie was Southern in other ways
as well. This influenced how the population acted during and for a period of time after
the American Civil War. In Missouri as a whole, slaves accounted for only 10 percent of the
population, but in Clay County they constituted 25 percent.
After the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, Clay County became the scene of great
turmoil, as the question of whether slavery would be expanded into the neighboring Kansas
Territory came to dominate public life. Numerous people from Missouri migrated to Kansas to
try to influence its future. Much of the tension that led up to the Civil War centered on the
violence that erupted in Kansas between pro- and anti-slavery militias.
American Civil War The Civil War may have shaped Jesse James’
life. After a series of campaigns and battles between conventional armies in 1861, guerrilla
warfare gripped Missouri, waged between secessionist “bushwhackers” and Union forces which largely
consisted of local militia organizations (“jayhawkers”). A bitter conflict ensued, bringing an escalating
cycle of atrocities by both sides. Guerrillas murdered civilian Unionists, executed prisoners,
and scalped the dead. Union forces enforced martial law with raids on homes, arrests of
civilians, summary executions, and banishment of Confederate sympathizers from the state.
The James-Samuel family took the Confederate side at the outset of the war. Frank James
joined a local company recruited for the secessionist Drew Lobbs Army, and fought at the Battle
of Wilson’s Creek, though he fell ill and returned home soon afterward. In 1863, he
was identified as a member of a guerrilla squad that operated in Clay County. In May
of that year, a Union militia company raided the James-Samuel farm, looking for Frank’s
group. They tortured Reuben Samuel by briefly hanging him from a tree. According to legend,
they lashed young Jesse. Quantrill’s Raiders
Frank eluded capture and was believed to have joined the guerrilla organization led by William
C. Quantrill. It is thought that he took part in the notorious massacre of some two hundred
men and boys in Lawrence, Kansas, a center of abolitionists.
Frank James followed Quantrill to Texas over the winter of 1863–1864. In the spring he
returned in a squad commanded by Fletch Taylor. After they arrived in Clay County, 16-year-old
Jesse James joined his brother in Taylor’s group.
In the summer of 1864, Taylor was severely wounded, losing his right arm to a shotgun
blast. The James brothers joined the bushwhacker group led by Bloody Bill Anderson. Jesse suffered
a serious wound to the chest that summer. The Clay County provost marshal reported that
both Frank and Jesse James took part in the Centralia Massacre in September, in which
guerrillas killed or wounded some 22 unarmed Union troops; the guerrillas scalped and dismembered
some of the dead. The guerrillas ambushed and defeated a pursuing regiment of Major
A.V.E. Johnson’s Union troops, killing all who tried to surrender (more than 100). Frank
later identified Jesse as a member of the band who had fatally shot Major Johnson. As
a result of the James brothers’ activities, the Union military authorities made their
family leave Clay County. Though ordered to move South beyond Union lines, instead they
moved across the nearby state border into Nebraska.
After Anderson was killed in an ambush in October, the James brothers separated. Frank
followed Quantrill into Kentucky; Jesse went to Texas under the command of Archie Clement,
one of Anderson’s lieutenants. He is known to have returned to Missouri in the spring.
Jesse was shot while trying to surrender when they ran into a Union cavalry patrol near
Lexington, Missouri. Jesse James suffered the second of two life-threatening chest wounds.
After the Civil War At the end of the Civil War, Missouri was
in shambles. The conflict split the population into three bitterly opposed factions: anti-slavery
Unionists, identified with the Republican Party; the segregationist conservative Unionists,
identified with the Democratic Party; and pro-slavery, ex-Confederate secessionists,
many of whom were also allied with the Democrats, especially the southern part of the party.
The Republican Reconstruction administration passed a new state constitution that freed
Missouri’s slaves. It temporarily excluded former Confederates from voting, serving on
juries, becoming corporate officers, or preaching from church pulpits. The atmosphere was volatile,
with widespread clashes between individuals, and between armed gangs of veterans from both
sides of the war. Jesse recovered from his chest wound at his
uncle’s boardinghouse in Harlem, Missouri (north across the Missouri River from the
City of Kansas’ River Quay ), where he was tended to by his first cousin, Zerelda “Zee”
Mimms, named after Jesse’s mother. Jesse and his cousin began a nine-year courtship, culminating
in marriage. Meanwhile, his old commander Archie Clement kept his bushwhacker gang together
and began to harass Republican authorities. These men were the likely culprits in the
first daylight armed bank robbery in the United States during peacetime, the robbery of the
Clay County Savings Association in the town of Liberty, Missouri, on February 13, 1866.
This bank was owned by Republican former militia officers who had recently conducted the first
Republican Party rally in Clay County’s history. One innocent bystander, a student of William
Jewell College (which James’s father had helped to found), was shot dead on the street during
the gang’s escape. It remains unclear whether Jesse and Frank took part.
After their later robberies took place and they became legends, there were those who
credited them with being the leaders of the Clay County robbery. It has been argued in
rebuttal that James was at the time still bedridden with his wound. No concrete evidence
has surfaced to connect either brother to the crime, or to rule them out. On June 13,
1866 in Jackson County, Missouri two jailed members of Quantril’s gang were demanded to
be freed by a gang and the Jailor killed it is believed the James Brothers were involved.
This was a time of increasing local violence; Governor Fletcher had recently ordered a company
of militia into Johnson County to suppress guerrilla activity. Archie Clement continued
his career of crime and harassment of the Republican government, to the extent of occupying
the town of Lexington, Missouri, on election day in 1866. Shortly afterward, the state
militia shot Clement dead, an event James wrote about with bitterness a decade later.
The survivors of Clement’s gang continued to conduct bank robberies over the next two
years, though their numbers dwindled through arrests, gunfights and lynchings. While they
later tried to justify robbing the banks, these were small, local banks with local capital,
not part of the national system that was an object of popular discontent in the 1860s
and 1870s. On May 23, 1867, for example, they robbed a bank in Richmond, Missouri, in which
they killed the mayor and two others. It remains uncertain whether either of the James brothers
took part, although an eyewitness who knew the brothers told a newspaper seven years
later “positively and emphatically that he recognized Jesse and Frank James… among
the robbers.” In 1868, Frank and Jesse James allegedly joined Cole Younger in robbing a
bank at Russellville, Kentucky. Jesse James did not become famous, however,
until December 7, 1869, when he and (most likely) Frank robbed the Daviess County Savings
Association in Gallatin, Missouri. The robbery netted little money, but it appears that Jesse
shot and killed the cashier, Captain John Sheets, mistakenly believing him to be Samuel
P. Cox, the militia officer who had killed “Bloody Bill” Anderson during the Civil War.
Cox had earlier been a partner of the firm Ballinger, Cox & Kemper with Gallatin businessman
J.M. Kemper whose son William Thornton Kemper, Sr. went on to found two of the largest banks
headquartered in Missouri (Commerce Bancshares and UMB Financial Corporation) but the business
relationship had dissolved by the time of the robbery. James’s self-proclaimed attempt
at revenge, and the daring escape he and Frank made through the middle of a posse shortly
afterward, put his name in the newspapers for the first time. An 1882 history of Daviess
County said, “The history of Daviess County has no blacker crime in its pages than the
murder of John W. Sheets.” The 1869 robbery marked the emergence of Jesse
James as the most famous of the former guerrillas and the first time he was publicly labeled
an “outlaw,” as Missouri Governor Thomas T. Crittenden set a reward for his capture. This
was the beginning of an alliance between James and John Newman Edwards, editor and founder
of the Kansas City Times. Edwards, a former Confederate cavalryman, was campaigning to
return former secessionists to power in Missouri. Six months after the Gallatin robbery, Edwards
published the first of many letters from Jesse James to the public, asserting his innocence.
Over time, the letters gradually became more political in tone, denouncing the Republicans
and voicing James’ pride in his Confederate loyalties. Together with Edwards’s admiring
editorials, the letters turned James into a symbol of Confederate defiance of Reconstruction.
Jesse James’s initiative in creating his rising public profile is debated by historians and
biographers, though the tense politics certainly surrounded his outlaw career and enhanced
his notoriety. Meanwhile, the James brothers joined with
Cole Younger and his brothers John, Jim and Bob as well as Clell Miller and other former
Confederates to form what came to be known as the James-Younger Gang. With Jesse James
as the public face of the gang (though with operational leadership likely shared among
the group), the gang carried out a string of robberies from Iowa to Texas, and from
Kansas to West Virginia. They robbed banks, stagecoaches and a fair in Kansas City, often
in front of large crowds, even hamming it up for the bystanders.
On July 21, 1873, they turned to train robbery, derailing the Rock Island train in Adair,
Iowa and stealing approximately $3,000 ($51,000 in 2007). For this, they wore Ku Klux Klan
masks, deliberately taking on a potent symbol years after the Klan had been suppressed in
the South by President Grant’s use of the Force Acts. Former rebels attacked the railroads
as symbols of threatening centralization. The James’ gang’s later train robberies had
a lighter touch. In only two train hold-ups did they rob passengers, because James typically
limited himself to the express safe in the baggage car. Such techniques reinforced the
Robin Hood image that Edwards created in his newspapers, but the James gang never shared
any of the robbery money outside their circle. Pinkertons
The Adams Express Company turned to the Pinkerton National Detective Agency in 1874 to stop
the James-Younger gang. The Chicago-based agency worked primarily against urban professional
criminals, as well as providing industrial security, such as strike breaking. Because
the gang received support by many former Confederate soldiers in Missouri, they eluded the Pinkertons.
Joseph Whicher, an agent dispatched to infiltrate Zerelda Samuel’s farm, shortly afterwards
was found killed. Two others, Captain Louis J. Lull and John Boyle, were sent after the
Youngers; Lull was killed by two of the Youngers in a roadside gunfight on March 17, 1874.
Before he died, Lull fatally shot John Younger. A deputy sheriff named Edwin Daniels also
died in the skirmish. Allan Pinkerton, the agency’s founder and
leader, took on the case as a personal vendetta. He began to work with former Unionists who
lived near the James family farm. On the night of January 25, 1875, he staged a raid on the
homestead. Detectives threw an incendiary device into the house; it exploded, killing
James’s young half-brother Archie (named for Archie Clement) and blowing off one of the
arms of the James family’s matriarch Zerelda Samuel. Afterward, Pinkerton denied that the
raid’s intent was arson, but biographer Ted Yeatman located a letter by Pinkerton in the
Library of Congress in which Pinkerton declared his intention to “burn the house down.”
The raid on the family home outraged many, and did more than all of Edwards’s columns
to create sympathy for Jesse James. The Missouri state legislature only narrowly defeated a
bill that praised the James and Younger brothers and offered them amnesty. Allowed to vote
and hold office again, former Confederates voted to limit reward offers that the governor
could make for fugitives. This extended a measure of protection over the James-Younger
gang. (Only Frank and Jesse James previously had been singled out for rewards larger than
the new limit.) Downfall of the gang
Jesse and his cousin Zee married on April 24, 1874, and had two children who survived
to adulthood: Jesse Edward James (b. 1875) and Mary Susan James (later Barr) (b. 1879).
Twins Gould and Montgomery James (b. 1878) died in infancy. Jesse, Jr., became a lawyer
who practiced in Kansas City, Missouri, and Los Angeles, California.
On September 7, 1876, the James-Younger gang attempted a raid on the First National Bank
of Northfield, Minnesota. After this robbery and a manhunt, only Frank and Jesse James
were left alive and uncaptured. Cole and Bob Younger later stated that they selected the
bank because they believed it was associated with the Republican politician Adelbert Ames,
the governor of Mississippi during Reconstruction, and Union general Benjamin Butler, Ames’ father-in-law
and the Union commander of occupied New Orleans. Ames was a stockholder in the bank, but Butler
had no direct connection to it. The gang attempted to rob the bank in Northfield
about 2 p.m. on September 7, 1876. To carry out the robbery, the gang divided into two
groups. Three men entered the bank, two guarded the door outside, and three remained near
a bridge across an adjacent square. The robbers inside the bank were thwarted when acting
cashier Joseph Lee Heywood refused to open the safe, falsely claiming that it was secured
by a time lock even as they held a bowie knife to his throat and cracked his skull with a
pistol butt. Assistant cashier Alonzo Enos Bunker was wounded in the shoulder as he fled
out the back door of the bank. Meanwhile, the citizens of Northfield grew
suspicious of the men guarding the door and raised the alarm. The five bandits outside
fired in the air to clear the streets, which drove the townspeople to take cover and fire
back from protected positions. Two bandits were shot dead and the rest were wounded in
the barrage. Inside, the outlaws turned to flee. As they left, one shot the unarmed cashier
Heywood in the head. Historians have speculated about the identity of the shooter but have
not reached consensus on his identity. The gang barely escaped Northfield, leaving
two dead companions behind. They killed two innocent victims, Heywood, and Nicholas Gustafson,
a Swedish immigrant from the Millersburg community west of Northfield. A massive manhunt ensued.
It is believed that the gang burned 14 Rice County mills shortly after the robbery. The
James brothers eventually split from the others and escaped to Missouri. The militia soon
discovered the Youngers and one other bandit, Charlie Pitts. In a gunfight, Pitts died and
the Youngers were taken prisoner. Except for Frank and Jesse James, the James-Younger Gang
was destroyed. Later in 1876, Jesse and Frank James surfaced
in the Nashville, Tennessee area, where they went by the names of Thomas Howard and B.
J. Woodson, respectively. Frank seemed to settle down, but Jesse remained restless.
He recruited a new gang in 1879 and returned to crime, holding up a train at Glendale,
Missouri (now part of Independence, Missouri), on October 8, 1879. The robbery was the first
of a spree of crimes, including the holdup of the federal paymaster of a canal project
in Killen, Alabama, and two more train robberies. But the new gang did not consist of battle-hardened
guerrillas; they soon turned against each other or were captured, while James grew paranoid
to the point where he scared away one of his gang, and it is believed by some that he killed
another. In 1879, the James gang robbed two stores
in far western Mississippi, at Washington in Adams County and Fayette in Jefferson County.
The gang absconded with $2,000 cash in the second robbery and took shelter in abandoned
cabins on the Kemp Plantation south of St. Joseph, Louisiana. The posse attacked and
killed two of the outlaws but failed to capture the entire gang. Among the deputies was Jefferson
B. Snyder, later a long-serving district attorney in northeastern Louisiana. Jesse James would
live another three years until his demise in, coincidentally, another St. Joseph, in
northwestern Missouri. By 1881, with authorities growing suspicious,
the brothers returned to Missouri where they felt safer. In December, Jesse rented a house
in Saint Joseph, Missouri, not far from where he had been born and reared. Frank, however,
decided to move to safer territory and headed east to Virginia.
Death With his gang nearly annihilated, James trusted
only the Ford brothers, Charley and Robert. Although Charley had been out on raids with
James, Bob was an eager new recruit. For protection, James asked the Ford brothers to move in with
him and his family. James had often stayed with their sister Martha Bolton and, according
to rumor, he was “smitten” with her. James did not know that Bob Ford had conducted secret
negotiations with Thomas T. Crittenden, the Missouri governor, to bring in the famous
outlaw. Crittenden had made capture of the James brothers his top priority; in his inaugural
address he declared that no political motives could be allowed to keep them from justice.
Barred by law from offering a sufficiently large reward, he had turned to the railroad
and express corporations to put up a $5,000 bounty for each of them.
On April 3, 1882, after eating breakfast, the Fords and James prepared to depart for
another robbery. They went in and out of the house to ready the horses. As it was an unusually
hot day, James removed his coat, then removed his firearms, lest he look suspicious. Noticing
a dusty picture on the wall, he stood on a chair to clean it. Bob Ford shot James in
the back of the head. James’ two previous bullet wounds and partially missing middle
finger served to positively identify the body. The death of Jesse James became a national
sensation. The Fords made no attempt to hide their role. Indeed, Robert Ford wired the
governor to claim his reward. Crowds pressed into the little house in St. Joseph to see
the dead bandit, even while the Ford brothers surrendered to the authorities but they were
dismayed to find that they were charged with first degree murder. In the course of a single
day, the Ford brothers were indicted, pleaded guilty, were sentenced to death by hanging
and two hours later were granted a full pardon by Governor Crittenden.
The governor’s quick pardon suggested he knew the brothers intended to kill James rather
than capture him. The implication that the chief executive of Missouri conspired to kill
a private citizen startled the public and added to James’ notoriety.
After receiving a small portion of the reward, the Fords fled Missouri. Sheriff James Timberlake
and Marshal Henry H. Craig, who were law enforcement officials active in the plan took in the majority
of the bounty. Later the Ford brothers starred in a touring stage show in which they reenacted
the shooting. Suffering from tuberculosis (then incurable)
and a morphine addiction, Charley Ford committed suicide on May 6, 1884, in Richmond, Missouri.
Bob Ford operated a tent saloon in Creede, Colorado. On June 8, 1892, a man named Edward
O’Kelley went to Creede, loaded a double barrel shotgun, entered Ford’s saloon and said “Hello,
Bob” before shooting Bob Ford in the throat, killing him instantly. O’Kelley was sentenced
to life in prison. O’Kelley’s sentence was subsequently commuted because of a 7,000 signature
petition in favor of his release. The governor pardoned him on October 3, 1902.
James’ mother Zerelda Samuel wrote the following epitaph for him: In Loving Memory of my Beloved
Son, Murdered by a Traitor and Coward Whose Name is not Worthy to Appear Here. James’s
widow Zerelda Mimms James died alone and in poverty.
Rumors of survival Rumors of Jesse James’s survival proliferated
almost as soon as the newspapers announced his death. Some said that Robert Ford killed
someone other than James, in an elaborate plot to allow him to escape justice.
These tales have received little credence, then or later. None of James’s biographers
accepted them as plausible. The body buried in Kearney, Missouri, as Jesse James’s was
exhumed in 1995 and subjected to mitochondrial DNA typing. The report, prepared by Anne C.
Stone, Ph.D., James E. Starrs, L.L.M., and Mark Stoneking, Ph.D., stated the mtDNA recovered
from the remains was consistent with the mtDNA of one of James’s relatives in the female
line. This theme resurfaced in a 2009 documentary, Jesse James’ Hidden Treasure, which aired
on the History Channel. The documentary was dismissed as pseudo-history and pseudo-science
by historian Nancy Samuelson in a review she wrote for the Winter 2009-2010 edition of
The James-Younger Gang Journal. One prominent claimant was J. Frank Dalton,
who died August 15, 1951, in Granbury, Texas. Dalton was allegedly 101 years old at the
time of his first public appearance, in May 1948. His story did not hold up to questioning
from James’ surviving relatives. Legacy
James’s turn to crime after the end of the Reconstruction era helped cement his place
in American life and memory as a simple but remarkably effective bandit. After 1873 he
was covered by the national media as part of social banditry. During his lifetime, James
was celebrated chiefly by former Confederates, to whom he appealed directly in his letters
to the press. Displaced by Reconstruction, the antebellum political leadership mythologized
the James Gang exploits. Frank Triplett wrote about James as a “progressive neo-aristocrat”
with purity of race. Indeed, some historians credit James’ myth as contributing to the
rise of former Confederates to dominance in Missouri politics (in the 1880s, for example,
both U.S. Senators from the state, Confederate military commander Francis Cockrell and Confederate
Congressman George Graham Vest, were identified with the Confederate cause).
In the 1880s, after James’s death, the James Gang became the subject of dime novels that
represented the bandits as pre-industrial models of resistance. During the Populist
and Progressive eras, James became a symbol as America’s Robin Hood, standing up against
corporations in defense of the small farmer, robbing from the rich and giving to the poor,
while there is no evidence that his robberies enriched anyone other than his gang and himself.
In portrayals of the 1950s, James was pictured as a psychologically troubled individual rather
than a social rebel. Some filmmakers portrayed the former outlaw as a revenger, replacing
“social with exclusively personal motives.” Jesse James remains a controversial symbol,
one who can always be reinterpreted in various ways, according to cultural tensions and needs.
Although some of the neo-Confederate movement regard him as a hero, renewed cultural battles
over the place of the Civil War in American history have replaced the long-standing interpretation
of James as a Western frontier hero. Some point to his absolute commitment to slavery
and his vow after the Civil War to shoot any black in Missouri not fulfilling the role
of a slave. While his “heroic outlaw” image is still commonly
portrayed in films, as well as in songs and folklore, recent historians place him as a
self-aware vigilante and terrorist who used local tensions to create his own myth among
the widespread insurgent guerrillas and vigilantes following the American Civil War.
Museums Museums and sites devoted to Jesse James:
James Farm in Kearney, Missouri: In 1974 Clay County, Missouri, bought it. The county operates
the site as a house museum and historic site. Jesse James Home Museum: The house where Jesse
James was killed in south St. Joseph was moved in 1939 to the Belt Highway on St. Joseph’s
east side to attract tourists. In 1977 it was moved to its current location, near Patee
House, which was the headquarters of the Pony Express. The house is now owned and operated
by the Pony Express Historical Association. The Jesse James Bank Museum, on the square
in Liberty, Missouri, is the site of the first daylight bank robbery in peacetime. The museum
is managed by Clay County along with the James Farm Home and Museum outside of Kearney, Missouri.
First National Bank of Northfield: The Northfield Historical Society in Northfield, Minnesota,
has restored the building that housed the First National Bank, the scene of the 1876
raid. Heaton Bowman Funeral Home, 36th Street and
Frederick Avenue, St. Joseph, Missouri. The funeral home’s predecessor conducted the original
autopsy and funeral for Jesse James. A room in the back holds the log book and other documentation.
The Jesse James Tavern is in his father’s birthplace in Asdee, County Kerry, Ireland,
from which his father immigrated to the US in the 1840s as a young man. The parish priest,
Canon William Ferris, says a solemn requiem mass for Jesse James every year on April 3.
Festivals The Defeat of Jesse James Days in Northfield,
Minnesota, is among the largest outdoor celebrations in the state and is held annually in September
during the weekend after Labor Day. Thousands of visitors watch reenactments of the robbery,
a championship rodeo, a carnival, performances of a 19th-century style melodrama musical,
and a parade during the five-day event. Jesse James’ boyhood home in Kearney, Missouri,
is a museum dedicated to the town’s most famous resident. Each year a recreational fair, the
Jesse James Festival, is held during the third weekend in September.
During the annual Labor Day weekend Victorian Festival at the 1866 Col. William H. Fulkerson
estate Hazel Dell in Jersey County, Illinois, Jesse James’ history is told in stories and
by reenactments of stagecoach holdups. Over the three-day event, thousands of spectators
learn of the documented James Gang’s stopping point at Hazel Dell and of their connection
with ex-Confederate Fulkerson. Russellville, Kentucky, the site of the robbery
of the Southern Bank in 1868, holds the Jesse James International Arts and Film Festival.
The JJIAFF completed its second annual event in April 2008 and the third annual is planned
for April 25, 2009. The festival has featured a bluegrass band from San Francisco and experimental
bands from southern Kentucky as well as painters, sculptors, photographers and comic artists.
Children’s activities are a mainstay of the festival. A highlight for adults is the film
festival held at the Logan County Public Library in Russellville. Past entrants have included
films from Norway and northwestern Kentucky, modern silent film projects, nature studies,
and fan films. In addition, the annual Tobacco and Heritage
Festival in Russellville features a reenactment of the James-Younger Gang’s robbery of the
Southern Bank. Today used as a residence, the historic structure on South Main Street
has been preserved by the town and county. The small town of Oak Grove, Louisiana, also
hosts a town-wide annual Jesse James Trade Days, usually in the early to mid fall. This
is a reference to a short time James supposedly spent near this area.
Cultural depictions Literature
The James brothers became a staple in dime novels of the era, peaking in the 1880s following
Jesse’s death. James has often been used as a fictional character in many Western novels,
including some published while he was alive. For instance, in Willa Cather’s My Antonia,
the narrator reads a book entitled ‘Life of Jesse James’ – probably a dime novel.
In Charles Portis’s 1968 novel, True Grit, the U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn describes
fighting with Cole Younger and Frank James for the Confederacy during the Civil War.
Long after his adventure with Mattie Ross, Cogburn ends his days in a traveling road
show with the aged Cole Younger and Frank James.
During his travel to the “Wilde West,” Oscar Wilde visited Jesse James’ hometown in Missouri.
Learning that James had been assassinated by his own gang member, “…an event that
sent the town into mourning and scrambling to buy Jesse’s artifacts,” “romantic appeal
of the social outcast” in his mind, Wilde wrote in one of his letters to home that:
“Americans are certainly great hero-worshippers, and always take heroes from the criminal classes.”
Comics In 1969, artist Morris and writer René Goscinny
(co-creator of Asterix) had Lucky Luke confronting Jesse James, his brother Frank, and Cole Younger.
The adventure poked fun at the image of Jesse as a new Robin Hood. Although he passes himself
off as such and does indeed steal from the rich (who are, logically, the only ones worth
stealing from), he and his gang take turns being “poor,” thus keeping the loot for themselves.
Frank quotes from Shakespeare, and Younger is portrayed as a fun-loving joker, full of
good humor. One critic has likened this version of the James brothers as “intellectuals bandits,
who won’t stop theorising their outlaw activities and hear themselves talk.” In the end, the
at-first-cowed people of a town fight back against the James gang and send them packing
in tar and feathers. Music
In his adaptation of the traditional song “Jesse James”, Woody Guthrie magnified James’s
hero status. “Jesse James” was later covered by the Anglo-Irish band The Pogues on their
1985 album Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash, and by Bruce Springsteen on his 2006 tribute to
Pete Seeger, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions.
A somewhat different song titled “Jesse James”, referring to Jesse’s “wife to mourn for his
life; three children, they were brave,” and calling Robert Ford “the dirty little coward
who shot Mr. Howard,” was also the first track recorded by the “Stewart Years” version of
the Kingston Trio at their initial recording session in 1961 (and included on that year’s
release Close-Up). Echoing the Confederate hero aspect, Hank
Williams, Jr.’s 1983 Southern anthem “Whole Lot Of Hank” has the lyrics “Frank and Jesse
James knowed how to rob them trains, they always took it from the rich and gave it to
the poor, they might have had a bad name but they sure had a heart of gold.”
Rock band James Gang was named after Jesse James’s gang. Their final album, released
in 1976, was titled Jesse Come Home. Warren Zevon’s 1976 self-titled album Warren
Zevon includes the song “Frank and Jesse James”, a romantic tribute to the James Gang’s exploits,
expressing much sympathy with their “cause.” Its lyrics encapsulate the many legends that
grew up around the life and death of Jesse James. The album contains a second reference
to Jesse James in the song “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” with the lyric “Well, I met a girl in
West Hollywood, I ain’t naming names. She really worked me over good, she was just like
Jesse James.” Linda Ronstadt covered the song a year later with slightly altered lyrics.
In her album Heart of Stone (1989), Cher included a song titled “Just Like Jesse James”, written
by Desmond Child & Diane Warren. This single, which was released in 1990, achieved high
positions in the charts and sold 1,500,000 copies worldwide.
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s album Uncle Charlie and His Dog Teddy features the song “Jesse
James”, ostensibly recorded on a wire recorder. Jon Chandler has also written a song about
Jesse and Frank James entitled “He Was No Hero”, written from the perspective of Joe
Hayward’s widow cursing Bob Ford for cheating her out of killing Jesse James.
Around 1980 a concept album titled The Legend of Jesse James was released. It was written
by Paul Kennerley and starred Levon Helm (The Band) as Jesse James, Johnny Cash as Frank
James, Emmylou Harris as Zee James, Charlie Daniels as Cole Younger, and Albert Lee as
Jim Younger. There are also appearances by Rodney Crowell, Jody Payne, and Rosanne Cash.
The album highlights Jesse’s life from 1863 to his death in 1882. In 1999 a double CD
was released containing The Legend Of Jesse James and White Mansions, another concept
album by Kennerley about life in the Confederate States of America between 1861-1865.
In 2012 Clay Walker released “Jesse James” as the fourth single from his 2010 studio
album She Won’t Be Lonely Long. Stage Productions
The musical melodrama “Jesse,” written by Bob and Marion Moulton with lyrics by Prairie
Home Companion writer/performer Vern Sutton and music by William Huckaby and Donna Paulsen,
has since 1976 (the centennial of the James-Younger gang’s Northfield bank raid) traditionally
been performed in Northfield, Minnesota during the town’s annual The Defeat of Jesse James
There have been numerous portrayals of Jesse James in film and television, including two
wherein Jesse James, Jr. depicts his father. In many of the films, James is portrayed as
a Robin Hood-like character. 1921: Jesse James Under the Black Flag, played
by Jesse James, Jr. 1921: Jesse James as the Outlaw, played by
Jesse James, Jr. 1927: Jesse James, played by Fred Thomson
1939: Jesse James, played by Tyrone Power with Henry Fonda as Frank James and John Carradine
as Bob Ford 1939: Days of Jesse James, played by Don ‘Red’
Barry 1941: Jesse James at Bay, played by Roy Rogers
1947: Jesse James Rides Again, played by Clayton Moore
1949: I Shot Jesse James, played by Reed Hadley 1949: Fighting Man of the Plains, played by
Dale Robertson in his first credited role, with Randolph Scott starring as Jim Dancer
1950: Kansas Raiders, played by Audie Murphy 1951: The Great Missouri Raid, played by Macdonald
Carey 1954: Jesse James Women played by Don ‘Red’
Barry 1957: The True Story of Jesse James, played
by Robert Wagner 1959: Alias Jesse James, played by Wendell
Corey in a comedy starring Bob Hope 1960: Young Jesse James, played by Ray Stricklyn
1965: The Legend of Jesse James, TV series starred by Allen Case
1966: Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter, played by John Lupton
1969: A Time for Dying, played by Audie Murphy 1972: The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid,
played by Robert Duvall 1980: The Long Riders, played by James Keach
1986: The Last Days of Frank and Jesse James, played by Kris Kristofferson with Johnny Cash
as Frank James and Willie Nelson as Gen. Jo Shelby
1994: Frank and Jesse, played by Rob Lowe 1999: Purgatory, played by J.D. Souther
2001: American Outlaws, played by Colin Farrell 2005: Just like Jesse James is the title of
a movie that appears in Wim Wenders’ Don’t Come Knocking, in which Sam Shepard plays
an aging western movie star whose first success was with that movie.
2005: Jesse James: Legend, Outlaw, Terrorist (Discovery HD), played by Daniel Lennox
2007: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, played by Brad Pitt,
with Casey Affleck as Bob Ford. Although James was only 34 when he was killed, Pitt was 44
when the movie premiered. Television
The actor Lee Van Cleef played Jesse James in a 1954 episode of Jim Davis’s syndicated
television series, Stories of the Century, the first western series to win an Emmy Award.
The ABC series The Legend of Jesse James aired during the 1965-1966 television season, with
Christopher Jones as Jesse, Allen Case as Frank James, Ann Doran as Zerelda Cole James
Samuel, Robert J. Wilke as Marshal Sam Corbett, and John Milford as Cole Younger.
In the episode of Little House on the Prairie titled “The Aftermath” (aired November 7,
1977), Jesse (Dennis Rucker) and Frank James (John Bennett Perry) took refuge in Walnut
Grove after a failed robbery attempt. In the American Western series The Young Riders
(1989–1992), Jesse James is portrayed by actor Christopher Pettiet. He appeared in
17 episodes. An episode of Deadliest Warrior on “Spike
TV” features the Jesse James gang vs. the Al Capone gang. The main weapons used by Jesse
James was the Colt.45, the Pistol Whip, the Winchester rifle, and the Bowie Knife. The
Jesse James gang came out victorious in the simulated match.
In Episode 33 of Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction in a segment titled “Mysterious Strangers,”
a story is told about two men in 1870 who take refuge on a rainy night in an old widow’s
house. While there they find out that she is about to lose her home to foreclosure.
The strangers disappear in the night, leaving her $900 to give to the banker, only to rob
the banker of their own money after he retrieved it from the woman the next morning. The strangers,
at the end of the story, turn out to be Frank and Jesse James. Beyond Belief purports that
the story is documented and true. Radio
The killing of Jesse James was depicted on the CBS radio show Crime Classics on July
20th, 1953 in the episode entitled “The Death of a Picture Hanger.” The episode featured
Clayton Post as Jesse James, Paul Frees as Charley Ford, and Sam Edwards as Robert Ford.