April 3

This Day in History

General Interest

Apr 3, 1882:

Jesse James shot in the back

Jesse James, one of America's most notorious outlaws, is shot to death by Robert Ford, a member of his gang who hoped to collect the bounty on Jesse's head.

Jesse James, born in Clay County, Missouri, in 1847, joined a Confederate guerrilla band led by William Quantrill at the age of 15. Quantrill's guerrillas, which included several future members of the James Gang, terrorized Kansas and Missouri during the Civil War and in August 1863 massacred civilians during a brutal raid on Lawrence, Kansas, an abolitionist town. After the war's end in 1865, Jesse, his brother Frank, and brothers Cole, James, and Robert Younger decided to team up and use their military raiding skills for armed robbery.

In February 1866, 18-year-old Jesse planned their first target: a bank in Liberty, Missouri. On February 13, Frank James led a group of about a dozen men, including Cole Younger and other former Confederate guerrillas, in the first recorded daylight bank robbery in the United States. They left the bank with $60,000 in gold and silver coins, paper money, and government securities. Jesse did not participate in the actual robbery, but he later became the leader of the James Gang, which was eventually reduced to the core unit of James, his brother, and the three Younger brothers.

During the next 16 years, the James Gang became America's most notorious outlaws, robbing banks, trains, stagecoaches, stores, and individuals of a total of about $300,000. The beginning of their downfall came in 1876, when, after killing two people and failing to secure any money in an attempted bank robbery at Northfield, Minnesota, the Younger brothers and several other key members of their gang were captured. The James brothers escaped and did not rob another train until 1880, the same year that Missouri Governor Thomas Crittenden offered a reward for the capture of the James brothers, dead or alive. James Gang member Robert Ford chose the former, and on April 3, 1882, he shot Jesse James dead. Frank James subsequently surrendered and in trials was twice acquitted, eventually dying of old age on his farm near Excelsior Springs, Missouri.

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