1. Jesse James was a preacher’s son.

Frank and Jesse James' mother, Zerelda (Credit: The Print Collector/Getty Images)
Getty Images / The Print Collector
Frank and Jesse James’ mother, Zerelda.

Jesse Woodson James, born in Clay County, Missouri, on September 5, 1847, was the son of Kentucky native Zerelda Cole James and her husband, Robert James, a Baptist minister and slave-owning hemp farmer who assisted in founding William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri. In 1850, Robert James traveled to California to preach in the gold mining camps; however, not long after arriving he became sick and died. Zerelda and her children—Jesse, his older brother and future partner-in-crime Frank, and younger sister, Susan—were plunged into perilous financial straits. 

After a brief failed marriage to a wealthy, older man, Zerelda returned for good to her first husband’s farm with her children, married again in 1855, and proceeded to have four more children. After Frank and Jesse grew up to become outlaws, the iron-willed Zerelda remained their staunch supporter.

2. He fought as a Confederate guerrilla in the U.S. Civil War.

During the Civil War, the border state of Missouri was home to bitter fighting in which both sides of the conflict regularly murdered prisoners and civilians alike, mutilated enemy dead, looted property and livestock, and left towns and homes ablaze. Frank James fought with the pro-secession Missouri State Guard at the start of the war, then joined a band of Confederate guerrillas known as "bushwhackers," who carried out attacks against Union sympathizers on the frontier. In May 1863, while at his family’s farm, a teenage Jesse was ambushed and his stepfather hung from a tree by Union militiamen seeking the whereabouts of Frank and his fellow insurgents. (The stepfather survived.)

That August, Frank took part in an infamous raid on the abolitionist town of Lawrence, Kansas, during which more than 150 men and boys were killed and numerous buildings destroyed. By age 16, Jesse followed Frank as a marauding bushwhacker, with both joining a ruthlessly violent gang led by William “Bloody Bill” Anderson. In one infamous September 1864 atrocity in Centralia, Missouri, the guerrillas forced two dozen unarmed Union soldiers heading home on leave from a train and executed them. Then they slaughtered more than 100 federal troops trying to hunt them down. 

In May 1865, a month after Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House, Jesse was shot in the chest during a skirmish with Union troops near Lexington, Missouri. After being nursed back to health by his cousin Zerelda “Zee” Mimms (whom he would wed in 1874 and later have two children), Jesse eventually banded with his brother and other former Confederate guerrillas to rob banks, stagecoaches and trains.

<br>HISTORY Vault: The James Gang: Outlaw Brothers

Profile of brothers Jesse and Frank James, who led a gang of killers and thieves who terrorized the Midwest. This documentary debunks the myth that Jesse was a frontier Robin Hood—he stole from anyone and killed those who got in his way.

3. James wasn’t a Wild West Robin Hood.

During the 1869 bank robbery in Gallatin, the incident that first brought Jesse public notice as an outlaw, he shot and killed the bank’s cashier in an act of revenge, thinking the man was Samuel Cox, commander of the pro-Union militia troops who had murdered guerrilla leader Bloody Bill Anderson in October 1864. (In fact, the slain cashier turned out not to be Cox.) 

After the deadly heist, an influential pro-Confederate newspaper editor in Missouri, John Newman Edwards, befriended Jesse and went on to promote the former bushwhacker as a hero and defiant Southern patriot of the Reconstruction era. James himself wrote letters to newspapers in which he defended his actions. Through his articles and editorials, Edwards was responsible for helping to create the mythology of Jesse James as a Robin Hood figure who robbed the rich to give to the poor—a myth historians have debunked.

4. James and his cohorts eluded the Pinkertons.

Allen Pinkerton (left) with President Abraham Lincoln and a Union general during the Civil War

After Jesse and Frank robbed a train at Gads Hill, Missouri, in January 1874, the Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency was called in to hunt them down. Founded in Chicago in 1850 by Allan Pinkerton, a Scottish immigrant who had served as the first full-time detective on the Windy City’s police force, the private agency was experienced in capturing train robbers. In March 1874, after the agency took on the case of the James gang, a Pinkerton detective searching for Jesse and Frank in Missouri wound up dead, while a Pinkerton agent who pursued the brothers’ fellow gang members Cole and Robert Younger in another part of the state also was killed. 

Catching the James brothers became a personal mission for Allan Pinkerton, an abolitionist who had aided slaves on the Underground Railroad, uncovered a plot to assassinate President-elect Abraham Lincoln and gathered military intelligence for the federal government during the Civil War.

Shortly after midnight on January 25, 1875, a group of Pinkerton agents, acting on an outdated tip that Jesse and Frank were at their mother’s farm, carried out a raid on the place. The agents threw an incendiary device into the farmhouse, setting off an explosion that wounded Jesse and Frank’s 8-year-old half-brother and caused their mother, Zerelda, to lose part of her arm. Following the raid, public support for Jesse and Frank increased, and the Missouri state legislature even came close to passing a bill offering the men amnesty. The James brothers also launched an intimidation campaign against their perceived enemies near Zerelda’s farm and in April of that year one of their mother’s neighbors, a former Union militiaman who had assisted the Pinkerton agents in preparing for the raid, was shot to death. Allan Pinkerton never pursued his hunt for Jesse and Frank any further.

5. His gang was defeated trying to rob a Minnesota bank.

On the afternoon of September 7, 1876, Jesse and Frank James, along with Cole, Jim and Robert Younger and three other associates, tried to rob the First National Bank of Northfield, Minnesota. The gang targeted the bank after learning that Adelbert Ames, a former Union general and Republican governor of Reconstruction-era Mississippi, had recently moved to Northfield. Ames, along with his father-in-law Benjamin Butler, also a former Union general and Radical Republican politician, was rumored to have deposited $75,000 in the bank. 

During the attempted robbery, three members of the gang went inside and demanded the cashier open the safe, but he refused. Meanwhile, after townspeople outside got wind that a holdup was taking place, they engaged in a shootout with the gang members who’d been stationed on the street. In the end, the gang killed the bank cashier and a passerby, while two bandits were shot to death by townsfolk before the rest of the outlaws fled. 

Two weeks later, following a gunfight near Madelia, Minnesota, the Younger brothers were captured and another gang member killed. (The Youngers were sentenced to life in prison; Robert Younger died behind bars in 1889, while his siblings were paroled in 1901.) The James brothers, who had split off from the Youngers before Madelia and were the only gang members not caught or killed following the failed robbery, laid low for the next few years, living in Tennessee under assumed names. However, in 1879, Jesse recruited a new set of criminal associates and embarked on a fresh crime spree.

6. James was murdered at 34.

Robert Ford (Credit: The Print Collector/Getty Images)
Getty Images / The Print Collector
Robert Ford

Rather than dying in a hail of gunfire during a heist, the legendary Jesse James met his end on April 3, 1882, shot in the back of the head while dusting a picture on the wall of his rented home in St. Joseph, Missouri. His wife and two children were in a nearby room. 

Bob Ford, a new recruit into the James gang, had pulled the trigger, having conspired with his older brother Charley, already a member of the gang. 

Earlier that year, Bob Ford had arranged with Missouri's governor to take down Jesse in exchange for a reward. After the Fords announced to authorities they’d killed the infamous outlaw, they were convicted of murder and sentenced to hang; however, the governor quickly pardoned them. The public was transfixed by James’s murder, and the Fords soon began reenacting the event in a traveling show. Charley Ford committed suicide in 1884, while Bob Ford was shot to death in 1894 in a Colorado saloon.

7. His remains were exhumed.

Following James’s passing, speculation lingered that he’d faked his own death and that someone else was buried in his grave. Over the years, several different men claimed to be Jesse James. In 1995, scientists seeking to resolve the question of who was buried in James’s grave exhumed his supposed remains from Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Kearney, Missouri, where the remains had been transferred in 1902 from the original burial site on the James family farm. After conducting DNA testing, the researchers concluded the exhumed remains were almost certainly those of the infamous 19th-century outlaw.

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