Seen by some as a vicious murderer and by others as a gallant Robin Hood, the famous outlaw Jesse Woodson James is born on this day in 1847, in Clay County, Missouri.
Jesse and his older brother Franklin lost their father in 1849, when the Reverend Robert James abandoned his young family and disappeared forever into the California gold fields. Their mother, Zerelda, quickly remarried, but rumor had it that their new stepfather treated Jesse and Frank poorly, and a third husband soon followed. Perhaps it was a violent and unstable family life that led the young Jesse and Frank into lives of crime. Regardless, it is certain that the brothers first learned to kill during the Civil War. As Confederate sympathizers, both Jesse and Frank joined William Quantrill’s vicious Missouri guerilla force, and Jesse participated in the cold-blooded murder of 25 unarmed Union soldiers in August 1863.
When the war ended, neither man felt any enthusiasm for the drab life of a Missouri farmer-earning a living with their guns seemed easier and more exciting. Joining a motley band of ex-soldiers and common thieves, Jesse and Frank staged the first daylight bank robbery in U.S. history on Valentine’s Day in 1866, making off with $57,000 of the hard-earned cash of the citizens of Liberty, Missouri. For the next decade the James Gang would steal many thousands more from banks, stores, stagecoaches, and trains.
The boldness of their crimes and the growing resentment among westerners of big railroads and robber barons led some to romanticize Jesse and Frank, a process that was encouraged by the authors of popular dime novels who created largely fictional versions of the James brothers as modern-day Robin Hoods who stole from the rich to give to the poor. In reality, the James brothers’ crimes preyed as much on the common folks as on the very rich, and they did little to spare the lives of innocents caught in the crossfire. The Robin Hood myth conveniently ignores the little girl shot in the leg during a botched robbery at the Kansas City Fair, the train engineer killed when the James Gang derailed his locomotive, or the dozens of other innocent bystanders murdered or maimed by Jesse, Frank, or their gang. Nonetheless, the myth that Jesse James was a good-hearted hero of the common folk remains popular to this day. Robert Ford shot James in the back of the head– killing him on April 3, 1882.