Of all the worlds' legendary characters, few have attracted world-wide fascination like the outlaw, Jesse James. Some call him America's Robin Hood, while others see him as a cold-blooded killer. Perhaps he was all of these things.
Jesse Woodson James was born in Kearney, Missouri on September 5, 1847. His father, the Rev. Robert James, was a Baptist minister who helped found William Jewell College in Liberty, Mo. Some people say it was the cruel treatment from Union soldiers that turned Frank and Jesse to a life of crime during the Civil War. Certainly during the war years they learned to kill while riding with William Quantrill and Bloody Bill Anderson. After the war, Jesse was wounded while surrendering. Within a year, Frank and Jesse are believe to have pulled off the first daylight bankrobbery in peace time. They made off with $60,000 from the Liberty, Mo. bank not far from their home, and one man was killed.
For the next 15 years, the James boys roamed throughout the U.S. robbing trains and banks of their gold, building a legend that was to live more than a century after Jesse's death. Jesse married his own first cousin after a nine-year courtship. She was named for his own mother, Zerelda, and he called her Zee for short. They had two children, Jesse Edwards and Mary.
The Pinkerton Detective Agency was called in to help catch the famous desperadoes. Once during a nighttime raid on the family home outside Kearney, Mo., a firebomb was tossed into the log cabin. When it exploded, it tore off the hand of Jesse's mother, and led to the death of his half-brother Archie.
Jesse reached his Waterloo in September, 1876, when his gang, including the Younger brothers, took on the bank at Northfield, Minn. Within minutes the town people returned fire. All except Frank and Jesse were either killed or were wounded and captured.
Frank James also married, and their wives tried to get them to take on a more normal life. With a $10,000 reward on his head, Jesse moved to St. Joseph, Mo., with his family in the fall of 1881 to hide out. On Christmas Eve, Jesse and Zee moved their family into a small house atop a high hill overlooking St. Joseph. Living under the assumed name of Tom Howard, Jesse rented the house from a city councilman for $14 a month. He attended church, but did not work for a living.
During the winter of 1882, Jesse tried to buy a small farm in Nebraska. But in April, he was short of cash. All of his earlier gang members were either dead or in prison, but Jesse recruited Bob and Charlie Ford to help him rob the Platte City bank. The Ford brothers posed as cousins of Jesse James, but actually were not related to Jesse at all.
The $10,000 reward on Jesse proved too appealing. While Jesse stood on a chair in the family home at 1318 Lafayette Street in St. Joseph to dust and straighten a picture, Bob and Charlie Ford drew their guns. Bob Ford put and end to the James Legend with a single bullet to the back of the head on April 3, 1882.
The Ford brothers attempted to collect the reward. Instead, they were charged with murder. They were sentenced to hang, but were pardoned by Governor Tom Crittenden. Two years later Charles Ford committed suicide and Bob Ford, the »dirty little coward who shot Mr. Howard, and laid poor Jesse in his grave,« was himself killed in a bar room brawl in Creede, Colorado, in 1892.
Jesse James was a moral paradox. He was a good father and family man, and was religious in his own way. Whether he stole from the rich and gave to the poor, or just kept it all, has never been decided.
Jesse James died in 1882, but the legend of Jesse James continues more than a century beyond his death. Today Jesse and Frank James are among the best-known Americans in the world.