Monday, July 16, 2012

Jesse James by Lauri Robinson

Depending on who you talk to, or where you research, Jesse James may be known as a hero or one of America’s first “most wanted” criminals. I’m not saying he was one or the other, but here are a few facts and/or tales as reported by others.

Born in Clay County, Missouri on September 5, 1847, Jesse Woodson James was one of three children born to Robert S. and Zerelda James. He had an older brother, Alexander Franklin (Frank) and a younger sister, Susan Lavenia James.  Jesse was three when his father, a Baptist Minister, died in California while ministering to gold rush miners.  His mother (who’d remained in Missouri when Robert went to California) remarried twice, first to Benjamin Simms who died within a year, and then to Dr. Reuben Samuel. Zerelda and Reuben had four children, all born on the farm in Missouri.  

Jesse’s connection with Quantrill’s Raiders came about when he was 15. Kansas became a state in 1854, and Congress decided to let the residents of the state decide on the slavery issue. This created a border war between the ‘free’ state of Kansas and the ‘slave’ state of Missouri. Cole Younger, the son of a prosperous business owner, was known as a bright student and very well behaved. The border battles caused many problems for the Youngers. At a dance in December of 1861 a Union Captain ‘crashed the dance’ and insisted the girls dance with him. When the young ladies all refused, he grabbed Cole’s younger sister and forced her to accompany him. Cole stepped in and knocked the Captain out. Knowing trouble was sure to follow, Cole fled the area. When his father was brutally murdered and his family home burned, Cole joined the Confederate Army. After a couple of years he became part of Quantrill’s Battalion. Another one of Quantrill’s Raiders was Frank James, who’d joined the Confederacy in 1861. After several successful battles with his Guard, Frank fell ill and was left behind. Upon recuperating he joined the guerrilla band. Both Frank and Cole rode with Quantrill on the raid of Lawrence, Kansas.

Shortly after the massacre on Lawrence, and because of Frank’s involvement, the Samuel (James) farm was attacked by Union soldiers. They repeatedly tortured Samuel, left him hanging in a tree, and then found 14 year-old Jesse plowing the field. After brutally beating the young boy they left him for dead. Jesse, barely alive, crawled back to the house, where he found his mother and younger siblings trying to revive his step-father. Samuel survived, but suffered severe brain injuries and later died. The Union army returned a short time later and Zerelda, pregnant at the time, and her 12 year-old daughter Susan, were arrested for not providing information about Frank’s whereabouts. A year later, at 15, Jesse James joined the Confederate cause and rode beside his older brother Frank.

After the war, the James brothers attempted to live peacefully, but time after the war was tough, and it’s said the brothers (as well as the Youngers) decided if the banks wouldn’t loan them the money they needed to start farming again, they’d take it. Some claim the James/Younger Gang formed in retaliation to the Republican reconstruction after the war that temporarily excluded former Confederates from voting, serving on juries, owning businesses, or preaching from pulpits. It’s also said that Jesse insisted the gang only rob banks whose major shareholders were Unionists, only steal strong boxes off trains and stagecoaches which held federal money, and never steal from passengers, customers, or common businesses.  

Most of what I’ve mentioned here is from two books written by John Koblas, a Minnesota based author known for his knowledge on the outlaw genre. His book, The Jesse James Northfield Raid, Confessions of the Ninth Man, was filmed as a documentary.  I’ve had the pleasure of visiting with John several times, and his knowledge on Jesse is utterly fascinating. We met for lunch one day, and didn’t leave the restaurant until they were posting the evening specials.  

The escapes of the James-Younger Gangs are almost unending. The controversy of Jesse’s bandit/hero lifestyle has been the basis of many novels, movies, and festivals. Whether he was one of America’s worst criminals, or a Robin Hood hero, when the word outlaw is mentioned, most everyone thinks of Jesse James.  


Caroline Clemmons said...

Lauri, certainly anyone can understand why Jesse was drawn into retaliation against those who badgered his family. You should read Troy Smith's fictionalized story of his death in which Jesse knows why his murderer is there and decides to let himself die and end the terror for his family. Very sad. Oops, I've told you the end. ☺ Thanks for a great post.

Devon Matthews said...

The best depiction of the James-Younger gang I've seen was in the movie "The Long Riders." I can't recommend it enough. They tried to stick strictly to fact. During the last robbery, when they all got shot up, the movie does it in slo-mo and it actually shows where each bullet hit. I did some fact-checking and they got it exactly right. Cole Younger was shot eleven times during that escape and lived. Incredible. Also, real brothers play all the brothers in the movie. Dennis and Randy Quaid were the Ford brothers, Stacy and James Keach were Jesse and Frank, and David, Keith, and Bob Carradine were the Youngers. Terrific post, Lauri!

mesadallas said...

The Civil War was extremely complex and a time of horrible atrocities committed by both Union and Confederate guerrilla Bands. Some of the worst atrocities were committed by groups led by Bloody Bill Anderson, Quantrill, and Archie Clements-and the James Brothers were participants in these groups who attacked not only Union soldiers by also civilians.They not only killed, they scalped, mutilated, and dismembered bodies.

During his post-war life of robbery Jessie by his own hand killed at least 16 people. One was a bank teller he shot in the head at point blank range because he thought he looked like the man who had shot one of his commanding officer during the war.

I can understand what may have fueled the James brothers but war or no war I can't rectify most of their actions either during or after the war.

Lauri said...

I'll have to look for that one, Caroline. (Even though you told me the ending.) ;)

I remember that show,Devon. It's been years since I've seen it, though.

I agree mesadallas.

Thanks for stopping by, ladies!

Meg said...

I believe that Jesse James' wife and first cousin, Zerelda, was a MIMMS from Logan, Kentucky -- and probably related in some way to my husband's family, the MIMS of eastern Kentucky, waaaay back on the clan tree. Small world.

Ellen O'Connell said...

I don't know how I missed this post, but I did and wish I'd been more on the spot.

I'm with mesadallas in that anyone who rode with Quantrill and took part in the raid on Lawrence was an unspeakable savage. Yet it's hard to say what effect the experiences those people suffered would have on my supposedly civilized self.

Even though I loved history from childhood, it was a long time before I came on honest accounts of some of the savagery not only of the Civil War but of the American Revolution. We live in a world where American soldiers are prosecuted for minor acts of disrespect against the enemy. That's not how it was in total war not that long ago.

Jacquie Rogers said...

It's very hard for me to understand what would happen to a person who'd been brutally beaten and his family tortured, but I couldn't imagine that person being unaffected. Nevertheless, a lot of other people put up with the same or worse treatment and they didn't rob banks and kill people after the war.

Then again, my g-g-g-(or so)-uncle murdered the man who tortured him in prison camp, right in front of the man's wife and children, then walked straight to the jail and put himself in a cell. He said he didn't care what punishment they gave him, but now he was at peace. He served five years in prison then resumed his life--married, had children, and forged a successful career. That story baffles me every time I hear it.