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.