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The notorious bandit Jesse James famously ‘died with his boots on’

Posted in America, Famous crimes, Historical articles, History, Law on Saturday, 21 December 2013

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This edited article about the Wild West first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 500 published on 14 August 1971.

Jesse James, picture, image, illustration

Jesse James 'wanted' poster by John Keay

The most daring train robbery on record! screamed the headline. Below it there was a lurid account of how five heavily-armed men had robbed a train at Gadshill, Missouri, then sped off south.

This was a newspaper story with a difference, though. The leader of the gang had tossed it into the engineer’s cab as the robbed train set off again, shouting as he rode away: “Give this to the newspaper. We like to do things in style.”

The outlaw with style enough to write his own press notices in advance was Jesse James, who, with his elder brother Frank and a handful of other desperadoes, conducted a 16-year reign of terror and violence in America’s mid-West, until Jesse was betrayed and murdered by one of his own men for a huge reward.

Jesse James, who was a legend in his own lifetime and ever since, was America’s Robin Hood, despite the fact that he was a vicious killer who, as far as is known, never gave a cent to the poor.

Though it does not excuse him, the time and place in which he grew up partly explains him. Born a parson’s son in Missouri in 1847, he was surrounded by violence all his life. For a decade before the Civil War broke out in 1861, Missouri and Kansas were torn apart by rival factions. Kansas was declared a “Free” state without slavery, Missouri a slave state, and rival gangs of killers erupted into each other’s territory to show what they thought of each other’s views. Then came the Civil War.

Now things became worse. The murderous gangs became licensed to kill as guerrilla fighters, and soon one of the worst of them was the 16-year-old Jesse, who rode with such choice specimens as Charles Quantrill, claimed as the “bloodiest man in American history,” and certainly a disgrace to the Southern cause, and another living nightmare of a man, “Bloody Bill” Anderson.

Jesse soon proved himself a born leader as well as a killer. At the war’s end he found himself on the losing side. Like many guerrillas, he could not settle down; besides he had old scores to repay. Hatred in Missouri and Kansas was as ferocious as ever.

The James band varied in number, but its basic strength was Jesse, Frank, four years older and less dashing, and the brothers, Cole, Jim and Bob Younger.

They first went into action on 13th February, 1866, when at Liberty, Missouri, they pulled off what was probably the first daylight bank robbery in peacetime America. Other robberies followed rapidly and innocent men went down under a hail of bullets.

In between their exploits the gang faded into obscurity, the James boys helping their mother on the farm! Later Jesse married and, whatever his other many failings, became a good husband!

The Law could not touch the gang. Many Missourians admired them as hard-done-by Southern boys, and those lawmen who knew their guilt did little about it. As one said to one of the detectives sent by the famous firm of Pinkerton: “We’ve got to go on living in this area!”

But Pinkerton men with little to go on followed up every clue. And meanwhile the bank robberies and train robberies went on, so much so that every crime in the West was being attributed to the James gang, or so it seemed.

Then the gang at last got what it deserved. In September, 1876, Jesse led his band into Northfield, Minnesota, and began to rob the First National Bank. The cashier was gunned down, but this time a town was not going to surrender without a struggle, and besides, it was too far north for the boys to have many friends there.

The brave citizens sprang into action, using revolvers, rifles and even rocks as weapons. The result was disastrous to the gang. Three were killed, and the three Youngers, badly wounded, were captured and sent to prison for life. Only Jesse and Frank escaped.

The brothers were never as active again but, with a new gang, they continued their robberies. Politicians and detectives were determined to end their activities and the railroads offered enormous rewards for anyone who would exterminate Jesse. The bait was taken by one of the gang, Robert Ford.

By now, in 1882, Jesse was living in St. Joseph, Missouri, as Thomas Howard with his wife and two children. Two new recruits to the gang, Bob and Charlie Ford, were staying at the house. After breakfast on 3rd April, 1882, Jesse took off his guns and stepped on to a chair to put a picture straight. Seizing his chance, Bob Ford shot Jesse in the back of his head.

Jesse’s wife, the only truly tragic figure on the scene, cradled her husband in her arms, as the despicable Fords ran out to claim their blood money. Even in death Jesse still had friends. “Goodbye, Jesse!” wept the headlines of one paper, though another proclaimed: “The Notorious Bandit at Last Meets His Fate and Dies with His Boots On.”

Later that year, Frank, tired of running, gave himself up to find himself a popular hero. He was acquitted at his trial for lack of evidence against him and lack of brave enough witnesses, and he lived on until 1915. The last of the Youngers, burly Cole Younger, died the following year, a free man. When they lowered him into his grave, Uncle Cole, as he was known to the local children, still had 17 bullets lodged in his body.

And what of Bob Ford, “the dirty little coward who shot Mr. Howard and laid poor Jesse in his grave,” as a ballad put it? He, too, met a violent end 11 years later. As for Jesse, for better or worse, he is an immortal.

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