Jesse James: Famous Outlaw and Gambler
In the late 1800s, Jesse James and his gang became one of the most feared groups of outlaws in American history, responsible for more than twenty bank and train robberies on top of the countless murders of anyone who tried to stand in their way.
Historians estimate that Jesse and his gang stole over $250,000, which is a substantial amount of money for the time period. Jesse would spend the majority of the money he stole betting on horse races and gambling in the saloons in almost every town he visited.
Early Life/ Family
Jesse Woodson James was born in Clay County, Missouri on September 5th, 1847. He was the middle child, having a younger sister, Susan Lavenia James and an older brother, Alexander Franklin "Frank" James, to whom he looked up to and respected dearly.
His father, Robert S. James, founded William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri and owned over one-hundred acres of land; to say he was wealthy would be an understatement. Money wasn't the most important thing in his father's life though, as his faith was very important to him. His father travelled to California during the Gold Rush to minister to the men and women over there, but unfortunately he never returned, passing away from unknown causes.
His father's death had a huge impact on the family and his mother eventually married Dr. Reuben Samuel, having four more children with him. Their family was still well off at this point, owning seven slaves that tended to the acres of tobacco fields that they owned.
A Life of Crime Begins: James-Younger Gang
Jesse's first murder spree was completely legal, as it was during the Civil War when he was fighting on the Confederate's side. Both Jesse and his brother joined a malicious guerilla warfare group, participating in the cold-blooded murder of twenty-five unarmed Union soldiers in August 1863. When the war ended, the adrenaline rush that the brothers felt from killing their enemies on the battle field followed them back to their lives back home.
The two brothers joined with Cole and John Younger and several other former Confederates to form what became to be known as the James-Younger Gang. The gang stole from banks, stagecoaches, and various fairs across the Midwest, taking some of the money and blowing it at the nearby saloons.
In 1873, the gang turned to train robbery, derailing the Rock Island train in Iowa and stealing over $3,000. For their first train robbery they wore Ku Klux Klan masks to show their disapproval of the outcome of the Civil War. The James- Younger gang went on to rob trains for quite some time, but Jesse personally limited himself to the express safe in the baggage car to avoid innocent passengers.
It was the result of these actions that earned James' the Robin Hood image, as James focused more on stealing from rich organizations than from innocent bystanders. However, unlike the Robin Hood legend we know from our childhood, there's no indication that Jesse ever gave away money to help others in need.
The Adams Express Company who owned the majority of the trains that the James- Younger Gang had attacked turned to the Pinkerton National Detective Agency in 1874 to stop the overwhelming influx of robberies. Allan Pinkerton raided Jesse's home, killing James' younger half-brother and blowing off one of his mother's arms.
After this incident, Jesse turned to gambling to solve his problems, going to the local saloons to play various card games, with his game of choice being Faro. Faro is a quick card game that usually only lasts around fifteen minutes and is won when a players hand matches up with the dealers.
More Criminal Activities
After Jesse had coped with the loss of his half brother and his newly crimpled mother, the James-Younger gang attempted a raid on the First National Bank of Northfield, Minnesota. After this robbery went terribly wrong, the police were able to bring down every one in the group except for the James' brothers. All other members of the gang were sentenced to life imprisonment, but Jim and Cole Younger were let off on parole after serving twenty-five years.
Less than a year later, Jesse and his brother started their life over in Nashville, Tennessee. Frank wanted to settle down, but Jesse wasn't ready to give up his old habits. He recruited a new gang in 1879 and returned to crime, holding up a train at Glendale, Missouri later that year.
The robbery was the first of a spree of crimes, including the holdup of the federal paymaster of a canal project in Alabama and several more train robberies. As tensions among members of the group arose, Jesse soon grew paranoid and started suspecting treason within the group.
How It All Came Crashing Down
Governor Crittenden made capturing the James' brothers his top priority, as he had been on his trail for quite some time at this point. He begged the railroad and express corporations to put up a $500 reward for their capture, hoping that would speed up the process of finding them.
His gang ultimately split up, and Jesse was left only being able to trust the Ford brothers: Charley and Robert. Jesse had no idea that Crittenden, the Governor of Missouri, had offered Bob Ford $10,000 if he could successfully bring down the infamous bandit.
On April 3rd, 1882 after eating breakfast, Jesse and the Ford brothers prepared to depart for another robbery. As they were getting ready, Jesse noticed a dirty picture frame on his wall and pulled up a chair to clean it, when all of a sudden Bob snuck up from behind him and shot him several times in the head.
Jesse died instantly at age thirty- four and the citizens of Missouri were surprisingly outraged the cowardly assassination that the governor and Ford pulled off. Bob Ford took the $10,000 reward and headed to Walsenburg, Colorado to operate a successful saloon/ gambling hall. Frank eventually surrendered to Crittenden, but he let Frank go as long as he promised to stay out of trouble.
Legends Never Die
In the 1880s, after James's death, the James Gang became the subject of several novels and short stories. Jesse became a symbol of America's Robin Hood, standing up against wealthy corporations, but there's no evidence that his robberies actually benefitted anyone's lives other than his own.
Rumors of Jesse's survival spread from one newspaper to the next almost immediately after they found out he had been killed. Some people believed that Robert Ford killed someone other than James, in an elaborate plot to allow him to escape justice. However, later studies show that the body buried matched Jesse James' DNA perfectly, proving those rumors to be false.
Jesse had married his cousin, Zerelda on April 24th, 1874 and they had two children: Jesse Edward James Jr. and Mary Susan James. They had two twin boys in 1878, but they died before their first birthday. Jesse Jr. became a lawyer in his later years, practicing in both Kansas City and Los Angeles, protecting criminals just like his father.
Author: Nicole Miller
Updated: August 2015