The Tragic Life Of Notorious Outlaw Jesse James
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The Tragic Life Of Notorious Outlaw Jesse James

Everybody’s heard of the legendary outlaw
Jesse James thanks to the many movies and TV shows dramatizing his life. But how much of the legend is true, and how
much is nonsense? This is the life and tragic death of Jesse
James. The man who would become a fearsome outlaw
started out like everyone else – first and foremost, as a baby. He was born Jesse Woodson James to the Reverend
Robert James, a Baptist minister and successful farmer, and Zerelda Cole James in Kearney,
Missouri on September 5, 1847. According to History, Robert died in the fall
or winter of 1850, on a trip to preach in the goldfields of California. A widow at the age of 28 with three children
to feed, Zerelda knew that finding another husband was key to her survival. She married Benjamin Simms in 1852 and after
he died just two years later, Zerelda married Reuben Samuel in 1855. The world of the James children was rocked
by their father’s death, their mother’s poverty, and her subsequent marriages. Things only got more complicated when, in
1863, a group of Union militiamen converged on the family farm. They were looking for Jesse’s brother Frank,
who was a member of a Confederate guerrilla gang commonly known as ‘bushwhackers’ which
engaged in attacking Union sympathizers as the Civil War raged. Young Jesse was ambushed and whipped by militia
soldiers, and Reuben Samuel was hanged from a tree and tortured. Samuel survived, but Jesse became determined
to join his brother and fight for the South. Soon after the attack on the family farm,
Jesse James joined the war. The National Park Service’s documentation
of the Civil War confirms that Jesse signed up with the Confederate 4th Regiment of the
Missouri Infantry. Within a year he had joined his brother Frank,
whose guerrilla gang was headed by William “Bloody Bill” Anderson. In September of 1864, the notorious group
robbed a Union congressman, James S. Collins, before raiding a Union passenger train. On board were 22 furloughed soldiers who had
surrendered, according to History. Anderson’s gang ordered the men from the train,
and mercilessly murdered each of them. The Union 39th Missouri Volunteer Infantry
set out in pursuit of Anderson’s gang, but was ambushed at Centralia, Missouri by the
guerrillas. Anderson’s men killed over 100 soldiers. The bodies of the dead were mutilated, while
the survivors were brutally tortured. The battle, in which both Frank and Jesse
participated, was later called the Centralia Massacre. Jesse was only 16-years-old. In May of 1865, Jesse was outside of Lexington,
Missouri when he was shot in the chest. His cousin, Zerelda Mimm, nursed him back
to health. But the atrocities Jesse and Frank committed
during the war were considered so terrible that the family had to leave Clay County. James’ experiences during the Civil War would
result in some post-traumatic stress disorder of the worst kind. Unable to return to a normal life, the young
man turned to a life of crime instead. According to History, James’ first widely-publicized
bank robbery occurred in 1869, and went terribly wrong. The robbery took place in Gallatin, Missouri,
where James thought he recognized the cashier as Samuel Cox – the man who had managed to
kill James’ army buddy Bloody Bill Anderson in 1864. So James shot him to death. But the cashier was not Cox, rendering his
killing even more senseless and brutal. Worse yet, the bounty James snatched up on
his way out the door turned out to be a portfolio of bank stationery, not money. As news of James’ activities went public,
pro-Confederate newspaper editor John Newman Edwards decided to spice up his own paper
with sensational stories about the murderer and would-be bank robber. Edwards published articles portraying Jesse
James as a hero who used his ill-gotten gains to help the poor, while James himself penned
letters to the editor defending himself. Readers got their dime-novel fodder, while
Edwards used the stories to inspire his fellow Confederates to regain political power. America bought the story, although no evidence
has ever been uncovered to substantiate Edwards’ claims that James was a 19th century Robin
Hood. Jesse James would commit more robberies over
time. According to PBS, by June of 1871 he had hooked
up with the notorious Younger Brothers gang and robbed another bank in Corydon, Iowa. James discovered that most of the locals were
attending a speech by orator Henry Clay Dean at the Methodist Church. After swiping $6,000 from the bank, the gang
busted into the church and angrily taunted the crowd with the money. James also started robbing trains and leaving
his own press releases at the crime scenes. Many of James’ robberies turned violent: At
another bank holdup in Kentucky during 1872, the unarmed cashier was shot but refused to
open the vault even as he was dying. A more successful robbery, a train at Gads
Hill, Missouri, took place in 1874. Three months after the Gads Hill Robbery,
Jesse married Zerelda “Zee” Mimms, the cousin who took care of him after he was shot in
1865. After the train robbery, Pinkerton’s National
Detective Agency was brought in. According to History, agents snuck up to Zerelda
and Reuben Samuel’s farm in the dead of night on January 25, 1875 and tossed a bomb into
the house. In the resulting explosion James’ 8-year-old
half brother was killed, and his mother lost her arm. Worse yet, the James boys were nowhere near
the farm. In March of 1875, a sympathetic group of citizens
rallied for an amnesty bill to release the James brothers from all guilt. The bill made it to the General Assembly,
but failed to meet the two thirds majority vote necessary for the bill to pass. James, who had fled with his family to Tennessee,
continued pushing for amnesty. He was likely inspired by the impending birth
of his first child, Jesse Edwards James. Just before the baby was born, James wrote
a letter to the New York Times which was reprinted by other newspapers, including the August
5 issue of the Leavenworth Weekly Times in Kansas. In his letter, James claimed that he was a
gentleman and that what really incensed him, he said, was that he was being “…persecuted for the sake of the confederacy
[…] reproached with horse-stealing and burglary by Democratic and Southern newspapers.” But the Times came to their own conclusion
and disagreed. James had no choice but to remain an outlaw,
and set about acting like it. A year after his plea for amnesty, Jesse’s
wife gave birth to a second child, identified by census records as Ethel Louise James. According to History, just a month later,
on September 7, 1876, the James-Younger gang – consisting of Frank and Jesse James, Cole,
Jim, and Robert Younger, and three other gang members, waltzed up to the First National
Bank in Northfield, Minnesota. The men had heard that Union general and Republican
governor of Reconstruction-era Mississippi, Adelbert Ames, had just recently deposited
$75,000 with the bank. According to the Grange Advance newspaper
in Red Wing, Minnesota, three men went inside and told the cashier to open the safe, which
he refused to do, so they killed him. The others remained outside as a lookout,
but word quickly got out of the hold-up. Angry townsfolk took up arms and approached
the robbers in the street. In the ensuing gunfight, two members of the
gang were killed while the others fled without any money, but with a few gunshot wounds. The Younger brothers were captured two weeks
later near Madelia, Minnesota and were later sentenced to life in prison. The failed robbery was a lesson to Frank and
Jesse, who decided to remain in Tennessee under assumed names to avoid capture. After two years of living peacefully, however,
James decided to resume his life of crime. By the summer of 1879, Frank James had decided
to leave his lawless life behind. For Jesse James, however, going straight was
not so easy. Riding back to Missouri, he began looking
around for a new set of gang members. HistoryNet reports one of them was Ed Miller,
Clell Miller’s brother. Ed decided to introduce Jesse to the Ford
family outside of Richmond. Jesse felt at ease with the Fords, especially
Bob and Charlie, who were fellow guerrillas from the Civil War days. The new gang committed at least one robbery,
in 1879, an express train on the Chicago & Alton Road in October. Soon, however, Jesse was shocked to learn
that America was under the impression he had been killed by one George Shepherd. An incensed Jesse wrote a letter to the Clipper-Herald
in Hannibal, from “Brownwood, the Hardest Town in Texas.” The letter read, in part, “Your reporter and
George Shepherd have the most brilliant imaginations in America … I read your reporter’s yarn,
and myself and wife laughed heartily over it.” The outlaw even teased that he was now living
in Brownwood under an assumed name. “Tell your reporter to ‘set ’em up’ to the
boys around and send the bill to me,” he wrote. He even enclosed a photograph of himself for
all to see, although the paper didn’t publish it. HistoryNet says James also remained appreciative
of Ed Miller for introducing him to the Fords – at least until the summer of 1880, when
Miller announced he wanted to leave the gang. Jesse immediately suspected Miller of betraying
him and shot him to death. James next appeared at the Ford house with
Miller’s horse, which he left there with the explanation that ol’ Ed was on the mend in
Hot Springs, Arkansas from some ailment. A member of the Ford family, Jim Cummins,
grew suspicious. After looking for Miller for awhile, Cummins
visited James in Nashville during the winter of 1880-81. As with Miller, James became suspicious of
Cummins when he asked too many questions. Cummins took off in the night, fearful that
he might too become one of James’ victims. As Jesse went after those who he felt might
betray him, a whole new set of troubles appeared on his horizon. In 1880, Joseph A. Dacus published a book
titled Life and Adventures of Frank and Jesse James. The book sold like hotcakes – 21,000 copies
in four months. The book might have spurred both Jesse and
Frank to resume their lives of crime with a vengeance. There were more robberies, more killings. But when Jesse again took up his hunt for
Jim Cummins and roughed up a 15-year-old member of the Ford family, the Fords had enough,
according to HistoryNet. In the fall of 1881, a meeting was arranged
between Bob Ford and Governor Thomas Crittenden, during which Ford agreed to capture Jesse
James. Ford would later claim he had agreed to get
Jesse dead or alive. In early March of 1882, Jesse and the Fords
began planning several bank robberies in Kansas. Charlie and Bob had moved into the James home,
where they awaited their chance to take the outlaw. On the morning of April 3, Zee was in the
kitchen as the men chatted in another room. Jesse had taken off his pistol belt and he
hopped on a chair to dust some pictures on the wall. Behind him, Bob and Charlie quietly drew their
guns. Jesse heard a noise behind him and was turning
to look around when Bob shot him in the back of the head. Zee rushed into the room to see her husband
lying on his back. James was not quite gone, trying to say something
to Zee as she cradled his head and attempted to wipe off the fast-flowing blood, but unable
to get out any haunting last words. Within seconds he was dead. “And that’s how I killed Jesse James.” Charlie then explained that the gun went off
accidentally. In a 2006 issue of Wild West magazine, Ted
Yeatman, long considered the foremost authority on Jesse, wrote that the grieving Zee replied, “Yes, I guess it went off on purpose.” Jesse James was buried at the family farm
as America revered his death. His widow Zee was forced to sell everything,
including the family dog, to stay afloat. Several historians discovered that in the
coming years Zee, her landlord Henrietta Saltzman, James’ mother and even his brother Frank kept
the James home as a tourist attraction and charged admission. Because he killed Jesse James rather than
apprehending him as agreed, Bob Ford was denied any reward money and even arrested for murder. He was later pardoned and began roaming the
country and selling his story, although his actions caused many to believe he was a common
coward for shooting James from behind. By 1889 Ford was in Colorado, dealing cards
in Old Colorado City and opening a bar in Creede in 1891. Notably, he was turned away from the city
limits of Cripple Creek by the sheriff himself in 1891. Despite circulating rumors to the contrary,
Ford remained alive until 1894, when one of his enemies, “Red” Kelley, waltzed into Ford’s
Creede saloon. Kelley called out, “Hello, Bob!” before firing
a double-barreled, sawed off shotgun a mere five feet from Ford’s throat. Today, the story of Jesse James remains as
one of the best-known, and most debated, tales of the West. However you feel about James and Ford, though,
one thing is certain: there were no happy endings for anyone in this story. Check out one of our newest videos right here! Plus, even more Grunge videos about your favorite
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