Jesse James

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Jesse James

Jesse Woodson James (born September 5, 1847 in Centerville, now Kearney , in Clay County , Missouri , † April 3, 1882 in Saint Joseph , Missouri) was an American bandit and the most famous member of the James Younger gang . After his death, Jesse James became a legendary figure in the Wild West .


Before the civil war

His parents were Zerelda Elisabeth Cole and the farmer and Baptist chief Robert James. Jesse had three siblings: the brothers Robert Jr. (died young) and Alexander Franklin (Frank) and sister Susan Lavenia. The mother married two more times after the death of her first husband. a. the doctor Reuben Samuel, and had other children.

Civil war

At the beginning of the Civil War , the Confederate Army had to withdraw from the state of Missouri due to early successes by Union forces . The attitude of the residents of the state remained divided between unionists and sympathizers of the south, which included the James family.

Jesse's older brother Frank was a soldier in the Confederate Army until he had to return home due to illness. In 1863 he joined the so-called " Bushwhackers ", a guerrilla force that fought Union troops in western Missouri. These fights were fought with great violence, not least because all those involved came from the area and some neighbors fought against each other.

Jesse's stepfather, Reuben Samuel, was tortured by the local militia hunting down Frank James and his gang. Frank James eventually joined another guerrilla group, the Quantrills Raiders , and took part in the 1863 bloody massacre of 170 men and children in Lawrence , Kansas .

In 1864, his 16-year-old brother Jesse joined him and they fought together against Union sympathizers. They served u. a. under Commanders "Bloody Bill" Anderson and Archie Clement . They took part in the Centralia massacre in September 1864 , in which 22 unarmed Union soldiers were dragged from a train and killed.

The James brothers' crimes had repercussions for the rest of the James family: Union authorities banished Reuben and Zerelda Samuel from Missouri in 1865.

Bandit life

At the end of the Civil War (1865), Missouri was anomalous . The population was bitter and still divided. The so-called "Radical Republicans", a militant minority, took over the leadership of the state and suppressed the former supporters of the Confederation by excluding them from the right to vote or by denying them public office. Jesse James was shot and seriously injured by a Union cavalryman a month after the war ended. He was nursed back to health by his cousin Zerelda "Zee" Mimms. In the following years the two became a couple.

Some of Jesse's former guerrilla comrades, like Archie Clement, did not return to peaceful private life. In 1866, this group raided the Clay County Savings Association in Liberty, making the first bank robbery since the Civil War. It is not certain whether Jesse James took part in this first attack; he may still be recovering from his gunshot wound. Over the next few years, the gang carried out more robberies, although government persecution and lynching kept its membership smaller.

Jesse and Frank James

In 1868, Frank and Jesse James teamed up with their old friend Cole Younger and raided the Russellville , Kentucky bank . Jesse James only became known after the attack on the Daviess County Savings Association in Gallatin , Missouri. Jesse James shot the bank's cashier because he believed he recognized the former militia officer Samuel Cox, who shot “Bloody Bill” Anderson during the Civil War.

This act of revenge and the daring escape from the city brought Jesse James the first newspaper report and made him the most famous of the earlier guerrillas who had become bandits. He then began working with John Newman Edwards , editor of the Kansas City Times . This fought for the old confederation in Missouri to get more influence again. Edwards published letters written to him by Jesse James and used these publications to portray Jesse as a symbol of a rebellion that had reignited. In this respect, too, his publications were strongly confederate in color.

Historians and James biographers disagree on the extent to which Jesse James himself contributed to this role or whether Edwards was solely responsible for politicizing the bandit career.

Meanwhile, the James Younger gang also included Cole Younger's brother Clell Miller and other former Confederates. They carried out a series of robberies that stretched from Iowa to Texas and from Kansas to West Virginia. They raided banks, stagecoaches, and a Kansas City fair .

In 1873 they moved to train attacks on July 21 and brought the rock Iceland train in Adair ( Iowa ) derailed. The later train raids were less spectacular. Jesse James contented himself with robbing the safe in the baggage car and left the passengers unmolested. This led to the press branding him a Robin Hood image.

The train companies contacted the Pinkerton Detective Agency in 1874 to try to stop the James Younger gang. Actually, the detective agency only dealt with criminals in cities, such as safe crackers or escaped prisoners. The task of finding the ex-guerrillas, who received strong sympathetic support in Missouri, seemed too big for them. Detective Joseph Whicher was hired to sneak in as a laborer on Jesse James' mother's farm. However, he was found dead shortly afterwards.

Then the detectives Louis J. Lull and John Boyle were set on the Younger brothers. Lull was killed in a street fire fight on March 17, 1874. Before that, however, he was able to shoot John Younger. Now the founder of the detective agency, Allan Pinkerton , took over the case personally and began a campaign of revenge. Along with old Union supporters who lived in the area of ​​Jesse James' family estate, he raided the farm on the night of January 25, 1875. An explosive device thrown into one of the buildings killed Jesse's half-brother Archie and wounded his mother, later a forearm had to be amputated.

This bloody attack finally made Jesse James a popular figure in Edward's newspaper columns. A law offering amnesty to the James Younger gang received widespread support in parliament. Frank and Jesse James, who were now both married, preferred to leave the area and settle in Nashville , possibly to protect their mother from further attacks.

Demise of the gang

On September 7, 1876, the James Younger gang carried out their most daring raid on the First National Bank in Northfield , Minnesota . Cole and Bob Younger later reported that they chose this bank because it was closely associated with two former Union generals and radical Republican politicians, Adelbert Ames and his father-in-law Benjamin Franklin Butler . The robbery failed, however, because bank clerk Joseph Lee Heywood refused to open the safe. He pretended that the safe was secured with a time lock, which was not the case. Heywood stayed with it, despite being beaten and threatened with a knife. In the meantime, citizens of Northfield had noticed the attack and were approaching the bank armed. The gang fled the bank, and Frank or Jesse James previously shot the unarmed Heywood.

While leaving the bank, gang members Cole, Bob and Jim Younger were injured in a firefight. The gang managed to escape the city. Two of its members, Clell Miller and Bill Chadwell, were left dead, as were three citizens, Joseph Heywood, the cashier, Sheriff Glispin and a Swedish immigrant named August Suborn who were both gunshot wounds. A large-scale chase began. The two James brothers eventually split from the gang and escaped to Missouri. The Youngers and another bandit, Charlie Pitts, were soon caught. In the following shooting, Charlie Pitts was killed and the Younger brothers were arrested. Except for Frank and Jesse James, the James Younger gang no longer existed.

Jesse and Frank returned to Nashville, where they lived under the names Thomas Howard and BJ Woodson. Zee James had four children: Jesse Edwards, Mary and twins who died shortly after birth. The two brothers tried to build a normal life. Frank seemed to succeed, but Jesse was restless and formed a new gang in 1879.

On October 8, 1879, he ambushed a train in Glendale , Missouri. This was the prelude to a multitude of crimes, including a. the robbery of the paymaster of a canal construction site in Muscle Shoals , Alabama , and two other train robberies .

This new gang, however, did not consist of combat-experienced guerrillas from the civil war. After internal disputes, some members were captured. Jesse James himself became paranoid and shot and killed one gang member, while another fled out of fear. The authorities became aware of the gang, and in 1881 the James brothers were again forced to flee to Missouri. In December of that year, Jesse rented a house in Saint Joseph , Missouri, not far from where he was born . Frank James moved on to Virginia because it seemed safer to him.

The ambush

Jesse James' home in Saint Joseph where he was murdered

After his gang had been decimated by arrests and deaths, Jesse James felt that he could only trust the two brothers Bob and Charley Ford . While Charley had participated in gang raids on multiple occasions, Bob was a newbie. For safety reasons, Jesse suggested that the brothers move in with him and his family. Little did Jesse know that Bob Ford was now having secret conversations with Thomas Theodore Crittenden , the governor of Missouri who wanted to arrest Jesse James.

Crittenden wanted to use the arrest of the James brothers for his election campaign. Since the Confederate forces in the government had now enforced that no high bounty could be placed on the James brothers, Crittenden contacted the postal and railroad companies, who then put a bounty of $ 10,000 on each of the James brothers .

On April 3, 1882, while preparing for another robbery, Jesse James climbed into a chair in his home to dust off a picture. He had put down his revolver, fearing that he would arouse suspicion among passers-by if he carried it all the time while working on the house. The Ford brothers took this opportunity and drew their revolvers. A shot from Bob Ford hit Jesse right behind the ear, killing him.

The Fords made no secret of their involvement in the killing of Jesse James when local residents showed up to see the dead bandit. They surrendered to the authorities, pleaded guilty, and were sentenced to death by hanging but immediately given amnesty by Crittenden. This quick amnesty suggests that the governor knew the brothers intended to kill Jesse James instead of capturing him. The Ford brothers, like many others who knew Jesse James, considered the arrest of such a dangerous man impracticable. The presumption that the government knew about the planned killing of a citizen without trial, unsettled the population and supported the creation of legends.

After his brother's death, Frank James surrendered to the authorities but was found not guilty in court. Frank James ultimately died of natural causes in 1915. His ashes were kept in a bank vault until his wife's death in 1944 and were eventually buried with hers in a Kansas City cemetery.

The Ford brothers only got part of the bounty because law enforcement officials who were privy to the scheme claimed a portion. The brothers fled Missouri because they feared acts of revenge. Charley Ford committed suicide in May 1884. Bob Ford was shot dead in his saloon tent in Creede , Colorado on June 8, 1892 . His killer, Edward Capehart O'Kelley , was initially sentenced to life in prison. However, after numerous petitions from the population, his sentence was initially reduced to 18 years by the state governor, and in 1900, after only eight years in prison, he was released from the Colorado State Penitentiary .

Jesse James' gravestone reads: " ... Murdered by a Traitor and Coward Whose Name is not Worthy to Appear Here " (German: "... Murdered by a traitor and coward whose name is not worth appearing here.")

conspiracy theories

There were repeated reports that Jesse James had survived. Bob Ford didn't shoot him, but everything was staged so that Jesse James could escape the authorities. Other theories suggested that he lived in Guthrie, Oklahoma until 1948. In Granbury, Texas, J. Frank Dalton died in 1951 at the age of 103, who claimed to be Jesse James. The man who was shot by Ford was allegedly named Frank Bigelow and lived with Jesse James' wife.

These theories were never taken seriously and have been refuted for a number of years: In 1995 Jesse James was exhumed and a DNA analysis was carried out, which clearly proved his identity.

The widow Zerelda James died lonely and impoverished in Kansas City in May 1900 at the age of 55.



The life of Jesse James has been depicted in dozens of films, with rare attention being paid to historical accuracy. It began in the silent movie era in 1921 with the film Jesse James under the black flag , in which Jesse's son Jesse James jr. played the title role.

The series X-Factor , Our Little Farm , Superman - The Adventures of Lois & Clark and Timeless each revolved around the famous bandit Jesse James.


There is a Lucky Luke album called Jesse James in which he is inspired by reading Robin Hood for his raids. He also appears in The Blue Boys album 18 Quantrills Gang . Jesse and Frank James also appear in Don Rosa's Uncle Dagobert - His Life, His Billions , when they robbed a train.


Bentley Ball : Jesse James (1919)

The folk song Jesse James depicts Jesse James as a hero. First recorded by Bentley Ball in 1919 , it was - often under the title The Ballad of Jesse James - among others by the interpretations of Pete Seeger , Woody Guthrie , Warren Zevon (1976), Prefab Sprout , The Pogues (1985), Bruce Springsteen (2006) or Van Morrison , Lonnie Donegan and Chris Barber (2006). Cher sings about the bandit of the same name in Just Like Jesse James on her record Heart Of Stone from 1989. The title was written by Desmond Child and Diane Warren . From 1966 to 1976 there was the rock band James Gang , to which the well-known guitarist Joe Walsh belonged until 1970. On the 1992 album Boom Boom by John Lee Hooker is also a song included on Jesse James: I'm Bad Like Jesse James .


A variety of museums in the Midwest are devoted to Jesse James, mostly in locations where raids took place. The most important are:

  • The "James Farm" in Kearney (Missouri)
  • The Jesse James Residence Museum in St. Joseph, Missouri, where he was shot.
  • The First National Bank of Northfield, site of the 1876 raid


Countless books have appeared on Jesse and his brother Frank James, but few are so well researched that evidence could be distinguished from myth. Below are some of these books:

  • William A. Settle, Jr .: Jesse James Was His Name, or, Fact and Fiction Concerning the Careers of the Notorious James Brothers of Missouri. University of Nebraska Press, 1977, ISBN 0-8032-5860-7 .
  • Ted P. Yeatman: Frank and Jesse James: The Story Behind the Legend. Cumberland House, 2001, ISBN 1-58182-080-1 .
  • TJ Stiles: Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War. Alfred A. Knopf, 2002, ISBN 0-375-40583-6 .
  • Eric J. Hobsbawm: Bandits. Pantheon, 1981, ISBN 0-394-74850-6 .
  • Richard Slotkin: Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America. Atheneum, 1985.
  • AC Stone, JE Starrs, M. Stoneking: Mitochondrial DNA analysis of the presumptive remains of Jesse James. In: Journal of Forensic Sciences. 46, 2001, pp. 173-176.
  • David Thelen: Paths of Resistance: Tradition and Dignity in Industrializing Missouri. Oxford University Press, 1986, ISBN 0-19-503667-0 .
  • Richard White: Outlaw Gangs of the Middle Border: American Social Bandits. In: Western Historical Quarterly. 12, no. 4, October 1981, pp. 387-408.


  • Joe Hembus : The Story of the Wild West. 1540-1894. The stuff westerns are made of. Chronology, mythology, filmography. (= Heyne books. 19, 487). Extended new edition. Heyne, Munich 1997, ISBN 3-453-11776-X .
  • Dietmar Kügler: You died in your boots. Motorbuch Verlag, Stuttgart 1976, ISBN 3-87943-415-8 .
  • Dietmar Kuegler: The Northfield Raid 1876. The last big bank robbery of the Jesse James gang. Tatanka Press, Wyk auf Föhr 2005, ISBN 3-89510-098-6 .
  • Bill O'Neal: Gunfighter. All gunslingers of the Wild West. An encyclopedia. Oesch, Zurich 1997, ISBN 3-85833-200-3 .

Web links

Commons : Jesse James  - album with pictures, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. James and Lucille Sampson: Jesse James and the Rock Island Lines. ( Memento from April 25, 2017 in the Internet Archive )
  2. Bill O'Neal: Kelly, Ed O. In: Encyclopedia of Western Gunfighters. University of Oklahoma Press, 1991, ISBN 0-8061-2335-4 , p. 174. (English)
  3. ^ Susan King: One more shot at the legend of Jesse James. In: Los Angeles Times . September 17, 2007, accessed December 7.
  4. ^ Anne C. Stone, James E. Starrs, Mark Stoneking: Mitochondrial DNA Analysis of the Presumptive Remains of Jesse James. In: Journal of Forensic Sciences. 46 (1), February 2001, pp. 173-176.