“Jesse James (III)”


Jesse's home life is described: "His mother she was elderly; his father was a preacher." Bob Ford, described as an inept train robber, is shown in consultation with the governor. Ford kills James, but is shot by a drunken cowboy

Supplemental text

Jesse James (III)
  Partial text(s)

          *** A ***

From H. M. Belden, Ballads and Songs Collected by the
Missouri Folk-Lore Society, 1955 edition, pp. 403-404.
Supplied in 1916 by Mary Alice Owen, from an unknown

Jesse James was one of his names, another it was Howard.
He robbed the rich of every stitch. You bet he was no coward.

His mother she was elderly, his father was a preacher,
Though some do say, I can't gainsay, his mother was his teacher.

And then one day, the papers say, Bob Ford got his rewarding:
A cowboy drunk his heart did plunk. As you do you'll git according.

(stanzas  1, 2, 10 of 10)


This ballad includes several accurate details of James's life not found in most of the other Jesse James songs: The fact that his mother had her arm blown off (by Pinkertons in 1875); "Governor C"=Governor Crittenden; and the fact that Robert Ford also died by gunfire.

The amount of literature on the James Gang astonishes me; it appears that at least four books were published just in the period 1980-2000, with many more before that. Many of these, however, appear to be pretty bad. For the sources I've used, see the Bibliography at the end of this note.

The James Boys certainly were not born to be criminals; Yeatman, pp. 25-27, gives a rather impressive family history. Their father, Robert Salee James (c. 1818-1850) was the son of a Virginia Baptist minister, John W. James (Brant, p. 4). John James died when Robert was nine, and he and his siblings moved in with their older sister, the newly-married Mary James Mimms (Brant, p. 5). Mary Mimms was the mother of the future wife of Jesse James.

Robert Sallee James, despite being an orphan, managed an impressive education. He earned a B.A. in classics in 1843, and picked up a Masters in 1848. His library was not overly large, but in addition to theology, Latin, and Greek, it included volumes on mathematics, chemistry, astronomy, and philosophy (Settle, p. 7). In 1841, he married 16-year-old Zerelda Cole, who was blessed with a fairly substantial inheritance. (In case you're wondering -- no, the name Zerelda is *not* Biblical. It appears to be a family name in the Cole family, though I've seen no explanation of how it arose.) The young couple moved to Clay County, Missouri, in 1842.

Their residence in Clay County is significant. It's just east of Kansas City (the county seat is Liberty), and the settlers were mostly from border slave states like Tennessee. At the time of Lincoln's election in 1860, over a quarter of the residents of the county were slaves; clearly it was an area happy with slavery (Yeatman, p. 29). Indeed, one of the James stepfathers was a slaveowner (Yeatman, pp. 27-28), as was Robert James himself (Settle, p. 7).

After arriving in Missouri, Robert James became pastor of the New Hope Baptist Church, which during his time there grew to have several hundred members. He also farmed 275 acres. But, for some reason, he decided to follow the gold rush to California, leaving his family behind. He died of "fever" on August 18, 1850 at Hangtown, California.

From that time on, things were traumatic for the James boys, Alexander Franklin ("Frank"), born 1843, and Jesse Woodson, born 1847. (They had a sister Susan, born just before Robert went west.) Jesse had apparently been truly bothered when his father went away, and his mother's second and third marriages can't have helped; in 1852, she took the elderly Benjamin Simms as a second husband, but they separated and he died soon after (Brant, pp. 14-15; Settle, p. 8); her third, Dr. Reuben Samuel, whom she married in 1855, was the second slave owner among her husbands. Samuel and Zerelda would eventually have four children: Archie (of whom more below), John, Sallie, and Fannie (Brant, p. 8; Settle, p. 9).

When the Civil War came, Frank promptly joined the Confederate side, being part of the force (one hesitates, at that stage of the war, to call it an army) of General Sterling Price (1809-1867), for whom see, e.g. "Sterling Price." He was one of Price's rabble-in-arms (or, often, rabble-wishing-for-the-arms-they-didn't-have) at Wilson's Creek (for which see e.g. "The War in Missouri in '61" and "Jolly Union Boys"). Later that year, he came down with measles, was captured by Union troops, and paroled (Yeatman, p. 32; Settle, p. 20).

It's at this point that the James story starts to get genuinely ugly. Frank apparently took an oath to the Union in 1862. But Clay County was part of the area raided by both sides. Frank, even though he had sworn to support the union, joined Quantrill's Raiders (for whom see the notes to "Charlie Quantrell" as well as "The Call of Quantrell," "Quantrell," etc.), probably in 1863 (Yeatman, p. 35; Settle, p. 21-23, is not sure of the date though he notes that Cole Younger was in the band by the spring of 1862 and Jim Younger was acting as a guerrilla by 1864).

In May 1863, Frank managed to upgrade himself from oathbreaker to terrorist; in an ambush near Richfield, Missouri, he was part of an ambush in which a Lt. Graffenstein was killed after surrendering (Yeatman, p. 36). On August 7, Frank committed his first true robbery (Yeatman, p. 41). Meanwhile, the Federals were looking for Frank -- and they visited the James/Samuel home, with results hardly likely to endear them to the family. They beat up Jesse (who may already have been serving as a Confederate spy, and who some time during this period managed to shoot the end off one of his fingers; Settle, p. 31, suggests a date of June 1864, though accounts vary of how he lost it. According to Brant, the injury earned Jesse the nickname "Dingus," because he referred to the weapon that injured him as the "dodd-dingus pistol" he had ever used). Even more extremely, they half-hanged Dr. Samuel, perhaps as many as four times (Settle, p. 26); his voice was apparently affected for the rest of his life (Yeatman, p. 39). (Wellman, p. 54, claims it was his relatives who cut him down, but this seems highly unlikely; if the troops wanted to hang him, wouldn't they stick around for a few minutes to make sure he died?)

By 1864, when Jesse joined the Quantrill Gang (Yeatman, p. 50), the band were effectively out of Confederate control, preferring bushwhacking in Kansas and Missouri to regular service in Texas (Yeatman, p. 49). Not even Quantrill controlled most of them any more. Their recruiting methods were also irregular; while Frank was properly a member of the Confederate forces, it appears Jesse joined the terrorists entirely as a freelance (Yeatman, p. 52). That's not his age; by 1864, the Confederates were happy to have 17-year-olds in the military. But Jesse chose to be an irregular.

He certainly was quick to get in trouble. In an early raid, Jesse was shot through the chest, apparently while stealing a saddle (Yeatman, p. 53), though the claim was later made that he was fighting the Yankees.

By the end of the war, the irregulars were robbing trains; at Centralia they captured, looted, and destroyed a train of the North Missouri Railroad, killing two dozen Union soldiers who were aboard on furlough (Yeatman, p. 55). The James Boys were probably not present for this (Brant, p. 35, allows the possibility that Jesse was there, but as usual his evidence is thin), but they must have heard about it. And the James boys *were* present when a rescue party was slaughtered; many of the bodies of the rescuers were deliberately mutilated (scalped, beaten, and worse; Yeatman, p. 56).

By 1864, the entire James/Samuels clan was in exile -- Dr. Samuels evicted from his home (Yeatman, p. 62), Jesse James with ruffians under "Arch" Clement who were somewhere around Texas, having proved too rough even for Quantrill (Yeatman, pp. 73-74), and Frank James with Quantrill, who headed for Kentucky with the remainder of his force (Yeatman, p. 65). By 1865, the Federals were on Quantrill's heels; many of the guerillas were being killed, captured, or left behind when they lost their horses Yeatman, (pp. 66-68); Quantrill himself was mortally wounded on May 10 (Yeatman, p. 71).

The Clement gang, including Jesse, was meanwhile attacking Kingsville, Missouri, burning, looting, and murdering (Yeatman, pp. 73-74). Somewhat later, with the war clearly lost, Jesse suffered another bullet wound (reportedly making a spectacular escape before passing out; Settle, pp. 30-31; Wellman, p. 66); while still on his sickbed, he was paroled May 21, 1865 (Yeatman, pp. 76-77).

The wound kept him bedridden for months (Settle, p. 31); there were times when he was expected to die. The twice-injured lung apparently troubled him for the rest of his life (Yeatman, p. 95, on the basis of a statement by Cole Younger). During his recovery, he was cared for by his aunt and uncle, and became secretly engaged to their daughter Zerelda ("Zee") Mimms (Settle, p. 34; Wellman, p. 67, says that they fell in love but does not claim they became engaged).

Frank James (who had apparently acquired the nickname "Buck" during the war) was finally forced to surrender, along with other Quantrill survivors, on July 26, 1865, by which time Quantrill had been dead seven weeks. They might have come in earlier, had not some members of the band raped a woman; the authorities demanded they find the perpetrators (Yeatman, pp. 80-81). Still, Settle, p. 32, notes that neither Frank nor Jesse was considered in any way noteworthy in 1865.

Yeatman speculates that the guerrilla fighting in Missouri (the most bitter in all the Civil War) left the two brothers suffering from post-traumatic stress (Yeatman, p. 104); like a number of other veterans (e.g. Tom Dula), they, or at least Jesse, seem to have come home intending to return to normal life (Yeatman, p. 91). For four years, they lived at home (Settle, p. 32), but there are hints that they occasionally vanished for a few days, and they lived in an area much affected by lawlessness. Their whereabouts in the period 1869-1874 are almost impossible to trace (Yeatman, p. 99), but they came to be famous as robbers in this period.

On February 13, 1866 occurred the robbery of the bank of Liberty, Missouri, which resulted in the loss of some $60,000 and cost a bystander his life; it was said to be the first daylight bank robbery in peacetime (O'Neal, p. 167; Settle, p. 34; Wellman, p. 69; Yeatman, pp. 85-86).

Later folklore would connect this with the James Boys, and Wellman accepts this without question (in fact, he is already calling Jesse the head of the gang, on pp. 69, 73, even though such evidence as we have of the James/Younger gang does not seem to imply that there was a head). Although the Liberty bank is close to the James home, there is no real evidence that either the Jameses or the Youngers were involved. Wellman's link to the event is that the Boys had sometimes ridden through the town shooting off pistols, as if to establish their willingness to be wild (pp. 69-71). Scaring the tellers into turning over the money sounds logical -- until you realize that the robbers never used their names during the Liberty robbery. How can men whose identities aren't known have a reputation? And, since there were reportedly ten robbers (Wellman, p. 73), it would seem as if someone in the vicinity could have identified them had they been locals and done something to make themselves identifiable.

(Note: I'm not saying the Jameses and Youngers weren't involved. I'm saying it cannot be proved, and can't even be stated as a likelihood. It is merely a possibility.)

Several other robberies took place in the same area over the next few years (Settle, pp. 34-36). Some were more successful than others; none were connected with the Jameses, though some reportedly involved ex-Quantrill men. There is a stronger connection with the March 20, 1868 robbery of the Russellville, Kentucky bank; the James friend Cole Younger was probably part of this (Yeatman, pp. 93-95), and Settle, p. 38, notes that on the day of the robbery, the James Boys were reportedly suffering from "war wounds" -- which would make a lot more sense if the wounds in fact had a recent cause.

On December 7, 1869 came the robbery of the Davies County Savings Association in Gallatin, Missouri -- one of the robberies famously tied to the Jameses (Wellman, p. 81, says without question that the James Brothers and Cole Younger did it, with circumstantial details, but these of course are unverified.) Captain John W. Sheets, one of the bank owners, was shot to death during the attack (Settle, p. 38; Wellman offers the theory that he was killed because he resembled S. P. Cox, responsible for the death of the guerilla "Bloody Bill" Anderson). At least two robbers were involved; one was said to resemble Frank James. The evidence was thin, but a posse turned up to arrest the James brothers, who would prove to have no real alibi.

Apparently not willing to risk arrest, Frank and Jesse fled the Samuels farm on horseback (Settle, pp. 39-40; Yeatman, pp. 95-97). Eventually a price of several thousand dollars would be put on their heads. Soon after, a paper published a letter allegedly from Jesse, denying any crime but saying it was impossible to get a fair trial in Missouri (Settle, p. 41). There would be many more such letters in coming years. Most, however, appeared in papers associated with John Newman Edwards, who also published articles allegedly clearing members of the gang (Settle, pp. 51-52).

A later letter, signed "Jack Shepherd, Dick Turpin, Claude Duval" (after three famous English highwaymen) promised to pay the medical expenses of a girl hurt in the course of a robbery, and denied that the participants were thieves; they preferred the term "robber." This letter (Yeatman, p. 105; cf. Settle, p. 46) seems to be almost the sole foundation for the claim that the Jameses gave to the poor.

In 1873, robbers derailed and robbed a train in Adair, Iowa; the engineer was killed in the wreck. Again we cannot show that the Jameses were involved, but the method of removing rails and piling debris on the track fits their mode of operation (Yeatman, pp. 106-108). Settle, p. 47, observes that the gang did not invent this particular dirty trick, but it was to become a James/Younger signature. This particular robbery brought in about $2000. Descriptions of the robbers, an their behavior, caused Jesse to be called the head of the gang for the first time (Settle, p. 48). The robbery was considered important enough that the Pinkertons would be called in (Settle, p. 58).

1874 finally brings us back to relatively firm history, as both Jesse and Frank were married in that year (Wellman, p. 87). Jesse finally married his cousin "Zee" Mimms, nine years after they had become engaged, on April 24, 1874. The Methodist Reverend William James, uncle to both Jesse and Zee, agreed to marry them after trying and failing to talk Jesse out of his violent lifestyle (Yeatman, p. 119)

Frank married later that year, to Annie (Anna?) Ralston, who had earned a degree in science and literature in 1872. Ralston's father was a Unionist from Ireland; her parents reportedly were horrified to learn that she had eloped with such an outlaw (Yeatman, pp. 120-121). The Ralstons learned of it only indirectly (Annie's letter to her parents said only that she had eloped), and once they did so, they kept it secret from the community as much as possible (Settle, p. 42).

By the 1870s, with Missouri still feeling the after-effects of the Civil War, the various outlaws roaming the state were becoming a political issue; the legislature took various ineffectual steps to try to halt the depredations. The Pinkertons received another call (Yeatman, pp. 111-114) after another train robbery, at Gads Hill in 1874. (No, I'm not making that up; apparently Missouri has such a place as well as England; Settle, p. 49;Wellman, p. 86.) This was another robbery where the perpetrators could not absolutely be identified -- one Jim Reed confessed to it on his deathbed (Yeatman, p. 138) and denied the James Boys were there -- but it was widely credited to the brothers. And it is apparently certain that the Jameses were working with the three surviving Younger brothers (Cole, Jim, and Bob) by that time.

Unfortunately, the Pinkertons called in to deal with the problem were not up to the task; they didn't catch anyone, and a young agent named John W. Whicher was soon killed (Settle, pp. 59-60). Two other agents died trying to capture the Younger brothers, though they succeeded in killing John Younger (Settle, p. 60; Wellman, pp. 90-92, gives a dramatized version of the incident. Pp. 92-94 dramatizes the death of Whicher).

The detective agency would add another tragic page to the James story: on January 28, 1875, the Pinkertons (or someone; Yeatman, Wellman, and Brant are certain; Settle is not) firebombed the Samuels home, in the belief that Frank and Jesse were there. (According to Brant, p., 134, the explosion could be heard three miles away, and much of the house caught fire. Yeatman and Settle give no hints of major pyrotechnics. Wellman, pp. 96-98, has a rather pathetic account of what occurred, but also thinks it a relatively small explosive, possibly a Civil War grenade though he thinks it an iron flare. Either way, he agrees with those who consider it a relatively small explosive device)

But the bombers did not catch their men. Instead, they killed Archie Peyton Samuel, the half-brother of Jesse and Frank (whose age is variously listed as eight [Brant, Wellman], nine [Settle] and 13 [Yeatman]). In addition, a shell fragment hit Mrs. Samuel on the right wrist, shattering it and forcing the amputation of her hand (Yeatman, pp. 134-137; Settle, p. 76. Brant, of course, says that her hand was "blown off," and Wellman says it was "torn off"). A grand jury eventually filed murder charges against Pinkerton and certain of his employees, not all named (Yeatman, p. 143). The charges were dismissed in 1877 (Settle, p. 80), mostly on the grounds that the case was not being actively pursued and the charges were stale.

The firebombing clearly disturbed the family. Dr. and Mrs. Samuels eventually tried to sell their property, but found no takers (Yeatman, pp. 149-150; Settle, pp. 86-101). And Jesse and Zee, who by this time was pregnant, moved to Nashville in early 1875. Jesse used the name "John Davis Howard" (which we will of course see again); Zee became "Josie." At the time, Mr. Howard listed his occupation as "wheat speculator," though he often vanished for weeks at a time. During this period, Jesse apparently was trying to kill Allan Pinkerton (Yeatman, p. 151) -- but the result was rather Hamlet-like: He wanted Pinkerton to know and suffer, and he never had a chance to kill Pinkerton in such circumstances. If Jesse didn't get Pinkerton, the gang may still have committed murder: Daniel Askew, a neighbor of the Samuels family who may have helped the Pinkertons, was shot to death in April 1875 (Settle, p. 85). Most attribute the murder to the Jameses, though there was speculation the Pinkertons did it to silence a potential witness against them (Settle, p. 86).

In an interesting twist, Jesse also published several letters boasting (lying) about his whereabouts and activities. What is interesting is that they contain many more errors of grammar, spelling, and punctuation than the earlier letters he had supposedly published in the Edwards papers -- as if two different men had written them. If originals of any of these alleged letters survived, no one bothered to mention them.

In 1875, Zee gave birth to Jesse Edward James, publicly known as "Tim Howard"; he would answer to the nickname "Tim" all his life. (Yeatman, p. 161). There seems to be some dispute about the exact date; Settle, p. 129, says December 31; Yeatman, p. 161, has August 31.

At this time, the first known James associate was captured alive. Tim Webb, who had recently taken part in a robbery in Huntington, West Virginia, was captured, and though there is no evidence the Jameses or Youngers took part in this robbery (Settle, p. 87), Webb probably knew where Jesse was living in hiding. So Jesse and Zee moved to Baltimore for about a year (Yeatman, p. 162); Frank also spent some time there. But in 1876, the two returned to Missouri, leaving their wives behind (Yeatman, p. 164).

In Missouri, they met the Youngers, and for some reason decided to try a raid on Minnesota. On arriving in the state, they scouted various banks, according to Cole Younger, they eventually picked the bank in Northfield in part because former Union general and Mississippi carpetbagger governor Adelbert Ames was associated with the place, and the infamous general Benjamin "Beast" Butler (for whom see, e.g., "Hold On, Abraham") apparently had money there (Yeatman, p. 171; Settle, p. 95).

For the story of the disastrous Northfield raid itself, see the notes to "Cole Younger" [Laws E3]. Frank and Jesse were said to have been injured in the fracas (Settle, p. 98; cf. Brant, p. 179, who says that Frank's hand was crushed in the vault door), but it didn't slow them down; they were the only two to escape police. (Settle, p. 96, notes that, to this time, police still didn't have a reliable description of either brother, and indeed, Huntington, p. 50fff., describes occasions on which the pursuers actually encountered the robbers but did not recognize or succeed in capturing them.) After separating from the Youngers, Frank and Jesse managed to reach the South Dakota border about ten days after the raid (Yeatman, p. 183).

(Lyle Lofgren tells me that the town of Garretson, South Dakota, on the Minnesota border northeast of Sioux Falls, has a "Jesse James's Leap," or some such thing, which Jesse is alleged to have ridden his horse across. Lyle adds that he thinks it too wide for any horse, and what are the odds that Jesse would have tried it on an unfamiliar horse?)

The brothers apparently decided that that was enough outlawry for a lifetime. Soon after that, they and their families found new homes and tried, at least for a while, to live quietly.

Frank apparently settled in Nashville. He seems to have used the name Ben J. Woodson. He reportedly worked very hard as a sharecropper, except perhaps for a brief time when he suffered from malaria (Yeatman, p. 202).

Jesse, still using the name "John Davis Howard," chose a more rural setting, in Humphries County some distance to the west. He didn't draw much attention except for owning a very fast horse, occasionally showing great skill with a pistol, and sometimes acting a little paranoid (Yeatman, pp. 196-197). Around this time, Zee gave birth to twin boys, Gould and Montgomery, who however died soon afterward (Yeatman, p. 201; Settle, p. 132). On February 8, 1878, Frank's wife Annie bore Robert Franklin James. In one of the strangest twists of the James saga, he was apparently called "Mary" as a baby (Yeatman, p. 203). Settle, p. 132, reports that Zee nursed Robert when Annie proved unable to produce enough milk.

Both Frank and Jesse were gamblers, but it appears Jesse wasn't nearly as good at it; he lost a lot, and also suffered from lawsuits over his financial dealings, and at least once bounced a check (Yeatman, p. 204). In December 1878, he moved again (Yeatman, p. 205). In 1879, it was his turn to suffer malaria (Yeatman, p. 207). In July of that year, his daughter Mary was born (Yeatman, p. 211; Settle, p. 129). This was Jesse's last child; note, therefore, that (contrary to most versions of "Jesse James (I)" [Laws E1], he did *not* have three children when he died).

At about this time, Jesse seems to have decided it was time to return to outlawry. Frank, from what we can tell, just wanted to be left alone. (Reconstruction had ended with the disputed Hayes/Tildren election of 1876, and sympathy for unreconstructed rebels was less.) Frank in the years around 1880 was apparently deliberately courting friendships with pillars of the local community (Yeatman, p. 228), presumably to have character witnesses if he needed them.

Yeatman, p. 213, based on later testimony of Dick Liddil (cf. Settle, p. 148) says that Jesse's new gang consisted of his cousin Wood Hite (Robert Woodson Hite, a cousin of Jesse's whose family still lived in Kentucky), Ed Miller (the brother of the slain Clell Miller), Tucker Bassham, Bill Ryan, and Dick Liddil (this is the spelling of Settle, Yeatman, and even Brant; others have used "Liddell" or other forms). This gang in October 1879 robbed a train at Glendale (the one James robbery celebrated in song in which Frank played no part; Settle, pp. 133, 148). The take from this robbery, apart from non-negotiable securities, was about $6000 (Settle, p. 102).

Late in 1879, a report circulated that Jesse was dead (Settle, pp. 103-104). It was, of course, false.

Somewhat later, Tucker Bassham was arrested. It appears Jesse and Ed Miller rode off (to silence him?). Miller never returned; it is speculated that Jesse killed him (Yeatman, p. 218). On September 3, 1880, Jesse robbed a stagecoach in showy fashion, apparently trying to imitate the famous English highwaymen (and incidentally picking up some loot which would be found in his home after his death); other robberies followed (Yeatman, pp. 219-220).

In early 1881, Frank and Jesse were again briefly scared out of their homes; they went briefly to Alabama (Yeatman, pp. 229-230). This was fateful, because Jesse became aware of the large crew working on the Muscle Shoals canal. In March, he took Bill Ryan and Wood Hite and robbed the man carrying the workers' pay (Yeatman, pp. 233-234). The total haul was over $5000.

On March 25, Bill Ryan got drunk and turned rowdy. He was taken into custody carrying about $1400 and four firearms. Although he refused, upon being taken, to tell authorities anything, Frank, Jesse, and Dick Liddil concluded that they must again leave home. Frank would later confess to despair at "again becom[ing] a wanderer" (Yeatman, p. 240).

This is another vague period in the history of the James Boys; Jesse ended up in Kansas City using the name J. T. Jackson (Yeatman, p. 248), but witnesses disagree about where Frank was; he said he never went that far west, and stayed clean in this period (Yeatman, p. 260), but others claim he was part of the gang that, on July 16, 1881, attacked a train near Gallatin. Jesse, Dick Liddil, and Clarence and Wood Hite were very likely present. Two men including the conductor were killed; the total haul was about $700 (Yeatman, p. 249).

In the period around 1870, the press was split about outlaws. By 1880, it was more strongly against their depredations. Missouri governor Thomas T. Crittenden (1832-1909) had been elected in 1880 in part on a promise to settle the James Gang. (The Missouri Republican platform ha actually attacked the Democrats for failing to do what "a Republican state" had done, referring to Minnesota's prosecution of the Youngers; Settle, p. 106.) The law didn't permit him to set a price on their heads, but he induced the railroads and other businesses to offer a total of $50,000 for the members of the gang. For Jesse and Frank, the reward was $5000 each for their capture (if taken alive) and another $5000 upon conviction (Settle, p. 110; Yeatman, p. 252).

On September 7, 1881, a train was robbed at the "Blue Cut" curve. Along with the usual crew of Jesse, Clarence and Wood Hite, Dick Liddil, and perhaps Frank, there was a new recruit named Charlie Ford (Yeatman, pp. 253-254). Since the safe contained only about $400, the outlaws beat the express messenger, then robbed the passengers as well (Settle, pp. 111-112).

Bob Ford's first association with the gang seems to have been part of a robbery with brother Charlie, Dick Liddil, and Wood Hite; Jesse reportedly was not part of the crew (Yeatman, p. 261).

About this time, former gang member Tucker Bassham, sentenced to ten years, was offered full pardon in return for cooperation. He helped convict Bill Ryan, then fled the area, no doubt the fact that his home was burned added to his desire to depart. On September 28, 1881, Ryan was sentenced to 25 years (Settle, pp. 113-144; Yeatman, pp. 257-258).

Things finally started to come apart when the gang suffered from internal dissent. A young widow named Sarah Norris Peck had married the old widower George Hite, the father of Wood and Clarence. It appears the Hite children never liked her, and vice versa; eventually, she swore out a warrant against Wood Hite. The police captured Wood, but he escaped. However, when Wood met Dick Liddil, and Bob and Charlie Ford, Wood quarreled with Liddil (possibly over the affections of one Martha Bolton; Settle, p. 116). In the fight that followed, Liddil was hurt and Hite killed, reportedly by Bob Ford as he was shooting at Liddil (O'Neal, p. 143; Yeatman, pp. 261-262). Hite, recall, was Jesse's first cousin, so the Fords and Liddil now had reason to fear the leader of their former gang.

Liddil would surrender to authorities January 24, 1882, with promises of immunity if he could bring in the rest of the gang (Settle, p. 116) -- but the event was kept out of the papers to avoid rousing Jesse's suspicions. Clarence Hite, suffering from the tuberculosis which would kill him in 1883, and afraid of being caught, followed Liddil on February 11 (Settle, p. 117; Yeatman, p. 266). Thus, of the post-Younger Frank-and-Jesse-James Gang, only Frank and Jesse were still free; of the gang which followed that, which was really Jesse's alone, Jesse was the only one left. Nor could he turn to Frank any more; Frank had decided to leave the west, possibly forever. In October 1881, he and his family, after visiting various spots in Virginia and North Carolina (trying to find a place that was safe, prosperous, and not troubled by disease), settled in Lynchburg, Virginia; he used the name "James Warren" (Yeatman, p. 263).

Jesse wasn't done with crime. On November 9, 1881, he went to St. Joseph, Missouri; he would settle at 1318 Lafayette Street. Jesse's companion on his first visit to the town was Charlie Ford. It was to be a short-lived but fateful partnership.

Ford family patriarch James Thomas Ford had been born in 1820 in Virginia; he moved back and forth from Missouri to Virginia several times (Yeatman, p. 264). He was in Missouri at the start of the Civil War, but moved back to Virginia in 1862; his son Bob was a newborn at the time. An older brother of Charlie and Bob, John Ford, would fight for the Confederacy with Mosby's Rangers (Yeatman, p. 265).

Around 1869, the Ford family returned to Missouri. Bob and Charlie apparently were introduced to Jesse in 1881 by Ed Miller. Charlie, as noted above, was the first to join the James Gang. But Jesse soon asked Charlie to recruit another man for his diminished gang, and Charlie recruited Bob (Yeatman, p. 267).

Bob was soon in touch with the authorities; he apparently didn't like Jesse's management (he is reported to have said that Jesse was "dead" as a gang leader; Yeatman, p. 265). Bob Ford met with Governor Crittenden on January 13, 1882 in Kansas City; he reports that he was offered $10,000 dead or alive for Jesse (and the same for Frank). Frank was out of reach, but Jesse was available.

The motivations of the Ford Brothers are rather unclear at this point. When word finally slipped out that Liddil had been taken, they may have feared that Jesse would try to get rid of them, too. Yeatman says, Jesse and the Fords were tending their horses when Jesse said he was too hot and took off his coat; he apparently also took off his gun belt. He turned his back to brush off some pictures, and the Fords pulled out their pistols. Bob apparently fired first; he hit Jesse in the back of the head (Yeatman, p. 269). Settle's account is more like the traditional one of Jesse climbing a chair to hang a picture, and mentions only Bob drawing his gun (p. 117). Brant's account (pp. 224-225) also mentions the chair, claiming that the Fords became suspicious when Jesse took off his guns, which Brant claims he never did. Whatever the exact events (for which, of course, we have only the accounts of the two brothers), Jesse was dead by gunshot When Zee arrived, Charlie claimed it was an accident -- but he and Bob quickly headed off to report to the authorities.

Some people were not convinced that the body was really Jesse's, but his mother and wife, and several others, attested to it -- and many relics of his robberies were found in his home (Settle, p. 1180.

Jesse's relics quickly became highly sought-after items; if eBay had existed in 1882, the Samuels would have been set for life. The owner of the house Jesse was renting did a fine business giving tours, though the visitors did much damage carving off souvenirs (Settle, p. 127). Jesse was initially buried on the family farm, apparently to protect his body; later he was moved to the family plot -- and his grave monument soon chiseled away by more relic-hunters (Settle, p. 166).

After Jesse's death, the Fords claimed that Governor Crittenden had offered the reward for Jesse dead or alive; Crittenden of course claimed he had demanded the capture of the Jameses (Yeatman, p. 271). According to Settle, it is still not known what money was paid to whom. Crittenden's role remains ambiguous -- he encouraged the betrayal of Jesse, but ended up treating Frank with tender loving care.

The Fords ended up facing murder charges, first for Jesse, then for Wood Hite, whose body was exhumed (Yeatman, p. 272). On April 17, 1882, Bob and Charlie pled guilty to the murder of Jesse. Sentenced to death, they were pardoned by Crittenden (Settle, p. 1189). They eventually were acquitted in the death of Hite (Yeatman, p. 275).

In October of that year, after complicated but obscure negotiations probably involving Crittenden, assorted prosecutors, and James apologist John Newman Edwards, Frank James finally turned himself in (Settle, pp. 130-131; Yeatman, p. 279). It took some time to decide on charges, since the statute of limitations had passed for many of his crimes. Eventually he was charged with a murder at Gallatin. The result was circus-like. A newspaper ascerbically remarked that it wasn't clear if Frank had surrendered to the State of Missouri or Missouri to Frank (Settle, p. 134).

There were few left to testify against Frank. Clarence Hite was dead. Bill Ryan had given no testimony against Frank. The Fords had not worked with him. The charges against him were mostly for crimes committed after Northfield, so the Youngers could not testify even if they wanted to. That left only Dick Liddil, who by this time was on trial in Alabama. And he was claiming he had not taken any part in Frank's crimes, which (it appears to me) would make his testimony hearsay. Authorities tried to award him clemency to get the real truth out of him; President Chester A. Arthur refused (Settle, pp. 137-138). The main case had to be tried in an opera house to provide seats for spectators (Settle, p. 139). Liddil was the only real witness. The jury needed less than four hours to reach a not guilty verdict.

It was then decided that Liddil's testimony could not be used further, since he was a felon, and the other Missouri charges dropped (Settle, p. 150). Frank then was sent to Alabama for the Muscle Shoals robbery. Again it was just Liddil's word, and Frank had an alibi; he was again found not guilty (Settle, pp. 152-153). On February 21, 1885, the last of the charges based on Missouri crimes was dropped (Yeatman, p. 289). There was still the matter of the Northfield robbery, but no one from Minnesota was pursuing the matter. Frank was free.

It is interesting to note that Crittenden failed of renomination in 1884, partly because of the James affair (Settle, p. 154).

Frank seems to have stayed straight for the rest of his life. He moved to Dallas in 1887 and became a successful salesman for a time, then turned to other odd jobs. Eventually he was turned down for a patronage job he thought he deserved as a token of his reform (Settle, p. 163; Yeatman, p. 299), after which he went into acting. In 1903, he and Cole Younger (now out of jail and given a conditional pardon) opened a Wild West show that was named after them. It was to be surrounded by controversy and quarrels among the performers; at one point even Cole and Frank were indicted, though they got off by noting that they did not own, manage, or bankroll the show; they were simply paid performers lending their names to the production. When matters grew too troublesome, the two quit the show (Yeatman, pp. 302-311).

By that time, Frank's political disillusionment was so extreme that he publicly declared himself a Republican (generally regarded as unthinkable for a Confederate veteran) on August 20, 1904 (Settle, p. 164; Yeatman, p. 311); he would in time come out in favor of women's suffrage (Yeatman, p. 318). In 1907 he bought farm in Fletcher, Oklahoma (Yeatman, p. 314). After stepfather Reuben Samuels died in 1908 in a mental hospital, suffering some sort of dementia, and Zerelda Samuels died February 10, 1911 (Yeatman, p. 317), Frank inherited the Samuels farm and turned it into a tourist attraction. It has served that function for much of the time since, though different owners have devoted different degrees of attention to it.

Frank never really told his story; once, when asked about his past, he said, "I neither affirm nor deny.... If I admitted that those stories were true, people would say, 'There's the greatest scoundrel unhung,' and if I denied 'em they'd say, 'There's the greatest liar on earth," so I just say nothing" (Yeatman, p. 319). He died February 18, 1915, the next to last of the Northfield robbers; Cole Younger, the last, would die in 1916.

Frank was certainly the most fortunate of the gang. The Youngers served long terms in prison; Bob died there, and Jim committed suicide after his release; Cole had some modest success as a showman. The other two Northfield raiders were dead. Wood Hite was dead. Clarence Hite died of tuberculosis (there were suspiciously many TB cases among the James Gang; one suspects someone carried the disease. Probably Jesse, given his lung problems. And the fact that several of them were related may have meant that they had the same genetic lack of immunity).

Charlie Ford also suffered from tuberculosis, and he apparently became addicted to morphine as a result; he killed himself on May 4, 1884 (Yeatman, p. 291). One suspects that this is the main reason why the Jesse James songs mention Bob and not Charlie.

Bob Ford wandered around the west, trying a short stint as a police officer before taking to saloon-keeping. He was at his third of these, in Creede, Colorado, when a man named Ed Kelly (Ed O. Kelly? Ed O'Kelly?) shot him on June 8, 1892 (Yeatman, p. 292). Ironically, Kelly himself would be shot to death in 1904 in Oklahoma City.

Jesse's wife Zee died on November 13, 1900 (Yeatman, p. 296). There were various imposters over the years -- a fake Zee arose as early as 1885, when Zee was obviously still around. A later Zee apparently was credited with charismatic gifts! (Yeatman, p. 297). There were also an assortment of fake Jesses over the years, including one John James in 1931 (easily discredited). One J. Frank Dalton was still making a claim as late as 1950, more than a century after Jesse's birth. (Fans of science fiction will be chagrined to note that the infamous Raymond F. Palmer, responsible for _Amazing Stories_ in its worst years, helped to promote this legend, mentioning it in a radio conversation; see Yeatman, pp. 328-333). A fake Frank arose while Frank was still alive (Settle, p. 164).

That was typical of the stories about the James Family: No lie was too outlandish to be told. The rumors that Jesse had not been assassinated were not really put to rest until the end of the twentieth century. In the 1990s, an autopsy showed that the body buried as Jesse James had bullets in the right places to be Jesse, and the mitochondrial DNA was properly matched to several of his relatives. Brant, p. 266, calls this proof that the body was Jesse's. The scientists quoted by Yeatman, pp. 371-376, in fact repeatedly denied that the matter was proved, but the evidence was "consistent" with the conclusion that it was. Under the circumstances, the probability is extremely high.

Jesse Jr. eventually studied law, and at one point became involved in a divorce proceeding and custody battle with his wife; they managed to reconcile, but he had a nervous breakdown in 1924 and was never really the same afterward. He died in 1951 (Yeatman, p. 320).

Mary James Barr died March 11, 1935 (Yeatman, p. 321). Anne Ralston James died in July of 1944 (Yeatman, p. 326), seventy years after she married Frank.

Books about the James Gang were beginning to appear even in their lifetimes, though the amount of fiction included was astonishing. Yeatman, p. 223, tells of one book that described a cave carefully fitted out as a hideout, with a stove, a panelled ceiling, beds, and stalls for horses. The Youngers were subject of a book published 1875 (Settle, p. 180); this book, by Augustus P. Appier, was reprinted as late as 1955 despite being highly inaccurate. The first book to include the Jameses seems to have been _Noted Guerilla_ by none other than John Newman Edwards; this 1877 book included many outlaws in addition to the James Brothers, but the James and Younger brothers were prominent. The James/Younger Gang was the sole subject of a book by J. A. Dacus in 1880; Settle, p. 184, notes 16 editions of this book. Even Frank Triplett's biography, which was assembled after some contact with the Samuels family, was cobbled together hastily after Jesse's death and contained a lot of false reports from the newspapers (Settle, p. 192; Yeatman, p. 275); if the family had any influence on it, it came in the form of the strong sympathy Triplett's book shows the Jameses. The various chapbooks about the Jameses were of course pure fiction.

Settle, p. 197, says that the first relatively sober history was not published until 1926 -- and eve it veered too far toward the dramatic. To this day, there are books being published treating Jesse as an unreconstructed Confederate rather than a plain and simple robber. The fact that Jesse worked mostly in former slave states, and shot quite a few Southerners, makes no difference. Wellman, p. 69, quotes William H. Wallace, himself a resident of the area: "The usual defence of the outlaws [that it was forced upon them by the North]... is overwhelmed by the evidence. Every bank robbed by them during the fifteen years of their career[,] with possibly two exceptions, belonged to Southern men.... The truth is, too, that the persons killed in these bank robberies were Southerners. We had as well admit the truth -- they robbed for money, not for revenge"; compare also Wellman, p. 88, also from Wallace: "the charge [has been] made hundreds of times that the Southern people of Missouri endorsed the depredations of these outlaws and were opposed to their being overthrown. This is absolutely untrue. Especially his it been charged that the ex-Confederates of Missouri... endorsed the conduct of the James Boys. Precisely the opposite is true."

Jo Frances James (daughter of Jesse Junior) once sold a manuscript to Hollywood, which supposedly underlay the Tyrone Power/Henry Fonda film "Jesse James." But Jo Frances said of the result, "I don't know what happened to the history part of it. It seems to me the story was fiction from beginning to end.... About the only connection it had with fact was that there once was a man named James and he did ride a horse" (Yeatman, pp. 326-327). That strikes me as a pretty good last word on the whole legend.


In writing this summary, in addition to the standard references such as the _Concise Dictionary of American Biography_, I have heavily consulted the following works:

Brant: Marley Brant, _Jesse James: The Man and the Myth_, 1998. Despite its title, which might seem to indicate scholarly caution, this book strikes me as incredibly credulous, taking as certain many things where the sources conflict, and often relying on the less reliable sources. It also has a very clear sympathy with any Confederate Good Ol' Boys who just might be terrorists on the side. I have been cautious in using it except where it coincides with information in other books, or where it reports some third-hand absurdity which might have influenced the James legend. (Frankly, I eventually started checking the index rather than finish reading the thing).

Huntington: George Huntington, _Robber and Hero: The Story of the Northfield Bank Raid_, Christian Way Co., 1895; reissued by the Minnesota Historical Society Press in 1986 with a new introduction by John McGuigan. Although this is considered a relatively sober and accurate account of the raid, with much information from those present, the 1986 introduction detailing the later careers of the Youngers is probably the best part.

O'Neal: Bill O'Neal, _Encyclopedia of Western Gunfighters_, 1979. A general work, and as with most such things it appears to have a few details wrong, but a handy source for dates and such.

Settle: William A. Settle, Jr., _Jesse James Was His Name_, 1966 (I used the 1977 Bison edition) was one of the first serious James biographies. It is relatively short, but carefully documented, and pays more attention to the songs than the other James books I've seen.

Wellman: Paul I. Wellman, _A Dynasty of Western Outlaws_, 1961. This covers a series of outlaws starting with Quantrill's Raiders and ending with Pretty Boy Floyd, so it gives a lot of historial context -- but also has a Brant-like tendency to believe any old crazy rumor. (My favorite, on p. 55, is a claim that Frank and Jesse James weren't full brothers because they looked and behaved somewhat differently. But in the only photo I've seen of them together, they *do* look alike, and as for personality differences, it should be recalled that both went through much trauma, but at different ages. If Frank was quiet and had self-control, while Jesse was loud and had none, that seems little surprise.) Like Brant, it strikes me as a better source for information on the James legend than on fact.

Yeatman: Ted P. Yeatman, _Frank and Jesse James: The Story Behind the Legend_, 2000, is among the newest and most authoritative books; although clearly intended for popular consumption, it is well-footnoted, very large, and new enough to include the results of DNA investigations. I can't help but think that this book and Settle are reliable, and the other sources are largely junk. - RBW

Historical references

  • Apr 4, 1882 - Shooting of Jesse James (then in semi-retirement under the name of Howard) by Robert Ford, a relative and a former member of his gang tempted by the $10,000 reward
  • 1892 - Robert Ford is killed in a barroom brawl in Creede, Colorado

Cross references


  1. Belden, pp. 401-404, "Jesse James" (3 texts, of which only the third is this song)
  2. Friedman, p. 377, "Jesse James" (2 texts, but only the second is this ballad; the first is "Jesse James (I)" [Laws E1])
  3. ADDITIONAL: William A. Settle, Jr., _Jesse James Was His Name_ (Bison Books edition, 1977), [used as a key to the Table of Contents and quoted at the head of each chapter]
  4. ST FR379 (Partial)
  5. Roud #7819
  6. BI, FR379


Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1916 (Belden)
Found in: US(So)