Jesse James


Dr. Allan Thomson, who was once Jack London’s doctor, lived a piece up the road from the James family. He tells me Jesse was born in 1847, the son of a Baptist minister and a mother who found it necessary to marry three times, her last husband being a kindly man, Dr Reuben Samuel.

He also states that Jesse was spawned of the Civil War as a Quantrell Raider, and that his fast gunhand can be attributed to the new Navy Colts cap-and-ball, which set a faster pace in the art of draw-shoot killing.

Dr Thomson says Confederate money wasn’t worth a Chinese whisker, and, with the shame of having lost the war to a lot of no-good bluecoats. It was easy for a Missourian to saddle up, ride out, and do harm to anything Republican, whether it was a train, stagecoach, or a bank. Jesse, being no exception, found a democratic following in brother Frank, Clell Miller, Jim Poole, George White, and a host of other staunch hearts, including the Younger cousins some 17 men ready for anything at all in what was considered a continuation of the border states war. They were to peg up a quarter of a million dollars in train and bank robberies, consummating this record in 17 years of gunslinging.

They had relatives, he ways, all over the state, and could tarry most anywhere while on the run. Few outside lawmen came into this territory because they feared being bushwhacked by relatives who could still handle an old squirrel rifle, relatives that had cut down Louie Lull, a Pinderton snoop, and had cashed in a local police officer who had the wrong tendencies. Then, too, one of the Youngers had outdrawn and outshot another Pinkerton whose body was found half eaten by hogs on a lonely road.

Dr. Reuben Samuel, Jesse’s stepfather, had the misfortune to be standing by the fireplace when a Pinkerton threw a bomb into the fireplace which literally blew him sky-high and tore off the arm of Jesse’s mother, killing his step-brother outright. A horrible thing, indeed.

Now Jesse had a legitimate excuse to rob and kill, and he went at the business like a madman, riding east, west, south, north sticking up trains, banks, stagecoaches, brusquely pushing people around and killing those who resisted him. He held up his first train in 1873, the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific, near Adair, Iowa, and his first bank at Liberty, Missouri; then one at Russelville, in Logan County, Kentucky. Jesse offered little jokes and puns as he took the money. His blue eyes blinked and a dry smile showed the humor he inherited from his mother.

Feeling the urge to marry, he managed a respectable church wedding to his first cousin, Zerelda, who had nursed him back from his Civil War wounds. He was a hero now. Good Missourians liked to sing songs of him and his Robinhood legend.

On September of 1876 the boys rode out to Northfield, Minnesota, where they roared into a bank making definite demands at gunpoint. The people recognized at once what was taking place, and a withering gunfight followed in which Bill Chadwell, Clell Miller and a couple of citizens were cut down. Charlie Pitts went to his death. Jim Younger received five slugs, Bob Younger two; and although Cole Younger’s big body felt the bite of five bullets, he still stood on his feet to bow to the ladies as the wagon rolled them off to jail. All were sentenced to life imprisonment, but Jim and Cole Younger were paroled after 25 years of jail.

Frank James was not caught. Jesse semi-retired up in the swank Nashville area living the life of ease, smoking success cigars, racing horses and sunning himself of afternoons, and making no particular effort to conceal the real identity of the great Jesse James while he passes himself off as a “Mr. Howard”. Later, he went on to California where he visited an uncle in Paso Robles, and then on to the wine country of Napa Valley to see some friends. But life grew dull, and James returned home.

Back into the saddle and his guns. He robbed a stage at Muscle Shoals, Alabama, gunning down the conductor and an ambitious passenger all in July 1881, the year Billy the Kid was killed away off in New Mexico Territory.

Reward posters were now in evidence shouting a ten thousand-dollar bounty for Jesse, dead or alive. Bob Ford, a former member of the gang, could not resist this money, so he picked one of Jesse’s pistols off the table in Jesse’s own house and killed him while he was straightening a picture on the wall.

All Missouri mourned poor Jesse’s death. Frank James surrendered to the governor. It was the end of the James Banditry. You certainly knew this when you saw Frank James acting nightly as a doorman in a St Louis burlesque not long afterward.