Having lived in Missouri for now 20 years, I have always been puzzled as to why the state would be proud of an outlaw. Missouri rightly shows pride for author Samuel Clemens, who wrote The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn under his pen name of Mark Twain. President Harry S. Truman is also a famous, native son. Why Jesse James made it onto this list of renown when what he did was rob banks, trains, and kill people, I just don’t understand. With some of my spare time this weekend, I decided to read up on Mr. James and see if I could glean any insight into him, his life, and possibly any reasons as to why he was so revered by some Missourians.
Jesse’s parents, Rev. Robert S. James and Zerelda Cole James, were natives of Kentucky and moved to Missouri. Rev. James was a successful farmer near Kearney, Missouri and even helped found William Jewell College, which is still a college in Liberty, Missouri. Jesse had an older brother, Alexander Frank James, and a younger sister, Susan Lavenia James. When Jesse was 3 years old, his father had gone to California to minister to the gold rush miners, caught cholera and died. Zerelda, remarried a year later to a Mr. Benjamin Simms, and by all accounts, this second marriage wasn’t a good one, as the stepfather treated Frank and Jesse cruelly. It got to the point that Zerelda packed up herself and her three children and left this second husband. Before she could file for a legal separation or even a divorce, Mr. Simms was killed in a freak accident with a horse. A few more years went by and Zerelda again married, this time to a Dr. Reuben Samuel. This third marriage was successful, and 4 more children were added to the family, half-siblings to Jesse. As I read about this tumultous family life, I couldn’t help but wonder if losing his real father at such an early age, and not having him for guidance in those formative years probably had a negative impact on the development of Jesse’s person. Suffering from a cruel stepfather couldn’t have helped a child’s development. It seems that some peace must have come to the family at last with Dr. Reuben Samuel entering their lives.
The Civil War erupted and Missouri, being a border state, had both pro-slavery and anti-slavery citizens, pro-union and pro-states rights citizens. The James family were slave owners, and Frank, being old enough, joined the Confederate Army. Jesse was too young to serve as a soldier, so he stayed on the farm, helping his parents with the farming tasks. After Frank was taken ill after the battle of Wilson’s Creek, near present day Springfield, Missouri, Frank returned to the family farm. Frank then joined up with a guerilla group, known as bushwhackers, who would attack union soldiers and farmers supporting the Union’s cause. One day, a Union milita company came to the James-Samuel farm, and demanded to know of Frank’s whereabouts. As the family either didn’t know or refused to answer, Dr. Samuel was hung, Zerelda was beaten, and so was Jesse. When the militia company left, Dr. Samuel was cut down and revived, but the starving of oxygen to his brain left him in bad health. This hostile action led Jesse to join another guerilla group at the age of 15. The group he joined was very violent and in September of 1864, they stopped a train traveling through Centralia, Missouri and ordered the 22 unarmed Union soldiers off of it, lined them up, and shot them all dead. The other passengers on the train were robbed. One can only imagine the hatred Jesse felt towards the Union army and the revenge he wanted to drive down upon them. Seeing violent acts done to other human beings must have only further deadened Jesse’s soul to these bloodthirsty acts.
After the war, Frank and Jesse teamed up to rob banks, and trains in various states with a gang of other outlaws helping them. Eventually, a life of being on the run( by this time Jesse had a wife and two children), was getting to Jesse. Many of the original gang members were either dead or serving time in state prisons. Only Frank, and Jesse were left and two other, newer members, Charlie and Bob Ford. The governor of Missouri, Thomas Crittenden had offered a reward of $5000 for the capture of Frank and Jesse James, dead or alive. With this information, Bob Ford went to see the governor and offered to be the one able to bring down Jesse James. On the morning of April 3, 1882 as the gang of 4 was getting ready for another bank robbery, Jesse noticed a picture hanging on the wall of his house that he thought was dusty and decided to climb up on a chair and clean it. Bob Ford took this moment to shoot Jesse in the back of the head, and killed him. Ford eventually received a full pardon from the governor and the reward money. He was eventually shot dead himself in Colorado in 1892.
Near the end of his life, Jesse had grown increasingly edgy, nervous, always worried about being caught, turned in, or murdered. His death made me think of the phrase, “there is no honor among thieves”. Yet why was his image turned into that of almost a hero? In my weekend readings, I stumbled upon a website called “Stray Leaves”, a site for James family relatives. The James family, many of them from Kentucky, can all trace a similar lineage back to their Scotch-Irish roots. On the site are articles by a historian, Mr. Phil Steele, and his research on Jesse James. Many myths abound, including one that the James gang hid out in many of the state’s caves. Frank James, who lived until 1915, told a St. Louis newspaper reporter in a 1902 interview that the gang never hid out in caves as they didn’t want to get trapped where there wasn’t a back door! Take note of that Meramac Caverns, as they claim the James gang hid out in their cave! After Jesse’s death, dime novels began to be written exploiting the James gang, especially putting Jesse on a pedestal, making him out to be an American version of Robin Hood. As time has gone on, Hollywood has done it’s part, making many Jesse James movies. One I haven’t seen was made in 1939 and it starred Tyrone Power as Jesse and Henry Fonda as Frank. It must have done well as the next year there was a sequel, all about Frank, again played by Henry Fonda. For a movie that is probably a truer picture of Jesse, Frank, and their gang, one should watch the film, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. It has a long title, but a strong cast, headed by Brad Pitt(who looked more like Jesse James than Tyrone Power ever could!), Casey Affleck as Bob Ford, and Sam Shephard as Frank.
After all of my reading this weekend on Jesse James, I found myself feeling sort of sorry for him; the sorrows in his childhood, the horrors of Civil War and guerilla warfare, and it made me also think about choices one makes. Choices can be good or bad, but the bad ones always have nasty consequences, and ultimately, Jesse James paid the price for his string of bad choices. Fortunately, from the Stray Leaves website, I did learn that Jesse’s son, Jesse E. James Jr., did become a lawyer, and even had Governor Crittenden, who had put forth the reward on Jesse James, took Jesse Jr. under his wing for guidance and encouragement in getting that law degree. Jesse Jr. did marry and raise 4 daughters, some who married and had children and some who didn’t. I couldn’t find as much information on Jesse James’s daughter, Mary, but she did marry and her last name changed to Barr, and she did have at least one child, a son. I do think that despite the dreadful choices of their father, Jesse’s two children did go on to lead productive lives and tried to instill that in their own children. For an interesting page on Jesse James, Frank James, and the gang, visit the Stray Leaves website, and read the articles written by Mr. Phil Steele.