Bookmark and Share

Published on Sunday, September 4, 2011

Jesse James

American Outlaw and Folk Hero

By Matthew Pizzolato


Although he began his career as a common outlaw, Jesse James transcended the stigma and became a modern day Robin Hood and folk hero of the American West.


Jesse Woodson James was born on September 5, 1847 on his family's farm in Clay County, Missouri. When Jesse was fifteen years old, Union soldiers invaded his family's farm looking for the location of William Quantrill's camp. Jesse refused to answer their questions and was horse whipped as a result.

Jesse joined "Bloody" Bill Anderson and his guerilla fighters at just sixteen years of age. Both Jesse and his brother, Frank, took part in the raid on Centralia, Missouri on September 20, 1864.

In 1865 when he tried to surrender to Union troops in Lexington, Missouri, Jesse was shot in the chest. He fled to Nebraska to recuperate before returning to Missouri.

The James-Younger Gang

When the Civil War ended, Frank and Jesse James, along with the Younger brothers (Cole, Jim, John, and Bob), and several other ex-Confederates resorted to outlawry to make their living and as a way to continue the fight against the Union.

The James-Younger gang made history by performing the first daylight peacetime bank robbery on February 13, 1866 when they robbed Clay County Saving Association Bank in Liberty, Missouri. They forcibly withdrew more than $60,000 in cash and bonds. In the process of the robbery, a seventeen year old boy, George Wymore, was killed.

Their outlaw ways continued for the next fifteen years. When banks began tightening their security and installing better safes, the gang began robbing trains. Their first train robbery was of the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad on July 21, 1873. The engine was overturned, killing the engineer, but the gang rode away with more than $3,000.

Frank and Jesse Settle Down

Jesse James married Zerelda Mimms, on April 23, 1874 and later that year in June, his brother Frank married Annie Ralston. Although they stopped raiding and robbing for a time, they were blamed for every almost every robbery that occurred in the West.

It was during this time that Jesse's wife, Zerelda began spreading stories about the gang robbing from the rich and giving to the poor that in many ways led to his folk hero status.

The couple's first child, Jesse Edward James was born on August 1, 1875. Their second child, Mary Susan James, was born on June 17, 1879.

Jesse and Frank James

The Great Northfield Raid

On September 7, 1876, the James-Younger gang attempted to rob the First National Bank of Northfield, Minnesota. The robbery didn't go as planed. When shots rang out, the town was alerted and began firing on the gang.

The James-Younger gang was decimated. Only Frank and Jesse escaped back to Missouri. They tried to live peaceful, law-abiding lives but resorted to their outlaw ways and added new members to their gang.

The Dirty Little Coward Who Shot Mr. Howard

With a $10,000 reward on his head, Jesse James moved his family to St. Joseph, Missouri and settled down with his assumed name of Thomas Howard.

On the morning of April 3, 1882, while planning one last robbery with Bob and Charles Ford that would net him enough money to settle down permanently, Jesse reportedly stood in a chair to straighten a crooked picture on the wall.

Bob Ford shot Jesse James in the back of the head just below his right ear. His children and wife, Zerelda, ran into the room, but it was too late. Jesse James was dead at 34 years of age.

There has been speculation since he died that his death was staged and that he lived the rest of his days in peace under an assumed name. In 1947, a 102 year old man named J. Frank Dalton claimed to be Jesse James. His claim was never verified and DNA testing on the supposed grave of Jesse James has been inconclusive.


Legends of America

Lamar, Howard R, ed. The New Encyclopedia of the American West. New Haven and London, Yale University Press.

Back to   Top of Page   |   Fiction  |  Artwork  |  Historical Articles   |   Book Reviews   |   Site Information   |   Submission Guidelines