Frank and Jesse James and Cole Younger had ridden with Confederate guerrillas William Clarke Quantrill and Bloody Bill Anderson along the Kansas-Missouri border during the American Civil War (1861-1865). When the war ended, they tried to settle down, but Missouri had been a battleground and the legal restrictions on ex-Confederate soldiers made it difficult to obtain loans. Frustrated and missing the excitement of war, the men formed a gang composed of friends and relatives, and began robbing banks in February 1866. A disastrous raid in Northfield, Minnesota on September 7, 1876 destroyed most of the gang, and only the James brothers escaped. By this time, the outlaws, especially Jesse, were famous. Unable to retire to a normal life, Jesse raised a new gang and continued to rob trains until he was killed by recent recruits Bob and Charley Ford, who were seeking the large reward for his life, on April 3, 1882.
Robert James was a Baptist preacher/farmer, who placed great emphasis on family loyalty, while his wife Zerelda stood out among neighboring women because of her strong-willed nature. After moving to Missouri from Kentucky in 1843, Robert built up a congregation by preaching at a circuit of churches. The family prospered, and already had three children, Frank, Jesse, and Susan, when Robert announced that he had decided to accompany his brother’s expedition to California in the spring of 1850, although he claimed to want to preach rather than dig for gold. Unfortunately, he died from dysentery on August 18 in California, leaving them in hardship. Finding it almost impossible to survive as a widow, their mother remarried twice, once to an older, wealthy man whom she was about to divorce when he died in a horse accident, and then a doctor named Reuben Samuel, whom her sons came to love.
The sons grew up resembling their father:
Frank studied Shakespeare. Jesse turned to the Bible.
The James family focused on growing hemp and was relatively well-off. Although several slaves had been sold to pay off Robert’s debts, the family had seven slaves by 1860, while most of their neighbours were from slave-owning states, and considered slaves the foundation of the economy, even if they were too poor to own one. The opening of Kansas Territory to settlement in 1854 threatened the delicate balance between free and slave states, therefore pro and anti slavery zealots struggled to send more settlers to ensure that it would vote to enter the Union on their side. Residents from slave-owning Missouri would simply cross the border to vote in local elections and intimidate Free Soil (anti-slavery) settlers to leave. Since Free Soil zealots also employed threats and violence to force pro-slavery settlers to abandon their homes, the situation soon escalated into a small-scale war where every stranger was a potential enemy, and people on both sides died every week. The more populated North won the emigration race, and when a convention decided on August 2, 1858 that the territory would enter the Union as a free state, Bleeding Kansas came to an end. Hundreds of people had died during the struggle and Zeralda had been a strong supporter of the pro-slavery side.
The Civil War
When the Civil War started on April 12, 1861, thirteen year old Jesse stayed at home but Frank was eighteen and enlisted in a militia company that supported secession. While the outbreak of war between the northern and southern states may have seemed sudden in other parts of the United States, in Missouri it was viewed as the continuation of a conflict that had been brewing for more than a decade. Frank’s company of amateur soldiers fought under General Sterling Price when he defeated Union troops at Wilson’s Creek in August 1961. Unlike most states, both Union and Confederate, Missouri had divided loyalties, so friends and neighbours enlisted on different sides. Kansas Senator James Lane had raised a brigade of Union troops made up mainly of former Jayhawkers (anti-slavery zealots), anxious to repay Missouri for raids during Bleeding Kansas. Rather than face Price’s army, the brigade focused on looting small towns. Hundreds of farms and business were destroyed, and one farmer who lost many horses, carriages and wagons was Henry Younger. These raids drove men like Younger’s son Cole and his brother-in-law John Jarrette to join William Quantrill’s guerrilla band. Younger’s father was later shot in the back by a Union officer, who was charged with murder but the only witnesses, Missouri militiamen, were killed before they could testify.
The arrival of a much larger Union army under Major General John Fremont forced Price to abandon Missouri, restoring the state to Union control. With most Union regular troops needed to fight the Confederate army in other parts of the country, the provisional state government formed the Missouri State Militia (MSM) to maintain order. However, the militia proved unable to handle the guerrilla bands, in particular the one led by Quantrill. The harsh tactics and blatant looting by the Seventh Kansas Cavalry Regiment under Charles “Doc” Jennison (Jennison described his unit as “self-sustaining”) provided many recruits for Quantrill. Although Missouri officially remained in the Union, its democratically elected state government had been forced to abandon the state and the Union presence was viewed by secessionists as an occupation.
When Frank came down with the measles in February 1862, he was left to be captured, and like many young men, he was released after signing a bond that he would not fight for the Confederacy. However, their refusal to join the militia, part of a government that they opposed, meant that they were officially labeled disloyal. Although many members of the militia owned slaves, their support of the Union made them targets for the guerrillas, also known as bushwhackers. Frustrated, the amateur soldiers vented their anger on the guerrillas’ support network, while their authorization to seize supplies from rebels and their abettors enabled them to plunder neighbours believed to be Confederate sympathizers. This situation made it impossible for anyone to remain neutral, and Frank joined Quantrill in May 1863, where he became friends with Cole Younger. The state militia’s use of pressure tactics against the families of known guerrillas simply increased their fury. This harassment included hanging Reuben Samuels from a tree in an attempt to force him to reveal information about the guerrillas’ location. Although he survived his ordeal, the strangulation seriously harmed his mental abilities, while Jesse had been beaten badly as well, and his mother was taken into military custody. The experience naturally deepened Zerelda and Jesse’s hatred of Unionists, especially since they were not strangers but neighbours.
In an attempt to eliminate the network of supporters that enabled the buswhackers to keep operating, seventeen young Missouri women were arrested as Confederate spies. When the building housing them in Kansas City, Kansas collapsed on August 14, 1863, killing five women and seriously injuring the rest, the guerrillas believed that it had been deliberate. The guerrilla leaders, including Quantrill, Bloody Bill Anderson and George Todd, decided to raid Lawrence, Kansas even though it was deep in enemy territory. Lawrence was the target instead of Kansas City because it had been the headquarters of abolitionist supporters during Bleeding Kansas. Frank James and Cole Younger were among the several hundred bushwhackers that rode with Quantrill and Anderson into Lawrence on August 21, where they killed 185 men and torched the town. In retaliation, Senator James Lane arranged for the execution of General Order Number 11, the forcible evacuation of all Confederate sympathizers in the border counties of Missouri. Although the James’ farm was outside the area, the Youngers’ farm was burnt to the ground. Seeing the devastation of a large part of Missouri drove Jesse to join Anderson in the spring of 1864.
As the war progressed, the guerrilla leaders became more and more savage. Fletch Taylor led a small band of recruits, including Jesse, on a murderous rampage where they killed at least eight civilian men with Union sympathies in their homes during the space of several weeks. After Taylor’s small band broke up when Union pursuit intensified, Jesse and Frank joined up with Anderson, who lived up to his nickname Bloody Bill. Archie Clement and other members of Anderson’s band had already started scalping dead Union soldiers and militiamen, who responded in kind when they found the bushwhackers. Jesse was with Anderson when twenty-five captured Union soldiers were executed in cold blood in Centralia on September 27.
After Anderson was killed on October 26, 1864, in an ambush set by Union Colonel Samuel Cox, the guerrilla band broke up and even the James brothers separated. Jesse headed south towards Texas while Frank returned to Quantrill’s band. Tired of the guerrillas receiving aid from the civilian population, a number of suspected supporters were exiled from Missouri, including the James family.
Quantrill was captured on May 10, 1865, and Frank held out a little longer but finally surrendered on June 26. Cole Younger was returning from a mission to the West Coast, and never officially gave up. Many bushwhackers laid down their arms considerably after the official surrender of the Confederacy. Roughly 150 guerrillas, including Jesse, returned to Missouri in late April under the leadership of Clement and Dave Pool, dismissing news of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox on April 9 as Yankee lies. They raided and killed civilians for a few weeks just as before, but as word of the defeat of the Confederacy spread, more and more raiders gave up. Finally, Pool brought in most of the remaining bushwhackers, leaving only a small band under Clement, including Jesse. A bullet in the lung received during a brief skirmish on May 15 ended the war for Jesse. He managed to get away and hide long enough for his friends to find him and bring him to town where they all surrendered, Jesse swearing the oath of allegiance on his sickbed. Both James brothers were diehard Confederate supporters, and were very bitter about losing. By mid-July, he was well enough to travel to Nebraska to reunite with his family, and when they returned to Missouri he stayed with his uncle where his cousin Zerelda (Zee) Mimms cared for him until October.
The war had deepened divisions between Union and Confederate supporters, while the vindictive policies introduced following President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865 made it unlikely that the wounds would heal. While much of the South was in ruins, Missouri had been a battleground for a nasty war. Having fought for the losing side, the returning guerrillas received no back pay, and lacked the money needed to rebuild their farms. The only source of loans was the carpetbaggers (they carried carpet-covered valises stuffed with money) who charged insanely high interest rates. Furthermore, the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution abolished slavery without compensation for the owners, so many families lost their main form of disposable wealth. Two or three of the James family’s former slaves returned with them to their home, probably because there were few employment opportunities for illiterate, middle aged women. Many Unionists were opposed to emancipation, feeling that it had been imposed on them by the radical Unionists in urban areas. Worse, every male had to swear the Iron-Clad Oath that he had not committed any of the eighty-six acts of rebellion, including making sympathetic statements about an individual rebel or the rebellion as a whole. Only people who took the oath could vote, run for office or serve as a teacher or preacher, and even an expression of sympathy for a relative or neighbour who fought for the Confederacy prevented people from taking the oath. Roughly 35,000 to 50,000 men across the south lost the vote as a result, which gave them little motivation to use the political system to handle any grievances.
Even before the war, Missouri had been a violent place where duels and rougher methods had been used to settle disputes but men had become desensitized to violence during the war and accustomed to carrying personal sidearms, so disputes quickly escalated with fatal consequences. Meanwhile, the surviving bushwhackers continued to ride around in armed groups, partially because they feared that many of their numerous victims were likely thirsting for revenge. These fears were justified since personal feuds claimed quite a few victims. At the same time, the traditional elite were forced out of positions of authority because of their inability to take the oath, which further increased social instability.
Eventually, the resentment became unbearable, and a number of guerrillas decided to rob the Clay County Savings Bank in Liberty, Missouri, which was operated by leading members of the local Radical faction of the Republicans and was where the carpetbaggers stored their money. It was not hard to recruit former guerrillas who were fed up with the provocation and missed the excitement of war. It is considered likely that Archie Clement and Bill Anderson’s brother Jim planned the raid. Liberty was chosen because it was relatively near, but they were not well known there, which was important since they did not wear masks. The robbery on February 13, 1866 was a bit rushed since it was their first time. Bank employees were able to warn by-passers, one of whom, George Wymore, was killed during the confusion, but the twelve to thirteen robbers evaded two posses to escape with roughly $60,000. The robbery was viewed by townspeople as a continuation of the increasing violence between Unionists and former bushwhackers, therefore they naturally suspected former followers of Bloody Bill Anderson, including the James brothers. When Jim Anderson and his friend Isaac Flannery tried to sell military bonds similar to the ones stolen from the bank several days later, they were ambushed and Flannery was killed.
The robbery did not happen in a vacuum. The November 1866 midterm elections for Congress were used by former secessionists to challenge the Iron-Clad Oath in southern states. A band of roughly 100 bushwhackers led by Archie Clement and Dave Pool rode into Lexington, Missouri to intimidate voters on election day, successfully ensuring the victory of their preferred candidates. Furious at the open contempt for the law, the governor raised a force of militia, which was sent to Lexington. When Clement brought 26 bushwhackers into the town on December 13, the militia commander avoided an immediate confrontation by refusing to fire on the former guerrillas. Believing they had frightened the militia, most of the bushwhackers returned home, while an over-confident Clement remained to have a drink with a friend. An ineptly handled attempt to arrest Clement led to his death in a shootout.
The death of the bushwhackers’ leader would not calm an already tense situation. Pro-seccessionist candidates had failed to win election in large numbers and the oath continued to deny suspected confederate supporters their rights. Deprived of a political voice, the most determined guerrillas returned to violence and looting. Several other bank robberies occurred in Missouri several months after the Liberty raid, but Frank, Jesse and Cole were out of the state at the time. Frank had been injured during a shootout with Union soldiers, and was still recovering. Jesse claimed to have killed one soldier and wounded three others who came on the night of February 18, 1867 to arrest him, although there was no report made of the incident. Despite a lack of eye-witness testimony, several former guerrillas were lynched for the robberies, and two were even dragged out of jail to be hung. These men were friends of the James brothers and Cole Younger.
Part of Frank’s loot paid for a trip to California, where he remained during the spring of 1867. After meeting with Jesse and Cole in Kentucky, they decided to improve their financial situation by taking part in the robbery of the Nimrod Long Banking Company in Kentucky, with John Jarrette, Oliver Shepherd and his cousin George, and Arthur McCoy. Since Younger, Jarrette and Oliver Shepherd had been leaders during the war, they probably led the raid. They took $14,000 from the bank on March 20, 1868 but a Louisville detective named D. T. Bligh determined from witness descriptions that the Shepherd cousins, the James brothers, Younger, Jarrette and McCoy were involved. George Shepherd was caught, and his cousin was killed while resisting arrest. After the robbery, Jesse visited New York City, and then passed through Panama to meet Frank in San Francisco. They spent 1868 in California looking for their father’s grave, and returned to Missouri in the fall of 1869. Meanwhile, Cole had started a ranch in Texas with his brothers.
The James family farm was prospering and Zeralda’s third marriage had produced four children, Sallie, John, Fannie and Archie, named after Archie Clement. The number of black servants had also grown, including the biracial son of one servant, who was raised to serve the family. However, Missouri was changing as the spread of railways brought the small hemp and tobacco growers firmly into the grip of the Northern economy and people swarmed into the state in search of public land granted by the Homestead Act, so pre-war southern sympathizers soon found themselves outnumbered by northern immigrants. While a few bushwhackers had reacted to changing times by robbing banks, a much larger number of former Confederates embraced the Klu Klux Klan (KKK) terrorist organization to strike at prominent Unionists and groups that attempted to educate blacks.
A bank was robbed at Gallatin, Missouri on December 7, 1869, and a cashier named John Sheets was shot in cold blood by a man claiming vengeance against Samuel Cox, who had organized the ambush that had killed Bloody Bill Anderson. Unfortunately, Sheets had been mistaken for Cox, and Frank and Jesse were the main suspects but they eluded a posse sent to their farm to arrest them. Jesse published a letter in the Kansas City Times, owned by John Newman Edwards, Confederate General Jo Shelby’s former adjutant, in June 1870, saying that he and Frank were innocent but refused to surrender because Bushwhackers would not get a fair trial. This was probably true, since a posse badly beat Cole Younger’s brothers Bob and John in front of their mother, who passed away soon after. A month later, affidavits from prominent men supporting Jesse’s alibi were published in the newspaper.
Around the same time, Clell Miller, who had ridden with Jesse under Bill Anderson, joined the gang. Robberies were researched carefully, and they even robbed more than $6,000 from one bank on June 3, 1871 when most of the town was listening to a speech about the railroad. Famed detective Allan Pinkerton sent his son Robert to investigate the robbery, and Miller was arrested but he had a solid alibi and was acquitted.
Although the bushwhackers continued to rob banks, many of their original reasons had disappeared. The ban on former rebels voting had been revoked in 1870 and they would be able to vote in the next election.
On April 29, 1872, the gang robbed a bank in Columbia, Kentucky, killing a cashier in the process. An announcement that Jesse, Frank and Cole were suspects drew a letter from Jesse providing alibis for himself, as well as Cole and Jim Younger, to Cole’s irritation. Jesse and Cole were not really friends, and worked best when Frank was around to mediate. Jesse wanted to be the leader, and Cole thought he had a huge ego.
Following a daring daytime theft of the cash box from the entrance gate to the Industrial Exposition in Kansas City on September 26, Edwards published an editorial with the title “The Chivalry of Crime.” Without naming names, he stated that the bandits were former bushwhackers who did not know how to live within the constraints of modern regulations and would have been comfortable sitting at Arthur’s Round Table. Aside from his genuine friendship with the bushwhackers, Edwards was trying to motivate former rebels to vote for Horace Greely’s Liberal Republican Party by linking the outlaws with opposition to President Ulysses Grant’s Republican Party. Greely had been endorsed by the Democratic Party since it was hoped that he could beat Grant. Edwards wrote that robbing was justified since the Republican government had imposed crushing taxes to fund widespread corruption and had cracked down hard on the KKK by sending in troops to pacify South Carolina, the Klan’s base. A letter from Jesse directly endorsed Greely for president. Although Grant won re-election, the Democrats gained control of Missouri’s legislature and the governor’s mansion.
Jim Younger had refused to even consider working with Cole’s group of outlaws, and had joined the Dallas police department in 1872, but ended up being named as an accomplice of another police officer for a robbery in Dallas. Given the reputation of his brother, Jim had little hope of a fair trial and fled. He finally became a member of the gang, but only to hold horses. In later years, he stated that he did not like Jesse, and they were not friends.
John Younger became an outlaw on January 15, 1871, when drunken horseplay led to the death of a deputy sheriff in Texas. He probably took part in a bank robbery at Ste. Genevieve on May 27, 1873.
Local banks across the nation collected farmers’ savings and deposited part of that money in banks located in larger cities, which did the same with even larger banks in New York City. Every autumn, farmers withdrew funds to pay for the harvest and shipment of their crops, so huge quantities of money would be transported on the railroad, although the direction depended on the time of the year. Such massive concentrations of cash proved to be an irresistible target for the outlaws. The carpetbaggers had used their banks as a base to invest in railroad development, and the local lines had been absorbed by the giant national railway corporations that quickly used their dominance to impose monopolies on rural communities, which was viewed as further oppression of confederate sympathizers. The four main railroad lines that connected Missouri to Chicago and St. Louis had formed a pool to keep shipping rates high, and Edwards had repeatedly attacked the railroad interests in his editorials.
The gang’s first train robbery, the Rock Island Railroad in Iowa on July 21, 1873, resulted in a train crash that killed the engineer. The strongbox yielded only $2,000, not the expected $75,000, so the passengers were forced to empty their pockets. As the first gang to rob a train rather than simply derail it and pick through the wreckage, the robbery received national headlines. The outlaws tried to portray themselves as economic avengers but they came from a community that depended on selling crops to distant markets and emphasized the pursuit of wealth and luxury. People were complaining about the monopolistic practices of the railroads, not the technology and its convenience. Although Missouri Governor Silas Woodson was a Democrat, he came from the Unionist wing of the party, and he was incensed by the way in which the James and Younger brothers appeared to thumb their noses at the law. Although he offered a large reward, enough of the local citizens supported the outlaws, so they were able to remain at large in Missouri.
On November 23, Edwards published a twenty page report on the five main outlaws (Jesse and Frank James, Coleman and John Younger, and A.C. McCoy), which cemented their mythical status as heroes of the Confederate cause. At the same time, articles appeared in newspapers, saying that they were gallant defenders of the South, who would have been justified committing those crimes, even though they were innocent. It is unknown exactly which letters were written by Jesse and which were ghostwritten by Edwards, if any, since Jesse’s relatives admitted that he was an avid reader of newspapers and letter writer. However, there is no doubt that Edwards played a key role in making Jesse a national celebrity and used that fame to transform himself into a leading spokesman for the Confederate viewpoint within the Democratic Party.
Hunted by the Pinkertons
On January 31, 1874, the gang held up the Iron Mountain line in Missouri, but robbed only the wealthy passengers. As they left, the engineers were given a prepared description of the robbery to ensure accuracy. The Pinkertons were brought on the case again as the express companies that transported cash on the railroads realized that the railroad companies would make no effort to catch the outlaws. Efforts to infiltrate the gang, which had proven successful in other cases, failed in Missouri. An undercover Pinkerton agent who tried to get work at the James farm was found dead the next day. He had dismissed warnings from former sheriff O.P. Moss and the president of the local bank that Zerelda Samuel would never hire a complete stranger. Other undercover agents were sent to an area near the Youngers’ home. When Jim and John Younger became suspicious and interrogated them, one of the agents and John Younger died in a shootout, while another agent was fatally wounded.
Zee continued to love Jesse despite her parents’ disapproval, and they finally married on April 24, 1874 after a nine year long courtship. She was 29, two years older than Jesse. Frank eloped with Anna Ralston on June 6, 1874 because her parents were well-to-do landowners, who disapproved of the outlaws.
While the gang was still extremely popular with former rebels, the Republican party in Missouri believed that the outlaws were relying on protection from their network of supporters. Therefore, the Republicans used the fact that the outlaws were standard bearers of the Confederate cause to attack the Democrats, hoping to drive a wedge between the former rebels’ faction and the Unionist faction. Their cause was aided by Governor Woodson’s public acknowledgement of the state government’s inability to arrest the outlaws. When a woman who had known the James brothers during the war identified them as the men who had robbed a stagecoach near Lexington, Missouri on August 30, she received a letter from their mother which caused her to publicly retract her testimony, thus preserving the image that the James and Youngers had not been arrested because they were in Mexico, not because the Democratic establishment was unwilling to do so. In the end, the Democrats’ fixation on white supremacy enabled them to remain united against the Republicans, who supported racial equality, thus preserving Democratic control of Missouri’s legislature.
The Kansas Pacific Railroad was robbed near Muncie, Kansas on December 8, 1874, and at least $30,000 was stolen. William McDaniel, the brother of John Younger’s friend Tom, was arrested a few days later for public drunkenness, and the discovery of $1,000 and several pieces of jewelry in his possession fueled suspicion that he had been involved in the robbery but he was killed after he escaped from the jail.
Humiliated and furious that three agents had been lost without any arrests, Allan Pinkerton wrote the superintendent of the agency’s New York office “My blood was spilt, and they must repay. There is no use talking, they must die.” In fact, the former abolitionist firebrand spent $10,000 of his money to maintain the investigation after the president of the express company that had hired the agency concluded that the outlaws would never be caught and dropped the case. After making contact with Unionists in Missouri, including one of Zerelda’s neighbours, Pinkerton gradually slipped his agents into the community, as well as coordinated with the local railroad to transport his men and their weapons separately so as to not attract attention.
Once he felt that he was sufficiently prepared, Pinkerton decided to hit the outlaws in their home on January 25, 1875. His final set of orders ended with the command to “burn the house down.” The Pinkerton agents inserted flammable materials into the building’s weatherboarding to set the house on fire and then threw a small container of extremely flammable material that was likely a smoke bomb into the James house. However, in the confusion, Jesse’s step-father threw the smoking package into the fireplace, and it exploded, killing their eight year old step-brother Archie and damaging their mother’s arm so badly that it had to be amputated, a gruesome process in the period before anesthesia. General Phil Sheridan had arranged for the Pinkertons to be supplied with explosives, and later analysis showed that it was a powerful bomb.
The plan backfired because even newspapers opposed to the James-Younger gang attacked the Pinkertons. In fact, a combination of genuine sympathy and a well-orchestrated publicity campaign by Edwards enabled former confederates to submit a resolution pardoning the outlaws for wartime crimes and guaranteeing a fair trial for later crimes, but the bill was narrowly defeated by Unionists in the legislature. It is debatable whether or not the men would have surrendered for the trial. The neighbor who had known that his hired hand was a Pinkerton agent was shot in the head on April 12. It is not clear whether it was Jesse, or whether he was silenced by the Pinkertons, who feared being indicted by a grand jury in Missouri, and were relying on the protection of the governor of Illinois, who refused to allow any of the detectives to be extradited. The other local man who had cooperated with the Pinkertons abandoned Missouri to preserve his life and Pinkerton gave up the hunt for the outlaws.
Aware of the dangers of living in Missouri, Jesse took his pregnant wife to live in Tennessee, and they adopted the aliases of John and Josie Howard. With too much free time on his hands, he returned to letter writing and had soon started a war of words with Allan Pinkerton’s son William, showing that he took his celebrity seriously. When Frank, Cole, Tom McDaniels and Tom Webb, who had ridden with Cole at Lawrence, robbed a bank in Huntington, West Virginia on September 5, 1875, detective Bligh was called in again, and he led a posse that found McDaniels, who had been shot by a farmer, and soon died. Webb was caught by a posse and sentenced to 12 years in prison, but refused to reveal the names of the other robbers.
Bob Younger and Jesse got along well because Bob resented his domineering older brother Cole and was also enchanted by Jesse’s charisma. Bob wanted money to start a farm, so Jesse suggested a robbery in Minnesota, but Cole was furious that he had not been consulted. Minnesota was far away and unfamiliar, and he had little faith in the ability of recent recruit Bill Chadwell to guide them even though he was from Minnesota. Cole contacted Jim, who had settled in California, and they agreed to go, hoping that would make Bob feel guilty, but he refused to drop the idea. Chadwell and Charlie Pitts were acquaintances of the James brothers and had joined the gang along with their friend Hobbs Kerry. The outlaws robbed $18,000 from the Missouri Pacific Railroad on July 7, 1876 to finance the raid. Unfortunately, Kerry was arrested several days later after he began flashing money around in St. Louis, and unlike Tom Webb, he immediately confessed.
However, the men were already in Minnesota, staying in St. Paul’s red light district in order to blend in. They traveled around the area for two weeks pretending to be looking to buy land, while gathering information about Northfield and planning their escape route. The gang was especially attracted by the fact that two notorious carpetbaggers, Adelbert Ames and Benjamin Butler, kept their money in the First National Bank of Northfield. As a former senator, general and governor of Mississippi, Ames was an ideal target for the outlaws. Both men had been the subject of furious editorials by pro-Confederate newspapers for years.
The robbery took place on September 7, 1876. Jesse, Frank and Pitts were to enter the bank, Cole and Miller remain just outside of town, and Jim, Bob and Chadwell were to stay further away, with everyone ready to create a diversion by shooting in the air. Once the gang members entered the bank, Cole and Miller moved near the bank door. Inside the bank, Frank and Jesse could not get anyone to open the safe, and when Miller stopped someone from going in, he began shouting at the top of his lungs that it was a robbery. The residents of the town refused to allow the bank to be robbed. Since the outlaws were riding back and forth in front of the bank, and had driven all nearby bystanders either into the bank or away to shelter behind buildings, the street quickly became a killing ground.
After Miller took a round of birdshot in the face, a fatal bullet from medical student Henry Wheeler knocked him from his horse. Hardware store owner Anselm Manning then wounded Cole in the hip when he went to check on Miller. A Swedish immigrant named Nicolaus Gustavson, who spoke no English, was killed because he was part of a group of men that suddenly emerged from a nearby basement saloon, and he was the last to make a break for safety. With the experienced Ames providing reassurance, Manning fired at Chadwell, who was clinging to his horse’s neck Indian style to shield his body, and shot him through the heart. Manning and Ames soon found themselves pinned down by fire from Bob Younger but a bullet from Wheeler hit Younger’s arm, shattering his right elbow. After telling the men in the bank that the raid was over, Cole pulled Bob on the horse behind him. While waiting for the three men in the bank to come out, Jim was wounded in the shoulder by Wheeler. The last outlaw to leave the bank killed the acting cashier who had refused to open the vault, saying that anyone who acted that way deserved to be killed. The tough outlaws had been cut to pieces in fifteen minutes by four or five townspeople who had no warning of the attack.
The surviving members of the gang fled but their guide Bill Chadwell lay dead back in Northfield, and they did not have time to cut the telegraph wires. Within a day, more than 500 men were chasing the outlaws, attracted by the reward of $1,500 put up by the governor of Minnesota. Pursuit was hampered by torrential rains that destroyed their trail, and a lack of coordination among the posses. By September 10, they were surrounded by 200 men, but the experienced guerrillas were able to escape by letting the horses go as a diversion and moving along creeks to confuse their pursuers. When the posses combined to form a line of pickets across their path, they made their way through the line by crawling across a railroad bridge, relying on the pouring rain to conceal them from the pickets. In the end, the wounded got worse, and the Youngers told Frank and Jesse to ride off on September 14, while Charlie Pitts stayed with his friend Cole. Jesse and Frank were wounded by a shotgun blast as they tried to slip through the picket line but they melted into the darkness and finally found two horses, which enabled them to move out of the posses’ range. Despite their wounds, exhaustion and hunger, they managed to reach the Dakota Territory on September 17.
The posses finally found the Youngers on Sept. 21, but when the outlaws tried to shoot their way out Pitts ended up dead, and the Youngers received even more wounds, including the right thigh and upper jaw for Jim. Cole had 12 bullets in him, Jim 5, and Bob had two serious wounds. The Youngers would not admit that the James brothers had ridden with them, and refused to acknowledge other robberies. Pleading guilty to robbery and accessories to murder, they were spared the hangman’s noose, but sentenced to life in prison. Pitts’ body was sold to a doctor for a skeleton, a medical student obtained Chadwell’s body, and Miller was embalmed and used as an exhibit at state fairs, which all seems a little morbid.
Efforts to find Frank and Jesse were futile since they lived with their wives in Tennessee under assumed names, posing as brothers-in-law. When Zee gave birth to a baby girl in July 1879, Jesse knew that he had to get some more money. However, it proved difficult to put together a new gang as many former bushwhackers had moved away or gotten married. Worse, Frank had gone legit and was actually working for money. The reason behind his change in character has never been explained, but it may have been a combination of age and the birth of his son in 1878.
Jesse had found it impossible to settle down, probably because he had become a guerrilla at such a young age that he did not know any other life. Still, Jesse found some recruits: his cousin Wood Hite, Clell Miller’s younger brother Ed, Bill Ryan, Dick Liddil and Tucker Bassham. None of them were ex-guerrillas, so they were not told each others’ names for the first job. They robbed $6,000 from the Chicago & Alton Railroad on October 8, although they had expected to find tens of thousands of dollars. While the robbery was executed in a professional manner, the times were changing. The banking system relied more on checks, so much smaller amounts of cash was transported by rail, while immigration and population growth had replaced the farmlands around Kansas City with new suburbs, thus clearing away the area that used to shelter the outlaws.
Jesse, under his John Howard identity, was a frequent visitor to the race track and local faro tables, gambling so much that even the long-suffering Zee began to complain. His thick rolls of cash were explained as the profits from trading livestock. However, he was a suspicious man, who was constantly alert, so people in the community talked about him but no one ever suggested that he was Jesse James. Ed Miller introduced Jesse to the brothers Bob and Charley Ford, and they became such close friends that the gang usually met at the house of their sister, Martha Bolton, an attractive widow, along with hanger-on and ex-guerrilla Jim Cummins. After the gang pulled off a number of small jobs between August and October 1880, Jesse and Liddil attended a series of races, and Jesse’s horse won almost half of the races it ran in.
Jesse had become suspicious of Cummins, and when he disappeared, the natural assumption was that he had gone to the authorities. Ed Miller then became the target of Jesse’s suspicions and was killed in late 1880. A series of small-scale robberies were carried out in 1880 with Bill Ryan and Dick Liddell, but they were nothing compared to the jobs Jesse had committed in the past. Tucker Bassham had been arrested in July 1880 but the offer of a pardon convinced him to testify against Ryan, who had been caught on March 25, 1881, after boasting drunkenly about robberies. This forced the James brothers to leave Nashville and return to Missouri, since the man who had arrested Ryan knew Jesse as John Howard. Frank was furious about having to uproot his life but did not recognize that he would never be secure until he cut contact with his brother.
The James brothers, the Hite cousins and Liddil robbed the Rock Island Railroad near Winston, Missouri on July 15, 1881 but the take was a miniscule $600 and Jesse had accidentally killed the train conductor when firing several shots to terrify the passengers. Instead of forcing the train to crash, the outlaws had simply bought tickets, boarded the train and then ordered the engineer to stop the train near where they had left their horses. By this time, instead of uniting Democrats, the gang’s robberies gave the Republicans ammunition with which to attack the Democrats. Even supporters were complaining that they had no choice, since refusing to exchange horses or feed the outlaws might be a death sentence.
Realizing that Jesse’s partners lacked the same unbreakable bonds as former guerrillas, Missouri Governor Thomas Crittenden decided to offer a huge reward to encourage betrayal. Since the state government lacked the necessary financial resources for such a reward, he sought backing from the heads of the major railroads that operated in Missouri. Although few railroads had actually been robbed and it was the express companies that had to bear the cost, they worried that being the home state of a notorious outlaw who operated at will would weaken investment and immigration, so they agreed to fund a $10,000 reward for each James brother, half on capture and half on conviction, as well as a $5,000 reward for each of the other men involved in the July 15 robbery.
The gang expanded to include Bob and Charley Ford, and members of the gang robbed a couple of stagecoaches in August. The Hite cousins, Liddil, Charley Ford and the James brothers robbed another train on September 7, 1881 but once again they had picked the wrong train and the express company’s safe was empty, so they robbed the passengers. Ryan and Bassham were finally put on trial in September in a part of Missouri filled with Confederate supporters. Intimidation closed Ryan’s mouth, but not Bassham, even though his house was burned to the ground by a mob. Bassham’s betrayal intensified Jesse’s already powerful suspicion. At the same time, the increasingly brutal nature of Jesse’s robberies lost him public sympathy, while he and his family were constantly moving from town to town. By 1882, Jesse had been an outlaw for sixteen years.
Aside from outside pursuit, there were quarrels within the gang. Dick Liddell began to fear for his life because he had killed Jesse’s cousin Wood Hite over Martha Bolton in December 1881, although it may have been Bob Ford who fired the fatal bullet, since he had arrived just as the two men started firing at each other. Ed Miller had been killed for less. Knowing he had signed his death warrant, Liddil turned state’s evidence. Martha served as his intermediary with the governor and also mentioned that her brother Bob had plans for Jesse. After meeting with Bob, Crittenden agreed to give him a pardon and the reward if he dealt with Jesse. As proof of his intentions, Bob supplied information that enabled the arrest of Clarence Hite. Frank had already seen the writing on the wall and left Missouri. When Jesse moved his family to St. Joseph, Missouri, loneliness drove him to invite the Ford brothers to live with him. Tense weeks were spent waiting for Jesse to take off his guns, since he was too dangerous to face armed.
April 3, 1882 was a surprisingly hot day, so he took off his coat and vest. Since walking around with pistols would attract attention in his peaceful neighborhood, he also took off his guns, and when he stood on a chair to straighten a frame of “In God We Trust” Bob Ford shot him. Both brothers had drawn their guns but Bob was either faster or more resolved.
Jesse’s body was quickly identified at the coroner’s inquest, with the Ford brothers, Zee, Zerelda and the sheriff all serving as witnesses. The Liberty mayor, sheriff, and deputy sheriff were pallbearers. Two thousand people attended the funeral. Zee was left with little money, and had to auction personal belongings, including her son’s puppy. Bob and Charlie Ford were sentenced to hang but were pardoned by Governor Crittendon, and received part of the reward money. Hundreds of people visited the family farm to see Jesse’s grave.
The final years of Frank James and the Younger brothers
Frank negotiated surrender terms with the governor through Edwards and received a fair trial. No eye-witnesses to the robberies could be found, Liddil’s testimony was given little weight since he was a convicted felon and the largely pro-confederate juries found him innocent during two separate trials. After the second time, the governor dropped all charges.
Frank had benefited from a desire of Missouri people to put the past behind them, but the Youngers had already spent several years in jail by then. Bob Younger died from tubercolis in prison, age 34. Cole and Jim Younger were denied parole because they refused to answer questions about the other participants. They were finally paroled on July 10, 1901, and were provided with jobs selling tombstones. Jim Younger never got his farm or the woman he loved, so he put a bullet in his head on October 19, 1902. Frank and Cole joined a traveling carnival but left because they rarely got paid.
Cole went on the lecture circuit, selling copies of his autobiography “What My Life Has Taught Me.”
Several people claimed to be Jesse James, so the family agreed to allow DNA testing. It took six months, and the findings were announced on Feb. 23, 1996. The DNA matched, the teeth matched and the bullet was where it was supposed be; it was Jesse James’ body. Even today, it is not clear which banks were robbed by the James-Younger gang because they themselves never stated which were robbed by them, and which were robbed by copycats.
Jesse James Under the Black Flag (1921)
Directed by Franklin B. Coates, starring Jesse James Jr. and Diana Reed
Jesse James Jr. tells his daughter’s fiancé the story of Jesse James, including riding with William Quantrill during the Civil War and his career as a bank robber.
Jesse James (1927)
Directed by Lloyd Ingraham, starring Fred Thomson and Nora Lane
It tells the story of Jesse James.
Jesse James (1939)
Directed by Henry King, starring Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda
When a railroad company tries to force farmers off their land, the James brothers try to organize their neighbors to oppose the company. After their mother is killed when their home is bombed, they form a gang to rob the railroad company and banks. After many attempts to capture Jesse James fail, a detective agency hires Jesse’s friend Bob Ford to kill him. (full review)
The Return of Frank James (1940)
Directed by Fritz Lang, starring Henry Fonda and Gene Tierney
When his brother’s killers are pardoned, Frank James decides to hunt them down himself.
Bad Men of Missouri (1941)
Directed by Ray Enright, starring Dennis Morgan and Jane Wyman
When the Younger brothers lose their land after the Civil War, they become outlaws and start robbing banks with the James brothers.
Badman’s Territory (1946)
Directed by Tim Whelan, starring Randolph Scott and George “Gabby” Hayes
The James brothers end up in a town outside of American territory, so it is a refuge for outlaws, and they become friends with a sheriff searching for his brother.
I Shot Jesse James (1949)
Directed by Sam Fuller, starring Preston Foster and John Ireland
After Bob Ford shoots his friend Jesse James in the back for a reward he struggles to deal with his guilt. (full review)
Kansas Raiders (1950)
Directed by Ray Enright, starring Audie Murphy and Brian Donlevy
Jesse James joins William Quantrill’s band to seek revenge for his parents’ deaths but eventually becomes disillusioned by the constant killing of civilians. (full review)
The Great Missouri Raid (1951)
Directed by Gordon Douglas, starring Wendell Corey and MacDonald Carey
Having trouble adjusting to life after the Civil War, the James brothers begin robbing banks and find themselves hunted by a marshal.
Best of the Badmen (1951)
Directed by William B. Russell, starring Robert Ryan and Laurence Tierney
At the end of the Civil War, Jeff Clanton saves Quantrill’s Raiders from a lynching and finds himself taking part in robberies of banks controlled by carpetbaggers.
The True Story of Jesse James (1957)
Directed by Nicholas Ray, starring Robert Wagner and Jeffrey Hunter
The story of Jesse’s life from riding with Quantrill’s raiders through robbing banks until the disastrous Northfield, Minnesota raid. (full review).
Hell’s Crossroads (1957)
Directed by Franklin Adreon, starring Stephen McNally and Robert Vaughn
Bob Ford is offered parole and a reward if he kills Jesse James.
Young Jesse James (1960)
Directed by William F. Claxton, starring Ray Stricklyn and Robert Dix
After their father is killed and their mother badly wounded by Union troops, the James brothers join William Quantrill’s guerrillas.
The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972)
Directed by Philip Kaufman, starring Cliff Robertson and Robert Duvall
The story of the James-Younger Gang’s catastrophic raid on Northfield, Minnesota. (full review)
The Long Riders (1980)
Directed by Walter Hill, starring James Keach and David Carradine
Although the members of the James-Younger gang are successful bank robbers, they are trying to settle down and raise families but their success has drawn the attention of the Pinkertons, who prove to be relentless hunters. (full review)
Frank and Jesse (1994)
Directed by Robert Boris, starring Rob Lowe and Bill Paxton
When the Civil War ends, former guerrillas Frank and Jesse James swear allegiance to the Union but unscrupulous business practices of the railroads drive them to start robbing banks, which attracts the attention of the Pinkertons.
American Outlaws (2001)
Directed by Les Mayfield, starring Colin Farrell and Scott Caan
The James and Younger brothers return to their homes after the Civil War ends and find that a railroad company is trying to force farmers off their land. The young men try to organize their neighbors to oppose the company but when the James house is bombed and their mother dies, they form a gang to rob the company and the banks where it stores its money. (full review)
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Directed by Andrew Dominik, starring Brad Pitt and Mary-Louise Parker
Famous bank robber Jesse James is living under an assumed name while the rest of his gang is either dead or in prison. Robert Ford has idolized Jesse since he was a child but when he joins the gang idolization turns to resentment and finally murder. (full review)
Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War-T. J. Stiles, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.
The author gives a detailed portrayal of the exhausting and dangerous nature of living on the frontier. His description of the process of butchering a pig is fascinating, and he provides an excellent examination of the practice of slavery. It is a well-researched book, particularly the discussion of how the Civil War destroyed the traditional power structure within rural communities and created networks of tightly knit clans that mistrusted outsiders and even neighbours with different political viewpoints. Although Stiles acknowledges the role played by Bleeding Kansas in Missouri’s reaction to the Civil War, he ignores the fact that the raid on Lawrence was viewed as revenge for its role as the center of abolitionists during Bleeding Kansas. The book focuses on Jesse James, and devotes little time to his brother Frank, while the Younger brothers are only mentioned when they take part in robberies. Although it is not a complete examination of the James-Younger Gang, Stiles provides a solid examination of the larger political environment that the gang operated in, namely the efforts of former confederates to regain their political rights and maintain white supremacy.
Jesse James: The Man and the Myth-Marley Brant, Berkely Trade, 1998.
Despite the title, Brant had previously written a book on the Younger brothers, so she has produced a solid examination of the James-Younger Gang as a whole.
The Shooters-Leon Claire Metz. New York: Berkley Books, 1996.
An excellent introduction to old west gunfighters, it looks at more than 20 shooters, with each shooter assigned a short chapter that contains a surprising amount of information. Although 5-10 pages is not enough to discuss Billy the Kid or the Earp brothers, shorter chapters gives him the space to look at less well-known shooters like King Fisher, Jim Miller, and Sam Bass, while famous names like Billy the Kid, the James brothers, Pat Garrett, and the Earps get slightly more substantial entries.