Jesse Woodson James (1847-1882)

Jesse Woodson James (September 5, 1847 - April 3, 1882), American outlaw, was born in Kearney, Missouri. His father, Robert James, was a Baptist minister who helped found William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri.

At seventeen, James left his native Missouri to fight as a Confederate guerilla in the American Civil War as part of Quantrill's Raiders, participating in raids in Kansas. He reportedly once killed eight men in a single day. He was wounded while surrendering at the end of the war, and later claimed to have been forced into outlawry because his family had been persecuted in the war which in turn caused him to lead one of history's most notorious outlaw gangs.

With his brother Frank James and several other ex-Confederates, including cousin Cole Younger and the rest of the Younger brothers, the James gang robbed their way across the Western frontier targeting banks, trains, stagecoaches, and stores from Iowa to Texas. Eluding even the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, the gang escaped with thousands of dollars. James is believed to have carried out the first daylight bank robbery in peacetime, stealing $60,000 from a bank in Liberty, Missouri.

Then on July 21, 1873 the James-Younger gang pulled off the first successful train robbery in the American West by taking US$3,000 from the Rock Island Express in Adair, Iowa.

Despite their criminal and often violent acts, James and his partners were much adored. Journalists, eager to entertain Easterners with tales of a wild West, exaggerated and romanticized the gang's heists, often casting James as a contemporary Robin Hood. While James did harass railroad executives who unjustly seized private land for the railways, modern biographers note that he did so for personal gain -- his humanitarian acts were more fiction than fact.

On September 7, 1876, the James gang attempted to rob a bank in Northfield, Minnesota. The townspeople returned fire, and all of the members of the gang except for Frank and Jesse James were killed, wounded or captured in a wooded ravine along the Watonwan River just south of La Salle, Minnesota.

Jesse James had married his own first cousin, named Zeralda after his mother, after a nine-year courtship. They had four children, Jesse Edwards, twins Gould and Montgomery who didn't survive childhood, and Mary. She and Frank James' wife tried to get the brothers to take on a more normal life, and with a $10,000 reward on his head, Jesse and his wife moved to Saint Joseph, Missouri to hide out, where he lived under the assumed name of Tom Howard and rented a house for $14 a month.

In April 1882, Jesse James recruited Robert and Charles Ford to help him rob the Platte City bank. While James stood on a chair in his home in St. Joseph to straighten and dust a picture, the Ford brothers drew their guns. Robert Ford's shot hit James in the back of the head, ending his outlaw days for good. Ford hoped to claim the $10,000 offered for James's capture but received only a fraction of the reward and was charged with murder. He did, however, secure himself a place in Western outlaw lore which lives on in literature, song, and film.


The Ford brothers were sentenced to hang but were pardoned by the governor of Missouri. Charles Ford committed suicide two years later, and Robert Ford (outlaw) was killed in a bar room brawl in Creede, Colorado, in 1892. (His killer, Edward O'Kelly, became an instant hero, and was sentenced to only two years in prison for avenging the man whom Theodore Roosevelt called "America's Robin Hood.")

Rumors have persisted that Ford did not kill James, but someone else. Some stories say he lived in Guthrie, Oklahoma as late as 1948, and a man named J. Frank Dalton, who claimed to be Jesse James, and resembled him to a degree, died in Granbury, Texas in 1951 at the age of 103. That story was promoted and encouraged by the proprietors of Meramec Caverns ("Jesse James' Hideout") near Stanton, Missouri. Some stories claim the real recipient of Ford's bullet was a man named Charles Bigelow, reported to have been living with James' wife at the time.

The body buried in Missouri as Jesse James was exhumed in 1995 and DNA analysis gave a 99.7% match to Jesse James. A court order was granted in 2000 to exhume and test Dalton's body, but the wrong body was exhumed.


The life and times of Jesse James has been depicted -- with varying degrees of historic accuracy -- in dozens of movies, ranging from the 1921 silent film Jesse James Under the Black Flag (starring James's own son, Jesse James, Jr., in the title role) to 1939's Jesse James (with Tyrone Power as James) to 1972's The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid (Robert Duvall) to 1980's The Long Riders (James Keach) to 2001's American Outlaws (Colin Farrell). In 1966, there was even a low-budget horror movie featuring James entitled Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter.

Actors who have portayed James include Roy Rogers, George Reeves, Lawrence Tierney, Clayton Moore, Audie Murphy, Macdonald Carey, Lawrence Tierney, Robert Wagner, Christopher Lloyd, Kris Kristofferson, and Rob Lowe. Reportedly, Brad Pitt is set to star as the outlaw in a movie for 2006 release.

Perhaps one of the most famous songs about Jesse James is the eponymous popular American folk song (recorded by The Pogues on their classic album Rum Sodomy and the Lash). It contains the lyric "But that dirty little coward / That shot Mr. Howard / Has laid poor Jesse in his grave." Cher had a hit with her song "Just like Jesse James", and Warren Zevon wrote and recorded a song called "Frank and Jesse James" on his second album. There is also a concept album documenting the life of Jesse James titled "The Legend of Jesse James", featuring Levon Helm, Johnny Cash and Emmylou Harris, amongst others, written by Paul Kennerley, originally released in 1979. In the song "Outlaw Blues" from his 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home, Bob Dylan defends his decision to "go electric" with the line "Ain't gonna hang no picture, ain't gonna hang no picture frame/Well, I might look like Robert Ford, but I feel just like a Jesse James." He is also mentioned in the Hal Bynum/Dave Kirby song (made popular by Cash and Waylon Jennings) "There Ain't No Good Chain Gang" with the narrator declaring "I ain't cut out to be no Jesse James." John Lee Hooker also wrote a song titled "I'm Bad like Jesse James".