Jesse Woodson James was born on September 5, 1847 he was an American outlaw, gang leader, bank robber, train robber, and murderer from the state of Missouri. He was popular alive but his death would make him a legendary figure of the Wild West.
James’ parents were the Reverend Robert James, a Baptist minister and Zerelda Cole James. He also had a brother named Alexander Franklin “Frank”, and a younger sister, Susan Lavenia James. James would marry his first cousin Zerelda “Zee” Mimms, and the couple would have a son and daughter.
Jesse and his brother Frank became Confederate guerrillas during the Civil War. The James-Younger gang would be created during this time. Members included at various times, the Younger brothers (Cole, Jim, John, and Bob), the James brothers, John Jarrett (married to Cole’s sister Josie), Arthur McCoy, George Shepard, Oliver Shepard, William McDaniel, Tom McDaniel, Clell Miller, Charlie Pitts (born Samuel A. Wells), and Bill Chadwell (alias Bill Stiles). They would rob banks, stagecoaches, and trains.
The brothers were most active with their gang from about 1866 until 1876, when their attempted robbery of a bank in Northfield, Minnesota resulted in the capture or deaths of several gang members. They continued in crime for several more years, recruiting new members, but were under increasing pressure from law enforcement. A substantial bounty was set up each of the gang members heads.
On April 3, 1882, after eating breakfast, Robert and Charles Ford along with James were preparing to travel to Platte City for a robbery. As James walked across the living room to lay his revolvers on a sofa. He turned around and noticed a dusty picture above the mantle, and stood on a chair to clean it. Robert Ford drew his weapon, and shot the unarmed Jesse James in the back of the head. James’ two previous bullet wounds and partially missing middle finger served to positively identify the body.
Robert Ford went so far as to wire the governor to claim his reward not worrying about hiding at all. The Ford brothers surrendered to the authorities. In the course of a single day, the Ford brothers were indicted, pleaded guilty, sentenced to death by hanging, and granted a full pardon by Governor Thomas T. Crittenden. The governor’s quick pardon suggested he knew the brothers intended to kill James rather than capture him.
Jesse James was generally thought of as a American Robin Hood but there is no evidence that his robberies enriched anyone other than his gang and himself. Whatever the truth, James remains a controversial figure. Some believe he was a hero while others believe a villain.