Jesse James is still lauded today by many people as a legendary hero of the Wild West. But in reality from his teenage years onwards, he displayed sadistic traits and a disregard for human life that makes him one of the monsters of the 19th century. He was beyond doubt a criminal and a thug.
If you think I’m being mean or provocative – well, let’s start with the sixteen-year-old Jesse James and a trainload of American soldiers, wives, and children travelling through Missouri towards the end of the American Civil War. This reveals a teenager without mercy or compassion.
Jesse James – teenage war criminal
In 1861, after the election of Abraham Lincoln as President, the southern pro-slavery states of the United States broke away declaring themselves a new country with their own president: The Confederate States of America. The result was civil War between the Union (the northern states) and the Confederacy. The bloody conflict raged for four years with Abraham Lincoln eventually triumphing but at a huge cost.
By 1864, the Confederates were desperate and resorting to all kinds of measures to fend off inevitable defeat. Many resorted to guerrilla warfare and actions we would now describe as either terrorist or war crimes. Prominent among these irregular forces, without official uniforms, were the “bushwhackers” who were especially active in Missouri.
Jesse James, aged 16, was in a bushwhacker gang led by William “Bloody Bill” Anderson. In September, 1864, they descended on a small collection of houses, about a dozen, plus two small hotels and a school house. It barely constituted a town, calling itself Centralia. The locals glimpsed about four hundred approaching blue uniforms initially assuming Union troops. But these were outlaws dressed as they saw fit. In no time, the unusually large gang of Confederate supporting irregulars was moving from house to house demanding money and food.
The bushwhackers found a barrel of whisky that soon disappeared down their collective throats. At which point a stage coach pulled into town with a number of well-heeled passengers who were duly robbed. Then, to the glee of everybody, including Jesse James, the regular St Louis train was spotted. The track was blocked, the train stopped, and the gang made its drunken way through the carriages.
There were 23 Union soldiers serving with the First Iowa Cavalry on their way home after serving in Atlanta. Their commanding officer, Sergeant Thomas Goodman presented himself expecting to be executed by these criminal thugs while his men would be spared. But the bushwhackers did the exact opposite. After telling the unarmed soldiers to strip, they executed all of them and flung Goodman into jail. Worse, Jesse James, Bill Anderson and the others scalped the soldiers in front of the train passengers.
This was nothing compared to what happened next. About 150 Union troops of the 39th Missouri Infantry Regiment rode into Centralia believing they could mop up the bushwhackers with ease and punish the murderers. They were led by a relatively inexperienced officer, U.S. Army Major Andrew Vern Emen Johnston – a former schoolteacher.
On entering Centralia, the federal troops were ambushed with Jesse James claiming he shot Johnston dead. Nearly ever Union troop was killed but what shocked public opinion across the states was that many were tortured, disembowelled, beheaded, and generally mutilated alive and dead. The description is frankly too much to state in detail here.
The Wild West – split by Union and Confederate politics
As a British historian looking in at the story of the Wild West, I’m really struck by the enduring legacy of the American Civil War. So many events, from the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, to the real story behind the movie The Searchers, to criminals like Jesse James, are underscored by a lingering, murderous rivalry between Union and Confederate supporters. The lawmen of the Wild West coming from Union backgrounds while the cattle rustlers and gangs were, by and large, Confederate.
It makes sense when you think about it.
The Civil War was a traumatic and bloody experience that saw families in the North and South forced to bury their young dead. So many tears shed and a welling up of anger at the other side. In the war’s aftermath, Union folk wanted to establish control and order over the whole of the United States. The country would never split in two again.
In total contrast, Confederates like Jesse James saw no reason to obey laws passed by their enemies. They would never accept the authority or legitimacy of the victors. Crime, in that sense, was a political statement. It’s an attitude that has not only prevailed, but grown and festered, especially on social media, to the present day.
How else to explain the support in many quarters for the Capitol Hill riots in January 2021?
The James-Younger gang
Jesse James’ criminal career moved on from fighting Union troops to bank robberies. James cast himself as a kind of Robin Hood of the former Confederate South robbing the (Union) rich to help the (Confederate) poor. Though there was little evidence he was redistributing his ill-gotten gains. He even compared his small town heists to the battles of Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Napoleon Bonaparte.
This propaganda from Jesse James was relayed to the public in a series of letters he wrote to the Confederate sympathising editor of the Kansas City Times, John Newman Edwards. Maybe aware that a bullet could cut his life short at any moment, he was penning his autobiography as he conducted his crimes.
Together with his brother Frank, Jesse hooked up with another Confederate supporting guerrilla-turned-bank robber Cole Younger and his brothers: Jim, John, and Bob. From 1867, they began a string of ever more ambitious robberies. One newspaper in 1876 seemed to be in awe of the gang:
“The names of the James boys and the Younger brothers are familiar to the whole country. The band which they represent has enjoyed a success paralleled by not other criminal or outlaw organisation on this continent. For eight years these men baffled the best detective talent in the country.”
They knew the American south-west well, always able to make a quick getaway on horseback. And their tactics were simple but effective. The gang would enter a town terrorising the citizens by firing their guns in the air and howling curses. Then a small group would make their way into a bank, overpower the cashier, and sweep the contents of the safe into a sack before leaving.
From 1871, the Pinkerton detective agency, originally set up as the intelligence arm of the Union army in the Civil War, was assigned to crushing the James-Younger gang by whatever means. But success was elusive. However, in September 1876, Jesse James made a disastrous mistake. They decided to rob a bank in Northfield, Minnesota – much further north than their usual targets.
Not only law enforcement but local people as well turned up at the bank being robbed, armed to the teeth, and determined to bring down the robbers. Some of the gang were killed. The James brothers, Jesse and Frank, fled while the Younger brothers ended up in prison. At this point, Jesse James decided to go into early retirement. Maybe realising that a lot of Americans were no longer buying his Robin Hood patter.
Jesse adopted the name Thomas Howard while Frank became B. J. Woodson. Both brothers settled in Nashville, Tennessee. But Jesse wasn’t done with criminal endeavours yet.
The Killing of Jesse James
By 1882, the political dynamic was changing in Missouri. From the end of the Civil War up until 1873, state governors were Republicans – overtly the tools of the Union who understood their role was to subdue the secessionist south. But after 1873, southern voters were installing Democrat governors.
A Democrat, Thomas Theodore Crittenden was governor in 1882, though he had fought for the Union. In a sign of rapidly changing times, his successor, John S Marmaduke, was a former Confederate army officer. This was clearly no longer an obstacle to holding high office. In effect, ex-Confederates were going respectable and they viewed the outlaws with as much, if not more, disdain than the federal authorities.
It was now harder for Jesse James to portray himself as a hero of the people against a Union-imposed elite. Nevertheless, soon bored of retirement, he started assembling a new gang. Two brothers – Charles and Robert Ford – became his trusted lieutenants. So much so that he moved them into his house for additional protection.
But James had made a fatal mistake.
The political ties that had bonded Anderson’s bushwhackers and even the James-Younger gang together were no longer present. And what James didn’t know was that Robert “Bob” Ford had been offered a reward by Governor Crittenden to bring in his boss. The reward money was raised from the railroad and stage companies who had suffered at the hands of Jesse James right back to the Centralia Massacre.
For them, this was a great investment!
There are reasons, too convoluted to describe here, to suppose that James suspected the Fords were turning against him. On April 3, 1882, the men had breakfast at his home and then moved into the living room. He lay his pistols on a table and stood up on a chair, with his back to the brothers, and began dusting a picture frame hanging on the wall. Bob Ford raised his gun and shot Jesse James dead in the back of the head.
The Fords were arrested and faced murder charges until the governor stepped into pardon them. Missouri was now safe for decent folk and – more importantly – investors. With Jesse James terrorising the state, its reputation had deterred investment and inward migration. But now, the news spread like wildfire that James was dead.
Creation of the Jesse James myth – from criminal to hero
The glorification of Jesse James is pretty inexplicable if you’re not steeped in Wild West lore. How can a man who participated in the beheading, disembowelling, and (yes, I’m afraid so) castration of young American soldiers come to be regarded with affection and esteem?
In the days after his death, some neighbours were prepared to state publicly they rather liked James. The St Joseph Weekly Gazette (April 6, 1882) reported local druggist, Austin Brokaw, describing how the outlaw regularly bought up all his cigars. Then he’d sit in the store, claiming to be “a railroad man in quest of work”, regaling the customers with “funny stories”. Brokaw, presumably pretending to be taken in by his lies, promised to find Jesse James a job on the railroad!
The fate of the Ford brothers proves their treachery was despised while Jesse James increased in stature over the years. I’ve looked back at contemporary newspaper reports from the week of the killing and there was considerable hostility towards the Ford brothers. Their behaviour was seen as ungentlemanly.
Charles Ford contracted tuberculosis and developed a thumping morphine habit. He committed suicide in 1884. He and Robert had tried to make money re-enacting their killing in stage shows but audiences failed to be impressed. In 1892, Edward O’Kelley walked up to Bob Ford and shot him through the throat. O’Kelley claimed to be a friend of Jesse James but this is disputed. Incredibly he was pardoned in 1902 by the Governor of Colorado.
Even before the notorious outlaw was buried, former associates were claiming the body on view was not that of their dead compatriot. Despite confirmation from family, associates, and the coroner, the idea that Jesse James faked his death and lived to a very old age has persisted.
DISCOVER: Did Buffalo Bill invent the Wild West?
Commoditising Jesse James from a criminal to a bankable entertainment product
From the 1880s to the First World War, Buffalo Bill turned the Wild West into a stage show even while the real Wild West was in its death throes. He’d participated in real-life battles and gunfights and, like Jesse James, scalped at least one man. And boasted about it.
The Ford brothers failed in their attempt to turn the murder of Jesse James into a show. It didn’t sit right with theatre audiences. However, the success of Buffalo Bill was hard to ignore. By 1903, Frank James – brother of Jesse – and Cole Younger had been pardoned for their previous crimes. The other Younger brothers, Bob and Jim, died from tuberculosis (in prison, 1889) and suicide (in 1902) respectively.
By the start of the 20th century, Frank James was working as a doorman at a burlesque theatre in St. Louis while Cole Younger had penned an autobiography casting himself as a defender of the Confederate South. It was not a bestseller. These two Wild West relics were washed up has-beens. Keen to emulate Buffalo Bill, they set up the James-Younger Wild West Show in 1903.
It began touring to ghastly newspaper reviews. This from The Clinton Daily Democrat (September 19, 1903):
“Of all the fakirs, grafters, short change artists, and bunco steerers that ever roamed over this old world of ours, the James-Younger Wild West Show carries off the ribbon…If Cole Younger and Frank James want to live down the reputation they had soon after the war, the sooner they leave this aggregation of thieves and bunco steerers, the better it will be for them.”
Three days later, The Coffeyville Daily Journal reported that the show’s management had secured the arrest of Younger and two others for alleged embezzlement of $6,000 while both James and Younger counter-claimed that it was the show’s management that had got into bed with criminal elements. “For twenty-five years we have lived exemplary lives and never shall associate ourselves with thieves or grafters,” a tersely worded statement from James and Younger declared.
Both men sank into obscurity. But Hollywood in its earliest years had already realised that the Wild West offered rich pickings in terms of compelling stories and larger-than-life characters. Buffalo Bill had struck up a firm friendship with the first movie mogul, Thomas Edison. And soon, industry bosses alighted on Jesse James.
The resulting movies could have been written by Jesse James himself. In 1939, the actor Tyrone Power played James as the son of a woman being forced to sell her land to a rapacious railroad company at well below its market value. The movie is essentially a blood feud between the heroic Jesse James and an evil railroad company boss. Power was a very warm, sympathetic casting. His murder by Bob Ford is depicted as disgusting, cowardly act.
And so was established the template for another Hollywood Wild West myth. The events at Centralia and the shooting of railroad employees, bank staff, and bystanders totally airbrushed. Jesse James was now a role model for all teenage males.
And Jesse James was the inspiration for a vintage horror movie probably best forgotten!