Saint Joseph, MO has not always been hospitable to all of its visitors, namely one Jesse James. After evading the authorities for 15 years, James was, in the end, shot and killed by one of his own gang members, Bob Ford. The brothers Ford entered James’ home on April 3, 1882, and Bob shot him in the back of the head. It is believed that the bullet exited above James’ eye and, after completing an instant kill, lodged itself in the wall of Jesse James’ living room. Now, the James’ home-turned-museum displays the bullet hole from the shot as a momentary looking glass into America’s Wild West past.
What warranted such treatment of Jesse James?
Jesse James’ notoriety stemmed from his involvement in robbing over 20 banks and trains; absconding an estimated $200,000.
James was one of many who continued to fight for the Confederate cause, even after the end of the War. He joined William Quantrill’s guerrilla forces at the age of 16. He participated in The Centralia Massacre (Warning: do not follow the link unless you are prepared for the atrocities of war) with Bloody Bill Anderson.
Following the dissolution of ex-Confederate resistance, James maintained his bonds with the other men he fought with: bonds that were sealed by insurgence. James, along with Cole and Bob Younger, established the James-Younger Gang.
Following the Younger brothers’ arrest in 1868, James formed another gang, including the two Ford brothers, thus sealing his later demise. The Ford brothers turned on Jesse for the reward money.
What led James to choose such a criminal path in life?
First, one must consider James’ beginning in the schismatic Civil War era. As a Missourian, he lived during the guerilla warfare that plagued areas with divided supporters of both the North and the South. Born in 1847 to Rev. Robert James and Zerelda James, Jesse’s early years were spent peacefully on the family farm. The Rev. Robert James died in 1850 in California. Zerelda, known for her 6’0 strong presence, married Reuben Samuel in 1855 (after her second husband died). Slaves were used to work on the farm, and the James family held strong Confederate beliefs.
Jesse was too young to join the Confederate Army during the Civil War, but his older brother Frank joined the State militia which fought for the South until they were driven from Missouri. Frank then joined Quantrill’s Raiders. In 1863, Union soldiers visited the James Farm looking for information about Frank’s whereabouts. They beat Jesse and tortured his stepfather, Reuben Samuel. Jesse’s response was to join his brother with Quantrill’s forces, which placed him on the stage of some of the worst guerrilla warfare of the Civil War.
What happened following Jesse’s murder?
The Ford brothers were pardoned. In 1892, Bob was shot and killed in Colorado. His brother committed suicide in 1884, following deep depression over Jesse’s murder, battling tuberculosis and a debilitating morphine addiction.
Jesse’s wife, also named Zerelda, and two children were left destitute. Zee never remarried, never removed her black mourning attire and became reclusive until her death in 1900.
Jesse’s mother, Zerelda (seen on the left), always openly supported her sons and maintained her secessionist views to the last. Before Jesse’s murder, the pinkerton agency menaced her farm looking for information on Jesse. They killed one of her children with an exploding device that also maimed Zerelda, making it necessary to have part of her arm amputated. She buried Jesse’s body in her front yard and sold pebbles from the gravesite for 25 cents each.
Then, as now, there is speculation about Jesse’s motivations and choices and the truths surrounding his story. Some saw Jesse as a Robin Hood (although he never did give money to the poor); some saw him as a murdering thief. One thing we can’t argue is that he is a legend. It is hard to now imagine what life would have really been like during and following the Civil War in Missouri. I think James’ story shows us some ironic extremes that would have been characteristic of many circumstances of that era on a much smaller scale: the James family was so loyal to the Confederate cause, and yet one of his own gang members showed him the greatest disloyalty; Union atrocities and Confederate atrocities; a mother’s pride and love vs. a son’s crimes; those who shoot to kill are then killed by another’s shot; a man who steals a fortune only to leave his wife and children destitute; and the list goes on as do the mysteries surrounding Jesse James.
Jesse James Museum