Conspiracy at Jesse James Farm
Neosho Daily News June 30, 1991
KEARNEY, Mo. - A fiery explosion
that left outlaw Jesse James' half-brother dead and maimed his mother
was part of a conspiracy by lawmen to kill the bandit, a new
documentary alleges. It had been dismissed for more than a
century as an accident.
Instead of stopping the James gang's robberies of
railroads and banks, the bombing drove its embittered leader's criminal
career and won him public sympathy, according to the documentary, "The
Life and Death of Jesse James."
The film blames the Jan. 26, 1875, bombing on
frustrated officers of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, whom
James' band of former Confederate guerillas had eluded for years.
Historians say James wasn't around when the
explosion ripped through his family's log farmhouse, dubbed "Castle
James" by the bandit's enemies. It killed 8-year-old Archie
Samuel and forced the amputation of part of the right arm of Zerelda
It also prompted an unsuccessful push in the
Missouri Legislature to grant amnesty to the James gang. One
state representative, a former Union soldier, called the blast "the
most cowardly and brutal outrage ever committed in the state."
Cited in the documentary is a letter discovered
recently in the National Archives among late-1800s papers of Allan
Pinkerton, head of the detective agency and founder of the U. S. Secret
Service. His company, which once guarded Abraham Lincoln, was
working for robbery-plagued railroads and banks.
The letter, handwritten a month before the
explosion, was addressed to lawyer Samuel Hardwicke of Liberty, a local
contact for Pinkerton. Although parts of the letter are
illegible, the documentary says Pinkerton gave Hardwicke detailed
instructions for a raid on the James family farm in the rolling hills
At one point, the film says, Pinkerton told
Hardwicke: "Above everything destroy the house...Let the men take no
risk, burn the house down."
Pinkerton also told Hardwicke to have the raiders
use "Greek fire," a primitive type of bomb. Two explosive devices
were hurled into the farmhouse, historians say, but it has been long
assumed they were to illuminate the inside of the darkened building,
not destroy it.
"This is the first conclusive evidence that the
Pinkertons conspired and then set off the explosion," said
documentary producer Ron Casteel, a former radio and television newsman
in Los Angeles and San Francisco. "It shows planning and
execution of a callous and deadly act."