Legend Lives 100 Years After Outlaw's Death
The Joplin Globe, April 18, 1982
Who Shot Jesse James? Bob Ford killed him,
in the back, the dirty rat. One hundred years after James' death,
folks still recall the stories about the outlaw antihero.
KEARNEY, MO - After robbing a Chicago and Alton
train at Blue Cut, Mo., in September 1881, Jesse James shook the
conductor's hand and said, "You'll never hear from me again."
Jesse apparently planned to abandon his life of
crime and move to a farm in Nebraska with his wife and two children.
He never made it. He was dead at age 34.
Unarmed and with his back turned, James was shot to
death on the morning of April 3, 1882, by Bob Ford, a trusted
confederate and new recruit to the James gang.
Ford had struck an agreement with authorities: $10,000 for the capture of Jesse James and his brother, Frank.
Stories about the murder of Missouri's most
notorious native jumped off the front page of newspapers across America.
A story in a Washington paper: "The death of Jesse
James and the breaking up of his gang of criminals added $10 an acre to
every farm in Missouri. It was the beginning of a new and better
day that marked the death of what might be termed Old Missouri and the
beginning of a New Missouri."
Others lamented the death of a man who they
considered to be good, a man whose outlaw roots grew from the days be
pillaged Union towns as a Confederate guerilla.
In any case, the legend of Jesse James was well on
its way; his exploits have become mythical in the 100 years since he
was cut down.
To mark the centennial of his death, an organization
has been created to promote scholarly research of his life, and to help
renovate the Kearney, Mo., farm on which he was born and raised.
It's called the Friends of the James Farm.
A James family reunion also is planned for June 19.
"We're hoping to round up everyone who really is a relative, and even
those who wish they were," says historian Milt Perry, curator of the
James Farm, which consists of a white frame house and log cabin in the
rolling hills of northwest Missouri.
One man who hopes to be there is 79-year-old Lawrence Barr.
"He's my grandfather, but for a long time I didn't
talk about it," explains Barr, the son of Jesse's daughter, Mary.
"I was believing a lot of the stuff they were writing about him, and I
was ashamed. People would say, 'You've just got to live with
it.' But just how do you live with that?"
A few years ago, Barr set out to learn the
truth. But that wasn't easy. Many of the more than 400
books and dozens of movies about the James gang are untouched by fact.
"I've changed my mind about him," says Barr, a
retired accountant living in suburban Kansas City. "I'm proud
now. He didn't do everything they said. I think the
newspapers created a lot of it."
James was well thought of by many people because he
attacked railroads and banks, institutions disliked in the late 1800s
because they were seen as land and money gluttons with little concern
for common folks.
James wrote letters to newspapers professing his
innocence. One arrived at The Kansas City Times shortly after the
Davies County Bank at Gallatin, Mo., was robbed in December, 1869.
He wrote that, since the Civil War, "I have lived as
a peaceable citizen, and obeyed the laws of the United States to the
best of my knowledge."
If true, his knowledge of the law must have been
quite limited. It's believed that between 1866 and 1882 he and
his bandits robbed nine banks, eight trains, four stagecoaches, the box
office of the World Agricultural exposition in Kansas City and a
government paymaster, according to William Settle, another historian
who has spent a lifetime studying the James boys. Thirty-two
people died as a result, including 15 gang members and four Pinkerton
They made off with an estimated half-million
dollars, a fortune back in those days, says Settle, retired chairman of
the University of Tulsa's history department.
Probably their most infamous robbery occured in
September 1876, when James and his boys hit the First National Bank of
Northfield, Minn. It was their first venture into a Northern
town, and their last.
Unknown to James, word had spread through Northfield that the gang was headed there.
The robbery began falling apart when cashier Joseph
Heywood wouldn't open the safe. He couldn't actually.
"It has a timed lock. It can't be opened," Heywood exclaimed.
"That's a lie," Jesse shouted as he belted Heywood on the head with the butt of his six-shooter.
Things were going wrong outside, as well. A
Swedish man, attracted by the commotion, started walking toward the
bank. He was told to go away, but didn't understand English and
plodded ahead. They shot him down.
Word quickly spread through the town that the
robbery was in progress, and people started reaching for rifles and
shotguns. Gunfire erupted. Without a cent, the gang made a
break for it.
Three gang members -- Clell Miller, William Stiles
and Charlie Pitts -- were gunned down. Cole, Bob and Jim Younger
were wounded and captured.
Only Jesse and Frank got away unharmed.
News of the fiasco spread through Missouri quickly
and boiled over in the press. Republican papers vehemently
attacked the Jameses and chastised Missouri law enforcement officials
for failing repeatedly to capture them.
The St. Louis Globe-Democrat thanked Minnesota for
going "what Missouri could have done -- but to her shame, did not do --
10 years ago."
The Kansas City Journal didn't look at it quite that
way. It pointed, instead, to the gang members' "cool and
Settle and others believe it was for a far more
wordly reason that Jesse was able to live as he did and never get
"The descriptions people would give of him were so
wildly inconsistent that lawmen never were really sure what he looked
like," Settle says.
He would take up residence in a new town under the
alias Tom Howard. After Northfield, for example, he and Frank
moved to Nashville, became grain dealers and lived in a rather high
No one knows it it was because they ran out of
money, or because they got a strong hankering to return to the line of
work at which they were best, but on Oct. 8, 1879, Jesse and Frank held
up a Chicago and Alton train at Glendale, Mo.
In July of 1881, they held up a Chicago, Rock Island
and Pacific train near Winston, Mo., and in the process killed the
conductor and a passenger.
Jesse's career ended two months later at Blue Cut. Seven months later it would be his life.
If any one thing marked Jesse Woodson James
indelibly into American history, it was the way he died. He may
have had his detractors, but even they could not condone Bob Ford's
action and the suspected bargain he had struck with Gov. Thomas
"Such a cry of horror and indignation is thundering
over the land," wrote John Edwards, editor of the Sedalia Democrat and
a fervent James supporter, "that if a single one of the miserable
assassins had either manhood, conscience or courage, he would go, as
another Judas, and hang himself."
The Kansas City Times recently published a story
saying the U. S. Postal Service rejected a proposal to print a Jesse
James commemorative stamp because Jesse was notorious, not famous.
Don't dare say that about Jesse, wrote a man from
Liberty, the Clay County seat. "Infamous as he might have been,
he's famous here today."
"It's the psychology of the American people," says
Settle. "We who live under authority, somehow idolize those who