The James Boys
Missouri's Favorite Outlaws
Midwest Roto  August 1975

by Alice Kerr

    On the 28th day of July, 1881, Governor Thomas T. Crittenden, State of Missouri, issued a proclamation of a $5,000.00 reward for the "arrest and delivery" of Jesse and Frank James and an additional $5,000.00 for the "conviction" of either of the brothers.

    This proclamation was to supercede all prior notices concerning the famous outlaws and after this order was released, there was technically no price on the heads of the brothers.  But the story which circulated through 'Jesse James Country' the following spring said there was a price and the people in that territory thought their Democratic Governor had acted very undemocratically toward their favorite outlaw.

    Frank surrendered to Governor Crittenden in October, 1882 and no evidence linking him to any robbery or murder was presented in his trials that followed and he died a poor but peaceful man at the old James homestead near Kearney on February 18, 1915 at the age of seventy two.  But Jesse was less fortunate than his brother as six months before Frank's surrender, Jesse was shot in the back of the head at his home in St. Joseph on April 3, 1882.

    After he accepted lodging in his home and ate breakfast at his table, Robert Ford, an associate and so called friend picked up the 45 calibre Smith and Wesson Jesse had given him as a gift and when Jesse's head was turned and he was unarmed, murdered him in cold blood.

    This betrayal caused a clamor of alarm throughout the country and sympathizing Missourians firmly believed that Governor Crittenden had made a secret pact with the Ford boys to kill Jesse in return for reward money, immunity and a pardon for their friend and former gang member, Dick Liddell.

    Bob Ford and Liddell had recently murdered Jesse's cousin, Robert Woodson (Wood) Hite in a row over the distribution of the loot from one of their train robberies.  It was the fear of what Jesse would do to Bob if he found out about the murder of his favorite cousin that prompted Bob to commit his bloody act in the presence of Jesse's wife and two small children.

    Although Governor Crittenden publicly denied the claim and pointed out his proclamation as evidence, the majority of the citizens of Missouri felt he had plotted to have Jesse killed to bolster his political career.

    After a St. Joseph jury sentenced Bob and Charley Ford to hang for first degree murder, the Governor gave the boys a full pardon, a promise which Bob testified had been made prior to the murder.

    This was too much for the outraged Missourians to believe and the Governor lost his nomination to the Democratic National Convention in 1884 and never held a political post thereafter. 

    The body of Wood Hite was discovered shortly after Jesse's death.  He had been shot while in Martha Bolton's house near Richmond, Missouri and buried in her back yard.  Martha was a sister to the Ford boys and Dick Liddell had been hiding out at Martha's farm.

    Bob Ford was promptly arrested for the murder of Wood Hite and indicted by a Ray County grand jury on May 1, 1882.  It has been written time and again that Governor Crittenden pardoned Bob for this crime also but this is untrue.

    Because of adverse public sentiment over the cowardly way Jesse was "done away with," the trial was moved, on a change of venue, to the Clinton County Courthouse in Plattsburg, Missouri, a small town located about half way between Kearney and St. Joseph.  On October 9th, 1882, testifying began.

    Bob's story was that Liddell and Hite were arguing in the dining room shortly after breakfast and began firing at each other.  Martha's two children were in the room and Bob shot at the two men to protect his sister's children from harm. When the smoke cleared away, Wood Hite lay dead on the floor.

    A jury of "responsible and respectable" citizens of Clinton County found Bob not guilty and he went his merry way to the wild west town of Crede, Colorado where he opened up a gambling saloon and was married.  He was shot to death, while unarmed, on June 8, 1892 in a fight with an Irishman named Ed Kelly.
    Nor was Charles Ford a free man for very long as a Ray County farmer identified him as being the person who had robbed him at gun point of forty dollars in the fall of 1881 and Charles was arrested October 3, 1882 and charged with robbery.

    This trial was also moved to Clinton County as the Fords still maintained that the citizens of their home county were prejudiced against them.  The trial continued for sometime.  Those who knew him then have said that Charley was a sensitive man and he had never been himself after joining his brother in betraying Jesse.  Unlike his treacherous brother, he carried his guilt with him daily and it hurt him deeply to be shunned and ridiculed as a traitor and a coward by his neighbors and acquaintances.

    When Charley failed to appear at the continuance of his trial, his family was contacted and it was officially recorded in Plattsburg on December 11, 1884 that he was deceased.  In despair and morose, he had taken his own life by a bullet through the heart.

    Charley's case is mentioned later in the Clinton County files as it seems his bondsman tried to reclaim the money he had posted at the beginning of Charley's trial.  The judge would not accept the word of the Ford family and issued a statement that if the bondsman wanted his money returned, he would have to produce a body.  Since Charley had been dead and buried quite a while by this time, it appeared that the bondsman thought it would not be worth the 'trouble' or else the family objected.  At any rate, the body was not exhumed and the money was not refunded.

    Because of his turning 'state's evidence' at the time of Jesse's death and after he testified against Frank James at one of his trials, Dick Liddel was released from prison and his citizenship restored.  He died a short while later.

    If there was any real reward money, it has remained a secret throughout the years and it is not known if the Fords realized any "blood money" for their dastardly deed.  Many Missourians, at the time, accused the Governor of receiving large sums from the railroads for his "expenses" in ridding the state of Jesse.

    The now famous proclamation was the last official edict issued concerning Frank and Jesse James but it was also a fall of the curtain for Tom Crittenden.  Today, more than ninety three years after its issue, copies of the poster are popular as decorative items, and along with other reminders of the James legend, are framed and displayed in stores, restaurants, and offices throughout the land.  When glued to a piece of old barn siding and varnished over, it becomes a decoupaged delight.

    Three names stand out in bold print on the proclamation but very few persons reading the notice today go beyond the names of FRANK JAMES AND JESSE W. JAMES, and the name of the man who signed the paper at the Missouri capitol building almost a century ago lies buried in the history books while the embellished legend of the James boys of Missouri lives on.