Stormy Life for Outlaws Mother
K. C. Times (July 16, 1971)

The writer, a resident of Independence and a distant relative of Zerelda James, mother of Frank and Jesse James, drew from family records and letters in his research for the following article.

by Earle R. Thomason

    At the age of 16, Zerelda Cole fell in love with 23-year-old Robert James, a Baptist ministerial student attending Georgetown College in Kentucky.

    Zerelda's relatives and her guardian opposed the marriage because she was not of age, and they doubted Robert's ability to support her.  However, all objections were overcome when Robert obtained a cosigner and gave a bond of 50 pounds of tobacco to seal the marriage contract.  They were married Dec. 28, 1841. (This marriage contract is on display at the James Farm near Kearney).
    Robert and Zerelda came to Missouri after his graduation and obtained a farm near that of Zerelda's mother and stepfather (known henceforth as the James farm).  Many unforeseen events were to transpire here.  Robert organized several Baptist churches and traveled from church to church ministering with Zerelda accompanying him.  Four children were born -- Alexander Franklin (Frank); Robert, who lived only a month; Jesse Woodson (Jesse) and Susie.
    In his travels as a minister, Mr. James spent much time in Liberty, the county seat of Clay County.  Realizing the need for a fundamental Christian school, he was instrumental in establishing William Jewell College.  Soon after this Mr. James joined a covered-wagon caravan of gold seekers, as chaplain, and was on his way to California in the famous Gold Rush.  He hoped to strike it rich and provide a better living for his family, but lost his life in the venture.

    Robert's death left Zerelda with the responsibility of supporting her three children.  Times were rough, and two years later she married a neighbor, Benjamin Simms.  He disliked her boys, Frank and Jesse, and the marriage was near the breaking point when he died.  Zerelda was a woman of great courage and devotion to her children, and she continued to carry on and provide for them.


    Two marriages, with their accompanying trials, did not dissuade her from another.  After several months, she married Dr. Reuben Samuel from Kentucky, who was a good father to her children and their own, and this marriage was a success from the start.  Four children were born of this union - Sallie, John, Fannie and ill-fated Archie.

    Zerelda, with motherly pride, watched her sons, Frank and Jesse, grow to manhood.  Frank was slow and calculating of speech and somewhat more studious than his brother, Jesse who had a more dashing manner and a quick temper like his mother.  They attended Pleasant Grove School nearby, as did other children of the neighborhood.  Zerelda was a devout Christian and insisted that her family attend church each Sunday in Kearney.

    At home Frank and Jesse helped with the farm work, but each had his own horse and learned to ride and shoot with both revolver and rifle at an early age, which was the custom of the times.

    Meanwhile tension was growing between the North and South, with the greatest hatred of the entire nation concentrated along the Kansas-Missouri border.

    Zerelda and Dr. Samuel taught the boys loyalty to the South, and the stories they heard of the Jayhawker atrocities made their blood boil and filled them with the burning desire to retaliate.  When the Civil War started, Frank, at 18, enlisted in the Confederate army of Gen. Sterling Price and fought in the battle of Wilson Creek near Springfield, Mo.
    On his return home he was arrested by Union officials and placed in jail, but Zerelda pleaded for his release.  Frank was given his freedom when he took the Union oath, but he did not keep it.  He soon joined Quantrill's forces and later took part in Quantrill's notorious raid on Lawrence, Kan.

Attack by Soldiers

    While Frank was away, a group of Union soldiers, full of hatred, came to the James farm one morning.  They decided to hang Dr. Samuel.  They tied a rope around his neck, strung him up to the limb of a tree in the yard and left hurriedly to look for Jesse.  Zerelda rushed from the house, cut the rope and finally revived him.  The soldiers found 15-year-old Jesse working in the field and beat him unmercifully.  They threatened to kill him when they returned.

    Zerelda dressed Jesse's and Dr. Samuel's wounds and cared for them.  Both soon recovered, and their lives became more dangerous.  These brutal acts caused Jesse to decide to leave home and join Quantrill's forces, as he was too young to enlist in the Confederate army.

    A few days later the Union soldiers returned to torture Jesse and possibly kill Dr. Samuel, as they had discovered he survived their attempt to hang him, but fortunately both were away from home.  In their rage at not finding Jesse and Dr. Samuel, they arrested Zerelda, took her to St. Joseph, Mo., and kept her confined in jail for two weeks.

    After Zerelda returned home the Unionists became more oppressive and placed an even closer watch upon her, Dr. Samuel and Jesse.  However, Jesse slipped away and joined one of Quantrill's bands under the leadership of "Bloody Bill" Anderson.

    Jesse was home on a visit when the war ended in 1865.  He started for Lexington, Mo., to surrender, but was attacked by a group of Union soldiers and shot three times.  Although wounded severely, he escaped from them, and friends hid him and helped him return home where he was nursed by Zerelda and Dr. Samuel.

    The war was over, but the Unionists were very bitter toward the James family.  The Jameses had many friends, but these, too, were watched and harassed.  In this hostile environment, Jesse continued to grow weaker until Zerelda and Dr. Samuel decided to take him to another state.  They boarded a Missouri River steamboat and took him up river to Rulo, Neb., where they made new friends, and Dr. Samuel started to practice medicine.

    They were treated well in Rulo, but Jesse did not improve and begged to be taken back home to the James farm in Missouri.  After a few weeks they returned home, and Jesse felt better.

    Hostilities began to lessen, and Zerelda was happy with her family for a short time.  Frank came home and helped his stepfather with the farm work, and Jesse was soon able to be up, but one of his wounds did not heal completely for several months.  Zerelda and Dr. Samuel wanted the boys to attend church with them, but Frank refused to go.  Jesse was interested and was soon singing in the choir with other young people his age, which pleased his mother.

    After having a part in so much fighting, seeing so much bloodshed, and being imbued with so much hatred, it was difficult for Frank and Jesse to calm down and get rid of their ill feelings.  The Unionists had stolen their horses and harness.  This increased their anger and made farming difficult and boring.

    Their pent-up ill feelings now began to be centered upon banks and railroads -- banks, because they charged exorbitant rates of interest and often foreclosed hastily on homes and farms and took them away from the borrowers by underhanded means, and railroads, because they used trickery many times to obtain the right-of-way for their tracks, and then refused to pay the farmers for their livestock killed by the trains.  Incidentally, contrary to some accounts, no railroad survey was ever made across the James farm.

    Against Zerelda's wishes, Frank began to stir about and meet with a few of his former comrades who had served with him in Quantrill's forces.  Some of these men were rough characters and did not want to settle down and lead normal lives.  As they talked, their resentment against banks was fanned into flame, and the idea of turning to bank-robbing was born.  They persuaded Frank to go with them and, on Feb. 13, 1886, robbed the Clay County Savings Bank in Liberty.  This was the first bank robbery in the United States.  Later Frank induced Jesse to join him and they, with others, participated in numerous bank, train and stagecoach robberies in several states.

    During the next 16 years Frank and Jesse lived hazardous lives.  They married and traveled about under assumed names with their wives and children when possible, but found time to visit Zerelda occassionally at the farm.  She always welcomed them with open arms.  To her, they were her "good boys" and were innocent of the accusations made against them, which were true ...sometimes.

    As Frank's and Jesse's unlawful activities increased, several large rewards were offered for their arrest and conviction.  They were hunted by state and local officials and private detectives, but never captured.  My paternal grandfather's cousin, Capt. John Thomason, of the Confederate army, was the first sheriff elected in Clay County after the war ended.  He, with his son, Oscar, as deputy, made several unsuccessful trips from Liberty to the James farm to arrest Frank and Jesse.  Thus two members of my father's family were trying to capture the James boys, while my mother's family was more or less in sympathy with them on account of their mistreatment, but did not uphold their breaking of the law.

    At this time the search for the James boys was stepped up, and Pinkerton detectives joined in the hunt.  On receiving a tip that Frank and Jesse were home visiting Zerelda, a group of these detectives crept up stealthily to the James home one dark night and surrounded it.

    They carried a bomb to throw into the house, hoping to flush Frank and Jesse out, not seeming to care if they injured innocent members of the family sleeping peacefully.  They lighted the fuse, broke a window and threw the bomb inside with tragis results.

    The crashing nose awakened the family, and Zerelda seized a shovel and heroically pushed the sputtering bomb toward the fireplace to get it as far away as possible from the other members of the family, but made a great sacrifice in doing so.  The bomb exploded, tearing off her right hand above the wrist, and a part of the bomb casing penetrated little 8-year-old Archie Samuel's side.  Dr. Samuel bound up Zerelda's arm and tried to stop the flow of blood from Archie's wound, but to no avail.  Archie died a few hours later.  The family was grief-stricken.

    This brutal act did not accomplish the results expected, for Frank and Jesse were not at home.  Seeing the damage they had done, the detectives did not offer to help the family, but sneaked away silently.  The James family offered no resistance, but a Negro boy living with them found a rifle and shot at the detectives, mortally wounding one of them.  It did accomplish turning the tide of public sentiment over the state in favor of the James boys and their family.

    Zerelda's arm healed, and  she had a combination knife and fork made, which she used with her left hand to eat her food.  However her sorrows were not over.  Two years went by and then Jesse was assassinated in St. Joseph, Mo., by "Bob" Ford.  In great grief Zerelda traveled to St. Joseph to identify the body and bring it, together with Jesse's wife and children, back to Kearney.

    Many relatives and friends positively verified the identification, although several imposters have appeared since that time.  Zerelda buried Jesse in the southwest corner of the yard at the James farm home near the tree on which Dr. Samuel was hanged. (Later the body was moved to the Mount Olivet Cemetery in Kearney where Zerelda and other members of her family are buried.)

    After Jesse's death, Frank surrendered and was given two fair trials, in which Gen. Joseph Shelby and otehr promient men testified in his behalf.  He was found not guilty on both counts, and this gave him his long-desired freedom.  Zerelda was elated, and there was a happy homecoming when Frank visited her.  Frank then tried several types of work and appeared in a show for several months but, as he liked farming best of all, bought a farm in Oklahoma.

    Zerelda remained on the farm and, as a means to livelihood, charged sight-seers a fee for showing them through the James home.  Dr. Samuel became very feeble and died in 1908.  Zerelda became more frail and led a lonesome life the next three years, but enjoyed a visit now and then with Frank's family in Oklahoma.

    In 1911 Zerelda wanted to see Frank and his family once more. She made the trip and enjoyed her visit but, on the way home, died on the train.  She was buried in the family lot in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Kearney, beside her husband, Dr. Samuel, and son Jesse, where she rests in peace.

Zerelda Samuel
Jan. 29, 1825
Feb. 10, 1911