Jesse James : A Western Legend
Las Vegas Review-Journal, April 4, 1982.
Editor's note: Who shot Jesse
James? Bob Ford killed him, in the back, the dirty rat. One
hundred years after James' death, folk still recall the stories about
the outlaw antihero. Now there's been an organization created to
promote scholarly research on his life.
BY MARK PETERSON
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. Editorials, too.
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."
Other lamented the death of a man whom they
considered to be good, a man whose outlaw roots grew from the days he
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."
If Jesse James had not existed, he probably would have been invented.
"He wasn't your common variety outlaw," says
Perry. "He had unmatched style, and he came along at the right
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.
"Here was this little man striking out against these
despised institutions," Perry says. "Some people actually were
proud to be robbed by Jesse."
During one train robbery, he stole a professor's
clothes, Perry says. "The professor was quoted as saying he was
glad, if he had to be robbed, that it was done by a 'first class'
robber, one of national reputation."
"Because there were so many stories about him,
"Perry adds, "he may have believed what the newspapers were saying, and
tried to live up to the image being perpetrated. He just made
He made good copy all right, literally.
"He'd write news releases about some robbery and
then send them out to the papers," Perry says. "But it would be
about a robbery that hadn't even happened yet. And then he'd pull
it off. No problem."
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 laws 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
They made off with an estimated half-million dollars, a fortune back in those days.