The Story of Jesse James

Looking Back with Lloyd Mathews, original publish date unknown

Back in the good old days, (and by that I mean any time prior to 1910) the American people didn’t have hundreds of sports heroes to worship. They had to be satisfied with anything they could find, because it is a historical truth that we are a nation of hero worshipers.

The wild west and Midwest had a generous supply of gangsters in those days, and they became the heroes of the many outlaw gangs. Missouri brothers Jesse and Frank James were probably the most notorious. They terrorized several states in the fifteen years of lawless activity following the War Between the States, and they monopolized a lot of newsprint.

The brothers fought as bushwackers for the Confederacy and after serving time in prison for war crimes they were bitter, and seemed to want to get revenge at all cost.

It was a boom time in the Midwest and banks were handling a lot of money, and the James gang went for it.

Jesse and his gang, which numbered anywhere from two to a dozen, robbed their first bank at Liberty, Missouri, in 1866. The loot was $60,000, quite a large sum for that time. A nineteen-year college student was shot dead in the street following the robbery, as the bandits celebrated. From that day on, with ruthless daring they got their thrills and many dollars.

Sometimes they would send an advance notice when they were going to rob a bank, and other times they would hang around after a job, bragging to the citizens about it.

Even though they killed many people, including some children, the public seemed to always be on their side. Newspapers would write stories about their daring and bravery without even recognizing the death and suffering they had left behind.

Much of their popularity seemed to grow out of the Robin Hood image. They claimed that they took from the rich and gave to the poor, which was partly true. They actually took everyone’s money and many times killed and wounded the poor, along with anyone else who got in their way. A couple of incidents in the outlaws’ adventures show they did practice the Robin Hood philosophy.

Late in their careers they started robbing trains. While taking any gold shipments, they always took their little bags around and collected any valuables that the passengers had. The outlaw who passed the bag always inspected the passengers’ hands. Jesse said if the hands were rough and calloused, they were the hands of a worker, and he would exempt them from donating, but if the hands were soft that indicated that the person was a lady or gentleman of high degree and they were forced to contribute.

On another occasion Jesse and the gang were resting in the home of an elderly widow. While there they learned that she was very distressed because the banker was coming that day to foreclose on the mortgage, and she indicated that she would be without a place to live.

Jesse gave the woman the money needed, instructing her to have the banker sign a receipt marking the debt paid in full. He and the gang left and camped in a nearby field. Surely enough, the banker arrived on schedule, and the transaction was completed. As he rode away with the thousand dollars or so, he was waylayed by the James gang, who took the cash and rode off into the orange hue of the western sky.

Jesse’s deceased father was a Baptist preacher, and at one time Jesse was temporarily converted, but it didn’t take. He soon went back to his rowdy ways.

The Railroad Company hired the world famous Pinkerton Detective Agency, confident that the Jesse James Gang would soon be eliminated. The famous detectives failed, but 19-year-old Robert Ford, no doubt tempted by the $10,000 reward offered, determined that he would be the man who would rid the world of Jesse James. He spent a year instituting his well-contrived plan first gaining Jesse’s confidence, then his friendship. He became sort of a member of the family.

In the spring of 1882 Jesse presented his newfound friend, Robert Ford, a silver-mounted, pearl-handled Colt 45 pistol.

On a Saturday night soon thereafter, Jesse was hanging a picture on the wall of his temporary home in St. Joseph, Missouri, on April 3, 1892. Robert Ford sat on a chair across the room, and when Jesse turned his back to hang the picture Ford lifted the shiny new pistol and shot his friend in the back.

To the grave with Jesse went the secret of where much of the cash and gold the gang accumulated over fifteen years of bank and train robberies was hidden. They hid treasure all the way from Missouri to Texas. A large part probably remains hidden to this day.

“Oh the people in the west, when they heard of Jesse’s death, they wondered how he came to die. It was Ford’s pistol ball that brought him tumbling from the wall, and it laid poor Jesse down to die.”

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