“Ain’t gonna hang no picture, ain’t gonna hang no picture frame.
Well, I might look like Robert Ford, but I feel just like a Jesse James.”
(entry from Missouri Legends)
The legend of Jesse James is famous around the world. His life has been captured in movies, books, songs, and TV shows, including the Brady Bunch! His early years, however, were exactly opposite of the life he would assume as a killer and outlaw. His family had deep roots in the Baptist Church, even taking part in the founding of one of the most prestigious private universities in the Midwest. He is known as a brutal killer, but the start of his life of crime started with noble intentions, fighting for a cause he believed in.
THE EARLY YEARS
Jesse Woodson James was born on September 5, 1887, near the town of Kearney, not far from Kansas City. His father was a Baptist minister and very active in the community. Jesse had a strict religious upbringing in the church, and religion was a major part of his daily life. His family was so ingrained in the Baptist Church that his father even helped found William Jewell College in Liberty.
He and his older brother, Frank, spent their early years on the family farm where they learned to live off the land. When the Civil War broke out, the family joined up with Confederate soldiers, a decision that laid the foundation that would impact the rest of their lives.
RISE TO FAME
The Civil War pitted family against family and brother against brother. But in the case of the James clan, both brothers believed in the Southern cause and joined up with like-minded fighters. Frank James took off to fight with Cole Younger and his Confederate guerillas, while seventeen-year-old Jesse James joined up with Bloody Bill Anderson’s band of fighters.
Legend has it that Jesse was shot and injured by Federal soldiers while he was trying to surrender near the end of the war. That action stirred up plenty of resentment in the young man and is likely one of the key incidents that led him to become an outlaw. The hatred ran even deeper as he began to feel that his family was under constant attack for standing up for the cause they believed in.
SHOW ME “INFAMY”
Jesse and Frank were reunited after their gangs dissolved at the conclusion of the war. Missouri was right in the middle of the conflict, with the state divided between the North and the South. The South’s surrender led to tensions among citizens in all parts of the state, where many Confederate sympathizers say they were persecuted long after the war was over. This led the James brothers to take drastic steps that made an impact on American history like few others.
The outlaw career for Jesse officially began in 1866 when he and Frank joined with eight other men to rob a bank in Liberty (not far from where his
father founded the Baptist college). That robbery was just the beginning. Soon, their string of violent hold-ups spanned from Iowa to Alabama, and Missouri to Texas. The group became more brazen and more famous with every robbery as they turned their attention to robbing stores, stagecoaches, and even people on the street.
The gang’s wild times began to wind down after they were decimated during a botched robbery in Minnesota. Jesse and his brother were the only two of the gang who escaped the First National Bank, where the rest were captured or killed. The brothers regrouped with a new gang, only to have Missouri Governor Thomas Crittenden offer a large reward for their capture.
Jesse’s wild life came to a violent but unceremonious end when one of his new henchmen shot him in the back of the head as he hung a picture on the wall of his home in St. Joseph for a $10,000 reward. His brother was captured a short time later and tried in numerous states on a number of charges. Each time, Frank was found not guilty. He spent the rest of his life in solitude on the family’s farm and died in the same room in which he was born.
Even though Jesse James was wanted for murders and robberies throughout much of his adult life, many people in Missouri saw him as a heroic figure. There were large groups of people who even said his actions were justified because of their allegiance to his causes and the Southern resistance.
*James’s epitaph, selected by his mother, read:
“IN LOVING MEMORY OF MY BELOVED SON, MURDERED BY A TRAITOR AND COWARD WHOSE NAME IS NOT WORTHY TO APPEAR HERE.”
*The body buried in Missouri as Jesse James was exhumed in 1995 and DNA analysis gave a 99.7 percent match to Jesse James, which largely put an end to the legend that his death was staged.
*Actors who have portrayed James include fellow Missourian Brad Pitt, Roy Rogers, George Reeves, Lawrence Tierney, Clayton Moore, Audie Murphy, Macdonald Carey, Lawrence Tierney, Robert Wagner, Christopher Lloyd, Kris Kristofferson, and Rob Lowe.