|Jesse James in 1876|
At seventeen, James left his native Missouri to fight as a Confederate guerilla in the American Civil War as part of Quantrill's Raiders, participating in raids in Kansas. He once killed eight men in a single day. After the war, he returned to his home state and lead one of history's most notorious outlaw gangs. He was wounded while surrendering at the end of the war, and later claimed to have been forced into outlawry because his family had been persecuted in the war.
With his brother Frank James and several other ex-Confederates, including Cole Younger and his brothers, the James gang robbed their way across the Western frontier targeting banks, trains, stagecoaches, and stores from Iowa to Texas. Eluding even the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, the gang escaped with thousands of dollars. James is believed to have carried out the first daylight bank robbery in peacetime, stealing $60,000 from a bank in Liberty, Missouri.
Despite their criminal and often violent acts, James and his partners were much adored. Journalists, eager to entertain Easterners with tales of a wild West, exaggerated and romanticized the gang's heists, often casting James as a contemporary Robin Hood. While James did harass railroad executives who unjustly seized private land for the railways, modern biographers note that he did so for personal gain--his humanitarian acts were more fiction than fact.
On September 7, 1876, the James gang attempted to rob a bank in Northfield, Minnesota. The townspeople returned fire, and all of the members of the gang except for Frank and Jesse James were killed, wounded or captured.
Jesse James had married his own first cousin, named Zerelda after his mother, after a nine-year courtship. They had two children, Jesse Edwards and Mary. She and Frank James' wife tried to get the brothers to take on a more normal life, and with a $10,000 reward on his head, Jesse and his wife moved to St. Joseph, Missouri to hide out, where he lived under the assumed name of Tom Howard and rented a house for $14 a month.
In April 1882, Jesse James recruited Robert and Charles Ford to help him rob the Platte City bank. While James stood on a chair in his home in St. Joseph to straighten and dust a picture, the Ford brothers drew their guns. Robert Ford's shot hit James in the back of the head, ending his outlaw days for good. Ford hoped to claim the $10,000 offered for James's capture but received only a fraction of the reward and was charged with murder. He did, however, secure himself a place in Western outlaw lore which lives on in literature, song, and film.
James' 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 Ford brothers were sentenced to hang but were pardoned by the governor of Missouri. Charles Ford committed suicide two years later, and Robert Ford was killed in a bar room brawl in Creede, Colorado, in 1892.
Rumors have persisted that Ford did not kill James, but someone else. Some stories say he lived in Guthrie, Oklahoma as late as 1948, and a man named J. Frank Dalton, who claimed to be Jesse James, died in Granbury, Texas in 1951 at the age of 103. Some stories claim the real recipient of Ford's bullet was a man named Charles Bigelow, reported to have been living with James' wife at the time.
The body buried in Missouri as Jesse James was exhumed in 1995 and DNA analysis gave a 99.7% probability that it was Jesse James. A court order was granted in 2000 to exhume and test Dalton's body, but the wrong body was exhumed.