Jesse James: The Baddest Outlaw of Them All

May 2, 2013 - by Robert Walsh - 0 Comments

 May 2, 2013

 “Surrender had played out for good with me…” Jesse James.

When the Ford brothers assassinated Jesse James on April 3, 1882, the longest-running outlaw saga in American history was over.

 by Robert Walsh

Confederate bushwhacker, desperate outlaw, bank robber, political terrorist, gang leader, multiple murderer, folk hero. Jesse James was all of them. One thing he wasn’t (as much as his latter-day apologists like John Newman Edwards would like you to think) was some sort of Robin Hood who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. While he made great play of continuing to fight for the Confederate cause (when he wasn’t claiming to represent poor, dispossessed Missourians against rich Northern carpetbaggers) he was out for himself.

There was certainly an element of political thought behind his actions (Northern banks and businesses often being prime targets) but most of what he stole stayed in his pocket and, while violence was always going to be a part of his life and career, he also killed even when there was no need for bloodshed.

To understand Jesse James one needs to understand the context into which he was born. Jesse was born in Clay County, Missouri in 1847. Clay County was by far the most pro-Southern county in Missouri, its people and its ways having earned it the nickname “Little Dixie.”

The Kansas-Missouri Border Wars erupted around the issue of slavery and emancipation during the 1850s. Missourians could keep slaves (the James family themselves owned a few) while Kansas outlawed slavery. Even in the 1850s, years before the Civil War began in 1861, pro-and-anti-slavery groups organized themselves into armed bands, raiding and fighting long before the Confederacy even existed. Jesse grew up amid a climate of political violence where the bullet often outweighed the ballot box. Guerilla groups such as the pro-Southern “Bushwhackers” and pro-Northern “Jayhawkers” and the largely-criminal “Redlegs” (named for the red gaiters they wore) routinely fought running battles during the period now known as “Bleeding Kansas.”

When the Civil War began, Jesse wasn’t old enough at first to join the Bushwhackers he so admired. His older brother Frank began riding with infamous Confederate William Quantrill (leader of “Quantrill’s Raiders”) but Quantrill turned Jesse down, stating that 16 years old was simply too young. A few months later rival Confederate William “Bloody Bill” Anderson wasn’t so fussy. Jesse had found himself a particularly unpleasant mentor.

Bloody Bill was well named. He hated Yankees with such passion that he collected the scalps of his victims during raids and skirmishes. He was brutal, fanatical, and utterly indifferent to killing anyone who opposed him and, while the perfect mentor for a wannabe guerilla, he couldn’t have been any worse for an impressionable teenager already noted by Anderson and others as a more-than-capable fighter. Jesse having been born into violence and death, Anderson’s influence could only have been deeply negative.

Atrocities were common on both sides. Bushwhackers, Jayhawkers and Redlegs routinely conducted reprisals against each other and, seeing as there were increasingly few official Confederate troops in Missouri, reprisals by Jayhawkers were often against civilians they believed had ties to known or suspected Bushwhackers. The infamous Redlegs were nominally pro-Union, but in practice they tended towards preying on innocent civilians as much as Confederate sympathizers.

The James family was not exempt from reprisals. Jesse was still living on the family farm near Kearney – not far from St. Joseph, Missouri – when Jayhawkers arrived. They beat Jesse and tortured his stepfather Joseph, suspecting rightly that they were well aware of Frank’s activities with Quantrill. Despite Jesse being severely beaten and his stepfather partially hanged, neither gave anything away. Perhaps not surprisingly, Jesse too now held a lasting grudge against pro-Northern forces and it was then that he sought out Anderson and joined his band of Bushwhackers.

Guerilla Wars: Raiding as a Way of Life

The guerilla war conducted in Missouri was especially personal. In Missouri almost everybody knew everybody else’s affiliations and so former friends and even family members often found themselves on opposite sides, making the fighting especially personal and especially vicious. Frank took an active role in the notorious”Lawrence Massacre” in 1863, where Union troops and pro-Union civilians were killed en masse while Jesse was involved in the equally notorious “Centralia Massacre” in 1864, where captured Union troops and civilians aboard a hijacked train were beaten, shot and, in some cases, scalped.

By late 1864official Confederate forces had withdrawn from Missouri. Frank was still riding with Quantrill and Jesse was firmly established with Anderson, at least until Anderson’s death after being ambushed by Union cavalry. Anderson’s death made Jesse’s grudge even deeper. He swore vengeance.

Towards the end of the Civil War, Jesse also suffered the second of two life-threatening war wounds when he was shot through the lung by a Union cavalryman. The fact that he was actually trying to surrender doubtless did little to cool his grudge.

Life as a Bushwhacker was perfect training for aspiring outlaws. By the end of the war, Jesse was well-used to life spent perpetually on the run, always outnumbered, outgunned, headed straight from one fight into another and he became fully accustomed to raiding as a lifestyle, killing as a regular event and the possibility of dying being an occupational hazard. His being several years younger than Frank probably accounts for his more aggressive, hot-headed nature, making him more likely to start shooting when Frank might have acted differently in the same situations. Anderson’s malign influence at such a young age, coupled with Jesse having been born into a violent time and place, suggests that his becoming a full-time outlaw was predictable.

Reconstruction in Missouri

With the defeat of the Confederates in 1865, the James boys were forced into an oppressive way of life. Being former Bushwhackers they couldn’t vote, own property, run their own businesses or even preach in their own local churches and, perhaps most galling of all, were forced to swear an oath of allegiance to the Union. Part of Reconstruction in Missouri involved repressing former Confederate fighters and their sympathizers and the increasing dominance of Northern “carpetbaggers” who began sweepingaway old ideas and reshaping Missouri in the Northern image. The carpetbaggers began steadily pushing out long-held traditions, dominating commerce and business in the enforced absence of locals who ran things before the war and were often barred from doing so afterward for their Confederate sympathies. The pre-war way of life was being squeezed out of existence at the expense of many native Missourians and their former Northern enemies were squeezing by any means available.

Jesse chafed at such restrictions. Being made to feel like a second-class citizen in his own land was bad enough, but watching his old way of life destroyed to benefit outsiders (especially Northerners) was endlessly provocative to him. Between the Confederate surrender in April, 1865 and the start of Jesse’s outlaw career in 1866, the restrictions on former rebels and increasing dominance by Northern interests fuelled his resentment, stoking (so he always claimed) his desire to keep fighting for a cause already lost.

The James-Younger Gang

With these factors in mind, Jesse began recruiting former Bushwhackers into a fully fledged outlaw gang. First on his list was older brother Frank. After Frank, the James brothers recruited two of Frank’s fellow Quantrill Raiders, Bob and Cole Younger. Bob and Cole enlisted their brother Jim and once the gang heard of former “Bloody Bill”Anderson associate Arch Clements (an acquaintance of Jesse’s already running his own gang, fighting Union troops and conducting a series of armed robberies) they opted to ride with Clements. Other members came and went (Bill Chadwell, Clell Miller, Charlie Pitts, Bob and Charlie Ford among others), but the James and Younger brothers were always the nucleus around what became known as the “James-Younger Gang.”

After the death of Clements while fighting Union cavalry, the gang was led by Jesse, with the experienced, cooler heads of Frank James and Cole Younger an essential part of planning raids and ensuring the gang’s survival. Jesse also had a novel new target for armed robberies: banks. Outlaws of the day usually robbed trains and stagecoaches for payrolls and whatever they could take from passengers as banks were deemed too well protected, despite their undoubted assets. Indeed, the very first American bank robbery occurred during the Civil War when a man named Green earned himself $5,000 (and a hangman’s noose) after robbing a Massachusetts bank, murdering a cashier in the process. Before Jesse, banks were considered off-limits, after Jesse (and even today) they’re considered fair game.

It’s said that Jesse took a particular interest in banks because many banks were owned by rich Northern carpetbaggers or at least funded the carpetbaggers as they “reconstructed” the old South according to Northern ways and ideas. They seemed an especially attractive way to strike directly against Jesse’s old enemy even after the Civil War had ended. Setting aside the political statement of robbing banks, Jesse liked the large amounts of ready cash robbing banks provided.

The First Peacetime Daylight Bank Robbery in U.S. History

The first bank robbed by members of the James Gang was in Liberty, Missouri in early 1866. The target was the Clay County Savings Association (familiar turf for the James and Younger boys). It was the first peacetime, daylight bank robbery in American history and the bank had been funded by anti-slavery Republicans which possiblymade it especially appealing. There’s no firm evidence to confirm that either Jesse or Frank took part (eyewitness reports are conflicting and no physical evidence exists either) but what is widely believed is that the James brothers were at least involved in the planning, if not necessarily the robbery itself. A bystander, a student at William Jewell College (which, ironically, Jesse’s father helped found) was shot dead as the robbers escaped with nearly $4,000 in banknotes and gold.

The James-Younger Gang was firmly on its way and there was no turning back. The gang made the leap from Confederate guerillas to full-time outlaws who could expect long sentences at best and at worst either a professional hangman or a lynch mob. Fortunately for them, Clay County folk retained much sympathy for the defeated South and, being rural folk, were used to keeping local secrets from outsiders, especially Northerners. Even though many local people must have had at least some idea who the robbers were, nobody said anything and nobody was likely to either.

Oddly, for a supposedly pro-Confederate gang still clinging to the Southern cause, many of their robberies were of small local banks containing local money rather than that of the hated carpetbaggers. This being a time before bank robberies were insured by the Federal Government, robbing local banks was only likely to hurt local people and businesses which contradicts the myth of Jesse’s band being entirely politically motivated. Despite the Robin Hood myth so ably peddled by the gang’s apologists and supporters, especially journalist (and unofficial public relations wizard for the gang) John Newman Edwards, very little stolen money found its way from the banks of the rich into the pockets of the poor. Jesse might have believed that he was acting to represent the downtrodden Missourians and the defeated Confederacy (so might Edwards for that matter) but I’ve no doubt that Jesse fully understood the value of providing some kind of justification for his many crimes and that Edwards probably recognized the value of a widely read, long-running syndicated saga when he saw one.

Edwards and Jesse began to correspond viaa simple means, mainly the ordinary U.S. Postal Service. Jesse (an educated, well-read man) would supply intimate accounts of robberies, raids and killings (sprinkled liberally with pro-Confederate speechifying and self-justification) and Edwards (formerly a Confederate cavalryman) would polish the text, reaping the considerable professional rewards of almost-exclusive communication with Jesse James. With Edwards as his personal scribe, Jesse was becoming a star as his gang robbed trains, banks and stagecoaches, shooting its way out of trouble whenever the need arose. Jesse provided action and good copy and Edwards was always keen to return the favor by trying to generate good press, even though later examination suggests strongly that the gang didn’t deserve its reputation as avenging angels for the poor and dispossessed.

Murder at Gallatin – No Turning Back

The bank job that really made the gang’s name was at Gallatin, Missouri in December, 1869. The Daviess County Savings Association was run by former Union militia officer, Captain John Sheets. At least it was until Jesse’s gang robbed it and Jesse mistook Sheets for Union cavalry Captain Samuel Cox (killer of “Bloody Bill” Anderson) and promptly shot him dead.

The James gang then took a moderately large amount of cash before riding out, shooting its way through a posse and making a successful escape. The Gallatin job and the needless revenge murder of an innocent man put Jesse firmly on the front page of many a newspaper and now there really was no turning back. The James boys were wanted men, criminal pioneers (banks were still seen by most outlaws as off-limits) and now full-fledged outlaws with prices on their heads. The prices came courtesy of Missouri State Governor (and former Union Colonel) Thomas Crittenden, offering what was then the largest reward in Missouri history for their capture. The initial reward was $10,000 for Frank and Jesse, dead or alive. As their notoriety grew other gang members such as Cole Younger would also have bounties put on them.

Six months after the Gallatin robbery, John Newman Edwards wrote his first article in support of the gang, with Jesse as its public face. Over the next four years, the gang carried out a long series of robberies and a string of murders as it rode from town to town wreaking havoc as it went. In Iowa, Texas, Kansas and West Virginia the gang ripped through banks, stagecoaches and a Kansas City fairground. But in 1873 the gang made a fateful decision to attempt its first train robbery and it proved a huge mistake in the long term.

They blocked the Rock Island Line near Adair, Iowa, robbing the derailed train of around $3,000 in cash and gold. They disguised themselves wearing a potent symbol of Confederate defiance and white supremacy, the masks habitually worn by members of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan, founded by legendary Confederate cavalryman Nathan Bedford Forrest (who later quit when the Klan’s racism and violence became too virulent even for him), was formed shortly after the end of the Civil War in 1865 and had undergone repression when President Ulysses Grant used the Force Acts to suppress it. Certainly a potent political statement at a time when former Confederates were still as resentful as ever of Southern defeat and the Northerners then “reconstructing” the Old South in their own image.

Enter the Pinkerton Detective Agency

The robbery also caused the Adams Express Company (which had lost heavily as a result) to bring the Pinkerton Detective Agency into the hunt with the firm intention of ending the James Gang’s career one way or another. The involvement of the “Pinkerton men” (feared by outlaws nationwide) would prove fateful for the James brothers and especially for their family.

The gang started its private war with Allan Pinkerton by murdering one of his detectives, Joseph Whicher, in 1874. Whicher had tried to infiltrate the gang by posing as a field hand on a farm run by neighbors of Jesse’s parents. It wasn’t long before he was found dead with three bullets in his head and chest. Pinned over the chest wounds was a note bearing the words “Thus always to detectives.” Not long after the Whicher murder (which incensed Allan Pinkerton who took it as a personal challenge) two more agents were found dead. Captain Louis Lull and Detective John Boyle went looking for the Younger brothers and found them. Lull killed John Younger (who was only 15 years old) before Lull, Boyle and local Deputy Sheriff Daniels all died in the ensuing gunfight.

If Whicher’s death left Pinkerton furious, the deaths of Lull, Boyle and Daniels left him completely enraged. He swore to get the James brothers by any means necessary, legitimate or otherwise. His men raided the James family farm, tossing an incendiary device through a window in the dead of night. Jesse’s mother Zerelda lost an arm and his younger brother Archie died in the explosion and fire that destroyed the farm. Jesse’s father was also injured, but both his parents survived.

The raid was a costly public relations disaster for Pinkerton and the legality of his actions was at best highly debatable even for the 1870s. It also inflamed local opinion against carpet- bagging Yankees in general and Allan Pinkerton in particular. The “Robin Hood” myth of persecuted rebels that John Newman Edwards had started now became integral to Jesse’s life story, a pervasive myth even today. Pinkerton afterwards denied that the intention of the raid was arson, but biographer Ted Yeatman later unearthed one of Pinkerton’s letters in which Pinkerton clearly stated his intention was to “Burn the house down.” Pinkerton had taken what should have been a purely professional manhunt and made it a personal vendetta, much to the detriment of his own legacy and the hunt for the outlaws themselves.

Shortly after the raid the Missouri State Legislature narrowly voted down a bill openly praising the James brothers and offering them amnesty.

Now that former Confederates were once again allowed to hold political office and had regained their voting rights a bill limiting the size of rewards that the governor could offer was swiftly passed instead. It was intended to inhibit more tempting rewards being offered and thus provide some limited protection for the gang but, while the governor had his hands tied, there was no limit on rewards offered by private companies or individuals such as railroad barons or other carpetbaggers with an axe to grind.

The End of the James-Younger Gang

The next major raid by the James-Younger Gang was at Northfield in Minnesota. It was a disastrous failure and effectively spelt the end of the gang as it then stood. Minnesota was far from the gang’s usual hunting grounds, was in unfamiliar territory and the decision to raid the First National Bank caused much dissent between senior gang members. Jesse was happy to go on the raid; Frank James was skeptical, Cole Younger was openly unhappy and only went because his younger brother Bob refused to back out. The whole plan was only even considered at the suggestion of gang member Bill Chadwell, a Minnesota native who finally convinced the others to go along. Chadwell claimed Northfield was a soft target whose residents were never likely to put up much resistance. For the more politically-minded outlaws, the bank also had a carpetbagger as a major stockholder (former governor of Mississippi during Reconstruction, Adelbert Ames) and was said to be owned by former Union General Benjamin Butler.

Butler was a particularly hated Union figure known to residents of Baton Rouge as “Beast” Butler due to his harsh measures against the city’s residents during its occupation. He was also known as “Spoons” for his alleged habit of pilfering silverware from mansions captured during the Civil War. Butler wasn’t actually involved with the Northfield bank at all, but the gang didn’t know that. This lack of clarity was typical of the bad planning, poor information and glaring underestimation of Northfield’s population toput up far more of a fight than the gang expected.

To raise funds needed for the Northfield robbery, the gang robbed a train at Otterville, Missouri on its way north. They needed funds for horses, guns and food to sustain them on the way as the ride was so long and they’d be operating hundreds of miles from friendly territory with only Chadwell to guide them so they had to be totally self-sufficient.  Not only was the Northfield raid ill-conceived, poorly planned, lacking in local support, and based on inaccurate information, Chadwell, although from Minnesota, had never actually been to Northfield. He had only heard that the bank was rich enough to be worth the time, effort and risk required to rob it and in general was unworthy of a gang of seasoned outlaws. Plus, some gang members spent the morning before the robbery drinking rather than casing the bank properly. In short, everything was in place for a spectacular disaster and that’s exactly what the Northfield robbery was.

The gang assembled was a large one: Jesse and Frank James, Cole, Jim and Bob Younger, Charlie Pitts, Bill Chadwell and Clell Miller.Frank, Jesse and Bob Younger were to actually rob the bank, Cole Younger and Clell Miller would guard the bank from interference while the rearguard of Jim Younger, Bill Chadwell and Charlie Pitts would provide additional intimidation and firepower if required. An odd decision was that no local citizen was to be killed. All the gang members agreed to only shoot to wound opposition. The people of Northfield weren’t quite so discriminating.

All was ready for what would be the James-Younger Gang’s swansong as an active unit. At exactly 2p.m. Frank, Jesse and Bob Younger walked into the bank and from there everything went haywire. As Cole and Clell reached the bank they spotted none other than Adelbert Ames himself walking towards the bank, which proved more than a slight distraction all things considered.

Frank, Jesse and Cole headed inside the bank and found cashier Joseph Heywood, teller Alonzo Bunker and the bookkeeper Frank Wilcox. They quickly ordered the employees to line up against a wall. After identifying the cashier, Jesse demanded that Heywood open the safe. Heywood, playing for time, claimed the safe was on a time lock so it couldn’t be opened. The safe did have a time lock, but the lock hadn’t been set and so the safe could easily have been opened had the gang realized this. They didn’t, especially as Heywood made a great show of being unable to open the safe and bought enough time for Bunker to make his escape and alert the townsfolk, albeit taking a bullet in the shoulder from Clell Miller for his efforts.

Now the downfall of the James-Younger Gang began in earnest. Two Northfield citizens owned gun shops and began handing out guns and ammunition to anyone who wanted them and hadn’t already grabbed his own weapon, many locals having already picked up their own weapons and plenty of ammunition. Citizens began appearing in every vantage point they could find, on rooftops, in doorways, windows, from behind walls and began randomly opening fire on the bank and the gang. A chaotic firefight started with lead zipping in every direction. With Heywood still playing for time and an armed and very dangerous citizenry blasting bullets and buckshot from every available piece of cover they could find, it was no longer a matter of a simple bank job. Now it was a fight just to escape and survive.

For some of the gang it would be a forlorn hope. Bill Chadwell (the gang’s guide into Minnesota) was shot dead shortly after Clell Miller was injured by a shotgun blast and mortally wounded by a well-aimed rifle bullet. Bob Younger’s elbow was shattered by a rifle bullet, crippling him permanently. Cole Younger received 12 wounds from bullets and buckshot. Frank (having already sustained injury when the bank vault door was slammed shut on his arm) was wounded in the leg and other arm. Jesse stopped some buckshot and Jim Younger took a couple of bullets as well.

The James-Younger Gang (what was left of it) rode full-pelt out of Northfield with locals firing guns, hurling rocks and waving pitchforks at them. They left behind two dead outlaws, two dead citizens (including Cashier Heywood who had been killed by Frank after resisting too firmly), one seriously wounded citizen, sacks full of spent cartridge cases, bullet holes and shattered windows in many buildings and a crime scene resembling a battlefield rather than a robbery. The gang had lost its guide, most of its members were seriously wounded, they were hundreds of miles out of their comfort zone, a posse was immediately on their tail and things couldn’t really have gone much worse.

Their take for this disastrous firefight? $26.70.

The James boys and the Younger brothers promptly split after their escape from Northfield. Frank and Jesse managed to escape back into Missouri. Charlie Pitts and the Younger brothers were soon found by militia units. Pitts was shot dead while the Youngers were captured and held for trial. The James-Younger Gang was finished as a criminal group.

The Younger boys drew long sentences at Stillwater Penitentiary. Cole drew 25 years, Bob and Jim drew lesser sentences. Bob died in prison of tuberculosis while Jim was unable to cope with his very restrictive parole restrictions, committing suicide less than a year after his eventual release. Cole served his full stretch.

Jesse’s New Gang

After Northfield little is known about Frank and Jesse until they re-surfaced in Nashville, Tennessee later in 1876. Frank seemingly gave up the outlaw life and settled down to live quietly under a false identity: B.J. Woodson. Jesse, whose alias was Thomas Howard, wasn’t as sensible. Even the disastrous Northfield raid didn’t cause him to cease raiding, robbing and killing and he assembled a new gang in 1879. On October 8, 1879 the new gang held up a train at Glendale, Missouri and went on a spree including robbing a Federal Paymaster at a canal project in Killen, Alabama and at least two more train robberies. The new gang, ominously for Jesse, included Charlie Ford, who quickly convinced Jesse to accept Charlie’s brother Bob as a member. But Jesse was growing increasingly paranoid. His paranoia scared away at least one fellow outlaw and it’s been said that Jesse personally killed another who he came to distrust. Jesse was starting to come unglued. Soon he would come unstuck in every sense.

With local law enforcement (such as it was at that time) becoming increasingly suspicious of Thomas Howard and B.J Woodson, the brothers both moved back into friendlier territory in Missouri. Jesse stayed in Missouri under his alias, taking up roots in the town of St. Joseph. Frank, always the more prudent of the two, moved on again and eventually settled in West Virginia. Frank settled down and lived the quiet life while Jesse continued his criminal career with his new gang. Ironically (and disastrously for him) for all his increasing paranoia Jesse now only trusted his two new personal bodyguards, Bob and Charlie Ford.

The Dirty Little Coward Who Shot Mr. Howard

What Jesse never knew was the secret deal struck between the Ford brothers and Missouri Governor Thomas Crittenden, a deal which was about as shady as it could be. Crittenden had made great political capital out of his self-declared war on the James brothers in speeches.  For years, the State Legislature had placed a $10,000 bounty on bringing Jesse in “dead or alive.” The Ford brothers agreed secretly with Governor Crittenden to bring Jesse in dead. Crittenden (cleverly getting around the legal limit on rewards offered by a governor) also approached railroad operators and banks to offer an additional $10,000 in reward money. The Ford brothers fully intended to collect what now made up around $20,000 in reward money and, as there was no extra reward for bringing Jesse in alive, dead was safer and just as good. Being a shrewd, clever operator, Crittenden must have known full well that he was, in effect, taking out a contract with two known felons to kill another felon in return for a large cash payment. That was exactly what the Ford brothers did.

On April 3, 1882 Jesse and the Fords were preparing for yet another robbery, popping in and out of Jesse’s house all morning. It was unusually hot for April in Missouri so Jesse removed his guns to stand on a chair cleaning a picture on the wall. Bob and Charlie Ford promptly unlimbered their guns and pumped bullets into Jesse’s back and head. The longest-running outlaw saga in American history was over.

The Fords were somewhat dismayed to find themselves charged with murder instead of being given their huge cash reward. They were convicted and (within hours of their convictions and death sentences) were both pardoned by Governor Crittenden who presumably wanted the less pleasant details of their transaction kept out of the public eye. Being known publicly as the men who killed an American legend didn’t do them any favors either. The reward, for example, was never paid  to them, instead most of it ended up in the pockets of Sheriff Timberlake and Marshal Craig who had legal jurisdiction for St. Joseph  where Jesse died. The Ford brothers found themselves vilified as cowards, traitors and no more than cheap assassins. They both had to flee Missouri, but even that didn’t save them.

Charley Ford developed a morphine addiction and also tuberculosis. He committed suicide on April 6, 1884 in Richmond, Missouri. Bob Ford fled to Creede, Colorado where he opened a tent saloon. On June 8, 1892 a cowhand named Edward O’Kelley walked into the salon and blasted him with a double-barreled shotgun, shouting as he fired:

“That’s for Jesse James!”

O’Kelley drew a life sentence for the murder, a sentence commuted due to a 7,000 signature petition. Colorado’s governor pardoned O’Kelley on October 3, 1902.


Five months after Jesse’s death, Frank James finally turned himself in. He turned up in the state capital at Jefferson City where he had an appointment with his brother’s nemesis. He simply handed over his guns to Governor Crittenden personally, stating:

“I have been hunted for 21 years, have literally lived in the saddle, have never known a day of perfect peace. It was one long, anxious, inexorable, eternal vigil. Governor, I haven’t let another man touch my gun since 1861…”

Frank was tried at Gallatin for a train robbery committed at Winston, Missouri in July, 1881. He was acquitted on all charges. He was next tried in Huntsville, Alabama for robbing a U.S. Army payroll at Muscle Shoals in March, 1881. Again, he was acquitted on all charges. Missouri took legal jurisdiction to press other charges but Frank was never tried again. He also avoided extradition to Minnesota to stand trial for his role in the Northfield robbery, which included his murder of bank cashier Joseph Heywood.  In spite of his undoubtedly being a bank robber, thief, outlaw and multiple killer, Frank never gained a criminal conviction or served any prison sentences.

Now a free man, Frank briefly joined Cole Younger in Buffalo Bill Cody’s touring “Wild West Show, a travelling rodeo where Frank and Cole recounted their personal memories of their outlaw careers and especially their long acquaintance with Jesse. Frank later worked as a shoe salesman and as a ticket collector in a burlesque show. He finally retired to Clay County, returning to the family farm outside Kearney where he gave guided tours of the James farm for 25c a head. He died there on February 18, 1915 aged 72.

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