On April 3, 1882, one of America's most notorious outlaws, Jesse James, is shot to death by fellow gang member Robert Ford. For 16 years, Jesse and his brother, Frank, committed robberies and murders throughout the Midwest. Newspaper accounts and pulp novels glamorized the James gang, turning them into mythical Robin Hoods who were driven to crime by unethical landowners and bankers. In reality, Jesse James was a ruthless killer who stole only for himself.
The teenage James brothers joined up with southern guerrilla leaders when the Civil War broke out. Both participated in massacres of settlers and troops affiliated with the North. After the war was over, the quiet farming life of the James brothers' youth no longer seemed enticing, and the two turned to crime. Jesse's first bank robbery occurred on February 13, 1866, in Liberty, Missouri. Over the next couple of years, the James brothers became the suspects in several bank robberies throughout western Missouri. However, locals were sympathetic to ex-southern guerrillas and vouched for the brothers. Throughout the late 1860s and early 1870s, the James gang robbed only a couple banks a year, otherwise keeping a low profile. In 1873, the James gang started robbing trains. These exploits soon brought out the Pinkerton Detective Agency, employed to bring the James gang to justice. However, the Pinkerton operatives' botched attempt to kill James left a woman and her child injured and only helped elicit public sympathy for Jesse and Frank James.
In 1876 the James gang joined with the Younger gang when they raided the town of Northfield, Minnesota. The Younger brothers, cousins of the James brothers, were shot and wounded during the brazen midday robbery. After running off in a different direction from Jesse and Frank, the Younger brothers were captured by a large posse and later sentenced to life in prison. Jesse and Frank, the only members of the gang to escape successfully, headed to Tennessee to hide out. After spending a few quiet years farming, Jesse organized a new gang. Charlie and Robert Ford were on the fringe of the new gang, but they disliked Jesse intensely and decided to kill him for the reward money. On April 3, while Jesse's mother made breakfast, the new gang met to hear Jesse's plan for the next robbery. When Jesse turned his back to adjust a picture on the wall, Bob Ford shot him several times in the back.
Michael Thomas Barry is the author of Murder & Mayhem 52 Crimes that Shocked Early California 1849-1949. The book can be purchased from Amazon through the following link: