Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Jesse James: Riding Hell-Bent for Leather into Legend

The Hunt Continues

But, while Frank and Jesse attempted to keep their married lives normal, the Pinkertons continued to badger the citizens of Kearney for information. Jesse and his wife could not visit any of his friends in the area for fear that their identities be revealed and cause trouble for these folks. His mother's place, in particular, was sadly off-limits. Night and day, Zee Samuels espied shadowy figures lurking through her orchards and stooping behind the corncrib. Men calling themselves "traveling salesmen" occasionally called, pitching some ware or another, but seemed to be buying (information) more than selling.

On the moonless evening of January 26, 1875, a half-score of agents clattered into the Samuel's front yard, hitched their steeds to the fence and ringed the farmhouse. For some reason never explained, they believed Frank and Jesse to be visiting their mother that night. (They weren't.) After a quick parley between the leaders, one of them called out, demanding that the two fugitives march out with hands up. A moment, and there came no answer. As the detectives maneuvered closer to the house, they could see a distorted silhouette scurrying by a curtained window in the kitchen.

The shadow, it turned out later, had been the frightened eight-year-old Archie Samuels, Jesse's retarded step-brother, unnerved by the taunts. He and his mama were the only two people in the house and he didn't understand why those men out there wanted to hurt them. Thinking it was just another of the lawmen's ruses to spook them, Zee consoled Archie. "They're jes' makin' a racket fer racket's sake," she explained. "Let's snuff out the lights and they'll go away, you'll see, boy." She extinguished the single kerosene lamp burning in the house. "Now, it's time to sleep. Git to your bunk."

When the lantern dimmed another light flashed that of an exploding bomb rolled over the sill by one of the agents. In one terrible moment, Zee and her son were thrown across the kitchen in a percussion of confusion and pain. Zee felt one of her arms rip from her body and Archie screamed when he felt his rib cage collapse under the blast. Kerosene stored in tins in the pantry detonated and the kitchen roused into a fireball. If it wasn't for alert neighbors who heard the blast and rushed to their aid, the Samuels' would have burned to death. As it was, young Archie died within the hour, yelping in pain.

That Jesse went insane when he heard what happened is an understatement. Frank and several farmers had to literally restrain him from saddling up that night to kill the first policeman he saw. But, for once, most of America understood his vehemence.

"No other act than this 'inexcusable and cowardly deed,' as the press termed it, could have earned more sympathy for the James boys," accounts Jay Robert Nash in Western Lawmen & Outlaws. "The newspapers vilified the Pinkertons...and labeled them child-killers and human monsters who attacked defenceless women. Even though Allen Pinkerton repeatedly denied that any of his men had thrown a bomb into the Samuels' home, his agency fell into disgrace."

Reportedly, Jesse traveled to Chicago to assassinate Pinkerton, but couldn't get the opportunity he hoped for to get close enough to the detective. But, he wanted to strike back big and this time do it where the Yankees could have little doubt that it was meant as pay-back from a confirmed, died-in-the-wool rebel for their greedy, interfering and murderous ways. So far, his hold-ups had been aimed against the western bankers and transporters who did business with the Yankee money men. This time, he was going to strike one of the Yankee money men directly.

He led his gang North.

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