Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Jesse James: Riding Hell-Bent for Leather into Legend


"They have sworn the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind."

The Bible

To some, Jesse James was a cold-blooded killer; to others, a romantic cavalier who rode to the sound of the guns in vengeance of lost tradition. In the annals of crime, he is a flesh and blood lawbreaker; in the quilt work of myth, he is a legend. Many prefer the latter where, to quote Time-Life's The Wild West, "The west...was transformed...into a land of dreams where men and women were free and brave and, above all, independent."

Jesse was buried under a white headstone on the Samuel's farm near Kearney, Missouri, his family and friends, a minister, and most of Clay County in attendance. Frank James was present and so were several lawmen who, under other circumstances, would have arrested the fugitive on sight. But, considering, they left him alone to pay his last respects, then turned away quietly when he rode off.

Frank James in later years.
Frank James in later years.

Five months later, Frank boarded a train from Nashville to Missouri once again, this time heading from the depot directly to the State Capitol. Placing his holster in Governor Crittenden's hands, he explained, "I have been hunted for twenty-one years, have literally lived in the saddle, have never known a day of perfect peace. It was one long, anxious, inexorable, eternal vigil."

The state tried him, but their effort was superfluous. Sympathy had gone out to the James family and the jurors decided an old one-armed lady named Zee had suffered enough. Frank walked away from the courtroom free, from all but memories. His brother along side him with Quantrill. Their first bank robbery in Liberty. Their first train robbery in Adair. The scream of the bullets, the unending bullets, at Northfield. He sometimes still heard them in the softest hours of the night.

Jesse James Jr., ca.1894
Jesse James Jr., ca.1894

Mother Zee passed away in 1911 at the age of 86. Jesse's heartbroken wife was already gone eleven years by that time. Frank's wife Anna would live until 1944. Both of Jesse's children, Jesse, Jr. and Susan, would marry happily, raise children, live long lives and remain honest. They would be always true to their father's memory.

James' cousins Cole and Jim Younger were released from Stillwater Prison in 1901; Bob Younger had died from infection while incarcerated. Unable to cope with a world he didn't know, Jim shot himself not long after his parole. Cole joined Frank James to give lecture tours. Frank died in 1915. Cole succumbed a year later.

The traitors Ford met a deserved justice. So sure that Frank James would seek revenge for what they did to Jesse, Charley spent the next couple of years startling at every rustle of a tree limb, every shadow that jittered. He lived in chronic fear until paranoia overwhelmed. He sent a bullet into his own brain.

Bob Ford, the back shooter, bought a saloon in Colorado with the reward money, but spent his proprietorship gulping insults from men who stopped by just to see (as a song goes) "the dirty little coward who shot Mr. Howard". A customer, Ed O'Kelley, sent him to his own grave with a shotgun in 1892.

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