Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Jesse James: Riding Hell-Bent for Leather into Legend


"Men regard it as their right to return evil for evil and, if they cannot, feel they have lost their liberty."


As soon as he was back on his feet after the beating by Yankee soldiers, Jesse James saddled up to find his brother Frank and to join the regiment he rode with, William Quantrill's Raiders. They were Yankee haters all, two-hundred strong. Although the Raiders wore Confederate gray uniforms and invaded communities sympathetic to the North, they were not wholly sanctioned by the Confederate Congress as were the many other thousands of battalions and regiments fighting to keep the Yankees off Southern turf. Quantrill's boys were, in large, renegades whose penchant for looting and pillaging exceeded their loyalty to, what true Southern gentlemen, called "The Cause". Some of their plunder, whether cash or contraband, was indeed transported to the South, but most of it was retained by Quantrill and his robber band.

William Quantrill
William Quantrill

Ohio-born William Quantrill had been a suspected thief and murderer in his home state of Ohio. Migrating west in the 1850s to "Bloody Kansas," his extremist Southern leanings became evident when he formed a troop of border ruffians to sack farm owners of opposing political sentiment. He burned their crops, fired their homes and often hung the farmer. Hiding behind the mask of a decent school teacher by day, by night he committed these acts of violence against his fellow Kansans. With the war's outbreak, he herded together his followers en masse, clothed them in regulation gray uniforms and formed his own private guerrilla army.

Sometimes his fights were nothing short of personal. When he learned that the authorities in the town of Lawrence, Kansas, were spearheading a plan to bring about his demise, he charged the town in front of his forces and burned it to the ground. This event, which occurred on August 21, 1863, is considered one of the most useless tragedies in the American Civil War. A bloodbath, town citizens were caught unprepared; more than 150 non-combatants men, women and children perished by saber, bullet and flame.

The Union Army considered them not as military rivals, but as independent outlaws; Washington officials vowed to destroy them at any cost and sent troops to Kansas to hunt them down. But Quantrill proved to be an escape artist, hiding his hordes in the hills along the Kansas-Missouri border. Jesse was able to locate them only through an underground communications system operated by families whose fathers, brothers and sons rode with Quantrill. He found their rough company tasteful.

Frank James, already a respected member of the Raiders, introduced his brother to Quantrill and prominent members of the organization. Among these was the rough-housing Jim Cummins, a fellow Missourian who was an expert horseman and dead-eye shot. Also riding with the feisty group was a cousin, Thomas Coleman Younger "Cole" to his friends who detested Northern soldiers since one of them, a U.S. cavalryman, supposedly killed his father in a drunken barroom brawl. These particular men were part of a 75-man contingent of Quantrill's corps led by dark-bearded, homicidally wacky William Anderson. "Bloody Bill," as his enemies named him a moniker which he tried hard to maintain was, like Quantrill himself, no more than a vicious killer masquerading as soldier.

Psychopathic Bill Anderson
Psychopathic Bill Anderson

"Most historians...agree that Anderson was simply a blood-lusting lunatic who enjoyed inflicting pain and death," writes Jay Robert Nash in Western Lawmen & Outlaws. "Jim Cummins (years later) stated that Anderson was 'the most desperate man I ever met.'. Union forces...were grimly aware of the fact that Anderson never took prisoners but always shot captives out-of-hand...He was a walking and riding arsenal, usually with four Navy Colt pistols in his waistband, four rifles on his horse, a saber, a hatchet and a bag of pistols wrapped around the horn of his saddle."

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