The Student Outshines His Teacher, the life of Jesse Woodson James.

The following article was written as an assignment in American history by a freshman who is attending an fine institution of higher learning. I think Andrei did an excellent job, and once you read it I'm sure you will agree. Editor

If you asked most people in the world who was the most famous American Western Outlaw in history, the name would most probably be JESSE JAMES. The name is so famous, it has become a part of our language. Movies have been made about him, books have been written about him, he is in TV advertisements, used to describe types of men, and all sorts of things. He is an American Western Icon. Some considered him a ruthless criminal. Others considered him a hero like Robin Hood who turned to crime because he had no choice. Both of these descriptions are true.

Jesse Woodson James was born September 5, 1847 in Missouri. At the age of three his father, Rev. Robert James, left Missouri to search for gold in California. His father died of yellow fever shortly after he arrived, leaving Jesse, his brother Frank, and his sister Susan orphans with a single mother, Zerelda, to raise them with little money on a farm in Clay County, Missouri.

In 1852, Jesse's mother Zerelda married a local farmer by the name of Benjamin A. Simms. Simms seems to have been a mean man to the kids so the James children hated him. Because he treated her children badly, Zerelda threw him out of her house and was going to divorce him. However, he was killed in some sort of accident with a horse.

In 1855, Zerelda married again to Dr. Rubin Samuel. Most writers say that the James children liked him and got alone OK with him. He treated them well and they respected him. Samuel had four additional children with Zerelda and the James children loved their half brothers and sisters. In 1863, Samuels even refused to tell a group of Union soldiers anything about his step son Frank James (who was at that time in Confederate Partisan Ranger service). For this, he was cruelly hanged three times to the point of death from a tree outside of his home. He survived but was never healthy again.

Jesse's older brother, Alexander Franklin (Frank) James joined the guerrilla group led by William Clarke Quantrill in 1861. Jesse was only about 14 years old at the time and was a brash, rather sullen, hard to handle young man who really wanted to go and fight with his brother. His mother, at the time, forbid that. Also, Quantrill did not accept any boy that young in his guerrilla group. However, in 1863, at age 16, a group of so called Union Missouri militia rode onto the James farm in Kearney, Missouri. They were looking for Frank James. When they got nothing out of Jesse and Frank's parents, they rode down Jesse who was working in the corn fields. They whipped and beat him bloody but he refused to talk. They left him for dead. After being nursed back to health, Zerelda sent him to St. Joseph, Missouri to be cared for by his Mimms (mother's) family there.

Jesse soon returned home and later in 1863 he joined "Bloody Bill" Anderson's guerrilla band. Anderson was one of Quantrill's Captains. He had no problem attaching young boys to his group. Of Jesse, he supposedly said, "not to have had any beard, he is the keanest and cleanest fighter in the band." Jesse fought with the guerrillas at Fayette on September 20, 1864 and Centralia, September 27, 1864. Many writers say he was also at Lawrence, Kansas, August 21, 1863 but that is still being debated. As he joined in 1863, that is quite possible as 450 guerrillas attended the sacking of that vicious Jayhawker town.

At the end of the Civil War, in 1865, the Missouri guerrillas were told that if they came in to Lawrence, Missouri, surrendered, and signed the oath, that they would be allowed to go home. Jesse rode in with a group of guerrillas to do that in 1865. They came in under a white flag. Unfortunately, they were fired on by another group of worthless Yankee militia. The guerrilla group turned and ran and Jesse was very badly wounded, being shot through the lung. He survived by crawling into the woods where he was later found by a kind farmer who helped him and later arranged for him to be sent to his family to be cared for. This event helped him to continue after the war in a life of crime in that he never trusted a Yankee based government or their promises again.

Here is an image of Charle Fletcher (Fletch) Taylor, Alexander Franklin (Frank) and Jesse Woodson James. It was taken in 1866 in Nashville Tennessee. Jesse was suffering from the wound he received during the War.

Jesse was again moved to his mother's family in St. Joseph, Missouri (to an area called Harlem at the time). There he was nursed back to health after several difficult months by his cousin Zeralda (Zee) Mimms. He fell in love with Zee and Zee fell in love with him. However, it took nine years until they were finally married in 1874. Also, as a consequence of these terrible wounds he got in 1865, he suffered the rest of his life, often resorting to laudanum (made from Opium).

By 1867-68, and after a trip to Paso Robles, California to rest and relax, Jesse was well enough to enter, with his brother Frank, into a life of robbing banks and trains. There are many reasons why they turned to crime that have been examined. Those are such things as knowing nothing more after the war, suffering from poverty due to the war, being forced into the life because the Union soldiers and Union governments refused to stop pursuing him, needing to provide for their family with few skills, to just plain enjoying the excitement. All of these are certainly part of the reasons. However, they are all meaningless in that they DID go into a life of crime and that life of crime led to Jesse James becoming that famous outlaw that he became.

Jesse James and his gang never robbed as many stages, trains, and banks as he was blamed for. During his 15 years in the "business" of robbery, he was literally blamed for almost every robbery in Missouri and the surrounding states. He had become that well know and  famous. He did, however, accomplish quite a few successful robberies and took several hundred thousand dollars in all. That was astronomically successful for the 1870-1882 period
in our history.

All of Jesse's robberies were carefully planned and executed, with little left to chance. Because of this, Jesse was in many ways the "father" of the more organized robberies. He was the first to specialize and perfect the train robbery in the United States. Each bank and train was carefully watched, or "cased", over time. Schedules were carefully checked, the habits of clerks and railway employees were watched and noted, in most cases Jesse himself entered a bank before he robbed it to cash a large bill so he could personally see the inside of the building and where each employee was working. Each town was examined and all escape routes were discovered and planned ahead of time. The robberies were timed carefully as modern bank robberies are today. If needed, local men were later kidnapped and made to help them find the easiest and fastest escapes. To say the least, Jesse and Frank were crack shots who were never afraid to use their guns to kill. They killed several men in their robberies.

Jesse James was a very unusual man. He had an eye condition that caused him to blink constantly. He was suspicious of nearly everyone except his own family (a trait his mother taught him). He read every newspaper he could find and had subscriptions to most of the Missouri and Kansas newspapers under the names of his aliases. He constantly read his bible and could quote most of it by verse and line. Law enforcement stated constantly that he seemed to know ahead of time every time they tried to arrest him. His men also stated that he knew immediately when they did something wrong or attempted to turn against him. It was a main reason they feared him and respected him. Later, as he got older he became quite paranoid, took drugs such as laudanum, and moved from place to place in an attempt to avoid the law and protect his wife and two young children. To those who feared him, he was a bad man but to his family he was a loving, personal and caring husband, father, and son. However, possibly the most interesting aspect of Jesse James was that he could hide in plain sight. He went walking down common city streets, shopped, stopped into saloons for a drink and talk, talked about horse racing and the horse buying industry to important business men, all without being in the least suspected about who he really was. That seems to be the main reason why no one ever caught him. No law enforcement office or Pinkerton detective ever got near enough to him to kill or arrest him. It took a "dirty little coward" named Bob Ford and his brother Charlie (Jesse's cousins) to do that murder.

In the last few months before Jesse's death, he was trying to put together another team of men for another bank robbery. At this point, most of his trusted gang members were either dead, in jail, or had moved away. His available men were slim and not very experienced. Unfortunately, he chose two of his cousins, Charlie and Bob Ford. It was a terrible choice in that he trusted them as relatives when they were more interested in collecting the reward on his head and Bob had been working with the sheriff and the state governor to give Jesse up. Next is the most famous image of Jesse, likely taken in 1864 also known as the Dingus image.                                                                                                                                                               

On April 3, 1882, in St. Joseph, Missouri, Jesse removed his guns (something he never did before) and climbed up on a chair to dust the top of a favorite picture he had on the wall of his living room. Charlie and Bob Ford stood by the outside door behind him. Bob carefully took his new gun out (one that Jesse had just given him as a present) and shot Jesse in the back of the head in cold blooded murder.

The Fords thought they would collect the $10,000 reward but actually they got very little of it. They began later to act out what they had done in theatres for the public. Eventually, the public began to hate them as cowards and booed them from their seats. Charlie Ford fell apart and killed himself on May 4, 1884. In February, 1892, Bob Ford is killed by a man named Ed Kelley. Jesse finally got justice for his murder and his legend lives on until today.
References: (1) Jesse James in the County of Clay, by Jack Ventimiglia, The Friends of the James Farm, 2001.  (2) Internet Web site, Quantrillsguerrillas.com. (3) Jesse James, Last Rebel of the Civil War, by T.J. Stiles, Alan A, Knopf, 2002. (4) Guerrillas and Other Curiosities/ Bud Donnie & Me, by Samuel Anderson Pence,Two Trails Publishing, 2008

Erol Andrei Cantey © 2012 Quantrillsguerrillas.com. "Permission should be requested and agreed to before using this copyrighted essay and/or image."                                                




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