Let’s talk outlaws this December. On December 8, 1874, the infamous Jesse James and the Younger gang robbed the Kansas Pacific Railroad in Muncie, Kansas. They made off with $55,000, which would be over $1,200,000 in today’s dollars! This robbery makes the claim of the Tishomingo Savings Bank of Corinth, Mississippi that they were robbed by the James-Younger gang on December 7 seem highly unlikely. That establishment only lost $10,000.
Jesse Woodson James was born in Missouri in 1847. His father was a Baptist minister, Robert James, and his mother, a Kentucky native named Zerelda Cole James. In 1850, Jesse’s father traveled to California to preach in the gold mining camps. Unfortunately, soon after the family’s arrival, Robert fell ill and died. Zerelda was left with three small children—Jesse, his future partner-in-crime Frank, and their sister Susan—and was plunged into “perilous financial straits.” Zerelda tried marrying a wealthy, older man, but the marriage didn’t last and she moved her family back to her first husband’s farm and married again in 1855. She was to have four more children with her third husband, and after Jesse and Frank grew up to become outlaws, Zerelda remained their staunch supporter.
Jesse’s older brother Frank fought in the Civil War with the pro-secession Missouri State Guard, then joined a band of Confederate guerrillas known as “bushwhackers,” who carried out attacks against Union sympathizers on the Missouri frontier. In 1863, while at his family’s farm, a teenage Jesse was ambushed and horsewhipped, and his stepfather hanged from a tree by Union militiamen seeking the whereabouts of Frank and his fellow insurgents. Miraculously, the stepfather, Dr. Archie Samuel, survived his torture.
By age 16, Jesse followed Frank as a marauding bushwhacker, with both joining a ruthlessly violent gang led by William “Bloody Bill” Anderson. Jesse was shot in the chest in 1865 during a skirmish with Union troops near Lexington, Missouri, a month after General Robert E. Lee had surrendered. After being nursed back to health by his cousin Zerelda “Zee” Mimms, with whom he would later marry and father two children, Jesse banded with Frank and other former guerillas to rob banks, stagecoaches, and trains.
During an 1869 bank robbery in Gallatin—the incident that first brought Jesse public notice as an outlaw—Jesse shot and killed the cashier, thinking the man was Samuel Cox, commander of the pro-Union militia troops who had “Bloody Bill” Anderson in 1964. After this heist, an influential pro-Confederate newspaper editor, John Newman Edwards, befriended Jesse and went on to promote the former bushwhacker as a hero and “defiant Southern patriot of the Reconstruction era.” Jesse himself wrote letters to newspapers defending his actions. Through his articles and editorials, Edwards helped create the myth of Jesse James as a Robin Hood figure, robbing from the rich and giving to the poor (a myth historians have debunked).
After Jesse and Frank robbed a train in January 1874, the Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency was called in to hunt them down. In March, a detective searching for Jesse and Frank was found dead, while another agent who pursued the brothers’ fellow gang members Cole and Robert Younger was also killed. Catching the James brothers became a personal mission for Allan Pinkerton, an abolitionist who “had aided slaves on the Underground Railroad, uncovered a plot to assassinate President-elect Abraham Lincoln, and gathered military intelligence for the federal government during the Civil War.
Shortly after midnight on January 25, 1875, a group of Pinkertons, acting on an outdated tip that Jesse and Frank were at their mother’s farm, raided the place. They threw a smoke bomb into the farmhouse, setting off an explosion that killed Jesse and Frank’s eight-year-old half-brother and caused their mother to lose part of one arm. Following this raid, public support for Jesse and Frank increased. The Missouri state legislature even came close to passing a bill offering amnesty to the two. The brothers also launched an intimidation campaign against their perceived enemies near Zerelda’s farm and in April, one of her neighbors, a former Union militiaman who had assisted the Pinkertons prepare for their raid, was shot to death. Allan Pinkerton never resumed his hunt for the James brothers.
The James-Younger gang came to its violent end attempting to rob the First National Bank of Northfield, Minnesota. They targeted the bank after learning that Adelbert Ames, a former Union general and Republican governor of Reconstruction-era Mississippi, had recently moved to the town. Ames was rumored to have recently deposited $75,000 into the bank. During the attempted robbery, three members of the gang entered the bank and demanded the safe be opened, but the cashier refused. Meanwhile, townspeople outside got wind that a holdup was taking place and engaged in a shootout with the rest of the gang stationed on the street.
In the end, the gang killed the cashier and a passerby, while two bandits were shot to death by townsfolk before the rest of the outlaws fled. Two weeks later, the Younger brothers were captured, and another gang member killed in a gunfight near Madelia, Minnesota. The James brothers, who had split with the Youngers (and were the only gang members not caught or killed following the failed robbery), laid low for the next few years, living in Tennessee under assumed names. However, in 1879, Jesse recruited a new gang and began a fresh crime spree.
Jesse met his end when two of his new gang members conspired to betray him in his rented home in St. Joseph, Missouri. His wife and two children were in a nearby room when he was shot. Bob Ford, whose brother Charley was already a member of the gang, had arranged with Missouri’s governor to take down Jesse in exchange for a reward. The public was transfixed by Jesse’s murder and Bob and Charley soon began reenacting the event in a traveling show.
Following Jesse James’ death, speculation lingered that it was a faked event and someone else was buried in his grave. In 1995, scientists exhumed his supposed remains from Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Kearney, Missouri (where his remains had been transferred from the original site on the family farm). After DNA testing, the researchers concluded that the exhumed remains were “almost certainly those of the infamous outlaw.”
Your characters would almost certainly have heard of Jesse James, maybe even read a newspaper report of his escapades or of his passing.