Billy the Kid hardly represented the only celebrity gun-slinging lawbreaker and lawman of the late 19th-century West. Jesse Woodson James became such a media-savvy robber of banks and trains that once, after he and other members of the Cole-Younger criminal gang robbed $22,000 in gold and currency (more than $350,000 in today’s dollars) from a train in Gadshill, Missouri in January 1874, he startled the engineer by throwing him a stick that was wrapped with a press release James had written. Headlined, “THE MOST DARING TRAIN ROBBERY ON RECORD,” the press release read in part, “The robbers were all large men, all being slightly under six feet. After robbing the train they started in a southerly direction. They were all mounted on handsome horses. P.S. They are a hell of an excitement in this part of the country.”
The brutal career of Jesse James reveals why such outlaws attracted so much attention and even admiration among contemporaries and have figured so largely in later Wild West mythology. During the Civil War, Missouri natives Jesse and Frank James rode with the murderous William Clarke Quantrill and his band of Confederate guerillas. “Quantrill’s Raiders” in 1864 looted and burned Centralia, Kansas, before coldly executing 75 Union prisoners of war. James killed at least three Union soldiers in hot pursuit of the gang, launching his bloodletting career.
As the Civil War ended in 1865, a general amnesty was offered guerilla fighters, but probably because of James’ role in the infamous Centralia Massacre, when he rode to Lexington, Missouri, along with his brother Frank and his future partner in crime Cole Younger, Union soldiers ambushed the band. Riding lead, Jesse James rode into the soldiers’ crosshairs, and a bullet knocked him off his horse and pierced his lung. He crawled to safety and escaped to Nebraska, where his mother nursed him to health. The James Brothers suffered in their transition to civilian life, according to Western historian Jay Robert Nash. “The James boys had tasted battle and blood and adventure,” Nash observed. “They had survived the worst carnage ever seen in the country, and either out of boredom or an ambition that went beyond the dull chores of their farm, they, like many others in that turbulent era, buckled gun belts, mounted horses, and rode into small towns to rob banks.” The James Brothers gave voice to the regional and class resentments of the era, blaming “Yankee bankers and railroad magnates” for their financial troubles, sentiments widely shared by the general public that would elevate these violent criminals to heroic status.
The next year the James Brothers and their cousin Cole Younger formed a criminal gang and launched their career as bank robbers, carrying off more than $60,000 in gold and money (worth more than $682,000 in today’s currency) from the Clay County Savings Bank. The gang murdered an innocent bystander, William “Jolly” Wymore, passing by the scene of the crime on his way to classes at William Jewell College, who stared too long at one robber who feared he had been recognized.
Yet, no matter how ruthless the tactics of the James-Younger Gang, their perceived resistance to Northern “invaders” and the unprincipled actions of law enforcement continued to win the gang admiration and sympathy. James and his associates had murdered several employees of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, well known in the 19th century known for its violent tactics against labor unions. Bearing a grudge, Pinkertons surrounded the farm of the James Brothers’ remarried mother Zerelda Samuels when James and Frank paid her a visit on the evening of January 26, 1875. The detectives shouted out to the James Brothers, demanding their surrender as a bomb was thrown through the farmhouse window. The blast severed Samuels’ arm and killed Frank and Jesse James’ eight-year-old half-brother Peyton Samuel, who suffered for an hour before his death. The Pinkerton attack, labeled an “inexcusable and cowardly deed” by contemporary newspapers, disgraced the Pinkerton agency, which never fully recovered its reputation.
The gang’s end came the next year with a daring but unsuccessful robbery in Northfield, Minnesota. While part of the gang entered the First National Bank, armed lookouts waited outside and were spotted by townspeople, who responded by arming themselves and taking concealed positions as they fired at the robbers. Locals fatally shot gang members Clell Miller and Bill Chadwell, while bullets struck Cole, Bob and Jim Younger and Charlie Pitts. The surviving members of the gang made it out of town, but the wounded James Brothers split off from the Youngers and Pitts. Authorities trapped the latter group near a swamp in Madelia, Minnesota and in a shootout killed Pitts. The Youngers surrendered and were later sentenced to life imprisonment. Having killed a cashier and others in the misadventure, the James Brothers were now seen by many as mere murderers. They now drew hundreds of pursuers who searched for the outlaws in vain across the Midwest.
The Brothers formed a second gang in Missouri, but their infamy made life dangerous, especially after a robbery on the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific train in Winton in July 1881 resulted in the slaying of a train engineer. Missouri Gov. Thomas Crittendon offered a $10,000 reward (worth more than $176,000 today) for the capture and conviction of Frank and Jesse James. The earlier James gang had been built on family kinship, but the reward money proved too tempting for the Jameses’ newer, less familiar associates. Jesse James would murder one gang member, Ed Miller, when he suspected the latter planned to turn himself in and inform on the brothers. A dispute over money stolen during a robbery at Blue Cut, Missouri led to the killing of another gang member. In return for the reward, on April 3, 1882, gang member Robert Ford shot Jesse James in the head as the notorious gunman stood on a chair to straighten a picture at his home.
Fearing that Frank James would seek vengeance, Robert Ford’s brother Charlie, also a member of the gang, suffered nightmares and eventually committed suicide. The public generally saw Robert Ford as a traitor and a coward. Ford used his reward money to open several saloons but ended up drifting from town to town before being murdered himself at the age of 30 in Creede, Colorado, June 8, 1892. By then, the public again transfigured Jesse James into a folk hero, a Robin Hood who resisted unjust authority, robbing from the rich and helping the poor. This image shines through a folk song, later performed by 20th-century folk singer and protestor Pete Seeger, which proclaimed:
Jesse was a man, a friend to the poor . . .
Talking with his family brave.
Robert Ford came along like a thief in the night
And laid poor Jesse in his grave.
Romanticized in dime novels, plays, and “true detective” magazines, the Western outlaw provided 19th-century urban readers with fantasies of adventure in the wide-open spaces and vengeance against the wealthy and powerful. In the end, many Americans saw Billy the Kid, Jesse James and other gunslingers as less lawless, sinister and greedy than “robber barons” like the Rockefellers, the Astors and the rest of the callous rich whose gaudy wealth stood in shocking contrast to the appalling poverty seen in America’s spreading urban landscape.
Michael Phillips has authored the following:
White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006)
(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)
“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)
“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ” in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)
“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)
(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013).
“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).
He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.