Monday, February 11, 2013

April 3, 1882 – Jesse James Flees Missouri

As famous outlaw Jesse James prepared his gang for another robbery, he noticed a picture frame was dusty.  He climbed onto a chair and proceeded to dust and straighten it.  Behind him, one of his gang members, Bob Ford, shot at him, narrowly missing his head.  Infuriated, James jumped down the chair and threw it at Bob, who had already run out the kitchen door.  James chased him into the streets of Saint Joseph, Missouri, firing several shots before mounting his horse and disappearing, riding east.

James' life had been one of hardship.  He was born in 1847 to Baptist minister Robert S. and Zerelda James, who moved from Kentucky to Missouri and contributed to founding William Jewel College.  Robert led the family to California during the 1849 Gold Rush to become ministers.  He died there shortly after, leaving behind his widow, James, his older brother Frank, and his younger sister Susan.  Zerelda remarried, but their new stepfather Benjamin Simms was cruel to the young boys.  She divorced him and remarried again, this time to a soft-spoken man, Dr. Reuben Samuel, who left his practice to work the James farm.

While his home life became peaceful, the rest of the nation turned to war.  The James-Samuels lived on the pro-Confederacy western part of Missouri, a border state that determined to stay with the Union.  Locals formed militias known as "bushwackers" for those supporting secession and Unionist "jayhawkers", and the state became plagued with guerilla war.  Frank James joined the war on the Confederate side, fighting at the Battle of Wilson's Creek before taking sick-leave.  In 1863, Jayhawkers came to the farm hunting Frank.  They tortured Samuel by hanging him before cutting him down and reportedly whipped Jesse.  Jesse soon departed the farm to meet up with Frank, who had fought as part of Quantrill's Raiders before returning to Missouri.  The two brothers participated in massacres, learning skills in surprise tactics and psychological warfare, such as scalping and killing those who surrendered.  Jesse himself attempted to surrender near Lexington, Missouri, where he was shot in the chest and forced to sit out the rest of the war.  He was nursed back to health by his cousin Zerelda "Zee" Mimms, whom he married in 1874.

As the Civil War ended, the days of Reconstruction came.  Confederates were banned from voting, preaching, and forming corporations.  Many rebels continued the fight, operating as outlaws pulling robberies and harassing local government.  Jesse and Frank fell in with the outlaws, joining a gang of brothers headed by fellow guerilla Cole Younger.  The James-Younger gang became famous in December of 1869 when Jesse shot a bank cashier mistaking him for a former Union militia officer.  The act of revenge on the Union and the James' larger-than-life escape put his name in the newspapers.  While many dubbed them deplorable criminals, founder and editor of the Kansas City Times and former Confederate John Newman Edwards gave them a sense of heroism fighting the oppression of Reconstruction.  He began publishing letters written by James, who claimed innocence and made argument for the right to resist tyrants.

For several years, the gang committed numerous robberies over half the country.  As their fame grew, they were able to commit public robberies, even joking with fawning witnesses.  Many considered them heroically fighting corruption, though they themselves never donated any of their income.  The government attempted to crack down on them; Missouri Governor Thomas T. Crittenden stated in his inaugural address that their arrest was priority.  Companies hired the Pinkerton Detectives to hunt the gang down, but the agent sent to the James farm was later discovered dead.  In a shootout, Pinkertons killed several of the Youngers.  A robbery gone wrong at the First National Bank of Northfield, Minnesota, and the following manhunt wiped out the Youngers while the Jameses disappeared.

Frank decided to give up the life of an outlaw, but Jesse formed up a new gang and began a new spree.  This gang, however, did not have the cohesiveness of the ex-Confederates.  Infighting occurred, and Jesse turned paranoid.  He insisted that his two gangmembers, Charley and Bob Ford, move in with him.  His paranoia proved right when Bob attempted to murder him and collect the governor's $5000 reward.

Soon after Jesse disappeared from St. Joe, Irish poet Oscar Wilde arrived in town looking for the famous outlaw.  He had arrived in America that January and began an adventurous lecture tour on aestheticism.  Wilde was disappointed but left word of where he could be reached.  While drinking with miners in Leadville, Colorado, a man introduced himself as Jesse James.  The two sat up late talking, discussing ethics and Wilde's famous quote "It's not whether I did it or not that's important, but whether people believed I did it" in comparison with James' "heroic" outlaw life.  James seemed annoyed by Wilde's lack of conviction, but, upon Wilde's invitation to smuggle him and his family back to Europe, James agreed to travel with him.

James began his own lecture tour, visiting numerous cities in the United Kingdom as well as several countries on the Continent.  He and Wilde conversed a number of times again, and James signed alongside Wilde on the petition put out by George Bernard Shaw to pardon the violent strikers at Chicago's Haymarket Riot in 1886.  James noted to Wilde the importance of maintaining an unquestionable personal clout rather than depending on the law.  Wilde himself was believed to have practiced the advice when his feud with the Marquess of Queensberry ended with a fistfight between the two.

In 1892, James finally returned to America.  He had written to his brother Frank, who was living under an assumed name as a shoe salesman, and the two decided to come clean.  After a fanfare trial, the two were acquitted.  Jesse and Zee settled back on the farm, where their mother had been leading tours of the famous raid.  His son, Jesse Edward James, studied law and became a prominent Missouri politician.  James continued to write, dying in 1917 shortly after America's entry into World War I, for which he had campaigned vehemently as revenge on German u-boat attacks.


In reality, Bob Ford shot Jesse James in the back of the head.  He and his brother surrendered, were convicted of murder, and then pardoned.  Frank was later acquitted of his crimes and lived his life quietly.  Oscar Wilde narrowly missed meeting Jesse James.  Later, Wilde attempted a libel case against Queensberry due to accusations of sodomy, but he lost the case and was sentenced to two years hard labor for "gross indecency."

1 comment:

  1. There's a funny play called "Wilde West" about the fictional meeting of Jesse James and Oscar Wilde. It's a quick and enjoyable read.


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