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Today in History - September 5

The Outlaw Jesse James

The infamous Jesse James was born on September 5, 1847. At seventeen, James left his native Missouri to fight as a Confederate guerilla in the Civil War. After the war, he returned to his home state and led one of history’s most notorious outlaw gangs. With his older brother Frank and several other ex-Confederates, including Cole Younger and his brothers, the James gang robbed their way across the Western frontier targeting banks, trains, stagecoaches, and stores from Iowa to Texas. Eluding even the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, the gang escaped with thousands of dollars.

[Jesse James, half-length portrait, facing front, holding handgun in left hand at his waist]. St. Louis: Taylor Copying Co., [1864] cMay 15, 1882. Prints & Photographs Division

Despite their criminal and, often, violent acts, James and his partners were much adored. Journalists, eager to entertain Easterners with tales of the Wild West, exaggerated and romanticized the gang’s heists, often casting James as a contemporary Robin Hood. While James did harass railroad executives who unjustly seized private land for the railways, modern biographers note that he did so for personal gain—his humanitarian acts were more fiction than fact.

Jesse James: The Outlaw.Popular Literature-Dime Novels. American Treasures of the Library of Congress. Rare Book & Special Collections Division
Jesse James’ Oath or Tracked to Death. Popular Literature-Dime Novels. American Treasures of the Library of Congress. Rare Book & Special Collections Division

Jesse James’ outlaw days ended abruptly in 1882 when fellow gang member Robert Ford fired a bullet into the back of his head. Ford hoped to claim the $10,000 offered for James’ capture but received only a fraction of the reward. He did, however, secure himself a place in Western outlaw lore that lives on in literature, song, and film.


Jesse James’s epitaph, selected by his mother, Zerelda James

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The First Labor Day

On September 5, 1882, some 10,000 workers assembled in New York City to participate in America’s first Labor Day parade. After marching from City Hall, past reviewing stands in Union Square, and then uptown to 42nd Street, the workers and their families gathered in Wendel’s Elm Park for a picnic, concert, and speeches. This first Labor Day celebration was eagerly organized and executed by New York’s Central Labor Union, an umbrella group made up of representatives from many local unions. Debate continues to this day as to who originated the idea of a workers’ holiday, but it definitely emerged from the ranks of organized labor at a time when they wanted to demonstrate the strength of their burgeoning movement and inspire improvements in their working conditions.

Labor Day parade, Main St., Buffalo, N.Y. ca. 1900. Detroit Publishing Company. Prints & Photographs Division

New York’s Labor Day celebrations inspired similar events across the country. Oregon became the first state to grant legal status to the holiday in 1887; other states soon followed. In 1894, Congress passed legislation making Labor Day a national holiday.

For many decades, Labor Day was viewed by workers not only as a means to celebrate their accomplishments, but also as a day to air their grievances and discuss strategies for securing better working conditions and salaries. Nowadays, Labor Day is associated less with union activities and protest marches and more with leisure. For many, the holiday is a time for family picnics, sporting events, and summer’s last hurrah.

Miners with Their Children, at the Labor Day Celebration, Silverton, Colorado. Russell Lee, photographer, September 1940. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives. Prints & Photographs Division

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  • Read about other significant days in the history of labor. Search Today in History on labor to find features such as the history of the eight-hour workday.
  • For images and documents pertaining to labor unions, search across the digital collections on the term labor union.
  • The digital collections contain an extensive array of materials related to parades and processions. Search the collections of photographs and prints using the keyword parades, or the name of a specific parade. The collections of motion pictures also document many different kinds of parades including a small Massachusetts town’s celebration of Labor Day.
  • Chronicling America, an online collection of historic newspapers from across the US covering the time period from 1789 to 1922, documents labor-related activities including struggles and celebrations. A selection of articles about celebrating the national holiday is included in Topics in Chronicling America-Labor Day.
  • The Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives collection has more than 60 photographs documenting Silverton, Colorado’s 1940 Labor Day celebration. To see this mining community’s parade and other festivities, search on Silverton.