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.
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’ 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.
IN LOVING MEMORY OF MY BELOVED SON, MURDERED BY A TRAITOR AND COWARD WHOSE NAME IS NOT WORTHY TO APPEAR HERE
Jesse James’s epitaph, selected by his mother, Zerelda James
- Listen to one of many songs written about Jesse James. Search on Jesse James in these two collections of field recordings: Voices from the Dust Bowl: the Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin Migrant Worker Collection, 1940 to 1941 and Southern Mosaic: The John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip.
- View The Great Train Robbery, the 1903 film classic inspired by Western outlaws. It is just one of several hundred early films available in Inventing Entertainment: the Early Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings of the Edison Companies.
- For personal accounts of Jesse James’ activities, search on Jesse James in American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940. Of particular interest are the interviews with “James McGuire,” who grew up with the James boys, and “Mr. L.A. Sherman,” who had a memorable encounter with Jesse James in a Quincy, Illinois, mess hall.
- Follow the trail of the James Gang through newspaper accounts found in the Library’s collection of historic newspapers Chronicling America. Start with the selection of articles in the special feature Jesse James: Topics in Chronicling America.