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Jesse James was no hero, despite what the dime novels depicted, nor did he have a charitable Robin Hood complex as some may have suggested. James, along with his older brother, Frank, were out to get rich by breaking all the rules.
The brothers were Confederate guerrillas during the Civil War and, for approximately a decade after the war’s conclusion, led the James-Younger gang that infamously robbed banks and murdered throughout the Midwest, their actions glorified by Kansas City Times editor James Newman Edwards.
Their escape from a botched robbery in Northfield, Minnesota, in September 1876 that wiped out the rest of the gang seemingly bolstered the myth that the brothers were beyond the reach of the law. But for James, at least, it also marked the start of a slow countdown to when the way of the gun would finally catch up with him.
James recruited gang members who held no personal loyalty toward him
In 1879, after three years of lying low under an assumed name in Tennessee, James was ready to resume the life that brought a rush of adrenaline, a place in the newspaper headlines and an infusion of cash. He put together a new gang that included his cousin Wood Hite and an associate named Dick Liddil, and proceeded to reel off a string of railroad hold-ups.
But although the heists seemingly marked a return to glory days for the notorious outlaw, the world had changed around him. Edwards, his old enabler, no longer responded to his mail, seemingly content that many old Confederate colleagues had risen to positions of power around the region. Meanwhile, former Union officer Thomas Crittenden began his tenure as Missouri governor in 1881 with a promise to bring James to justice.
Furthermore, James was no longer surrounded by men he could trust. Frank was enjoying the straight life as a farmer and family man. And while Hite, Liddil and the newcomers were enamored of the chance to join a legend in action, their expanded circle of associates brought in even more people who held no personal loyalty toward James, including fellow Missourians Charley and Robert Ford.
Robert struck a deal with the Missouri governor for James’ capture
In late July 1881, Governor Crittenden convened a meeting with railroad executives and convinced them to fund a $10,000 reward for the capture of each of the James boys.
Jesse’s response was to thumb his nose at them and stage another hold-up in September along the Chicago and Alton line outside Independence, Missouri. However, his makeshift gang was already coming apart at the seams, fueled by the tension between Hite and Liddil over their competition for the affection of the Fords’ sister, a widow named Martha Bolton.
The two men shot it out at Bolton’s home in December, with Robert believed to have stepped in and fired the fatal bullet at Hite. Terrified at the thought of incurring James’ wrath over the killing of his cousin, Liddil determined that it would be safer to get the law involved and asked his mistress to intervene.
In early January 1882, Bolton met with Crittenden, who agreed to spare Liddil from prosecution for his testimony against the James boys. Bolton also revealed that her brother had a plan that could prove useful, and on January 13, the governor held another meeting with Robert in a Kansas City hotel room, where they forged the arrangement that promised Ford the reward money and a pardon for all crimes committed in exchange for the apprehension of James.
James was killed as he cleaned a picture
Robert was not yet well acquainted with James, but Charley had worked his way into the outlaw’s good graces. After agreeing to help his brother and share in the reward, Charley convinced James that Robert was the man they needed to pull off their next heist.
In March, James invited the Ford brothers to join him, his wife and two children at their new home in St. Joseph, Missouri, in advance of a planned bank robbery. Anxious at being so close to the man they intended to kill, they nevertheless managed to keep cool as they waited for the right moment to strike.
The opportunity finally arrived on the warm morning of April 3. Overheated after moving around, James shed his coat and vest and, after worrying out loud that a neighbor might spot his weapons, also removed his gun belt.
Unarmed, he mounted a chair to dust off a picture on the wall, his back to the brothers as they cocked their pistols. Robert’s aim was true, bringing an end to James’ high-wire life at the age of 34.
Robert was shot dead 10 years later
As promised, Governor Crittenden quickly pardoned the Fords, though the swiftness of his act produced bad optics for everyone involved. And while he soon had the second elusive James in custody, Frank managed to avoid conviction at three separate trials and lived out his life as a free man and a celebrity.
The Ford brothers also enjoyed a brief taste of celebrity as the killers of the notorious outlaw, even reenacting the experience in a stage show. After Charley committed suicide in 1884, Robert hopscotched from town to town, before opening a saloon in Creede, Colorado. In June 1892, a man named Edward O’Kelley walked into his saloon, offered him a quick greeting (“Hello, Bob”) and then shot him dead with a sawed-off shotgun.
Meanwhile, James’ legend continued to grow as one of the outsized figures of the heavily mythologized Old West. Initially buried outside his mother’s home near Kearney, Missouri, beneath the epitaph “In Loving Memory of my Beloved Son, Murdered by a Traitor and Coward Whose Name is not Worthy to Appear Here,” he now lies next to his wife in Kearney’s Mount Olivet Cemetery.
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