Jesse James vs Robert Ford

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 On todays date in 1882 the outlaw Jesse James was shot and killed by a member of his own gang, Robert “Bob” Ford.  This action would haunt Robert for his cowardice throughout history and Jesse would be elevated to a Robin Hood like status. So, lets have a little history journey, shall we?

 Jesse was born Jesse Woodson James in 1847, the middle brother of three siblings. His father was a commercial hemp farmer and a Baptist minister who travelled to California during the Gold Rush and died when Jesse was 3 years old. Jesses mother, Zerelda, outlived her son and it was she who commisioned his remarkably ostentatious grave stone, making her feelings about both her son and his former gang mate very clear.

Jesses early life was overshadowed by the American Civil war which broke out in 1861. Jesse lived in Clay Country, Missouri, which had the unfortunate placing of being a border state, with 75% of its population being from the South. Indeed Jesses family chose to side with the Confederates at the outset of war. Jesses older brother, Frank, joined in with the fighting and when Jesse reached 16 so did he, following his brother. Their time at war was spent joining up with Guerilla troops and they were both reported to have taken part in a notorious massacre of Unionists, during which the guerillas scalped and dismembered some of their victims. They were then forced to leave Clay County, ordered by the Union millitary officials to head South. They defied this and went into a sideways state, Nebraska.

Robert Ford was born in 1860, so was too young to join in the fighting like his future gang leader. He was also born in Missouri, but never knew Jesse personally until much later in his life. He idolised the older man both for his Civil War exploits and the stories of his criminal activities.

From l to r: Zee above Jesse, Annie above Frank and Susan, sister of Jesse and Frank, above her husband Allen

From l to r: Zee above Jesse, Annie above Frank and Susan, sister of Jesse and Frank, above her husband Allen

Speaking of criminal activities, Jesse spent some time after the war recovering from the two near-fatal chest wounds he had received (though not at the same time!) and courting his cousin, Zee (short for Zerelda…I guess it was a family name!), who tended to his wounds while he recooperated at his uncles house. After 9 years of courting, they married.

But wait, these aren’t criminal activities! How about this: Jesse and Frank were probably part of the first daylight armed robbery in peacetime, during 1866 a year after the end of the war. We know that the robbery was lead by their former commander Archie Clement and one bystander was killed as the gang made their escape. Some argue that in fact Jesse and Frank were in charge of this robbery, while others protest that Jesse was still bedridden following his chest wounds. What we do know is that this time was troubled and filled with robberies and harrassment against Republican authorities and that many of the robberies and trouble were lead by the friends and former gang mates, and after the brothers became notorious there were those who claimed they had seen them, but whether that is a fabrication on the part of the eye witnesses remains to be seen.

Jesse James shot to fame in December 1869 when during a robbery he mistakenly shot and killed the cashier John W. Sheets believing him to be the shooter of “Bloody Bill” Anderson, a guerilla Jesse knew from the war. This was the firstime Jesse James would be proclaimed as an outlaw with a bounty on him and from then on Jesse joined up with some former Confederates to form the James-Younger Gang. Jesse also forged an alliance with the editort of the Kansas City Times, John Newman Edwards, who went on to publish letters from the outlaw in his paper, cementing his notority and keeping his name in the public eye.

During this time Robert had been following Jesses rise to infamy, helped in no small way by the fact that the James-Younger gang enjoyed staging their robberies in broad daylight, often in front of vast crowds of people as if it were mere entertainment. It worked on Bob, as he was desperate to join the gang. His older brother, Charles, is believed to have taken part in the Blue Cut train robbery in September 1881 in Jackson County, which no doubt you’ll recognise from Johnny Cash.

So Robert had his chance to meet Jesse, through his brother and make all his dreams come true. But before long Jesse was growing tired of his life of crime. By this time he had two children and had moved back to Missouri. The gang had been thinned out for various reasons–death, incarceration or having left the gang–and Frank had decided to retire. Jesses infamy was becoming more of a hindrance to his life now, hence the move back to Missouri where he felt more secure. Thanks to his paranoia and decimation of his group, Jesse came to trust only the Ford brothers; Charles having been on raids with him before and Bob being a young and eager new boy. He even asked the brothers to come and live with him. But this turned out to be a very foolish move.

A bounty was placed on Jesse James by Governor Thomas Crittenden of $10,000 and Bob intended to claim it. He had surrended to the law in January 1882 and been offered a full pardon if he could bring in Jesse James, who at the time was the most wanted criminal in the USA. So on this day in 1882, 3 months after Bob had negotiated with the Governor, he was having breakfast with Jesse. Afterwards Jesse stood on a chair to dust a picture and Robert, ever a man of honour, drew his gun and shot Jesse in the back of the head. Zee burst in and ran to her husband, shouting that he had been killed and Robert went for the excuse best reserved for the under-5s: “I didn’t do it.” Nevertheless he and Charles were arrested and charged with first degree murder, much to their shock. However the Governor kept to his word and after less than two hours the pardon arrived. However they were dismayed to receive only $500 each for the kill.

The man and the gun that shot Jesse James

The man and the gun that shot Jesse James

Robert made a career out of his betrayal, posing for photographs with the gun he used to kill Jesse James. Meanwhile Jesse’s heroism only grew in the wake of his death; the cowardly way he was disposed of by one of his own overshadowing the heinous deeds he himself had done in the past. He became an almost mythical figure, with comparisons to Robin Hood, in spite of their being no evidence to suggest he was ever “robbing from the rich to give to the poor”. Rather his motivations appeared to be the very run of the mill greed and a desire to cause trouble to those in charge after the war. He became a figure in literature, appearing in dime novels and books throughout the years. He has been the subject of 26 films, the earliest in 1921, the latest in 2007, with Brad Pitt starring as the titular figure and Casey Affleck playing the “coward Robert Ford”. He has appeared in a plethora of songs (I first heard the name as a teenager listening to Cher and hearing the lyrics “Now you’re gonna go down in flames/Just like Jesse James”)

On the other hand Robert Ford has gone down in history as a coward due to the way he took on Jesse James, firing on him while he was unarmed and had his back turned to him. Had he been a member of the law shooting at an armed robber, such as the killers of Bonnie and Clyde for example, he would have faced no such ire in my view. It was the incredibly backhanded way he approached the killing.

Jesse James, shot in the head by own gang member: receives hero status.

Jesse James, shot in the head by own gang member: receives hero status.

At this point it should be noted that Robert Fords own death was less than glamourous. On June 8th 1892 he was in his tent saloon when Edward O’Kelley entered with a shotgun. Witnesses reported that Roberts back was turned to the shooter, but O’Kelley was ever-so-slightly more honourable than his target as he said “Hello Bob”, to which Robert turned only to receive a shotgun blast to the chest (so only marginally more honourable).

So, what have we learned from this little wander into history? Don’t be an outlaw, but if you do find yourself on that path, be charismatic and dashing while courting the press so that people will give you sympathy and pretend you have a “cause” to rob for. And if you choose to betray your gang leader for $10k at least have the balls to do it face on or you’ll be known as a coward forever.

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