On This Day

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Library of Congress
Jesse James

On This Day: Jesse James Killed by Robert Ford

April 03, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On April 3, 1882, notorious outlaw Jesse James was shot in the back by Robert Ford, who had been offered $10,000 by the governor of Missouri for James’ capture.

Jesse James Assassinated

In the decades following the Civil War, Confederate veteran Jesse James became the West’s most notorious outlaw as he robbed banks, stagecoaches and trains with his brother Frank and the James-Younger gang.

The gang’s reign of terror came to an end in 1876, when a botched bank robbery in Northfield, Minn., left all members except for the Jesse and Frank James dead or in prison. The James brothers fled to Tennessee, where Frank settled down with his family; Jesse, on the other hand, craved the notoriety that came with being an outlaw.

In 1879, he returned to Missouri and formed a new gang, which pulled off robberies in and around the state. James faced two key problems, though: the public had become less tolerant of outlaws and his new gang members were not as competent or as loyal to him as the James-Younger members had been.

Following an 1881 robbery in which the James gang killed a conductor, Missouri Gov. Thomas Crittenden, who made a campaign promise to stop James, raised money from railroad executives and put out a $10,000 reward for his capture.

On Jan. 12, 1882, Crittenden reached out to Bob Ford, the brother of James gang member Charlie Ford, and offered him a reward and pardon for capturing James. Ford accepted the deal, which, contrary to popular belief, did not call for James to be captured “dead or alive.”

On April 3, 1882, Bob and Charlie Ford had breakfast with James at a house in St. Joseph, Mo. As James removed his holster and turned to dust off some pictures on the wall, the Ford brothers drew their guns.

“Hearing the click of a weapon being cocked, [James] started to turn his head, and then the report of Bob’s six-shooter reverberated through the house,” writes Ted P. Yeatman in Wild West magazine. “Charlie didn’t even bother to fire but lowered his gun as the man fell to the floor, with a bullet in his skull.”

In a letter to Crittenden, Robert Ford contends that James knew Ford was going to betray him. James removed his holster, Ford believed, to give the impression that everything was normal.

Ford wrote: “As he stood there, unarmed, with his back to me, it came to me suddenly, ‘Now or never is your chance. If you don’t get him now he’ll get you tonight.’ Without further thought or a moment’s delay I pulled my revolver and leveled it as I sat. He heard the hammer click as I cocked it with my thumb and started to turn as I pulled the trigger. The ball struck him just behind the ear and he fell like a log, dead.”

Biography: Jesse James

As a teenager, Missouri-born Jesse James fought alongside his brother Frank in a Confederate guerilla group, participating in multiple massacres of Union troops in Missouri. After the war, the James brothers began robbing Union-affiliated institutions to avenge the Confederacy’s defeat.

PBS explains: “The humiliation of Confederate defeat still gnawed at them, and the disenfranchisement of most ex-Confederates by the victorious Radical Republicans made Jesse feel like a victim. … Jesse began constructing a myth of himself as a heroic Southern fighter, a noble Robin Hood who helped poor Missourians crushed under the weight of Republican outrages.”

The Search for the “Real Jesse James”

The outlaw’s murder created a national sensation, and rumors circulated that James had switched his clothing with a dead man’s and fled. James had evaded capture for years before the shooting, and there had been earlier false reports of his death.

In the 1940s, J. Frank Dalton, a Texas man thought to be over 100 years old, claimed to be the real Jesse James. Though he was very knowledgeable about James’ life, he did not know several important details that the real James would certainly know. It is possible that Dalton may have been part of James’ posse at one point.

In 1995, the body believed to be James’ was exhumed and tested by forensic scientists, who found that the corpse’s DNA matched the DNA of two of James’ descendants. Though it is impossible to prove conclusively (the body could be an unrelated man with identical mtDNA sequences), it is almost certain that the body is indeed James.

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