Few names arouse awe and curiosity quite like Jesse James's. If you ask someone to name an outlaw, he's probably the first one that will pop into their minds... but how much do most people really know about Jesse? Just what did he do to earn the title of America's most notorious outlaw? Delve into the life of Jesse James at his birthplace, his hideout, banks he robbed, and his grave and learn why he became so feared... and famous.
Jesse was born outside what would become Kearney, Missouri in 1847. His parents were well off, but not overly rich, owning some farmland and a few slaves. Missouri was a border state, but was largely settled by Southerners like James's parents, so the issue of slavery, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and the impending Civil War were big issues. Missouri was mostly wracked by rogue guerilla Union and Confederate fighters who weren't afraid to rough up or kill civilians or unarmed soldiers. James was a member of guerilla Confederate groups, and even after the Civil War ended, the fighters continued to harass Republican authorities around the state.
The Clay County Savings Association was owned by some former Union militiamen, which is why Jesse James's gang of Confederate raiders targeted it for robbery. The heist (which no one can prove that Jesse or his brother Frank participated in, but for legend's sake, Jesse was involved in) was actually the first successful armed robbery to occur in broad daylight during peacetime (ie because the Civil War was going on.) Today, the bank is known as the Jesse James Bank Museum and it appears as it did during the 1860s. Peer into the vault, and check out the vintage clock, which is set to the exact date and time of the robbery. From there, Jesse, his brother Frank, and other various friends robbed dozens of banks and stagecoaches from Texas to West Virginia.
Then, in 1873, the gang decided to level up from bank robberies to train robberies. The James-Younger gang, of which Jesse was the de facto leader, committed the first peacetime train robbery in the West in Adair, Iowa. To do it, they wore disguises (in the form of KKK hoods) and derailed the Rock Island Railroad train. They made off with around $3,000-- not a bad payday. As they robbed more trains, they stopped bothering to hold up the passengers, and simply emptied the safes and rode off. This actually gave the James-Younger gang an almost Robin Hood-esque reputation, since they were more targeting businesses rather than innocent individuals.
You can visit the Monument to the First Train Robbery in the West today. There's a wheel with a plaque and a section of railroad track-- the original track that Jesse James and his gang derailed. In fact, you can even still see the section of metal that the outlaws moved to stop the train; the track only needed to be adjusted a tiny bit in order to derail it.
Jesse James and his gang continued to rob and pillage their way around the country, crisscrossing the West and Midwest. Legend holds that in the fall of 1876, Jesse was escaping a posse from Minnesota that was hot on his tail, and he came across a 20-foot chasm at what is now Devil's Gulch Park. Rather than give himself up, he supposedly coaxed his horse into jumping across, thus making a triumphant escape. You can take a walking tour today, and cross the footbridge that now stands where he made the leap.
Meramec Caverns is a large, 4.6-mile system of caves in the Ozarks near where Jesse grew up. During the Civil War, the Union army had a secret saltpeter mining operation and gunpowder-making plant here, but it was discovered and destroyed by Confederate guerrillas; Jesse and Frank were likely among the fighters. There are rumors that Jesse and his gang used the caves as a hideout during the 1870s, but there aren't many ways to prove or disprove the stories. Either way, Meramec Caverns are a kitschy and popular Route 66 stop.
By 1880, the James-Younger gang had been decimated from robberies that went wrong, and Jesse's attempts to form a new gang had fizzled. Jesse returned home to Missouri, and kept the only two people he thought he could trust close by: Charley and Robert Ford. Sadly, Jesse didn't know that the Fords had been talking with Missouri's governor, Thomas Crittenden, about turning in Jesse's body for a reward. On April 3rd, as they prepared to leave for another robbery, Jesse put his revolvers down, and reached up to dust off a picture above the mantle. Since his back was turned, Robert Ford took the opportunity to shoot Jesse in the head and kill him. The two Fords brought in Jesse's body and then were charged with first-degree murder. They were charged, plead guilty, were sentenced to death, and were pardoned by Crittenden in one eventful (and very suspicious) day. The house where Ford shot James is on display in St. Joseph.
He's now buried at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Kansas City, although he was buried for some time at the farm where he grew up. The epitaph his mother wrote for his original gravesite is pretty legendary (you can still see it at the Jesse James Farm and Museum today): "In Loving Memory of my Beloved Son, Murdered by a Traitor and Coward Whose Name is not Worthy to Appear Here." She also reportedly moved her bed to a position that allowed her to always keep an eye on his grave... just in case.
Of course, Jesse James remained just as famous in death as he had in life... but what if he wasn't actually shot by Robert Ford? Back near Meramec Caverns, you'll find the Jesse James Wax Museum, which features a ton of information on the theory that James wasn't murdered in the 1880s, and purports that he faked his death and lived under an assumed name until the 1950s. Even if you aren't convinced that Jesse James escaped and lived to be over 100 years old (you'll have to see the evidence for yourself) you can still appreciate the exhibits and displays here; you'll see the only live footage of Jesse James and some of his personal effects, along with a bunch of other artifacts from his era.
The fact that we can verify so little (we might not even know the man's death date, for goodness sake!) makes it easier for anyone to believe any of the tales about Jesse James, and he's become a legend because of it. But, there's no denying that his reputation is completely nefarious, and even if it's not entirely accurate, we can suppose that that is probably the way Jesse James would have liked it.