Jesse James was born on September 5, 1847 in Kearney, Missouri. His father was a minister at a local Baptist church.
When Jesse was seventeen he joined the Confederate Army to help fight for independence from the union. He served the entire Civil War in a group of raiders led by the notorious William Clarke Quantrill. The group of men rode horseback into Kansas, conducting raids and harassing union sympathizers. The raids were quite violent and he once killed eight people on the same day.
When the unit finally surrendered to union forces, Jesse suffered minor wounds. After the war ended, he returned to Missouri and formed a gang of outlaws. The gang became known as the James Gang and included his brother Frank and several people that had been in Quantrill's Raiders.
Jesse conducted the first robbery in Liberty, Missouri, making off with an astounding $60,000. The gang started moving west, stopping in Adair, Iowa to rob a train for $3,000. The James Gang continued west, leaving a trail of crime in its wake. They robbed stagecoaches, banks, trains, and stole everything they could take with them. Their reputation grew quickly and caused many people to chase them, but the gang managed to evade capture.
Although the gang was violent and caused a lot of mayhem, they received a lot of media attention that created a lot of fans. The press wrote about him as if he was a hero, sometimes describing him as a Robin Hood of sorts. However, in truth he committed crimes not to help others, but for his own personal gain.
The gang's string of successes came to an end when they attempted to rob a bank in Northfield, Minnesota on September 7, 1876. A militia formed to fire at the gang, killing some of them and capturing everyone else except for Jesse and his brother. The two fled and returned home to Missouri, where the two met up with their wives.
Their wives managed to convince the brothers to lay low and live normally for a while. Jesse and his wife moved to Saint Joseph, Missouri and he changed his name to Tom Howard since he had a $10,000 price on his head.
Jesse couldn't handle the slow-paced lifestyle of hiding out for long, however. In April of 1882, he began seeking out people to help him rob a bank in Platte City. After asking around, he found two brothers named Robert and Charles Ford and invited them to his house in order to discuss how best to perform the operation. The men came to his house on April 3, 1882, but Jesse did not know that they had plans of their own.
During the meeting, Jesse noticed a picture on his wall was crooked and stood on a chair to correct it. When he had his back turned, the two men drew their pistols and shot him. Robert's bullet hit Jesse in the back of the head, killing him instantly. They had expected to receive the full $10,000 reward, but were only given a small amount of money and charged with murder. They were sentenced to hang for murdering Jesse, but the governor of Missouri pardoned them.
Jesse was buried in his hometown cemetery and his mother wrote the following epitaph: "In loving memory of my beloved son, murdered by a traitor and coward whose name is not worthy to appear here." Rumors grew that Jesse had not actually been killed and the body was someone else's, but forensic experts exhumed the body in 1995, arriving at the conclusion that the body was indeed Jesse James.
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