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The Cold-blooded Assassination of Outlaw Jesse James

Jesse James lies dead in his coffin, cut down in the prime of life by his close friend, Robert Ford. Library of Congress

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In June of 1892, Robert Ford was managing a dance hall in the town of Creede, Colorado. He'd come down in the world, but was still dressed to the nines the day a deputy sheriff from out of town named Ed O'Kelley walked in with a shotgun. Ford had his back turned, so O'Kelley politely greeted him. Ford turned and found himself at the wrong end of O'Kelley's shotgun. It was the last thing he ever saw.

In jail, O'Kelley nearly drowned in fan mail. His sudden popularity stemmed from fact that he'd gunned down the man who killed one of America's most famous outlaws — Jesse James.

Well before he died, Jesse James was a legend. Some thought him a Robin Hood, who robbed banks and handed out cash to the poor. Others, including President Ulysses S. Grant, judged him a homicidal crook. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be any evidence that he redistributed his ill-gotten gains. And as for his violent behavior, it appear to have been rooted in a very specific historical context.

Born in 1847, he and his brother Frank came of age during the American Civil War. They enlisted with the Confederate Army as teenagers and although the war ended in 1865, for the James brothers, it was never really over.

T. J. Stiles is the award-winning author of, "Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War." In an email interview, he laid out some of the conditions that led Jesse James toward a life of post-Civil War violent crime.

Bad Influences

The first influence was his friendship with Archie Clement, "one of the most violent of the Confederate guerrilla leaders in Missouri," according to Stiles. Clement carried on the war long after it was over. The Unionist Republicans had control of Missouri, including its banks. So, Clement robbed as many of them as possible and did his violent best to sway elections against the Republicans. State militiamen eventually killed Clement, which, says Stiles, "embittered Jesse James."

Jesse Woodson James in his younger days, circa 1864.
Library of Congress

Jesse was not alone in his admiration for Clement. His own mother, Zerelda, had named one of her other sons after the fallen leader. In fact, Zerelda was "hotly partisan and an outspoken supporter of the Confederate cause," Stiles asserts. "Jesse James was brought up in an intensely political atmosphere."

The influences of Zerelda and Archie Clement combined with Jesse James' war experiences to foster James' career of politically-tinged violence. Stiles notes that the Confederate guerrilla group he joined at the age of 16, was, "essentially a death squad, going farm to farm in the county where he had grown up, murdering farmers in their fields or homes simply because of their loyalties."

In other words, the war taught him he could commit acts of terrorism and get away with it. And post-Civil War politics had everything to do with his longevity as a criminal. "The reason Jesse James lasted free and alive as a fugitive for more than a decade — far longer than the typical outlaw," explains Stiles, "is that he was seen as a political hero to former Confederates, a role he cultivated." But the protection this status afforded him would not last forever.

After a bank robbery in Minnesota went wrong, Jesse's gang barely escaped capture. They fled back to Missouri and while Frank James, his brother, seems to have settled down, Jesse went on another crime spree. The new governor of Missouri, Thomas Crittenden, convinced private corporations to offer a substantial reward for the capture and conviction of the James brothers. Then he arranged a secret meeting at a hotel after a ball in Kansas City with the last two remaining members of Jesse's gang, Charley and Robert Ford. By this time, Jesse had grown paranoid and the Ford brothers were the only people he still trusted.

His trust was poorly placed.

The Ambush and Murder

On the morning of April 3, 1882, Jesse and the Ford brothers breakfasted together before retiring to the living room to discuss their plans for an upcoming robbery. Jesse noticed a dusty picture on the wall and decided now was the time to clean it. He climbed onto a chair to reach it. Robert Ford took a deep breath and drew his gun. Jesse was a man Ford had long admired. A man he'd emulated. Yet Ford aimed his gun at the back of Jesse's head and fired.

After the Ford brothers notified the authorities, they were arrested and thrown in prison for murder. They confessed and were sentenced to death. But this seems to have been part of the governor's plan.

T. J. Stiles states that, given the circumstances, it seems almost certain that when Governor Crittenden met with the Ford brothers before the shooting, he promised to let them off the hook when the time came if they were up for some extrajudicial killing.

"By the time Jesse James was marked for death," says Stiles, "his cause had run its course. Reconstruction was reversed nationwide and within Missouri, where former Confederates dominated the ruling Democratic Party. The outlaw had no more political support; he was simply a criminal. Crittenden had a free hand, so to speak. Two things suggest that Crittenden explicitly authorized the Ford brothers to kill Jesse James at their secret meeting after the ball in Kansas City: First, the brothers immediately surrendered to authorities after the murder and pleaded guilty. (A pardon could only be issued after a conviction.) They would hardly have done so if they were not certain of a pardon. Second, they were actually pardoned. I find it impossible to conclude that there was not an explicit understanding."

Out of prison, the Ford brothers leveraged their notoriety into a travelling show in which they reenacted the killing of Jesse James. But over time, public opinion turned against them. They folded the show and went their separate ways.

Frank James surrendered to the authorities after his brother's death. He spent a year and three weeks in jail but was never convicted for his many crimes. He married, had children and eventually returned to his mother's farm, where, after a long and mostly uneventful life, he died at the age of 74.

Some people do not believe that Jesse James was killed on April 3, 1882; these people claim his death was faked and that he actually died of old age many years later. There is also a bit of controversy about whether he was actually standing on a chair or had just turned his back on Robert Ford, though most historians do ascribe to the theory that James had stepped up on a chair to do a bit of housekeeping.

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