6 Famous Outlaws of the Wild, Wild West


Jesse James

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

People like to believe that Jesse James was one of those compassionate thieves who stole from the rich and gave to the poor, but there's no evidence to support the claim. Born in 1847, James and his brother Frank came from a slave-holding farm family in Missouri and when the Civil War revved up, they joined the Confederate Army. They were just teenagers at the time, but they immediately found themselves riding with a death squad, which travelled from farm to farm slaughtering anybody with Unionist sympathies, many of them old neighbors. This apparently gave Jesse a taste for blood and chaos.

After the war, he carried on fighting, riding with a malignant mentor named Archie Clement who made a habit of robbing banks owned by triumphant Unionists. When Clement was ambushed and killed, James carried on the tradition, thieving and murdering with abandon. But eventually the old slave-holding class got the upper hand politically in the Southern states. When they did, Jesse was no longer their rebel ally, he was just a murderous thug who couldn't play by society's rules, even when society was on his side. In 1882, the new governor of Missouri, Thomas Crittenden, arranged a secret meeting with Robert and Charley Ford, Jesse's two remaining gang members. A short time later, while Jesse was dusting a picture in his living room, Robert shot him in the back of the head. It was an ignominious end to an ignoble career.