In post-Civil War Missouri, Jesse James built his reputation as a ruthless outlaw. Yet many sympathized with the notorious bandit, because they shared his pro-Confederate sentiments. James was certainly aware of the power of the press, befriending journalist John Newman Edwards, and writing directly to newspapers to tell his side of the story and amplify his legend. Below read newspaper accounts of James' actions, categorized into three themes: narratives of James' crimes, stories praising his heroism, and articles written by the outlaw himself.
Jesse James and his associates gave journalists plenty of opportunities to write dramatic stories. Read a few accounts of the bandits' murderous deeds.
The Kansas City Daily Journal of Commerce, December 9, 1869
THE BANK ROBBERY AT GALLENTIN, MO.
The Cashier Shot and Killed.
We learned yesterday that John W. Streets, the cashier of the Davis county Savings Bank, at Galletin, was shot and killed last Monday. The following are the particulars as told to us:
Two men rode up to the banking house and getting off their horses, one of them went in and asked Mr. Sheets to change a one hundred dollar bill. While doing so the other man went in and said:
"If you will write out a receipt, I will pay you that bill."
Mr. Sheets sat down to do so, and while he was writing, the man drew a revolver and shot him twice -- once in the breast, and once through the head. The unfortunate banker fell from his chair dead.
The ruffians then turned upon Mr. McDonald, the clerk, and fired upon him twice, one of the shots taking effect in the fleshy part of one of his arms. At time of the shooting, one of them said with an oath, that
"Sheets and Cox had been the cause of the death of his brother, Bill Anderson, and that he was bound to have revenge."
The two then robbed the bank of all the money in the outside drawer, and mounting their horses deliberately rode away.
As soon as they had left the bank the alarm was given, and a number of the citizens started in pursuit. The men were overtaken a short distance from town, shots were exchanged, and in the running fight, one of the rascals was hit. He fell from his horse, and the animal galloped off free. The man's companion came to his rescue, and assisting him to mount behind himself, the two made their escape.
There is a boldness and recklessness about this robbery and murder that is almost beyond belief...
The Kansas City Times, August 18, 1876
THE TRAIN ROBBERS
Jesse W. James Makes a Statement, and Promises Proofs of His Innocence.
Meanwhile the Council Bluffs Train is Stopped Short, But the Robbers Find Themselves Foiled.
Whenever a train robbery or a bank cracking operation transpires in any portion of the United States, the James and Younger boys receive all the censure. They are the first names mentioned, and all the blame, all the criminality is centered upon them...
The Kansas City Daily Journal of Commerce, September 27, 1876
At last all doubt is cleared up -- the bank robbers at Northfield, Minnesota were the James-Younger "boys." There is no longer a question as to their being the perpetrators of all the bold, open daylight bank, and day and night train robberies of the past ten years, not only in Missouri, but in Illinois, Kentucky, West Virginia, Iowa, and Kansas.
Not only have we direct testimony.. but the internal evidence, the common features of all the robberies, point to their commission by the same men. They were all planned upon the same model; they were all executed in the same way, and with a cool and desperate courage which but few men are capable of.
Their exploits all partook of a semi-military character and could only have resulted from experience. And these men were among the most noted of those half-robber, half-soldier organizations, led by Quantrell, Todd, Bill Anderson and others, on the Missouri and Kansas border. They were no common thieves or vulgar robbers, but had an ambition to make themselves famous in, as they termed it, "a fair, square and honorable" way of doing such things...
The St. Louis Globe Democrat, October 16, 1876
(From the Chicago Tribune.)
In Missouri [the Younger-James outlaws] rode into the towns and robbed banks in broad daylight; stopped passenger trains and, after emptying the express safe, "went through" everybody on board the cars. In the presence of more than 10,000 people, and in broad daylight, they presented their pistols at the ticket office of the Kansas City Fair Association and forced the Treasurer to hand over $10,000. They murdered officers sent to arrest them, and, despite their plunderings and murders, so enlisted popular sympathy in their behalf that the reward of $25,000 for their capture remained unclaimed, though their whereabouts were well known, and, in fact, instead of hiding, they paraded themselves publicly for the admiration of their fellow-Missourians. And had they remained in Missouri to the end of their lives doubtless they might with impunity have gone on with their raiding of railroad trains, and have been regarded with admiring pride by their fellow citizens of that Commonwealth. But they extended their field of operations to Minnesota, made their attack on the Northfield Bank, committed their dastardly murder of Heywood, and, to their wonderment, doubtless, they were not thereon hailed as heroic fellows who had gallantly gathered fresh laurels...
Some newspapers blatantly celebrated Jesse James' criminal activities. These papers opposed Northern control of the South during Reconstruction, and aimed to restore the Democrats to power. They even published chatty pieces about Jesse James' personal life.
The Kansas City Times, September 29, 1872
THE CHIVALRY OF CRIME
There is a dash of tiger blood in the veins of all men; a latent disposition even in the bosom that is a stranger to nerve and daring, to admire those qualities in other men. And this penchant is always keener if there be a dash of sin in the deed to spice the enjoyment of its contemplation...
The Lexington Caucasian, September 5, 1874
MISSOURI'S GAY BANDITS
The Genuine James Boys and One of the Youngers
In all the history of medieval knight-errantry and modern brigandage, there is nothing that equals the wild romance of the past few years' career of Arthur McCoy, Frank and Jesse James and the Younger boys. Their desperate deeds during the war were sufficient to have stocked a score of ordinary novels, with facts that outstrip the strung-out flights of fantasy. Their fierce hand-to-hand encounters... their long and reckless scouts and forays, and their riotous jollity... all combined to form a chapter without a parallel in the annals of America...
The Lexington Caucasian, October 17, 1874
THE TRUTH AT LAST
All the annals of romantic crime furnish no parallel to the exploits of Missouri's bold rovers. Since Ishmael hung out his shingle, thirty-seven centuries ago, in the deserts of Edom, as a dashing, untamable boss brigand, they have been unsurpassed. They've laid Aladdin in the shade, and snuffed out all his marvel-hatching lamps. They've eclipsed the wildest wonders of the Arabian Nights, and rendered commonplace the most incredible achievements of the Cid. They've made the tales of the Crusaders and the Buccaneers stale nursery croonings. Achilles and Hector, Barabbas, Rob Roy, Dick Tarpin and Sixteen-String Jack dwindle to ordinary marauders beside them...
The St. Louis Dispatch, June 9, 1874
THE VERY LATEST
The Celebrated Jesse W. James Taken at Last.
His Captor a Woman, Young, Accomplished, and Beautiful
Not many days ago I saw the celebrated Jesse W. James in the city of Galveston [Texas], talked with him, was introduced to his wife, and recognized in her an old acquaintance of Jackson county -- a lady whom I had known both before and since the war, and one who had been of immense service to the Southern guerrillas when they were operating upon the border in 1862 and 1863.
I had a long talk with Jesse. He was waiting for a vessel bound for Mexico, when it was his intention to go with his wife to Vera Cruz, and from there into the interior and take him a farm. Frank was with him and they appeared to have many friends and acquaintances in Galveston.
Jesse gave me some interesting items concerning his marriage, and told me that it was his intention to keep the matter a secret as long as he could, but that before he left home the event had been talked of much, both in Kansas City and Clay county, and so now that as he was going to leave the country in a few days, he would give all the particulars concerning it...
"On the 23d of April, 1874, I was married to Miss Zee Mimme, of Kansas City, and at the house of a mutual friend there... We had been engaged for nine years..."
JESSE'S OWN WORDS
Jesse James took a hand in building his own legend. Despite his undeniable record of cold-blooded murders and atrocities, James protested his innocence and portrayed himself as a victim in letters to newspapers. The infamous bandit even penned a self-defense to Missouri governor Joseph McClurg.
The Liberty Tribune, June 24, 1870
DEAR SIR: I and my brother Frank are charged with the crime of killing the cashier and robbing the bank at Gallatin, Mo., Dec. 7th, 1869. I can prove, by some of the best men in Missouri, where I was the day of the robbery and the day previous to it, but I well know if I was to submit to an arrest, that I would be mobbed and hanged without a trial. The past is sufficient to show that bushwhackers have been arrested in Missouri since the war, charged with bank robbery, and they most all have been mobbed without trials. I will cite you the case of Thomas Little, of Lafayette county, Mo. A few days after the bank was robbed at Richmond, in 1867, Mr. Little was charged with being one of the party who perpetrated the deed. He was sent from St. Louis to Warrensburg under a heavy guard. As soon as the parties arrived there, they found out that he (Mr. Little) could prove, by the citizens of Dover, that he was innocent of the charge -- as soon as these scoundrels found out that he was innocent -- a mob was raised, broke in the jail, took him out and hanged him.
Governor, when I think I can get a fair trial, I will surrender myself to the civil authorities of Missouri. But I never will surrender to be mobbed by a set of bloodthirsty poltroons. It is true that during the war I was a Confederate soldier, and fought under the black flag, but since then I have lived a peaceable citizen, and obeyed the laws of the United States to the best of my knowledge. The authorities of Gallatin say the reason that led them to suspect me was that the mare left at Gallatin, by the robbers, was identified as belonging to me. That is false. I can prove that I sold the mare previous to the robbery. It is true that I fought Deputy Sheriff Thomason, of Clay county, but was not my brother with me when we had the fight. I do not think that I violated the law when I fought Thomason as his posse refused to tell me who they were.
Three different statements have been published in reference to the fight that I had with Thomason, but they are all a pack of falsehoods. Deputy Sheriff Thomason has never yet given any report of the fight, that I have seen. I am personally acquainted with Oscar Thomason, the Deputy's son, but when the shooting began, his face was so muffled up with furs that I did not recognize him. But if I did violate the law when I fought Thomason I am perfectly willing to abide by it.
But as to them mobbing me for a crime that I am innocent of, that is played out. As soon as I think I can get a just trial I will surrender myself to the civil authorities of Missouri, and prove to the world that I am innocent of the crime charged against me.
Jesse W. James
The Kansas City Times, October 15, 1872
[This letter was not signed "Jesse James," but historians believe he wrote it.]
As a great deal has been said in regard to the robbery which occurred at the Kansas City Exposition grounds, I will give a few lines to the public, as I am one of the party who perpetrated the deed. A great many say that we, the robbers, deserve hanging. What have we done to be hung for? It is true that I shot a little girl, though it was not intentional, and I am very sorry that the child was shot; and if the parents will give me their address through the columns of the Kansas City Weekly Times, I will send them money to pay her doctor's bill. And as to Mr. Wallace, I never tried to kill him. I only shot to make him let go my friend. If I had been so disposed, I could have shot him dead. Just let a party of men commit a bold robbery, and the cry is hang them, but [President Ulysses] Grant and his party can steal millions, and it is all right. It is true, we are robbers, but we always rob in the glare of the day and in the teeth of the multitude; and we never kill only in self defense, without men refuse to open their vaults and safes to us, and when they refuse to unlock to us we kill. But a man who is [expletive] enough fool to refuse to open a safe or a vault when he is covered with a pistol ought to die. There is no use for a man to try to do anything when an experienced robber gets the go on him. If he gives the alarm, or resists, or refuses to unlock, he gets killed, and if he obeys, he is not hurt in the flesh but he is in the purse.
Some editors call us thieves. We are not thieves -- we are bold robbers. It hurts me very much to be called a thief. It makes me feel like they were trying to put me on a par with Grant and his party. We are bold robbers, and I am proud of the name, for Alexander the Great was a bold robber, and Julius Caesar, and Napoleon Bonaparte, and Sir William Wallace -- not old Ben Wallace -- and Robert Emmet. Please rank me with these, and not with the Grantites. Grant's party has no respect for anyone. They rob the poor and rich, and we rob the rich and give to the poor. As to the author of the letter, the public will never know. I will close by hoping that Horace Greeley will defeat Grant, and then I can make an honest living, and then I will not have to rob, as taxes will not be so heavy.
My American Experience
Since 1921, dozens of movies have featured a character based on Jesse James, depicting him in very different lights. Which portrayal do you think is the most historically accurate? Do you have a favorite?