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Jesse James | Article

The Death of Jesse James

Previous Missouri governors had tried to capture the James brothers, employing everything from reward offers to a squad of state-funded secret police. But Thomas Crittenden knew that to catch a thief, you needed a thief, and he finally brought Jesse down with the help of the outlaw's own gang.

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Jesse James. dead and in coffin, 1882. Library of Congress

Return to Crime
In the aftermath of the failed Northfield bank robbery of 1876, Frank and Jesse James were forced to hide under assumed names in Tennessee. Jesse chafed at the lack of attention, and in 1879 he decided to return to crime. His old comrades were almost all gone, so Jesse recruited a new gang, men who craved the spoils of banditry but had never served as Confederate guerillas with Jesse and therefore had no deep loyalty to him. Jesse also faced another problem. He had long seen himself as a heroic Southern outlaw, still fighting against Northern oppressors more than a decade after the Civil War was done. But by 1880 Reconstruction was long gone, and Jesse's side had won the peace. Ex-Confederates dominated Missouri politics, and, having won their battle for power, they no longer needed someone who wore a Ku Klux Klan mask while robbing trains. Stripped of this support, Jesse was vulnerable to a concerted push from a determined foe.

Crittenden Plots
Thomas Crittenden had served with the Missouri State Militia and fought bushwackers during the war. But Missouri's new governor also had practiced law with an ex-Confederate general, and he had no desire to re-fight 15-year-old battles. What Crittenden did want was an end to Jesse's outlaw antics. He railed against the bandit in his 1881 inaugural speech. "Missouri cannot be the home and abiding place of lawlessness of any character," he declared. And Crittenden went right to work rooting out that lawlessness. The legislature had previously made a gesture of support for the James brothers and had limited government reward offers to $300. Crittenden's first step was a July 1881 meeting with various railroad and express company leaders, at which Crittenden persuaded them to sponsor a $10,000 reward each for the capture of Frank and Jesse James. The reward drew the attention of 21-year-old Bob Ford, whose brother Charlie was a member of Jesse's new gang. Bob convinced Charlie that they should kill Jesse and collect the money.

Ford Strikes
Acting through their sister Martha Bolton, the Fords made contact with Governor Crittenden, and Bob met with him on January 13, 1882. They reached a deal: if the Fords killed Jesse, they would receive both the reward money and a pardon for their crimes. Meanwhile, some of Jesse's other gang members had been killed or captured in the face of Crittenden's relentless pursuit. Infighting and paranoia had also taken its toll on the gang: Dick Liddil, with Bob Ford's help, shot one gang member — Jesse's cousin — and Jesse himself shot Ed Miller, and scared away Jim Cummins after he began to suspect Cummins of treachery. Ironically, Jesse thought the Ford brothers were the last two people he could trust. So that March the outlaw invited Bob and Charlie to move into his new home in St. Joseph. The Fords said yes -- and waited for their chance to strike. They knew they couldn't do anything while Jesse was armed; he'd get the drop on them for sure. So they watched and waited until finally, on April 3, Jesse was moving in and out of his house and got so hot that he took off his coat. Afraid of being spotted with his pistols, he removed them as well. Then Jesse stepped on a chair in his living room and reached forward to dust a picture. Bob and Charlie drew their weapons, and Bob put a bullet in the back of Jesse's brain.

Bob and Charlie Ford were convicted of murder, but Governor Crittenden pardoned them and got the railroad companies to pay out the reward. As it turned out, the Ford brothers weren't the only ones who profited from Jesse's death. A promoter offered his mother Zerelda $10,000 for the body; she refused, but later charged visitors a quarter each to take pebbles from his grave. Jesse's son wrote a book about him, and some 40 years after his death, Jesse's children even appeared in a movie about him called "Jesse James Under the Black Flag."

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