Death of an outlaw: First account of Jesse James’ murder (1882)

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Jesse James, born in 1847 in Missouri, became one of the most infamous outlaws in American history. Along with his brother Frank, Jesse led the James-Younger Gang, notorious for their bank and train robberies during the late 1860s and 1870s.

His criminal exploits began during the Civil War when he joined Confederate guerrillas, conducting brutal raids. After the war, his life of crime continued, earning him a reputation as a daring and ruthless bandit. Despite his violent actions, James was also seen as a folk hero by some, embodying the rebellious spirit of the Wild West.

In 1882, Jesse James’ reign came to an abrupt end. Robert Ford, a member of James’ gang, shot him in the back of the head while he was fixing a picture on the wall. Ford and his brother, Charles, had planned the assassination with the promise of a reward. They had hoped to turn in the outlaw to Governor Crittenden and claim the bounty on his head.

Leading up to his death, James had been living under the alias Thomas Howard in St. Joseph, Missouri. He was attempting to live a quieter life, having grown weary of the constant danger and pursuit. Despite this, he couldn’t entirely escape his past, which ultimately led to his betrayal by those he trusted.

The aftermath of Jesse James’ murder was chaotic. Robert Ford, initially hailed as a hero for killing the infamous outlaw, quickly became despised for his treachery. The legal proceedings that followed highlighted the murky morality of the times and the complex legacy of Jesse James. His death marked the end of an era and the beginning of his transformation into a folk hero.

Below, we have unearthed an early newspaper account from 1882 detailing Jesse James’ assassination, which forms part of the story behind the 2007 movie The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Along with this, we’ve included rare photos from his life and times, offering a glimpse into the world of one of America’s most infamous outlaws.

Jesse James portrait c1882

Express and train robber Jesse James

Details of the assassination of the bandit chief and outlaw

St Joseph, Missouri, April 4, 1882 — Between 8 and 9 o’clock this morning, Jesse James, the Missouri outlaw, before whom the deeds of Fra Diavolo, Dick Turpin and Shindarhannes dwindle into insignificance, was killed by a boy twenty years old, named Robert Ford, at his temporary residence on Thirteenth and Lafayette streets, in this city.

In the light of all moral reasoning, the shooting was wholly unjustifiable, but the law is vindicated, and the $5,000 reward offered by the State for the body of the brigand, dead or alive, will doubtless go to the man who had courage to draw a revolver on the notorious outlaw when his back was turned, as in this case.

There is little doubt that the killing was the result of a premeditated plan formed by Robert and Charles Ford several months ago.

Charles had been an accomplice of Jesse James since the 3rd of last November, and entirely possessed his confidence. Robert Ford, his brother, joined Jesse near Mrs. Samuels’ house, mother of the James boys, last Friday a week ago, and accompanied Jesse and Charles to this city Sunday, March 23.

Jesse, his wife and two children removed from Kansas City, where they had lived several months until they feared their whereabouts would be suspected, in a wagon, to this city, arriving here November 8, 1881, accompanied by Charles Ford, and rented a house on the corner of Lafayette and Twenty-first streets, where they stayed two months, when they secured house 1318 on Lafayette Street, formerly the property of Councilman Aylesbury, paying fourteen dollars a month for it, and giving the name of Thomas Howard.

Frank James and Jesse James wanted poster 1881

The house is a one-story cottage, painted white, with green shutters, and romantically situated on the brow of a lofty eminence east of the city, commanding a fine view of the principal portion of the city, the, river and railroads are adapted as by nature for the perilous and desperate calling of James.

Just east of the house is a deep, gulchlike ravine, and beyond a broad expanse of open country, backed by a belt of timber. The house, except from the west side, can be seen for several miles. There is a large yard attached to cottage and stable, where Jesse had been keeping two horses, which were found there this morning.

Jesse James' murder

Charles and Robert Ford have been occupying one of the rooms in the rear of the dwelling, and have secretly had an understanding to kill Jesse ever since last fall. A short time ago, before Robert had joined James, the latter proposed to rob the bank at Platte City.

He said the Burgess murder trial would commence there that day and his plan was, if they could get another companion, to take a view of the situation of the Platte City Bank, and while the arguments were being heard in the murder case, which would naturally engage the attention of citizens, boldly execute one of his favorite raids.

Chas. Ford approved of the plan, and suggested his brother Robert as a companion worthy of sharing the enterprise with them.

Jesse had met the boy at the latter’s house near Richmond three years ago, and consented to see him. The two men accordingly went to where Robert was, and arranged to have him accompany them to Platte City.

As stated, all three came to St. Joseph a week ago Sunday. They remained at the house all the week. Jesse thought it best that Robert should not exhibit himself on the premises, lest the presence of three able-bodied men, who were doing nothing, should excite suspicion.

They had fixed upon tonight to go to Platte City. Ever since the boys had been with Jesse they had watched for an opportunity to shoot him, but he was always so heavily armed that it was impossible to draw a weapon without his seeing it.

They declare that they had no idea of taking him alive, considering the undertaking suicidal.

Jesse James age 17 in Quantrill's Raiders uniform 1860s

The opportunity they had long wished for came this morning. Breakfast was over, Charley Ford and Jesse James had been in the stable currying the horses, preparatory to their night ride.

On returning to the room where Robert Ford was, Jesse said: “It’s an awfully hot day.” He pulled off his coat and vest and tossed them on the bed.

Then he said: “I guess I’ll take off my pistols, for fear somebody will see them if I walk in the yard.” He unbuckled the belt in which he carried two 45-caliber revolvers, one a Smith & Wesson and the other a Colt, and laid them on the bed with his coat and vest.

He then picked up a dusting-brush, with the intention of dusting some pictures which hung on the wall. To do this he got on a chair. His back was now turned to the brothers, who silently stepped between Jesse and his revolvers, and at a motion from Charley both got their guns.

Robert was the quickest of the two. In one motion, he had a long weapon to level with the muzzle no more than four feet from the back of the outlaw’s head.

Even in that motion, quick as thought, though, there was something which did not escape the acute ears of the hunted man. He made a motion as if to turn his head to ascertain the cause of that suspicious sound, but too late. A nervous pressure on the trigger, a quick flash, a sharp report, and a well-directed ball crashed through the outlaw’s skull.

There was no outcry, just a swaying of the body and it fell heavily back upon the carpeted floor.

The shot had been fatal, and all the bullets in the chambers of Charley’s revolver still directed at Jesse’s head could not more effectually have decided the fate of the greatest bandit and freebooter that ever figured in the pages of the country’s history.

The ball had entered the base of the skull and made its way out through the forehead over the left eye. It had been fired out of a Colt’s 45 improved pattern silver mounted and pearl handle revolver presented by the dead man to his slayer only a few days ago.

Dusting the picture - Death of Jesse James illustration

Mrs. James was in the kitchen when the shooting was done, divided from the room in which the bloody tragedy occurred by a dining room. She heard the shot, and dropping her household duties ran into the front room. She saw her husband lying on his back, and his slayers, each holding his revolver in his hand, making for the fence in the rear of the house.

Robert had reached the enclosure, and was in the act of scaling it, when she stepped to the door and called to him, “Robert, you have done this; come back.” Robert answered. “I swear to God I did not.” They then returned to where she stood.

Mrs. James ran to the side of her husband and lifted up his head. Life was not yet extinct. When asked if he was hurt, it seemed to her that he wanted to say something, but could not.

She tried to wash away the blood that was coursing over his face from the hole in his forehead, but it seemed, to her “that the blood would come faster than she could wash it away,” and in her hands, Jesse James died.

Charles Ford explained to Mrs. James that a “pistol had accidentally gone off.”

“Yes,” said Mrs. James, “I guess it went off on purpose.”

She was greatly affected by the tragedy, and her heart-rendering moans and expressions of grief were sorrowful evidences of the love she bore the dead desperado.

Jesse James' murderMeanwhile, Charley had gone back into the house and brought out two hats, and the two boys left the house. They went to the telegraph office, sent a message to sheriff Timberlake, of Clay county, and to Governor Crittenden, and other officers, and then surrendered themselves to marshal Craig.

When the Ford boys appeared at the station they were told by an officer that marshal Craig and a posse of officers had started in the direction of the James residence and they started after them and surrendered themselves.

They accompanied the officers to the house and returned in custody of the police to the marshal’s headquarters, where they were furnished with dinners, and about three o’clock were removed to the circuit courtroom where the inquest was held in the presence of an immense crowd.

Mrs. James also accompanied the officers to the city hall, having previously left her two children, aged seven and three, a boy and a girl, at the house of Mrs. Turnal, who had known the James’ under their assumed name of Howard, ever since they had occupied the adjoining house.

The report of the killing of the notorious outlaw spread like wildfire through the city, and, as usual, the reports assumed I every variety of form and color.  Very few accredited the news, however, and simply laughed at the idea that Jesse James was really the dead man. Nevertheless, the excitement ran high, and one confirming report succeeded another.

Crowds of hundreds gathered at the undertaking establishment where lay the body, at the city hall, at the courthouse, and, in fact, on every street corner, the almost incredible news constituting the sole object of conversation. Coroner Heddens was notified, and undertaker Sidenfaden instructed to remove the body to his establishment.

Jesse James guns

A large crowd accompanied the coroner to the morgue, but only a few, including a reporter, were admitted. Nothing in the appearance of the remains indicate the desperate character of the man, or the many bloody scenes of which he had been an actor.

Only the lower part of the face, the square cheek bones, the stout, prominent chin, covered with a soft sandy beard, and the firmly closed lips in a measure betrayed the determined will and iron courage of the dead man.

A further inspection of the body revealed two large bullet holes on the right side of the breast within three inches of the nipple, a bullet wound in the leg, and the absence of the middle finger on the left hand.

The last view of Jesse James - dead

After viewing the remains, the coroner repaired to the court, whither soon after, Mrs. James, in custody of marshal Craig, and the two Ford boys, both heavily armed, followed. They were kept in separate apartments until the jury announced itself ready to hear the testimony.

The jury was impaneled as follows: W.H. Chouning, J. W. Moore, Warren Samuels, Wm. Turner, Thomas Morris, W. H. George. The witnesses examined were Mrs. James, the Ford boys, and James Little. The inquest will be continued tomorrow.

Photo of 1318 Lafayette Street (c1906) courtesy State Historical Society of Missouri; Bottom photo is of Robert Ford, posing with the gun he used to kill Jesse James.

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Comments on this story

One Response

  1. I read most of all the accounts about Jesse James. My question is why does the name Jesse Jehovah appear on the first page oh the Missouri Gazette dated April 5, 1882

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