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

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Here’s part of the true story behind the 2007 movie The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Did Jesse James — shown below and elsewhere in this story — look much like Brad Pitt? We’ll leave that for you to judge.

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 $50,000 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.

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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.

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.

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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.”

>> Read how the murder happened on the next page

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