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

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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.

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Dusting the picture - Death of Jesse James illustration

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.

Meanwhile, 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.

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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. 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.

The last view of Jesse James - dead

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