Jesse James (1847 – 1882) was born and raised in a part of Missouri that had strong Southern sympathies, and when the Civil War broke out, he joined pro-Confederacy guerrillas led by men such as “Bloody Bill” Anderson and William Quantrill, who committed sundry atrocities during the conflict in which Jesse and his elder brother Frank took part. Jesse was twice wounded during the war, the second occurring at war’s end when he was shot in the chest by Union cavalry as he tried to surrender.
After recovering from his wound, Jesse and his brother Frank joined a gang led by one of their former guerrilla commanders, and in 1866 robbed a bank in Liberty, Missouri, during which robbery an innocent bystander was killed. A few months later, they killed a jailer while freeing imprisoned fellow gang members. In 1867, the gang killed the mayor of Richmond, Missouri, along with two others, during a bank robbery.
In 1868, Jesse and Frank teamed up with Cole Younger to rob a bank in Kentucky, and with him formed what became the James-Younger Gang. In 1869, Jesse gained notoriety when he murdered a cashier during the course of a robbery, after mistaking him for the man who had killed his former guerrilla commander, “Bloody Bill’ Anderson. The gang then went on a spree, robbing stagecoaches, trains, banks, and county fairs, from Iowa to Texas, and from West Virginia to Kansas.
During that period, Jesse allied with the editor and founder of the Kansas City Time, which opposed Missouri’s Republican governor, and began portraying Jesse as a Robin Hood figure driven by ideals and not just greed and bloodthirstiness. There is no evidence that the gang ever shared its loot with any outside their immediate personal circle, but the portrayal fell on receptive ears, particularly in the pro-Southern parts of Missouri.
The Pinkerton Agency was hired to go after the James-Younger Gang, but when two of its agents were killed, the agency’s founder, Allan Pinkerton, turned it into a vendetta. During a raid on the James household soon thereafter, a bomb was thrown that killed one of Jesse’s brothers and severed his mother’s arm.
In 1876, the gang attempted to rob a bank in Northfield, Minnesota, but it ended catastrophically when armed townspeople resisted. After a shootout and pursuit, only Jesse and his brother Frank escaped, with the rest of the gang killed or captured. The brothers then went to ground in Tennessee, where Frank settled down to an honest living, but Jesse returned to crime, forming a new gang in 1879.
In 1881, the brothers left Tennessee for safety reasons, and soon thereafter Frank moved to Virginia. For protection, Jesse asked his sweetheart’s brothers, Charley and Robert Ford, to move in with him. It was a bad choice, as Robert Ford had been negotiating with Missouri’s governor to betray Jesse. In 1882, while Jesse was dusting a picture hanging on a wall, Robert Ford shot him in the back of the head.