Jesse James is one of the most notorious outlaws in the history of the American Wild West. As a prominent member of the high-profile James-Younger gang, his nefarious terrorising and robbing of banks, stagecoaches and trains in the mid to late 19th century earned him celebrity status.
It wasn’t James’ life alone which beguiled the public, though: until disproved in the 1990s, rumours circulated that James had faked his death, and individuals even claimed to be the outlaw himself.
In addition to Jesse James’ actions as a ruthless murderer, calculating robber and elaborate showman were lesser-known characteristics. A man who was born to a prosperous family of slave-owning farmers, James was deeply loved by his mother throughout his life and went on to become a family man and father himself.
Here are 10 facts about Jesse James.
1. He was the son of a preacher
Jesse Woodson James was born in Clay County, Missouri, on 5 September 1847. A prosperous family, James’ mother was Kentucky native Zerelda Cole and his father, Robert James, was a Baptist minister and slave-owning hemp farmer. In 1850, Robert James travelled to California to preach in the gold mining camps, but soon became sick and died.
In 1852, Zerelda remarried again, but Jesse, his brother Frank and his sister Susan were made to live with another family. Zerelda left the marriage, returned to the family farm, re-wed in 1855 and had four more children. Even when Frank and Jesse grew up to be outlaws, their mother Zerelda remained their staunch supporter.
2. His nickname was ‘Dingus’
Jesse earned the nickname ‘Dingus’ after shooting off the tip of his finger while cleaning a pistol. Since he didn’t like to swear, he reportedly said, “that’s the dod-dingus pistol I ever saw.” When his body was later exhumed for identification, his skeleton’s missing finger proved key in proving that it was him.
3. He was a Confederate guerrilla during the American Civil War
During the American Civil War, the border state of Missouri was home to guerrilla fighting. Jesse and his family were dedicated Confederates, and in 1864, Jesse and Frank joined Bloody Bill Anderson’s group of Confederate guerrillas, also known as bushwhackers.
The group had a reputation for its cruel and brutal treatment of Union soldiers, and Jesse was identified as having taken part in the Centralia Massacre that left 22 unarmed Union soldiers and more than 100 federal troops dead or injured, their bodies often viciously mutilated. As a punishment, all family members of Jesse and Frank James had to leave Clay County.
4. He was shot twice before he even became an outlaw
Before becoming an outlaw, Jesse was shot in the chest twice. The first was in 1864 when trying to steal a saddle from a farmer, while the second was in 1865 during a skirmish with Union troops near Lexington, Missouri.
It was only after being nursed back to health by his cousin Zerelda ‘Zee’ Mimms (who he later went on to marry) that Jesse and his brother Frank banded together with other former Confederate guerrillas to rob banks, stagecoaches and trains.
5. He wasn’t a Wild West Robin Hood
As a key and most famous member of the James-Younger Gang, Jesse became one of the most notorious outlaws of the American West. Popular portrayals of James embody him as a Robin Hood who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor. However, there is no evidence that the gang shared any of their loot. Instead, from 1860 to 1862, the gang were responsible for more than 20 bank and train robberies, countless murders and the theft of around $200,000.
The gang’s noble image was actually carefully crafted with the help of editor John Newman Edwards, who wrote articles about the gang stating, “[the James gang are] men who might have sat with Arthur at the Round Table, ridden in tourney with Sir Lancelot, or won the colors of Guinevere”.
6. He was a family man
In 1874, Jesse married his first cousin Zerelda who he had been courting for nine years. They had two children. James was known to be a family man who loved his wife and enjoyed spending time with his children.
7. He loved publicity
Jesse enjoyed courting publicity and was even known to hand out ‘press releases’ to witnesses at the scenes of his crimes. One read:
“The most daring robbery on record. The southbound train on the Iron Mountain Railroad was stopped here this evening by five heavily armed men and robbed of ____ dollars… The robbers were all large men, none of them under six feet tall. They were masked, and started in a southerly direction after they had robbed the train, all mounted on fine-blooded horses. There is a hell of an excitement in this part of the country!”
8. His gang was defeated trying to rob a bank
On 7 September 1876, the James-Younger gang attempted to rob the First National Bank of Northfield, Minnesota. They targeted the bank after learning that a former Union general and governor had moved to Northfield, and was rumoured to have deposited $75,000 in the bank. The cashier refused to open the safe, which led to a shootout and the deaths of the cashier, a passerby and two gang members.
Two weeks later, the Younger brothers were captured and sent to prison. The James brothers, however, evaded escape and lay low under assumed names for the next two years. In 1879, Jesse recruited a new set of criminal associates and restarted his criminal dealings.
9. He was killed by a member of his own gang
In April 1882, Jesse James was killed in undramatic fashion – while dusting a framed piece of embroidery that read ‘In God We Trust’ on the wall of his rented home in Missouri. His wife and two children were also in the house at the time.
His assassin, who shot him in the back of the head, was Bob Ford, a recent recruit into James’ gang. He had agreed with the governor of Missouri to shoot James in exchange for a reward and legal immunity.
The public was transfixed and perceived the assassination to be cowardly, since James was facing away. Nonetheless, the Fords soon began re-enacting the event in a travelling show. Bob Ford was eventually shot and killed in 1894.
10. His body was later exhumed
Jesse James was buried on the James family farm. But rumours spread that James had in fact faked his own death, and over the years, several different men claimed to be Jesse James.
In 1995, scientists exhumed his supposed remains in Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Kearney, Missouri, which had been transferred there in 1902. After conducting DNA testing, the researchers confirmed that the remains were almost certainly those of the famous 19th-century outlaw.