Jesse James: A Much Maligned American Hero
Jesse James is sometimes erroneously portrayed as a ruthless killer, an evil man bent on causing mayhem for such petty reasons as revenge and boredom. This, he was not, claim Jesse James historians. He grew up in a house of God fearing Baptists surrounded by the chaos of the Civil War and all its subsequent violence. He lived in the midst of the Jayhawker attacks. Evil men with evil intentions influenced him and turned him into something he should not have become. Through it all, he retained his core of decency and compassion. He was accused of horrible things that decent real man would have done. Jesse James was maligned, hunted and betrayed yet through it all he remained true to himself as much as possible.
Jesse James was born to Robert Sallee James, a Baptist minister, and Zerelda Cole James on September 5, 1847 in Clay County, Missouri (Hamilton 8). Robert helped to establish William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri and founded the Mt. Pisgah, New Hope and Providence Baptist churches in nearby towns (Steele "Jesse" 35 & 37). Both Robert and Zerelda's forbearers came from well-respected families; several were ministers and men of the cloth like Robert (Breihan "Saga" 2). Robert left his family for the gold mining towns of California when Jesse was only three, yet his positive impact on Jesse's character had been tremendous. He died of pneumonia shortly after he arrived in the California goldfields (Bruns 13). Zerelda chose to raise Jesse along with his older brother Frank and younger sister Susan Lavenia alone until she married Ben Simms in 1852 (Croy 20). Ben had several children, was domineering and disliked Frank and Jesse
to the point of violence. He died soon afterwards (Steele "Many…" 19). Despite this tragic episode, Zerelda attempted to raise her children in a religious and loving atmosphere.
In a continuation of her effort to raise her children to be good people, towards the end of 1855 Zerelda married a neighboring farmer named Dr. Reuben "Samuels" Samuel. They had several children together, and he loved Jesse and Frank as if they were his own sons. Zerelda and Samuels raised the children in a strict moral and religious manner, as was the custom. Both Zerelda and Samuels were willing to protect the boys at any cost, even to themselves (Breihan "Saga" 9). This unfailing love, devotion and loyalty from a person who was not even of his own flesh and blood deeply affected Jesse and instilled in him those same qualities that were so characteristic of him throughout his entire life. As a boy, Jesse was known to attend mass every Sunday and bring his entire family with him – whether they wanted to go or not. Although Jesse never attended school past what was probably the fifth grade, he had stuck up for those he encountered who could not defend themselves. One day, a girl at his school named Martha Ann Jeffries had her lunch stolen. Jesse found out about it, discovered the culprit, thrashed him soundly, and forced the boy to apologize to her (Breihan "Saga" 10). This was an early indication of the sense of right and wrong that he maintained throughout even the roughest times in his life.
Jesse was growing to manhood in a time of terrible hate and prejudice, and not all of the influences upon Jesse were positive influences. The first negative influence on Jesse was his first stepfather Ben Simms. Ben Simms was a cruel and chauvinistic man. Upon his marriage to Zerelda, he expected her to allow him to deal with her children in whatever manner he saw fit. His style of parenting was to just beat the children. Zerelda was beginning divorce proceedings, a very serious matter for that time period and for such a devout and pious woman, when he fortunately fell off of his horse and died. This was the beginning of the abuse from people in positions of power that would last all of his life. It was also the beginning of the turning of Jesse James from a youth devoted to helping others and studying God's Word into a man still containing compassion and love for God but also containing the ability to be hard and the ability to kill if the situation
Tensions continued to rise along the Missouri-Kansas border and this hatred affected all, including the young Jesse James. As Zerelda and Samuels were Kentucky born, they naturally sided with the South. Despite the fact that the family had seven slaves, there is no indication that the family actually hated blacks, in fact Zerelda was raising the illegitimate son of one of the slaves as her own child. What makes this even more remarkable is the fact that the young boy was most likely the offspring of her own husband. Jayhawkers and Redlegs were intent upon harassing Confederate supporters. They raided farms and began attacks on the James (Samuel) family after Frank joined the Confederate army and later Quantrill's guerilla band, the counterpart to the Jayhawkers and the Redlegs. During one of the attacks Samuels was hung from a tree four times in an attempt to torture him into telling the whereabouts of the boys, and the fifteen year-old Jesse was caught and beaten severely by a group of the adult men. (This was the attack that led to Samuels loss of his wits.) Zerelda was pregnant at the time and had to cut her dying husband down after the soldiers left. After Jesse had also been nursed back to health, he decided that he had had enough. Over his mother's objections,
he attempted to convince Quantrill to allow him to join the band. Quantrill refused, saying that Jesse, sixteen at this point, was too young. "Bloody" Bill Anderson, who was Frank's commander, convinced Quantrill to allow Jesse to serve under him. Jesse, who was already a good shot from life on a farm, amazed and impressed Anderson with his accuracy. Anderson was captivated and fascinated by Jesse and formed a somewhat unhealthy attachment to him. Jesse became his little pet, and he taught Jesse everything he knew. Hardness took firm root in him and killing was nothing more than a part of everyday life, the life of an unofficial soldier in the Confederate Army.
As one of Quantrill's boys, Jesse participated in many battles with the Union Army. During an ambush by the Union Army, Jesse was shot through the left lung. Believing death was close at hand, he crawled off to die alone. Although he recovered, this was a very serious injury, and it plagued him throughout the rest of his life. After the war ended, Jesse and many other Quantrillians attempted to surrender to Major Rodgers on April 23, 1865. Jesse himself was carrying the white flag of peace when a group of drunken soldiers fired upon them. Once again Jesse was shot in the left lung. Jesse, believing he was dying again, boarded a boat to Nebraska, where his mother had been forced by the government to move to. It was the same Major Rodgers that he had attempted to surrender to that gave him the ride to Nebraska. Major Rodgers believed that Jesse was dying so he did not bother to add him to the list of those who had surrendered. After Jesse had found his mother, they, along with his first cousin, who was her own first cousin, Zerelda "Zee" Amanda Mimms journeyed back to the old James farm in Missouri so that Jesse could die at his home. Thanks to Zee's tender care, Jesse survived and love between them flourished. They became engaged, and nine years later, they were married. And thanks to Major Rodger's believe that Jesse was dying, by living he became a hunted man. Jesse attempted to lead a normal life after this, but the Union troops kept harassing ex-Quantrillians, and they killed several of his friends.
Jesse's sense of loyalty would not let him stay uninvolved, and this led up to the most brilliant criminal career in America's history. Jesse James pulled off the first daylight bank robbery, and he was the first to rob a train west of the Mississippi River. For over fifteen years he planned and participated in some of the most famous robberies ever. No one knows exactly how much money Jesse James and the James-Younger gang stole or how many jobs they pulled. It has been proven without a doubt that many of the heinous acts supposedly committed by Jesse and the boys were really the cowardly deeds of bloodthirsty ex-soldiers. It is estimated that Jesse and the boys stole upwards of five hundred thousand dollars, yet when he died, there wasn't even enough money left to bury him. Many accounts have been told of the charity and generosity of Jesse James. One of the times that Jesse was laying low from the law, he was in a town near San Luis Obispo, California. He stayed at his uncle's ranch and worked as a cowboy. He had a very fine lariat made of the finest leather, and as he was leaving to return home, he gave it to a young cowboy names Charles Morehouse for no other reason than that the boy had admired it. He also helped to counsel him in the ways that it would take to become a good man. Jesse was a very positive influence on this young man.
Jesse was also generous with people's lives. In his hometown there was a man who had betrayed some of his men and caused them to die. This traitor was named Tom Bond, and Bond, knowing what he had done was wrong, had every reason to expect death to be swiftly delivered by the James boys hands. Several times Jesse saw Bond in town and sent him his famous flinty ice-blue stare. Jesse never laid a hand on the treacherous villain and allowed him to remain unscathed bodily. Bond realized that Jesse was gifting him with his life and took off for parts unknown to live as long as God saw fit to let him live. Despite all of the evil that influenced him, Jesse still had compassion in his heart.
Jesse was also generous to women. An example of this occurred one day when Jesse was riding in the countryside, he stopped along at a farmhouse for lunch. He stopped at the house of Mrs. Stafford, it was laundry-day. She did not want to make lunch for this tall, lean stranger and told him so. He told her that if she would make him a meal, he would do her laundry, kill and pluck the chicken and pay her five dollars. This was quite exorbitant and they both knew it, but then this was usual for him. He had money and believed in sharing it with other down-on-their-luck Southerners.
Another of the many accounts of Jesse's generosity is the time that he helped a young, destitute widow. There are many slightly different versions to this story, or maybe he just had a habit of rescuing the proverbial damsels in distress. A widow, whose house he stopped at for lunch, made the last bit of food she had to serve to them. She was upset about something, and Jesse used his charm and compassion to find out the reason why she was in such distress. She told him that a greedy banker was going to foreclose on her farm later in the afternoon, and then she would be homeless. Over her protestations that he was too kind, he told her that he would loan her the money on the conditions that she got a receipt from the banker and that if they ever met again and she had the money, then and only then could she pay him back. She agreed, he gave her the money and went on his way. She did as he told and got the receipt. On the banker's way back to town, Jesse relieved him of the money and continued on his way. The disputed part is who the widow was, was she the widow of James DeHart, a deceased
Quantrillian, or a was she just a random widow; another disputed part is the amount of money: five hundred, eight hundred, or one thousand dollars are the possible amounts. These are not the acts of the evil man portrayed in history books, but of a man who was basically good that had been corrupted.