Jesse James Home, St. Joseph, MO
"My pistols, however, I always kept by me."
• Jesse James
What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Jesse James? Is it the famous bank robber, the Civil War guerilla, the Robin Hood of the South, the cold-blooded murderer? Well to me it is the story of his death at the hands of Robert Ford.
Jesse Woodson James was born on Sep 05, 1847, in present-day Kearney, MO, in an area of Missouri called "Little Dixie". Orphaned at the age of three. When Jesse was 16 he fell in with Southern bushwhackers¹ during the Civil War and participated in various atrocities (massacres, scalpings, etc.).
After the war, Jesse and his brother Frank used their newfound skills to rob banks, stagecoaches, and trains, and kill innocent bystanders (forming the James-Younger Gang in 1873). Jesse would often write letters to the editors of local newspapers publicizing his crimes and defending his actions. By 1882 after his gang was either killed/arrested and Frank went straight, Jesse formed a new gang with Charley and Robert Ford.
On April 03, 1882, in St. Joseph, MO, Robert Ford shot an unarmed Jesse in the back of the head as Jesse stood on a chair to adjust a picture on the wall. The Ford brothers were immediately arrested, tried, and convicted of first-degree murder, but then just as quickly pardoned by Governor Crittenden (IAW prior secret agreement between Robert Ford and the governor)
The modest house where it all went down is still standing and open to the public. A few weeks earlier when I first heard about it, I knew I needed to visit and stand in the footsteps of Robert Ford. There is a painting as well as some other evidence in the house that can give the reenactor a pretty good idea where exactly it all happened, but I'll let you be the judge.
Jesse James, Robert Ford, Charley Ford and Me (left to right)
The Jesse James Birthplace is located an hour away in Kearney, MO. It offers a good background on Jesse and his family. I started my day with a visit here in the morning before heading on to the above Jesse James Home in St. Joseph. During your journey, stay in the spirit of the whole thing by listening to a little James Gang.
After your visit to the Jesse James Home in St. Joseph, reward yourself with a beer and some live music at the nearby Magoon's Famous Delicatessen. The building was erected in the 1850s, so maybe Jesse once had a drink on the very spot at which you would be sitting.
Jesse James was a publicity hound who wrote letters to the very supportive editor of the Kansas City Times, defending himself and celebrating his deeds, which led to the folk hero status that followed him for the next 100 years. Almost all cultural depictions were effected by this folk hero legend, though there is no evidence that Jesse gave money to the poor, had a personal ax to grind with the railroads or banks, or was a gentleman bandit. He was a cold-blooded murderer and his actions during the War of the Rebellion (for you southerners . . . the Civil War) would today be seen as terrorism.
Why did Jesse remove his weapons and turn his back on Robert Ford? Some have portrayed him as knowing what was about to happen and accepting his fate, but this seems unlikely as his wife and child were in the next room. Others say as the side door was open he did not want to be seen armed while adjusting a picture on the wall. No one really knows.
April 23, 2021
¹ Bushwhacking was a form of guerrilla warfare common during the American Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Civil War, and other conflicts in which there were large areas of contested land and few governmental resources to control these tracts. This was particularly prevalent in rural areas during the Civil War where there were sharp divisions between those favoring the Union and Confederacy in the conflict. The perpetrators of the attacks were called bushwhackers. The term "bushwhacking" is still in use today to describe ambushes done with the aim of attrition.