When you step into history, it can lead to just as many questions as it does answers. During a recent discussion, we pondered why people are so fascinated with the notorious desperados who grab the headlines. From gangsters to bandits, there is something fascinating about their stories. A trip to the outskirts of Kearney, Missouri landed us at The Jesse James Birthplace and Museum. Nestled in the rolling hills of northwest Missouri, this tranquil spot was home to one of the most notorious bandits in America. We’ve all heard of the escapades of this outlaw, but we were interested in what turned him to this violent life of crime.
This particular trip would take us back to the mid-1800s. When you step into history, you can never tell where the path may lead. In 1842, Rev. Robert James brought his wife Zerelda and their baby boy, Frank, to the area. Two years later, in 1847, Jesse James would enter the world. The James family was much like any other in this agricultural section of the heartland. Their farm produced tobacco and hemp, much like those throughout this region. The land was worked by the family and their six slaves. Jesse’s father passed away while preaching to gold prospectors in California. His mother, Zerelda, would remarry twice more.
There can be no doubt that Frank had an immense influence on his younger brother, Jesse. In 1861, the start of the Civil War found Frank to be 18 years old and a willing participant. When war broke out between the states, Frank marched off to fight for the Confederacy. He joined up with guerilla fighters with the goal of repelling the Union forces from the territory. Frank was serving with the Missouri State Guard during the Battle of Lexington, Missouri. Due to illness, he was left behind when the Confederate troops left. Frank was forced to surrender to Union troops, who allowed him to return home. In early 1863, Frank joined up with a guerilla band being led by Fernando Scott. Jesse was upset to see his brother leave again and resigned himself to join in the war efforts.
Jesse Goes to War
In the late spring of that year, Union militiamen came to the James farm looking for information on Frank and the guerilla forces with which he rode. They went so far as to hang Jesse’s stepfather, though he did escape death, as well as horse-whipping Jesse. This would be the spark that set Jesse on the path to outlaw life. Frank had left his Scott’s group and joined with Quantrill’s Raiders. This notorious force was known for its bloody raids. In August of that year, they made their most famous excursion when they sacked the town of Lawrence, Kansas, and killed 200 citizens. While Frank continued his escapades with William Quantrill, Jesse had joined up with Bloody Bill Anderson. The Missouri-Kansas ‘Border War’ offered plenty of opportunities for Jesse to hone his fighting skills.
In early 1866, the James brothers assembled a group that would rob the Clay County Saving Bank in Liberty, Missouri. Making off with $62,000, this was the first U.S. daytime bank robbery. It resulted in the death of one civilian. We can only imagine the thrill that the gang felt after this successful excursion. The heinous acts committed during wartime had blurred the lines for these men and death was considered an occupational possibility. This would not stop the gang from engaging in a string of robberies that included banks, trains, and stores. Jesse considered himself a sort of Robin Hood, although the riches he plundered were not given to the poor.
At the end of the war, Jesse began a nine-year courtship with his cousin Zerelda, who was named after his mother. This would culminate with their marriage in 1874. Zerelda would give birth to a son, Jesse, and a daughter, Mary. They also had a pair of twin boys who died in infancy. Life as the wife of a highwayman was filled with uncertainties. The gang’s attempted robbery in Northfield, Minnesota resulted in heavy losses. Only Jesse and Frank would escape to Nashville and live to rob again another day. By 1881, the brothers were going their separate ways, with Jesse returning to Missouri. He settled in St. Joseph and had reduced his circle of trust to the two Ford brothers, Charley and Bob. Unbeknownst to Jesse, Bob Ford had made a pact with the Governor of Missouri to bring in the ringleader.
An Expected End
With a $5000 bounty on his head, Jesse asked the Ford brothers to move in with the family to offer additional protection. On the morning of April 3, 1882, Jesse headed into the living room to discuss plans for a robbery in Platte City. While Bob Ford was nervous that Jesse had grown suspicious of him, the outlaw showed no apparent signs. In fact, he sat his pistols down to the dust off a picture on the wall. At that moment, Bob drew his pistol and shot Jesse James in the back of the head. News of the death spread like wildfire across the nation.
Final Resting Places
The family buried Jesse on the homestead. His mother Zerelda wanted his grave to be in easy sight so that she could keep watch over it. Over the years, many claims were made that Jesse was not buried there. Some went so far as to say that the outlaw faked his death and there was another body in the grave. In 1902, the body was moved to the city cemetery in nearby Kearney, Missouri. This did not quell the rumors about his death. To satisfy curiosity, Jesse’s remains were exhumed in 1995 for DNA testing. The results were conclusive that the body was indeed that of the notorious Jesse James.
Step Into History
Our visit to the Jesse James Farm ended up being quite an informative excursion. With all of the sensationalism surrounding this American bandit, it is easy to see why so many become enamored with tales of his escapades. The staff offers eight tours per day or you can complete a self-guided tour. Due to COVID, the house is closed to the public, but they allow visitors to peer through the screen doors and windows. For the purposes of our article, we had arranged a tour inside. Hopefully, they will be able to return to the regular open house tours for all visitors. This historic landmark is a great place to step into history and learn about one of America’s most famous outlaws.