Jesse Woodson James was born September 5, 1847 three or four miles from the small village of Centerville, now Kearney. The parents of Jesse James, the Rev. Robert James, a preacherfarmer, and Zerelda Cole James, his wife, arrived in Missouri from Kentucky late in 1842. They had kin living on the border, but their decision to change residence seems to have been quite sudden, for it interrupted the seminary course of the young minister. On January 10, 1843, Zerelda gave birth to a son, whom they named Alexander Franklin James, but who became known to history as Frank James (Tuska 1985).
Jesse never really knew his father, for the Rev. Robert James had an adventurous streak and joined in the gold rush after the strike in California was announced, going probably across the plains with the Forty-niner caravans. He died, however, within a short time after his arrival in the gold fields, and was buried at the mining camp of Marysville, California. His widow, only twenty-five at the time, was perhaps quite comely, and besides women were scarce on the frontiers. In 1851 she married again, her new husband being a farmer named Simms. This marriage lasted only a short time and ended apparently in divorce.
For a third time Zerelda was espoused, this time by Dr. Reuben Samuel, who was also a Kentuckian, with a medical training in Cincinnati. This marriage lasted. Throughout the long troublous period that followed, Dr. Samuel remained faithful to his wife and her boys (Stiles 2002, 22-3). Both Frank and Jesse were schooled deeply in the oldfashioned religion. Jesse James remained thoroughly orthodox in his religious beliefs as long as he lived. Jesse James believed in a personal God and in a personal Devil–probably in a considerable number of the latter!
He accepted the orthodox Heaven and the orthodox Hell, his faith being implicitly simple. He expected to go to Heaven when he died, for he believed that he had lived the best life he possibly could live under all the circumstances, and that, therefore, he was entitled to salvation. The family was strongly pro-Confederate, and when the Civil War began, Frank James, though only sixteen, enlisted in the Confederate Army and fought in the bloody battle of Wilson’s Creek. When he returned home on a furlough, he was arrested by Federal officers, and released on parole.
The parole meant nothing to him. Shortly after, he joined Quantrill’s band, was one of its first recruits in fact, and rode with his leader until the final fatal days (Stiles 2002). Jesse did not ride in the Lawrence raid. He was considered too young, and stayed on the Samuel place helping to work the farm. He was not too young, however, to be mistreated by a band of Union “militia” who came to the place in June 1862. For his too outspoken sentiments Dr. Samuel was hanged from a blackjack tree and left dangling.
He was saved by his wife, a woman of great resolution, who “followed stealthily, and the moment the militia had departed she rushed to the rescue of her husband, whom she hastily cut down and by patient nursing saved his life. ” The soldiers went on and found Jesse in a field plowing. They gave him a flogging between the corn rows and told him if he paid any more visits to the guerrilla camp they would hang him, too (Horan 1951). In that June of 1862 Jesse was only fourteen years old. He did not at once follow Frank to the guerrillas. His mother and half sister, Susie, were arrested and held in custody for a time in 1863.
They were later released and joined Dr. Samuel, who presumably had preceded them in the forced exodus when Order No. 11 was issued. The family made its home at Rulo, on the Missouri River in the extreme southeast corner of what was then the Nebraska Territory. It was at this time that Jesse, by now nearly sixteen, obtained a horse somewhere and rode off to join his brother and Quantrill. As of that period he was described as having “a face smooth and innocent as the face of a school girl. The eyes, very clear and penetrating, were never at rest.
” The last sentence may refer to Jesse’s habit of blinking his eyes. James D. Horan brings out this peculiarity in his Desperate Men, a recital of the operations of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, for which he had access to the Pinkerton records, and in which he has added some valuable data to the story of the outlaws (1951). Nevertheless, those eyes had seen more of death than could have been good for a youngster his age. This was the Jesse James who slew eight men in one bloody day at Centralia, and nobody knows how many more in his reckless, deadly career as a guerrilla.
This was the Jesse James who came out of the war leading a guerrilla band, all men older than himself. This was the Jesse James who had come to place no value on human life as the result of his brutal schooling in the years that are most formative. He could kill a man with no more qualms than he would feel in crushing a bug under his boot. Jesse James, the ablest pupil of Quantrill’s “school for crime,” had ideas and schemes, and it may have been that he instituted the practice of “hurrahing” Liberty in order to get the citizens trained to conform to a certain pattern, for a project he already had in mind.
In his secret conferences with friends of his guerrilla days, he had little trouble convincing them that there was more excitement and profit in what he had in mind than they could find any other way. Undoubtedly, Jesse James was the leader-he of the grim smile and the bad pun. Jesse James, even among men who were experts with the revolver, was celebrated for his skill with the weapon. Jesse, in his guerrilla career, had lost all moral sense of the value of human life.
Besides, Jesse James and his friends were always particular about their horseflesh. Being able to run away from pursuit was one of the most important factors of their trade. At the age of twenty-seven Jesse James was not ill-looking, with a crisp brown beard, which he kept well trimmed, eyes of intense blue, and “particular about his dress. ” Having achieved what he probably considered the peak of success in his chosen “profession,” he did something he had wanted to do for eight years: he married Zerelda Mimms.
Jesse James’ wife bore him two children, a boy and a girl. She reared them well in spite of their father’s outlawry, and both lived normal lives with many friends (Stiles 2002, 386). In American history, Jesse James has been credited or discredited with having invented the art, science or industry of train-robbing. That probably is because he was Jesse James. To him personally has been attributed, in public print and private theory, the first faint glimmering of the notion that, since a bank could be robbed, why not a railway train?
Largely because of his alliterative name, so easy to ejaculate from the tongue, Jesse James became, long before his final exit, a sort of sign or symbol of superhumanness in rough and ready outlawry. Had his name been John Williams or anything similarly ordinary, the likelihood is that his reputation as a riproaring freebooter would not have been in his lifetime, and would not have remained until this day with promise of preservation to a far future, the most spectacularly impressive in all outlaw annals.
When his proud parents named him Jesse, the late Mr. James was labelled to an unanticipated immortality. Although it is a fact that Jesse possessed qualities unique, standing out in bold relief from the general dead level of the border-bandit personnel, there is little doubt that Lady Luck hovered above his christening with approving smiles–that the James and Jesse combination, the short and snappy cognomen and the likewise short and snappy Christian name of the Baptist preacher’s blue-eyed boy, served him well indeed in his peculiar avocation.
All in all, perhaps Jesse James did invent train-robbing. If not he, then some member of his gang must have been the inventor, for the first railway train holdup that ever happened has been charged up to the James Younger group; and since July 21, 1873, no reason has popped up from any source to dislodge belief in the justness of that charge-up. The chief wonder is that these enterprising Missourians, who are supposed to have invented daylight bank-robbing in 1866, waited seven years to start the sister industry of train-robbing (Block 1959).