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Railway Giants: The Legendary Robber and the Idealized Robin Hood. America Was Short on His Brutality!

Railway Giants: The Legendary Robber and the Idealized Robin Hood. America Was Short on His Brutality!
photo: Wikimedia commons / Library of Congress / LC-USZ62-3854 / Public Domain/Jesse James portrait 1882/1886
06 / 04 / 2024

In today's edition of 'Railway Giants', we will focus on the fate of the train robber and murderer who many people mistakenly imagine to be Robin Hood. But when was the famous, brutal Jesse James, the greatest outlaw in American history, really?

In the Middle of the War

The year is 1847, and we are in the American state of Missouri. A boy is born here in Clay County, who will be named Jesse. His parents are a farmer and former Baptist minister Robert James and his wife Zeralda. Soon after Jesse's birth, disaster strikes his family. Jesse is only three years old when his father Robert goes to California for work. But suddenly, he dies there, and so their mother is left alone to raise Jesse and his 2 siblings. It won't be that bad for her, at least not for long. She will be married 2 more times. She finds her second man just 2 years after Robert's death. She married her third husband in 1855 and had a total of 4 children with him.

To better understand the whole story, it is necessary to have a better understanding of the time in which it will take place. In the USA, during the 19th century, the settlement and displacement of native Indians to reservations are gradually completed. After the middle of this century, however, a different dispute culminates. Along with overseas discoveries in the past centuries, Europe also discovered new people, including Africans. They were usually physically stronger than Europeans, so unfortunately, our ancestors got an idea or rather rediscovered something that worked thousands of years ago in ancient Rome. Capture them, use them for hard work for which they won't even pay, deprive them of any rights, and trade them like things. The set of these activities will then be better known under the term slavery.

In the first half of the 19th century, Europe finally gets rid of it and outlaws it. America, which will be divided on this issue, will have a different view. Its northern part will be for the abolition of slavery, or at least for its prohibition in the new states that are still being formed. After all, as the future president Abraham Lincoln said, once slavery stops expanding, it will prove ineffective and disappear on its own. The rural southern states, which have an economy based on slavery, will have a different opinion. Missouri, which we are following, is among them, even though it is located on an imaginary border. Jesse's family even owns several slaves. After the election of the anti-slavery Abraham Lincoln as the American president in 1861, 13 southern states take a radical step. They secede from the United States of America and form the Confederate States of America. That means only one thing, war. It only finds its solution in 1865, when the northern states achieve victory. Slavery is abolished, and the 2 state departments merge into one again.

This is the optimal moment to return to our story. Jesse's family sides with the South after the Civil War breaks out. His older brother Frank even joins the Southern army. However, due to illness, he returns before long. Subsequently, together with his brother Jesse, he joins the partisans, with whom they will fight against the troops of the Northerners. At the end of the war, Jesse even suffers a chest injury that nearly kills him. His cousin Zeralda will primarily take care of him. Love flares up relatively quickly between them, which will result in their marriage in 1874, despite their family status. They will have 4 children together, 2 of whom will live to adulthood.

Wikimedia commons/U.S. Army Corps of Engineers/ Public Domain

Post-war Partisan

Despite the war's end, the guerrilla units, of which Jesse and his brother are members, will continue to operate. Instead of fighting armies, they will now raid various objects, especially banks. He changes this strategy after connecting with the Younger brothers, with whom he forms the famous James-Younger gang. In 1873, he commits the first train robbery, when he derails a Rock Island Line train west of the city of Adair, Iowa, and steals approximately USD 3,000 from it (today's value corresponds to approximately USD 1,75 million). To top it all off, during the heist, their faces will be adorned with Ku Klux Klan masks. It will be their biggest railway robbery by far.

The next acts will be much more modest. However, the railway will become their regular target. They will attack the railways for another reason besides relatively easy earnings. For them, it is also a symbol of the impending American centralization, which they want to prevent at all costs. At that time, a false stereotype begins to emerge among ordinary people that Jesse and his gang redistribute the stolen money to the poor. This rumor will have its supporters in the future. However, the reality is that researchers cannot prove anything of the sort.

Alignable / Great American Adventures / Public Domain

Faced with an increasing number of attacks and the inaction of government authorities, the railroad company Adams Express Company turns to Pinkerton's National Detective Agency with a request to improve the situation. Even the professionals won't be able to deal with the gang, which will have the sympathy of many conservative southern families, at first. A number of their agents are killed, which results in an enormous effort by the boss and founder of the agency, Allen Pinkerton, to crack down on the gang. He chooses a rather short-sighted plan, raiding the family home where Jesse and his family are supposed to stay. Thrown explosives kill Jesse's younger brother and take his wife's hand off. The move will cause massive outrage among residents of the entire state of Missouri. This leads to a bill that pardons Jesse's entire gang. But the Missouri State Legislature narrowly rejects it.

A Bitter End to the Story

The gang continues to remain underground, and the efforts of the authorities to break it up are intensifying, with the gang running out of luck. Disaster strikes for the bandits when they rob a bank in Minnesota. Not only does the robbery fail, but 2 of their associates are even killed. The rest of the gang escapes, but the James brothers soon separate from them and flee back to Missouri. Well, they do, it doesn't take long for the rest of the gang to be caught.

In the following years, the fate of the brothers will be divided. While Frank settles in Tennessee, Jesse begins recruiting a new band in 1879, both under false names, of course. Jesse's new gang is nowhere near as united as the previous one. There are even fights between members. When authorities in Tennessee become suspicious of the brothers' true identities, they return to Missouri together. After disagreements about the next step, Frank decides to retreat to the east of the country to far away Virginia. The two brothers surely suspect that they will see each other for the last time.

Wikimedia commons / National Register of Historic Places / Public Domain

The once-famous James gang now consists of only a few bandits, of which only the brothers Charley and Robert Ford are significant. On April 3, 1882, Ford and Jesse retire to the living room after breakfast before going to Platte City for a robbery. From the papers, Jesse learns that gang member Dick Liddil has confessed to taking part in the Wood Hite robbery. He's suspicious that Ford didn't tell him about it. Robert Ford would later state that he believed Jesse realized at that moment that they were about to betray him.

Instead of confronting them, Jesse walks to the other side of the living room and places the revolvers on the couch. He turns and notices a dusty painting above the fireplace. He climbs on his chair to clean it. At that moment, gunshots ring out, after which Jesse falls to the ground dead. Robert Ford puts away the pistols and writes a telegram asking for a reward for ridding America of the criminal and murderer Jesse James.

Wikimedia commons / Unknown author / Public Domain