Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Jesse James: Riding Hell-Bent for Leather into Legend

The Legend Ignites

"The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure."

Thomas Jefferson

"The war had changed much in the national character of the U.S. and it also changed the perspective of the farm boys who fought in it. The James boys had tasted battle and blood, adventure, and danger," author Robert Jay Nash explains. "They had survived the worst carnage ever seen in the country...(and) like many others in that turbulent era, buckled gun belts, mounted horses and rode into small towns to rob banks. The rationale the raiders later said was, 'we were driven to it'. They blamed Yankee bankers and railroad magnates for impossible farm mortgages and threatening foreclosure in underhanded land-grabbing schemes. And to some small degree it was true."

On Valentine's Day, 1866, Jesse James was not in a romantic mood. He rode with Frank, Cole Younger, and seven members of Quantrill's old band (including Ben Cooper, Frank Gregg, Red Monkus, and others) into the town of Liberty, Missouri. Liberty was the town to which the same men had been traveling to amicably surrender after the war when a Yankee nearly killed Jesse. And Jesse, especially Jesse, recalled Liberty with disdain. He was going to get even against it and all the other Yankee money men who moved South to feed off ruined Southerners They were going to rob the Clay County Savings Bank. It was to be the first daylight bank robbery in history.

His left side ached when they dismounted in front of the establishment; he had not totally recuperated from the wound. The bullet was still in there, too deep for his step-dad to remove it; and it sent a pain up his side and under his armpit with every jostle of the horse beneath him. In fact, the missile would remain lodged in him the remainder of his life, reminding him off and on of the Yankee ambush.

Several of the men remained out front to watch-dog; Jesse was one of them. Frank and Cole, the older of the gang, strode inside and approached teller Greenup Bird. "Give me all the money you have or there'll be hell to pay from here to kingdom come, sonny." Frank whispered. The employee didn't argue into the barrel of Frank's and Cole's .44 caliber barrels. A moment later, the two men emerged with a cloth sack containing $60,000 in Yankee currency.

As the gang cantered out of town, one of the robbers (history is unsure whom) noticed an acquaintance, a teenager named George Wymore, looking straight up at him from the boardwalk. "Damn! That punk can identify me!" the thief growled. He drew his revolver and shot Wymore stone dead. In reaction, his buddies began to fire wildly into the air to ward off any intervention from ogling passers-by.

Cole Younger
Cole Younger

Missouri law officials posted a large reward dead-or-alive for the murdering cowpokes, but nothing came of it. If the south-western authorities thought that it had been a singular, one-time incident committed by the desperate poor, they soon realized they were mistaken. A spree had begun. Bandits fitting their description hit the Alexander Mitchell & Company Bank in Lexington, Missouri, in October, then the McLain Banking House in Savannah, Missouri in March, 1867.

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