Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Jesse James: Riding Hell-Bent for Leather into Legend

Bound by Loyalty

"The James-Younger Gang assaulting robbing banks despite the threat of Union soldiers, lawmen and vigilantes," says Nash in his Western Lawmen & Outlaws. "There were always farmers, men who fought in the Civil War on the Southern side, who were willing to ride with them on a raid or two to get enough money to pay off a mortgage or support a family. The James and the Youngers were the professionals and kept most of the loot. (They selected) banks some distance from their homes and made only a few raids each year, then returning to their farms to resume peaceful, law-abiding ways."

Nash contends that between the James and the Youngers there was no particular leader, despite later assumptions that Jesse (who was to eventually rise to prominence in his own right) served as chieftain. The James-Younger enterprise acted democratically, asserts Nash, opting as a whole what banks to rob and divvying up the "take" from each job evenly. It is true that the Youngers saw Jesse as the most reckless and daring, and respected his verve, but they preferred a unanimous vote over orders. If anyone kept balance to the gang, Nash suggests it was Cole Younger whom he calls "the most experienced horseman and gunman."

Jesse and Frank, the Brothers James, didn't always get along. Both given to quick tempers, they many times collided over gang decisions. Frank loved his moments of quietude; he enjoyed immersing himself in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and Merchant of Venice, Dickens' Bleak House, Keats' odes and Byron's sonnets. He quoted the Bible and often spun off reveries from Hawthorne or Tennyson. His younger brother could never understand the fascination; he'd rankle if he thought the other condescended.

But, one thing was of little doubt their brotherly loyalty. More than once each risked his own life to save the other's neck. Such was the case in Russellville, Kentucky, when they relieved the Southern Banking Company of $14,000. During the hold-up, manager Nimrod Long, a towering man as wide as he was tall, wrestled Jesse to the floor and would have easily broken Jesse's neck if it weren't for Frank's intervention. While a cashier fired at him from behind the counter, Frank paused long enough to swing his revolver butt across Long's skull. The two brothers scooted.

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