Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Jesse James: Riding Hell-Bent for Leather into Legend

Robbing the Rails

"Fortune favors the bold."


County lawmen occasionally showed up at the Samuels' farm in Kearney, hoping but not expecting to catch Jesse and Frank there. If nothing else, for days they dogged the tracks of their mother, Zee. Dr. Samuels had since passed and Zee, left alone with her daughters and retarded son, continued to maintain the farm with the help of neighbors. The latter were more than desirous to help, simply because she was the mother of the two boys who, in their eyes, were heroes giving the Yankees hell. To that extent, the Civil War still raged in Clay County. Missouri.

Kearney neighbors had a personal and more practical reason, too, for liking Mrs. Samuel's son, Jesse. He was there for them. Legends are full of his coming to their aid when a greedy landowner tried to wrest their farms, or feeding their families when times were tough, or making sure their children were warmly clothed when the cold winter winds swept through Missouri's valleys. It was said he never refused a loan. If he heard that a family of a member of Quantrill's Raiders was down on its luck, an envelope full of cash arrived in the mail and canned goods by special express.

In return, the neighbors worked his mother's farm and shielded her from irritation if government men became too pesky. They abetted Jesse and Frank and the Youngers when on the lam. They let out their parlors for their secreted meetings to plan their next job on a Yankee-owned bank. If the sage brushers needed a fast steed for a getaway, it was "Help yourself there, Jesse, Old Nelly is yours!" And when Jesse visited his love Zerelda Mimms in Harlem, Missouri, the locals kept watch that some badge-wearing interloper didn't disturb their cause d'amour.

Rare photo of bearded Jesse (left) with unidentified gunslingers, Maramec Caverns
Rare photo of bearded Jesse (left) with unidentified gunslingers, Maramec Caverns

The name Jesse James was providing pulp to the popular dime novel genre. More than Frank, more than the Youngers, Jesse stood out to captivate the hearts of even those he robbed. He was always the one in the lead when they stormed the bank and he was always the last to leave, often saluting his victims with a wave and a smile as he departed; sometimes even stuffing bank cash into female customers' handbags or male customers' breast pockets. If a dramatic exit from town was not provided by shooting lawmen or pitch-forked vigilantes, Jesse would do what he could to make a showy curtain call. He'd buck his steed, doff his Stetson, fire off a cylinder-full of bullets into the air and usually bow from the saddle to the prettiest lady he saw. That he may have just shot one of the town's own an intervening bank guard or a teller who tried to fight back didn't matter at the moment; the attraction here was that now the town could boast they had been robbed by the greatest bandit of the west, Jesse James. They were on the map.

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