Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Jesse James: Riding Hell-Bent for Leather into Legend

Pioneer Stock

Jesse James, whom a special A&E Television program calls, "far and away the most infamous and best-known outlaw in our history," had begun life under slow-drifting clouds on a simple farm in a simple and verdant farmland in Clay County, Missouri. Bullet-gray cumuli shadowed the James cabin the afternoon of September 5, 1847, when the squeals of the babe were first heard. Standing near the bedside of Mama Zerelda (whom everyone called Zee, for short) were her preacher husband Robert and quizzical first-born son, Alexander Franklin.

Zee, a hefty nigh 200 pounds and made of the brawn that seemed to shell all the mountain women in these parts, had no trouble giving birth to her latest. Only hours after the boy whom she'd name Jesse was born, she wanted to escape the coventry of her bed quilt and get back to the farm chores that she'd let go during her last weeks of pregnancy. It was only after an argument with her spouse that she decided to remain in bed.

Mother of the James boys
Mother of the James boys

"The parents of the James boys were hardy pioneers," writes Jay Robert Nash in his excellent and concise chapters on the James family in Western Lawmen & Outlaws. "Robert James married Zerelda Cole Mimms when she was seventeen. The couple moved from Kentucky to western Missouri where Robert became the pastor of a small Baptist church outside of Kearney, Mo...He and his wife, with the help of neighbors, built a log cabin...and began to carve out a farm." Alexander was born on January 10, 1843, with Jesse to arrive four years later.

Robert, though good with an axe, stout-hearted and a well-intentioned young man, was not a farmer; he enjoyed his position as high-collar preacher at the Kearney Baptist Church and spent more time during the week preparing his Sabbath-day fire sermons than pushing a plow; he was not lazy, but too easily lost himself in his own drive to beat the citizens over the heads with words of repentance. Zee uncomplainingly took care of the manual chores. When gold was discovered in California, at Sutter's Mill, Robert packed his Bible in a Saratoga trunk and headed west to stake a claim. He promised to send for Zee and the children, but pneumonia snuck into his lungs before he was able to pan an ounce of even fool's gold.

Before he had left, however, he and Zee had conceived another child, this time a girl named Susan Lavenia. Zee's boys, and eventually the daughter, picked up the slack left by Robert; they rarely argued against their expected chores. Jesse and Susan, no more than toddlers, crafted the art of cow-milking while Frank, not much older, followed his mother through the lanes in the wheat fields, sowing and trimming late under the twilight skies.

But, a grown man's strength was sore in need. Zee married James Simms soon after Robert's death, but this second marriage was short lived. Iron-handed Simms turned out to be as stern a husband and step-father as Robert had been lenient and docile. Zee wouldn't tolerate his domestic demands on her nor her boys, and the marriage quickly dissolved.

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