Monday, February 12, 2007
The James-Younger Gang's First Robbery, February 13, 1866
Today in 1866, the group that would become known as the James-Younger gang committed the first peacetime bank robbery in United States history. A member of the gang, Jesse James, would become one of the most famous outlaws in American history.
Jesse Woodson James was born in September, 1847 near what is today Kearney, Missouri. His father died when he was three, leaving Jesse with his mother, his older brother Frank (who was seven) and their little sister Susan. The three would gain four half-siblings when their mother remarried in 1855. They moved to a farm, also in Missouri, that grew tobacco and was home to seven slaves. The decade before the Civil War was a bad time to live in Missouri, for the state was divided into two camps: those who wanted to abolish slavery and stay with the Union, and those who wanted to keep the institution, even if it meant secession. The issue became so contentious that after the Civil War began in 1861, both groups formed competing governments in the state.
Frank joined the Confederate cause soon after the outbreak of hostilities; Jesse joined when he turned 16 in 1863. The two brothers served in Quantrill's Raiders, a group of irregulars who rode throughout Missouri and preyed upon towns, farms and individuals who remained loyal to the Union. The Raiders earned the scorn of even their supporters in 1863 when they killed nearly 200 men and boys in Lawrence, Kansas, an anti-slavery town. William Quantrill, the leader of the group, was technically a Confederate officer but acted without orders from any superiors. He took the Raiders to Texas later that year, where their lawless activities proved to be embarrassing to southern commanders despite their successful raids and ambushes. The group broke up on the way home from the Lone Star State, never to reform.
When the Civil War ended in 1865, Republicans gained control of the Missouri state government and quickly passed laws making it illegal for any former Confederate soldier or sympathizer to hold public office or even vote. Jesse, Frank and their former comrades found it difficult to settle down under such circumstances, but Jesse soon found that he had little choice: a month after the end of the war, he was shot and nearly killed by a Union soldier. His first cousin, Zerelda Mimms, nursed him back to health. The two were later married and had four children, although only two of them lived to adulthood.
It is a point of debate among historians as to whether Jesse James was present at the James-Younger gang's first robbery in 1866, as he was possibly still recovering from his gunshot wound. Either way, the bandits successfully robbed the Clay County Savings Association in Liberty, Missouri on February 13, taking away over $60,000. The gang robbed three more banks in Missouri before hitting a bank in Russellville, Kentucky in 1868. This is the first robbery in which there is certain proof that Frank James, Jesse James and Cole Younger were all present at the same time.
The James-Younger gang, and especially Jesse, did not begin receiving widespread media attention until December 1869, when he and Frank robbed a savings and loan in Gallatin, Missouri. Jesse shot and killed the bank's cashier, having mistaken him for a militia officer whom he had fought against during the war. The brothers made their way through the middle of an encroaching posse, a narrow escape that captured readers' attention.
As news of the James-Younger gang spread, they began to be seen as local heroes by many in Missouri, especially those with lingering Confederate sympathies. Whether Jesse fanned the flames of this adoration is unknown, but it certainly helped the gang as they traveled the countryside and moved further afield to rob banks in Kansas, Iowa, Texas and even as far away as West Virginia. Some of their robberies took place in front of large crowds and some had the air of a stage performance.
The gang further bolstered their image when they began robbing trains in 1873. As a general rule, they did not rob passengers of their personal belongings but rather went for the safe that most trains carried in the baggage car. While this may have given the men a Robin Hood-like reputation, it did very little for the railroad companies. They hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency to stop the James-Younger gang, something that was new for the business. In the past, they had focused their efforts on crimes that would today be considered white-collar, such as con-men and counterfeiters. Nonetheless, the Pinkerton Agency took the job.
The gang proved to be slippery, especially when they operated in Missouri. There were simply too many sympathetic farmers and townspeople around the state who would supply a bed, a hot meal or even a rifle and ammunition when needed. Two agents were killed in their pursuit of the gang, although one of them killed John Younger, the brother of Cole Younger, before he was shot. In desperation, Allan Pinkerton ordered a raid on the house of Jesse and Frank's mother in January, 1875. The men assigned to the task threw a crude bomb through one of the home's windows; it killed Jesse and Frank's half-brother and removed one their mother's arms. The botched attack made the James brothers into sympathetic characters and became a black eye for the Pinkerton Agency.
The James-Younger gang met its demise while robbing the First National Bank in Northfield, Minnesota. The men got away with little money only to find that local men had been alerted to the situation and were approaching the bank with their weapons in hand. The James brothers split from the group and made their own escape back to Missouri. The Youngers and the rest of the gang ended up either dead or in custody.
Jesse eventually settled in Saint Joseph, Missouri; Frank moved to Virginia. Jesse was in constant fear for his life and asked two brothers who he trusted, Bob and Charley Ford, to move in with him. He did not know that Bob Ford had negotiated with Missouri's governor to capture Jesse. On April 3, 1882, Ford shot Jesse in the back of the head as he dusted a picture hanging on the wall of his home. He was killed instantly. Ford asserted that he killed Jesse because he did not believe he could capture him alive. He was found guilty of murder but was immediately pardoned by the governor. In essence, the senior elected official of a state had conspired in the murder of a citizen who had never been convicted of a crime.
Frank James worked a variety of jobs over the next 30 years before his death in 1915. He, too, was never convicted of a crime.