Jesse Woodson James (5 September 1847 – 3 April 1882) was an American outlaw, guerilla, gang leader, bank robber, train robber, and murderer from the state of Missouri and the most famous member of the James-Younger Gang. Jesse and his brother Frank James were Confederate guerrillas or Bushwhackers during the Civil War. They were accused of participating in atrocities committed against Union soldiers, including the Centralia Massacre. After the war, as members of various gangs of outlaws, they robbed banks, stagecoaches, and trains. The James brothers were most active as members of their own gang from about 1866 until 1876, when as a result of their attempted robbery of a bank in Northfield, Minnesota, several members of the gang were captured or killed. They continued in crime for several years, recruiting new members, but were under increasing pressure from law enforcement.
With his gang nearly annihilated, James trusted only the Ford brothers, Charley and Robert. Although Charley had been out on raids with James, Bob was an eager new recruit. For protection, James asked the Ford brothers to move in with him and his family. James had often stayed with their sister Martha Bolton and, according to rumour, he was “smitten” with her. By that time, Bob Ford had already conducted secret negotiations with Thomas T. Crittenden, the Missouri governor, to bring in the famous outlaw. Crittenden had made capture of the James brothers his top priority; in his inaugural address he declared that no political motives could be allowed to keep them from justice. Barred by law from offering a sufficiently large reward, he had turned to the railroad and express corporations to put up a $5,000 bounty for each of them.
On 3 April 1882, after eating breakfast, the Fords and James went into the living room before travelling to Platte City for a robbery. James had just learned of gang member Dick Liddil’s confession for participating in a murder while reading the daily newspaper, and grew increasingly suspicious of the Fords for never reporting this matter to him. According to Robert Ford, it became clear to him that James had realized they were there to betray him. However, instead of scolding the Fords, James walked across the living room to lay his revolvers on a sofa. He turned around and noticed a dusty picture above the mantle, and stood on a chair to clean it. Robert Ford drew his weapon, and shot the unarmed Jesse James in the back of the head. James’ two previous bullet wounds and partially missing middle finger served to positively identify the body.
The death of Jesse James became a national sensation. The Fords made no attempt to hide their role. Robert Ford wired the governor to claim his reward. Crowds pressed into the little house in St. Joseph to see the dead bandit. The Ford brothers surrendered to the authorities and were dismayed to be charged with first degree murder. In the course of a single day, the Ford brothers were indicted, pleaded guilty, sentenced to death by hanging, and granted a full pardon by Governor Crittenden.
The governor’s quick pardon suggested he knew the brothers intended to kill James rather than capture him. The implication that the chief executive of Missouri conspired to kill a private citizen startled the public and added to James’ notoriety. After receiving a small portion of the reward, the Fords fled Missouri. Sheriff James Timberlake and Marshal Henry H. Craig, who were law enforcement officials active in the plan, took in the majority of the bounty. Later the Ford brothers starred in a touring stage show in which they reenacted the shooting.
Public opinion was divided between those against the Fords for murdering Jesse, and those of the opinion that it had been time for the outlaw to be stopped. Suffering from tuberculosis (then incurable) and a morphine addiction, Charley Ford committed suicide on 6 May 1884, in Richmond, Missouri. Bob Ford operated a tent saloon in Creede, Colorado. On 8 June 1892, a man named Edward O’Kelley went to Creede, loaded a double-barrel shotgun, entered Ford’s saloon and said “Hello, Bob” before shooting Bob Ford in the throat, killing him instantly. O’Kelley was sentenced to life in prison, but sentence was subsequently commuted because of a 7,000 signature petition in favour of his release. The governor pardoned him on 3 October 1902.