Jesse and Frank James were from a long line of Christian leaders whose great, great grandfather arrived in James Colony in 1619. Their paternal grandfather was a highly respected Baptist pastor from Virginia who fought in the Revolutionary War alongside Light-Horse Harry Lee, father of Robert E. Lee. Jesse and Frank James’ father Robert was a very successful Baptist educator and pastor who settled in Missouri and served as a Baptist pastor and died in California seeking to win gold miners to Christ.
On June 29, 1843, Robert James graduated from Georgetown College, the first Baptist college west of the Appalachian Mountains. He later earned a master’s degree. Robert was considered a skilled orator, faithful pastor, and educator. He was one of the founders of William Jewell College in 1849 in Liberty, Missouri.
As a pastor of New Hope Baptist Church in Holt, he baptized as many as 60 converts in a day. Jesse James’ son wrote that when 60 people were baptized, his father (the future bank robber and killer) was 14 months old and was held aloft to observe the unusual ceremony. Jesse’s son also contends that his father was baptized near that spot when he returned home wounded in the Border War.
Robert James was not paid much by his congregation and supported his family by farming. Before leaving to do evangelistic work in the California goldfields, he had founded Baptist Churches in New Hope and Providence. In 1849, he organized Pisgah Baptist Church in Excelsior Springs. During his eight years of pastoring in Missouri, he was paid less than $100 for his service.
Robert’s sons may have been thieves, but he was not a thief. Robert and Zerelda whom he called Zee had two sons, Frank (born January 10. 1843) and Jesse (born September 5, 1847). A third child, Susan, was born in1849, and all were active in the church.
When Jesse was about three years old, his father was asked to be the chaplain for a wagon train to the goldfields of California in 1850. As his father left their small home, Jesse clung to his legs begging with tears for him not to go. His father died of cholera in a small gold camp and was buried in an unmarked grave. Who knows how Jesse James would have turned out if his father had been first a father, then a preacher?
The James family were slave owners and were known for being kind to them, even permitting slave children to sleep in the main house. When the war ended and slaves were freed, their former slaves remained at the farm for many years.
Zee James married two more times and she and the boys soon began attending Mount Olive Baptist Church in Centerville (Centerville would later be renamed, Kearney, and Mount Olive became known as First Baptist in 1872). In 1852, Frank and Jesse’s mother married a neighboring farmer who quickly left her, and before she filed for divorce, he died in a horse accident. The undertaker arrived before the divorce lawyer. She married a third time to Dr. Archie Reuben Samuels in 1855, who took an interest in the family’s welfare and increased the size of the farm. He also took an interest in one of their female slaves and fathered a child by her.
After the start of Lincoln’s War of Northern Aggression in 1861, Frank joined the Confederate Army and was soon discharged. Eighteen-year-old Frank joined Quantrill’s Raiders, a guerrilla group known as Bushwhackers that harassed Union soldiers and sought to protect southern sympathizers along the Missouri-Kansas border. Most of Quantrill’s guerrilla fighters were teenagers, one only 13.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Eastern Kansas was settled by abolitionists who formed into merciless, marauding, and murdering anti-slavers called Jayhawkers and another group known as Red Legs, both supporting the North. As a young member of the Red Legs, Buffalo Bill Cody admitted, “We were the biggest thieves on record.”
The hatred between slaveholders (southerners) and abolitionists (northerners) along the Missouri-Kansas border was equally fierce. There was not much civil about the Civil War. Civilians were killed with impunity, prisoners were mutilated and slaughtered, crops were destroyed, stock animals killed or driven off, and homes were left ablaze. All because some states wanted to leave the union as was understood as possible when they joined!
For others, the issue was whether or not to permit slavery.
These “soldiers,” allegedly in the cause of the Union, attacked people in Jackson and Clay Counties in Western Missouri who were mainly Southern sympathizers. Many towns were burned to the ground, and many slaves were freed. The Union marauders drove off cattle and horses, killed the men, and terrorized the women. In retaliation, the southern sympathizers fought back and were called Bushwhackers. Each man was known to have eight loaded pistols at all times. Their most infamous leader was Charles W. Quantrill, a drifter or dedicated southern leader, depending on whom you believe. Union troops often shot Bushwhackers on sight.
Seeking recognition and acceptance, Quantrill traveled to Richmond, Virginia, to receive a regular Confederacy command under the Partisan Ranger Act; however, the southern officials already knew his reputation for brutality, and he was denied a commission. Some southerners continued to defend him.
When Quantrill and his Bushwhackers attacked Lawrence, Kansas, on August 21, 1863, they cited the deeds of the Red Legs as their motive for their attack on the town. About 400 guerrillas attacked the town and killed about 185 men, robbed two banks, and burned most of the town. Frank James participated in the massacre along with future outlaws such as the Younger brothers who later became part of the James-Younger Gang. Jesse boasted that he had also been there, but his boast is suspect. All outlaws have a tendency to exaggerate and embellish the facts.
Quantrill himself said his motivation for the attack was “to plunder and destroy the town in retaliation” for earlier Union action in Osceola when nine leading men were executed by Union officials. Others say the retaliation was because Jayhawkers had taken wives and sisters of the Bushwhackers and imprisoned them in a weak, three-story building in Kansas City that collapsed, killing four of them.
Just three months after the Lawrence raid, a party of Union soldiers invaded the James’ farm looking for information about the location of Quantrill’s camp. Fifteen-year-old Jesse was horsewhipped when he refused to answer the soldiers’ questions. Jesse’s step-father was questioned and then hanged from a barn rafter, although Jesse saved his life by cutting him down and then shot one soldier as the others fled. Jesse ran into the farmhouse and shot a soldier who was raping his mother. He killed two soldiers that day and fled into the woods to join Frank and the raiders. Dr. Samuels was feeble-minded after that event and died in an insane asylum.
Jesse, now 16, followed Frank as a Bushwhacker led by “Bloody” Bill Anderson, who decorated his horse’s bridle with scalps of Union soldiers he had killed. On September 27, 1864, in Centralia, Missouri, the guerilla group apprehended 24 unarmed Union soldiers from a train and executed them as they were going home on furlough. Pursued by Union troops, the Bushwhackers managed to kill more than another hundred Northerners. Frank and Jesse were involved, and Jesse was credited with killing eight soldiers.
When the war ended, Jesse and Frank, like many others, saw massive inequities as Northerners took vengeance against the southerners, and Reconstruction only magnified the sense of unfairness. Jesse and Frank, the four Younger Brothers, and others fled to the hills and continued to raid, rob, and kill. Many people defended these outlaws because of the persecution their families suffered during the war.
The war ended in April of 1865, and in May Jesse rode into Lexington, Missouri, with a white flag in an attempt to surrender to Union troops. A Union soldier shot him in the chest, but he managed to flee to safety and recuperate. This was often used by confederate sympathizers to excuse gangster activities. They were “forced” into criminal life by the victorious and still-vengeful Yankees.
When Jesse was 18 years old, the James-Younger gang of 10 or 12 robbed the Clay County Savings in Liberty in 1866, a few months after the Civil War came to an end. The Younger boys are falsely said to be cousins of the James. This robbery was only a year before Jesse’s name was added to the Mount Olive Baptist Church! Ironically, Liberty was the location of the college Jesse and Frank’s father helped establish. The young gang of thieves stole over $60,000 in cash and bonds, and an innocent teenage boy was killed during their escape.
When banks became larger, more protected, and got time-release safes, the James-Younger gang changed with the times and robbed stagecoaches and trains. Jesse, and especially his mother, promoted his criminal activities as a kind of Robin Hood, taking only from Northern banks—which only the mentally challenged believed.
In 1874, Jesse and Frank took blushing brides and tried to live anonymously, robbing, and killing periodically but moving frequently. They had been chased for years by the Pinkerton Detective Agency without any success. In 1875, a group of Pinkerton agents surrounded the James’ farm and threw a smoke bomb into the house, and Archie Samuels (Jesse and Frank’s half-brother) threw it into the fireplace where it exploded, killing Archie. Their mother’s right arm was injured, resulting in amputation below the elbow.
The media reported the device was a “bomb” which resulted in even more local sympathy for the James boys and increased hatred of government. It also gave some credibility to them being forced into criminal behavior. Years later, a letter by Pinkerton was found in the Library of Congress in which Pinkerton declared his intention to “burn the house down.”
Following a badly botched robbery of First National Bank in Northfield, Minnesota, in 1876, the robbery spree came to an end. Two of the gang members were killed, and the Younger Brothers were injured and sentenced to life in prison. Frank and Jesse escaped unharmed back to Missouri.
Jesse’s wife had a baby, and he rented a farm in St. Joseph, Missouri in 1881 under the alias of Tom Howard. The governor and the Pinkertons announced a $10,000 reward for Jesse, dead or alive. Jesse, feeling a need for protection, hired Charles and Robert Ford to live with him not knowing they had bargained with the governor to betray Jesse.
After breakfast on April 3, 1882, Charles and Robert were in the living room, and Jesse walked in and laid his gun belt on a table, something he had never done. Looking at a wall picture, Jesse stood on a chair to dust (or straighten) the picture, and Bob Ford shot him in the back of his head, killing him. Jesse was dead at 34, and the song, “The dirty little coward shot Mr. Howard has laid Jesse James in his grave,” expressed the attitude of many.
Frank James surrendered to officials on October 5, 1882, was tried and found not guilty, and died at the age of 72 from natural causes at the James’ farm on February 18, 1915. During their 15-year crime spree, the James-Younger Gang committed 26 holdups taking more than $200,000 and killed more than 24 men from Iowa to Texas and Kansas to Huntington, West Virginia.
Jesse’s funeral was held at what is now First Baptist Church of Kearney, Missouri and where Jesse had been a member. The principled pastor refused to say a word about him but warned people that sin will kill, and Christ is the answer for every person’s need of salvation—a salvation that always results in a change of behavior.
Jesse and Frank were Baptists but were not genuine Christians, as is true of many church members today.
(Dr. Don Boys is a former member of the Indiana House of Representatives who ran a large Christian school in Indianapolis and wrote columns for USA Today for 8 years. Boys authored 20 books, the most recent, Reflections of a Lifetime Fundamentalist: No Reserves, No Retreats, No Regrets! The eBook is available at Amazon.com for $4.99. Other titles at www.cstnews.com. Follow him on Facebook at Don Boys, Ph.D., and visit his blog. Send a request to DBoysphd@aol.com for a free subscription to his articles and click here to support his work with a donation.)