23 Vintage Photos of Outlaw Jesse James From the Late 19th Century

Jesse Woodson James (September 5, 1847 – April 3, 1882) was an American outlaw, bank and train robber, guerrilla, and leader of the James–Younger Gang. Raised in the “Little Dixie” area of western Missouri, James and his family maintained strong Southern sympathies. He and his brother Frank James joined pro-Confederate guerrillas known as “bushwhackers” operating in Missouri and Kansas during the American Civil War. As followers of William Quantrill and “Bloody Bill” Anderson, they were accused of committing atrocities against Union soldiers and civilian abolitionists, including the Centralia Massacre in 1864.

After the war, as members of various gangs of outlaws, Jesse and Frank robbed banks, stagecoaches, and trains across the Midwest, gaining national fame and often popular sympathy despite the brutality of their crimes. 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 afterward, recruiting new members, but came under increasing pressure from law enforcement seeking to bring them to justice. On April 3, 1882, Jesse James was shot and killed by Robert Ford, a new recruit to the gang who hoped to collect a reward on James’s head and a promised amnesty for his previous crimes. Already a celebrity in life, James became a legendary figure of the Wild West after his death.

Despite popular portrayals of James as an embodiment of Robin Hood, robbing from the rich and giving to the poor, this is a case of romantic revisionism since there is absolutely no evidence that he or his gang shared any loot from their robberies with anyone outside their network. Scholars and historians have characterized James as one of many criminals inspired by the regional insurgencies of ex-Confederates following the Civil War, rather than as a manifestation of alleged economic justice or of frontier lawlessness. James continues to be one of the most famous figures from the era, and his life has been dramatized and memorialized numerous times.

Jesse, around age seven, with his five year old sister, Susan, 1854
Jesse Woodson James is on the far left next to his parents Orpha Elizabeth and William M James
Jesse James, Platte City, Missouri, July 10, 1864
Jesse James and his closest friend during the Civil War, Little Archie Clements, ca. 1864-65
Jesse James, Nashville, Tennessee, 1866
Jesse James, the second from the right
Jesse James, San Francisco, California, 1867
Jesse (right), Frank James (middle), and Fletch Taylor, Nashville, Tenessee, June of 1867
Jesse James, the third from the left, and the lady to his left is Zee Mimms, his cousin and future wife, Octorber 1868
Jesse James, Greenville, Illinois, 1869
Outlaw Jesse James
Frank and Jesse James
Jesse James, the second from the left
Jesse James, his wife Zerelda Mimms, and his daughter
Jesse James and Cadwell Chiles
Jesse James, Long Branch, New Jersey, 1871
Jesse and Frank James, Carolina, Illinois, 1872
Jesse James, Hot Springs, Arkansas, 1874
Outlaw Jesse James, Nebraska City, 1875
Jesse James, 1876
Jesse (left) and Frank, ca. 1875-76
Jesse James with Frank James and other members of the James Gang, Nashville, Tennessee in 1880
Jesse James in his coffin, 1882

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