25 little-known facts about the outlaw Jesse James

James-Younger Gang

On July 21, 1873, infamous outlaw and American folk figure Jesse James robbed his first train in Adair, Iowa with the help of his posse, the James-Younger Gang. The outlaws used stolen tools to pry up part of the track, pulling it aside with rope as the train rounded a blind curve. They boarded the crashed train wearing white Ku Klux Klan masks and searched the safe that they believed held gold bullion, only to be disappointed by a meager $2,000. They then collected valuables from the passengers, bringing the total up to about $3,000 (about $50,000 by today’s standards).

After 141 years, Jesse James remains one of the most iconic and romanticized figures in American history, even though he had little regard for the lives of others (such as the engineer of the train, who died as a result). Many people even see Jesse James as a type of Robin Hood or folk hero, despite his sometimes murderous ways.

Although separating fact from fiction can be quite a task when it comes to folk figures like Jesse, we’ve dug up some interesting tidbits about this mythical man of the West that we think you’ll enjoy. Giddyup!

1. His father was a hemp farmer and Baptist minister.

He left home when Jesse was very young to minister to gold seekers out West and died of cholera while there.

2. Residing in Missouri, the James family owned slaves and supported the Confederacy.

3. When Jesse was about 15, Union soldiers seeking information attacked the James household, hanging Jesse’s stepfather from a tree (he survived, but with mental damage) and roughing up young Jesse.

This incident is believed to be the spark that led to Jesse joining the Confederate guerrillas.

4. Before he even became an outlaw, Jesse was shot in the chest on two separate occasions.

Once in 1864 while trying to steal a saddle from a farmer and once the following year by Union soldiers.

5. Jesse and other guerrillas might have slaughtered and scalped unarmed Union soldiers.

Some say yes, some say no.

Jesse James

6. Jesse was a cousin kisser.

He married his first cousin Zerelda “Zee” Mimms (who was named after Jesse’s mother).

7. His nickname was “Dingus”.

He reportedly earned the nickname after shooting off the tip of his finger while cleaning a pistol. Because he didn’t like to curse, he said “That’s the dod-dingus pistol I ever saw”.

8. The James gang’s “Robin Hood” image was carefully crafted with the help of editor John Newman Edwards.

He would write favorable news articles with gems such as “[the James gang are] men who might have sat with Arthur at the Round Table, ridden in tourney with Sir Lancelot, or won the colors of Guinevere” (Kansas City Times, 29 Sept. 1872).

9. Jesse loved publicity, and was even known to hand out “press releases” to witnesses at the scenes of his crimes.

One, which exaggerates Jesse’s height, is said to have read: “The most daring robbery on record. The southbound train on the Iron Mountain Railroad was stopped here this evening by five heavily armed men and robbed of ____ dollars… The robbers were all large men, none of them under six feet tall. They were masked, and started in a southerly direction after they had robbed the train, all mounted on fine-blooded horses. There is a hell of an excitement in this part of the country!”

10. Despite the Robin Hood image of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, there is no evidence that Jesse and his gang ever did so.

Evidence suggests they kept all of their spoils for themselves.

Jesse James


11. Jesse once almost overdosed on morphine.

Most agree that it was accidental, but there is speculation that it was a suicide attempt.

12. He (or possibly one of his “colleagues”) shot a little girl while robbing the Kansas City Exposition on Sept. 26, 1872.

He later wrote (anonymously) in a public letter “It is true that I shot a little girl, though it was not intentional, and I am very sorry that the child was shot; and if the parents will give me their address through the columns of the Kansas City Weekly Times, I will send them money to pay her doctor’s bill.”

13. He, along with his gang, robbed a stagecoach while on his honeymoon in Austin, TX, 1874.

Who takes their gang on their honeymoon? Jesse James, that’s who.

14. Jesse (and his brother) cost his mother her arm and his half-brother his life.

Agents of the Pinkerton Detective Agency on the hunt for Jesse and brother Frank threw an incendiary device into the family home, killing the 4-year-old half-brother and causing the mother to need her right arm amputated.

Zerelda James, mother of Jesse

15. Legend says Jesse jumped a 20 foot gulch on horseback while fleeing a scene, but historians say it probably never happened.

Most historians agree that it would be physically impossible to jump Devil’s Gulch, located in Garretson, South Dakota. Jesse probably went around it.

Devil's Gulch

16. His own pistol was used to kill him while he was tidying up his house.

Bob Ford, looking for reward money, shot him in the back of the head while he was turned dusting a picture on the wall on April 3, 1882.

17. After the murder, Bob Ford toured with a stage show reenacting the incident.

It was not well-received, particularly because of the fact that he shot Jesse while his back was turned.

18. Jesse’s son starred in two silent films about his father’s life, playing the roles of both himself and his father.

Both films, “Jesse James Under the Black Flag” and “Jesse James as the Outlaw”, were filmed in 1921.

19. After his death, Jesse’s mother charged tourists a quarter for pebbles taken from his grave.

Frank at James farm
Frank at the James Farm.

20. Shooter Bob Ford’s epitaph read “The man who shot Jesse James”, while Jesse’s epitaph read “In Loving Memory of my Beloved Son, Murdered by a Traitor and Coward Whose Name is not Worthy to Appear Here”.

21. A man named J. Frank Dalton claimed to be Jesse in the late 1940s/early 50s.

Everyone loves a good conspiracy theory, and some think there is compelling evidence. A DNA test proved Dalton’s claims wrong, though.

22. He had many aliases and identities.

Some known aliases included Thomas Howard, John. D. Howard, William Campbell (a Texas cattleman), and Charles Lawson “of Nottingham, England” (there is some speculation about whether or not Jesse would have been able to pull off a convincing English accent). His son Jesse James, Jr., who was led to believe that his own name was Tim Howard until after his father’s death, even recalled that Jesse sometimes walked with a cane and a limp as a disguise.

23. He blinked. A lot.

Historians think he may have had an eye condition that caused chronic inflammation, called blephartis.

24. During his time with the guerrillas, he dressed as a young girl.

From Jesse James, Jr.’s memoir: “Jesse James, dressed as a young girl, rode on horseback up to this house and called its mistress out. Imitating the voice and manner of a girl my father told her that he lived not far away, that he was a girl fond of adventure, and would like to come to the house that night, bringing two or three neighbor girls, “to have a good time.” The mistress of the house consented, and the supposed girl on horseback said he and the other girls would be there that night.

The mistress sent word at once to the Federal officers in Independence that four new girls would be at her house that night.

It was after dark when Jesse James and the other guerrillas rode up to the house, and dismounting, crept up and peered in at the windows. Twelve Federal officers were in there with the women. No guards or sentinels were out. The Federals felt secure. All the company was in one room, five women and twelve men. A cheery fire blazed and crackled on the hearth of the old-fashioned fire place.

Jesse James, with five men went to one window. Bill Gregg, with five men, went to another. Each of the nine guerrillas in the darkness outside selected his man. At a signal that had been agreed upon there was the crack of nine revolvers that sounded like the discharge of a single gun. The glass, slivered in a thousand bits, crashed, and nine of the Federal soldiers fell dead at that first volley. The remaining three fell dead an instant later. The guerrillas mounted and rode away.”

25. He murdered at least 12 people, and claimed to have murdered 17.

We hope you got a kick out of these 25 facts about America’s most infamous outlaw! Did any of them change your perception of the ever-controversial Jesse James? Let us know in the comments!

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27 replies
  1. Luke
    Luke says:

    Of course, every article about this guy always leaves out the single most important thing about him. He was not the “leader” of the gang by any measure. He was a hot-headed half-wit that screwed up many of the jobs by shooting innocents and self-promoting himself. The James-Younger gang was formed and ran by Frank James and Cole Younger. They brought their little brothers along for muscle—and then some writer fell in love with Jesse and made him famous. Jesse nearly got them caught or killed many times and Cole tried to kick him out of the gang many times. Frank finally got tired of defending him, and they broke up the gang. The reunited for the nightmare at Northfield, and while the Youngers sat in jail, Frank retired. Then Jesse tried to finally lead his own gang, failed miserably, and got killed by one of his recruits. Not a hero, not a Robin Hood, and not a leader.

    Reply
    • Tony G
      Tony G says:

      Jesse James is a hollywood figure. The most notorious outlaw was none other than Kid Curry. Curry alone killed 9 lawmen, and another two civilians during shootouts, becoming the gang’s most feared member.

      Reply
      • Eric F. James
        Eric F. James says:

        DC and Lynn are correct! As for Joel Williams…what’s there to say about someone who lacks education? Con men rely upon them all the time. The web site Williams cites is a con artist’s treasure box. Who am I to say? I wrote Jesse James Soul Liberty, a history of the James family. And since 1997 I’ve published the official web site and blog for the Jesse James family – Stray Leaves and Leaves of Gas. I also am archivist of the Joan Beamis Research Archive that produced the family’s first published history in 1970.

        Reply
        • Joel Willans
          Joel Willans says:

          Thanks for sharing your expertise, Eric. Your book sounds like a fascinating read. If you have a confirmed picture of the James Gang then please send it to editorial @ whizzpast.com and we’ll change the title pic. In fact, if you’d like to write a guest post about the James gang for our 500 thousand plus monthly readers please let me know.

          As for my education, not sure what you’ve heard, but I do have a degree in History and a post grad in Journalism. Does that count? Oh and it’s Willans not Williams 🙂

          Reply
          • Eric F. James
            Eric F. James says:

            Thanks for the offer, but my plate is full, preparing the next volume of Jesse James family history for publication, writing a couple of lectures for this month, prepping a 2 day seminar upcoming, a putting together a Jesse James family reunion in Kansas City. As for a gang photo, none exists. What kind of fools do you think the James are? Why would a fugitive from the law have a photo taken and then distribute it. As for a history degree, those who can put it to work usefully have its benefit. Those who squander it promoting undocumented theses, unsubstantiated fantasies, and fake photos and history not only discard their own integrity, but also the integrity of the college degree.

          • Joel Willans
            Joel Willans says:

            Wow! You’re a busy chap. Hopefully, all that hard work will help lessen the errors in the first volume, which so upset Virginia J. Church. “As a member of the James clan and a contributor to the book,I was upset over the lack of editing of some out standing mistakes. One picture had all the people pictured completely wrong. And many more errors occur during the book. Though It was interesting to find about my other relatives, I just hope the facts are more accurate than were done on my immediate family.”

            Terrible shame. But I’m sure all the other parts are flawless and it’s a cracking good read, hence the whopping two reviews.

    • kym
      kym says:

      That’s ironic because Dillinger wasn’t really the brains of the Dillinger gang, the real leader was a guy named Harry “Pete” Pierpont. I think the press just liked the sound of their names.

      Reply
    • Charles Shack
      Charles Shack says:

      Very true, it makes me sick when I hear the term Jesse James gang. Jesse was a sociopath who murdered several innocent people. Cole Younger and brother Frank were the glue that held the gang together. When you look at the men who participated in the early robberies, John Jarrett, George and Oliver Shepard, Arthur McCoy and Arch Clement, all leaders during the war. These men would never take orders from an unproven 18 year old. The Jesse James legend was built by self promotion and a drunken newspaper writer. Jesse left his widow and children destitute, his so called legacy is based on made up stories and outright lies.

      Reply
    • Crash32
      Crash32 says:

      Only a half-wit would clean a loaded pistol a blow off his own finger…
      The movie, “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” has it all wrong. James was not some finger-pointing, overtly careful leader of the gang. He was a small, rodent of a man who got lucky not to die unceremoniously many times…

      Reply
  2. EasyG
    EasyG says:

    I wonder if there’s any truth to the claim that he would check passenger’s hands, to see if they were calloused, while robbing trains to make sure he didn’t steal from working men?

    Reply
        • Judy
          Judy says:

          I don’t see how this could have been a picture of the James Gang. Just a quick google search tells me that according to the Minnesota Historical Society Mueller, the photographer, didn’t start his photo studio in Owatonna until 1884.
          http://www.mnhs.org/people/photographers/M.php

          I kept looking for more info about Mr. Mueller and found him in the Minnesota 1905 census and he had been a resident for 23 years, making his move to MN 1882.
          By 1882-1884 the Youngers were in prison and Jesse was dead.

          Judy

          Reply
  3. JerBear
    JerBear says:

    Jesse James Died in Chama New Mexico. He told everybody he was a Dentist and lived and died there peacefully.

    Reply
  4. Carycomic
    Carycomic says:

    Even an otherwise intelligent writer like Rod Serling could be guilty of believing the PR whitewash Jesse James posthumously received during the TV Western boom of the Fifties and early Sixties. As can be seen in the episode wherein Jesse’s ghost returned to Earth as a Hollywood revisionist script writer(!) for egomaniacal TV star, Rance McGrew (Larry Blyden).

    Reply

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