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!

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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

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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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48 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
      • J. Rick McCoy
        J. Rick McCoy says:

        Arthur C. McCoy “The Wild Irishman” was the real leader of the James-Dalton Gang, McCoy not only let Jessie claim the leadership role, but in fact encouraged him to do so. Check it out for your self

        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.

        • Johnny Smith
          Johnny Smith says:

          Curious, I grew up in Ohio. NEAR Middletown there was a tree near my family home which had “Jess James” on the tree carved DEEP and OLD. I did some research and found that THERE had been a train robbery near there by Jesse James. NOTE Jess on the tree. NOT Jesse. The carving was OLD. I only remember Jess not Jesse and it bothers me. Did Jesse James rob a train near Middletown, Oho? (There used to be a train stop in West Middletown on the other side of the Miami River) The tree was located about 3 to 5 miles from the Railroad tracks. HELP?

          Reply
    • 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
    • Grady Clubb
      Grady Clubb says:

      Supposedly Jesse James had a one night fling with some great grandmother on my dad’s side of the family and got her pregnant. My family also said that some things that were left out (or most likely covered up) is that Jesse James shot several people in the back while holding them up in robberies like a coward which makes it ironic for him to have been shot in the back of the head. In no fashion was he a hero.

      Reply
    • Daniel
      Daniel says:

      He most definitely committed some dastardly crimes But he most definitely was the leader of the James’ gang As Frank himself stated I was the planner but Jesse was the leader

      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
          • Troy Miller
            Troy Miller says:

            Great job Judy – even though it was a long time ago and no one has posted since.
            I grew up around Blue Earth County MN and… safe to say I have some insight into Owatonna, Mankato, Northfield, St Peter, Butternut and the lowlands where the Youngers were brought down and well – quite a few other things really.

            My name is Troy Miller and my great grandfather was Henry S. Miller who had a brother named Ed T. Miller and another that was often called Clely but recorded most oftenly as Clell. He was mistakenly recorded by a census as Clenand but was most likely named Cleland in reality by his Irish/Scottish housemade mother who was an indentured servant and so the one thing that Clell was never called was Mclelland as some have claimed as this would have not ended well.
            Many historical writers mistakenly claim that Clell’s father’s wife listed on the 1860 census was his mother but his old man Moses was well…. there is no way to put this gently so – somewhat of a horn-dog and I have newspapers clippings of his wives death in 1846 and he didn’t marry the assumed mother until about 1853 and that in itself is an interesting tale.

            Anyway I heard growing up all about the reality but for most of my life didn’t believe any of it until after both of my older brothers died (unfortunately very violently like most of the men in my family since oh… 1798 or so – I stopped at great great grandpa Moses because after 20 some years of investigating it all my head hurt somethin’ awful.
            Anyway yea… Jesse was a punk who shot Ed Miller in the back and Henry Miller just might have had his revenge… but I am not likely to prove that one.

            When I finish .. if I ever actually finish – my biographical non-fiction saga I will explain why the family legend that it was my great grandfather Henry who convinced Bob Ford to do what he did (well actually convinced Charley Ford but Bob did the deed I suppose) but as I said that will be only one of the ‘unproven but very possible’ changes to the history everyone things they know.

            Here are some things I have absolute proof on:
            Why after two weeks the Youngers were still lost.
            Why Frank really decided to go a different route and when I show everybody it is going to blow their minds!
            Where everybody was supposed to go and of course the one very simple mistake that screwed that up for both parties.
            Who was waiting with fresh horses at the location they were all supposed to go and why Jesse James got so very paranoid after Frank got so disgusted he refused to work with him anymore… oh and of course why Frank refused to work with him obviously.
            Perhaps most importantly why the citizens of Northfield Minnesota were able to actually kill two of the outlaws in the streets before… well when Cole saw Clell go down two citizens dropped dead in less than a second because the expected situation had become very different.

            And the fact is that my book will not only show all of those things using historical evidence to back them up but…. those are really the most mundane facts I have that are going to shake up history in a way that has not happened in a very long time.

            Troy Miller (My Brothers Keeper)
            Might have to start a patron (patreon or something) fund so I can finish the stupid thing but I will someday.

          • C Albert
            C Albert says:

            Thank you. So true. Anyone that really knows about the James boys would recognize that isnt them.

  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
  5. Kerry
    Kerry says:

    Had an Aunt that always claimed to be a James family decedent as well as of the famous McCoy’s of the feeding Hayfields and McCoy’s. She even named two of her sons Frank and Jesse. Never knew if she was telling facts or just full of it.

    Reply
  6. You can make it yours
    You can make it yours says:

    The thing is many of the known deeds / crimes cannot be attributed to him without a reasonable shadow of doubt.
    The biggest crime, though, was the outbreak of an unnecessary civil war, which sufficed for terrible and countless atrocities on both sides. Both sides acted pervertedly. Even Feds promised freedom and rights to slaves, especially coloured people, and it was all a lie to have them joining the Union side, and returned to seggregationism after 1865 way into the 20th century.

    Reply
  7. You can make it yours if you wish
    You can make it yours if you wish says:

    I don’t think anyone with a minimum IQ can take first picture for authentic.
    All the guys in there can be anyone but members of the James-Younger Gang.

    Reply
  8. Lee Fraker
    Lee Fraker says:

    Who else could afford to take “their” gang on the honeymoon. They stayed at Allen and Susan Parmers home in TX. Allen was a Quantrill killer at Lawerance K’S and very good at his job then. He became a member of “the James gang” before marrying Frank and Jesse’s sister Susan and moving to TX. Really find it hard to believe they robbed anyone personally while at lit’ll sisters. TX was a safehaven for years starting with Belle Starr’s parents home near Dallas 1864 thur 1920’s for these raiders enjoying the comfort’s at Sherman, TX.. Like the old saying goes “you can come here, we don’t ask questions” or is that a new one to you?

    Reply
  9. Jesse James Hines
    Jesse James Hines says:

    WOW! I have no actual words. No physical evidence. Just a fond belief from reading historical stories. My interest was peaked due to my Father’s joke to my Mother which was taken serious when I was given the name Jesse James Hines. Jesse’s great grandfather on his dad’s side, William James, married a Martha Hines, and I have been trying to locate any and all information to the effect that Martha would indeed be a distant relative of mine. As for the life and times of Jesse James, well, I certainly have my own opinion of the man. Today, I work for Securitas, a leader in the security industry and the company that bought out the Pinkerton Agency. So, in a sense, changing the history for the name for those who believe Jesse was a bad man. As for me, considering the times of the ages back then, Jesse was fighting back in the only way he knew how, against a power that was trying to overtake the country in that time. Read up on history folks, Jesse, Frank, Cole, Jim, Bob…no matter who lead or who followed, they were all oppressed by a power that should never have been allowed to be free to rule.

    Reply
  10. C Albert
    C Albert says:

    hmmmmmm anyone thats really familiar with the James boys would recognize right away that is NOT Jesse or Frank in that photograph. Doesnt even resemble them. And do you really think they were so stupid as to go pose at a studio for a picture ? Yeah, dont think so.

    Reply

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