In our romanticized views of the Wild West, the name of Jesse James is large. The outlaw is seen as something of a folk hero to many, and his exploits were fodder for legend even while he was still alive.
He and his gang committed any number of robberies—of banks, of trains, of businesses; but he was often viewed as a sort of modern-era Robin Hood, according to LegendsOfAmerica.
Was that perception correct, or was it 19th-century media spin?
It’s been said that the road to James’ life of crime began as a response to a government and social order that he hated. His family sided with the Confederacy when the Civil War broke out, and, even aside from the horrors of war itself, Jesse and his family had some terrible interactions with Union soldiers.
At 16, Jesse joined a band of Confederate-leaning guerillas his older brother already worked with, taking part in a raid on the town of Centralia, Missouri, on September 27, 1864.
The goal of the raid was to rob an incoming train, but while they were waiting, the group wreaked havoc on the town—robbing, burning, and terrifying its residents thoroughly.
The raid, and the wholesale slaughter of 24 injured and unarmed Union soldiers who were on the train marked the beginning of Jesse’s life of crime.
When the war was finally over, Jesse and his older brother Frank chose the life of outlaws, saying they had been forced to it by the persecution of their family during the war years.
They formed a gang with other like-minded men, and spent the next 15 years robbing their way across the American West. In the course of their various crimes, it wasn’t that uncommon for innocent bystanders to be injured or killed.
Despite the brutality and callousness the gang often showed while committing its crimes, the press loved the gang, and often wrote about their crimes in a romanticized way, playing up the adventure, and painting the outlaws in a more generous light than they actually merited, for the entertainment of readers back East.
Not everyone viewed the James gang so charitably, however. Its victims, and often bystanders who actually witnessed their acts, had a very different feeling about them. In fact, the gang was nearly wiped out during a raid in Minnesota— not by the government, not by law enforcement, but instead by a mob of angry townspeople.
According to History Channel, the incident occurred in 1876. The gang was going to commit a brazen daylight robbery of a bank in Northfield, Minnesota.
The robbery began with five of the outlaws riding through town firing their pistols to create a diversion. While locals scattered for cover, three more of the group walked into the bank, waving their pistols, and demanded that a teller open the safe.
The teller told Jesse, whom he recognized, that the safe had a time lock, and couldn’t be opened yet, and while Jesse paused to consider his next step, another teller made a break for the door. He was shot, but managed to get out of the bank and raise an alarm.
A group of angry townspeople surrounded the bank, guns in hand, and began shooting the would-be robbers as they came out of the building, trying to flee. One of the outlaws was shot by a 19-year-old medical student.
Another was hit multiple times by a repeater-rifle wielded by the owner of the local hardware store. At least four more members of the gang were wounded while they made their break for freedom. It was all-out chaos as the town erupted in gunfire in what was one of the bloodiest and most memorable Wild West shootouts.
Jesse James, himself, was the last member of the group to leave the building. He shot the first teller in the head, bolted for his horse, and frantically rode out of town with the rest of the survivors. A posse hunted them down for the next two weeks in one of the great manhunts of the American West, killing or capturing four more of the outlaw band.
This marked the beginning of the end for the James Gang. During that time, Jesse James and his brother, Frank, decided to leave the gang and strike out on their own. When things weren’t so dangerous, they went to Tennessee, started to build a new gang, and resumed their life of crime.
However not long after, Jesse James was killed in 1882, shot in the back by a member of his new gang, who wanted the reward money. At the time of his death, he was 34 years old.
The town of Northfield, MN still celebrates their victory over the James gang to this day.