Jesse James is a familiar name from the Old West. Stories about him flow like water, from the accurate to the outrageous.
Living the life of a famous gunslinger and outlaw naturally brings some surprises. So with that in mind, here are some under the radar facts about one Jesse Woodson James…
He was the son of a preacher man
James never got to know his father, Robert S. James. If he did, maybe he wouldn’t have strayed into the history books as a bank robber. Dad was a Baptist minister and hemp farmer – the legit kind, though slaves labored on site.
He also co-founded the prestigious William Jewell College in the family’s home county of Missouri. In a bizarre twist of fate, student of the college George Wymore was later killed during Jesse’s first bank robbery.
Tragically, Robert S. James died of cholera when Jesse was a young child. He contracted it amongst the gold miners of California. Mr James wasn’t there to prospect but to preach. His demise had a devastating impact on the future outlaw, causing misery and hardship for mother Zerelda and siblings.
Mom stuck by her kids, even when things got really bad. “After Frank and Jesse grew up to become outlaws,” History writes “Zerelda, who was known as iron-willed, remained their staunch supporter.”
He lived a dangerous life before becoming an outlaw
Before he set foot on the path to lawlessness, it wasn’t exactly a picnic for James. Take what happened when he was a young teenager. Tensions were running high in Missouri during the American Civil War (1861 – 65). It was a border state and saw terrible violence between Confederates and the Union.
Several years before his criminal career started, Jesse got caught up in the bloodshed. Union militia arrived at the family farm in 1863 looking for then-Confederate guerilla Frank. Jesse was attacked by the men, and by some accounts went under the lash. Stepfather – and Zerelda’s third husband – Reuben Samuel came off worse. He suffered brain damage after militia hung him from a tree.
Jesse then joined Frank in tracking down those responsible, fighting a personal war alongside the main one. When not killing his tormentors, peril appears to have waited for Jesse at every turn. The following year he was shot in the right side of his chest while attempting to spirit away a saddle. He then managed to shoot himself in the finger by accident when polishing his weapon!
It was only a matter of time before a life of crime beckoned. Incidents like these shaped the James’ boys destiny. As the Chicago Tribune puts it, “popular fiction has maintained that Jesse and Frank James were driven to outlawry by a series of cruel circumstances not of their making”.
His nickname is nasty but hilarious
Those fearing for their lives on the receiving end of Jesse’s gun may have had their ribs tickled by the following words: “Hey, Dingus!” An imaginative leap of course, but there was actually someone nicknamed “Dingus” in the gang… Jesse himself.
When inadvertently blasting his middle finger, he took the tip off. “As blood squirted everywhere,” National Geographic writes, “Jesse cried, ‘O, ding it! ding it! How it hurts!’” In a Ned Flanders type move, swears-averse Jesse substituted his own kind of language.
From there, he was forever Dingus. Like the wound he suffered, it was swift and permanent…
Crime didn’t stop for his honeymoon
In 1874 Jesse brought another Zerelda into his life – Zerelda Mimms, his first cousin. Wedding bells rang, but the sound of bullets could be heard over the honeymoon period. Seems crime doesn’t take a holiday!
A stagecoach in Austin Texas is said to have played an unexpected role in the happy couple’s post nuptial life. With his gang along for the ride, Jesse picked up an extra wedding gift in forceful fashion…!
He was media savvy
Jesse’s Wild West celebrity status can be put down to his colorful life. Another key player in the drama however was John Newman Edwards of Missouri. As a newspaper editor, he played J. Jonah Jameson to the gun-slinging Spider Man.
Edwards’ bloody introduction to Jesse was via a bank robbery in the city of Gallatin, Tennessee, 1869. The editor – whose Confederate sympathies burned strong in his breast despite the war being over – viewed the outlaw as a symbol of rebellion against the establishment.
Jesse’s Robin Hood-style rep stems from the relationship. And he sure appreciated the good publicity! PBS writes he “loved seeing his name in print” and “readily played the part Edwards had created for him”. He even began “leaving press releases at the scenes of his crimes.” Jesse then paid an ultimate tribute to the media manipulator by naming his son Jesse Edwards James.
Brad Pitt may have portrayed James in a 2007 movie, but Jesse Jr went on to play his father for real in a 1920s motion picture. The clan in general had a knack for self promotion. For example, light fingered fans wanting a pebble from Jesse James’ grave needed to cough up a quarter… payable to grieving mother Zerelda!
He was killed by his own gun
Pitt’s flick, ‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford’, took an in-depth look at circumstances leading to his end. The murderer’s identity is of course no surprise! Ford was supposed to be a loyal gang member. Instead he shot 34 year old Jesse while in cahoots with Thomas T. Crittenden, Governor of Missouri in 1882.
An interesting if morbid detail is that Ford borrowed Jesse’s pistol for the deadly deed. In a further eye-opening development, Ford took to the road in a series of live performances where the slayer re-enacted his famous felony.
“It was not well-received,” notes Whizzpast, “particularly because of the fact that he shot Jesse while his back was turned.” Jesse was engaged in home improvements, applying a duster to a picture frame of all things. Other accounts claim he was merely straightening it. Either way, he was facing the wall when the bullet made its mark.
They dug him up in 1995
Over a century later, Jesse James made a reappearance in public life… albeit through being exhumed. The grisly act was necessary due to ambiguity over the outlaw’s fate.
For years people believed Jesse faked his execution, meaning the legend of him only grew.
A variety of potential Jameses were identified, till late 20th century scientists got their hands on the actual remains. DNA seemed conclusive. However, several years on bones from the city of Granbury Texas were studied. Speculation mounted over whether James saw out his days in relative peace there.
A certain J. Frank Dalton passed away in 1951, aged 103. He told people he was Jesse James. At the time his body bore the hallmarks of a rugged Wild West existence, complete with bullet wounds. In addition to skeletal evidence, ‘Dirt was removed from a burial plot whose headstone reads ‘Jesse Woodson James’… Below it says: ‘Supposedly killed in 1882.’” (The Guardian, 2000)
The trail went cold and Dalton was branded an impostor. Still, for some those nagging doubts never quite go away. In the end Jesse James died quickly and easily. His legacy on the other hand will go on through the centuries…
Steve is a writer and comedian from the UK. He’s a contributor to both The Vintage News and The Hollywood News and has created content for many other websites. His short fiction has been published by Obverse Books.