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How did the James Brothers Become Folk Heroes?

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Frank and Jesse James
Why are these two still famous (or infamous) when other bandits are long forgotten? I believe their special place in the pantheon of crime comes from a unique combination of conquest, catastrophe and celebrity. True they were the first to rob trains and banks in peacetime. But there’s more to their iconic popularity.


Frank James (January 10, 1843–February 18, 1915) is believed to have personally killed at least seventeen men. On August 21, 1863, he set out with William Clark Quantrill to demolish Lawrence, Kansas. The raiders massacred 200 unarmed civilians. Bloody Bill Anderson’s bushwhackers stopped the train at Centralia, Missouri on September 27, 1864. Frank and Jesse helped slaughter and scalp twenty-four unarmed Union Soldiers on leave.  With all the blood on his hands, you’d think Frank would be hated.  So how did he become a folk hero?

He suffered. Yes, he was wounded in the Civil War.  Who wasn’t?  The true telling point was injustice. When authorities couldn’t locate Frank, they punished his family.  Union soldiers made demands of the James boys’ formidable, nearly-six-foot-tall mother. Embattled Zerelda James Samuel told them nothing, not even when they tortured and hanged her third husband. Dr. Samuel survived, but that was not the end of atrocities against Frank’s family.  

Yes, the James boys hated Yankees.  They hated banks because the war left farmers too strapped to pay their bills. Many lost their land. They hated trains because railroads rode into Missouri on iron rails of greed and corruption. The Missouri Kansas, Texas railroad charged farmers more to ship their wheat to market than the wheat was worth.

Chasing reward money on January 26, 1875, Pinkerton detectives sneaked up to Frank’s mother’s home. A flare lamp tossed through a window killed Frank’s nine-year-old half brother Archie. The blast shattered Zerelda’s right arm which had to be amputated.



To gain name recognition, outlaws have to do one simple thing. They have to stay alive long enough to get their names in the papers. Like non-blockbuster movies and garage bands, they have to find their audience.

Frank and Jesse, along with the Younger brothers and a number of lesser lights, were crafty. They managed to stay in the limelight--and out of jail or the morgue--from the end of the Civil War to 1879. Fourteen years is an amazingly long career in shoot ‘em up crime. Bonnie and Clyde survived barely two.

How did the boys manage? They were bold, but cagy--and successful--most of the time.  Northfield, Minnesota lures tourists with the slogan, “Jesse James Slipped Here.” The James-Younger’s September 7, 1876 raid on the First National Bank was a flop.  Even so,  the botched attempt left Frank and Jesse alive and uncaptured--the only members of the gang to get off scott free.



The James boys would probably never have found immortality without good publicity.  Even when Jesse accidentally shot a little girl in the leg, newspaper editor John Edwards praised the pair in his Kansas City Times. He likened the James boys to the Knights of the Round Table.

Others said the brothers championed the poor at the expense of the rich. I’ve found only one Robin Hood story--and that may be merely a tale.

An old woman was about to lose her home to the bank. Even so, she shared what little she had with the James-Younger gang. Jesse waylaid the bank’s agent and stole the bills he’d been collecting.  The James brothers gave the widow money enough to pay off her entire mortgage. And then, Jesse robbed the the selfsame agent again when the man left the widow’s house.


After the War

The James boys hid in plain sight. They thumbed their noses at the $10,000 (nearly a quarter million now) reward offered by the railroads. As Frank once said, “Most people look alike in the city.” Incognito as horse traders, the James boys took their wives and children hither and yon. They turned up in Tennessee in 1876 with Frank taking the alias B.J. Woodson.  Jesse called himself “Thomas Howard.” They seemed perfectly ordinary family men.

Betrayed by the Ford brothers, Jesse was slain on April 3, 1882. Frank gave up crime and turned himself in. Two trials and no convictions later, he came to St. Louis as a VIP. He started races at Fairgrounds Park and took tickets at a burlesque house. The Standard Theatre invited people to "Come get your ticket punched by the legendary Frank James."


Civil War

The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid may have gone sour because the James boys didn’t do the planning.

Cole Younger chose the bank because of its ties to Union General Benjamin “Beast” Butler, commander of New Orleans in the Civil War. Butler issued General Order No. 28 which promised any female who failed to respect Union soldiers would be “...treated as a woman of the town plying her avocation.” Such a threat against sainted womanhood was sure to make every southern man’s blood boil.

Years of guerrilla warfare with Quantrill’s Raiders and Bloody Bill Anderson’s Bushwhackers had taught the outlaws lightning quick strikes and ruthlessness. They used both with precision to rob stores, trains and banks.