Anthropology Friday: The James-Younger Gang

Welcome back to Anthropology Friday. Today we’re continuing with Dago’s account from Outlaws on Horseback of the James-Younger gang. Wikipedia has some background on the gang:

The James–Younger Gang had its origins in a group of Confederatebushwhackers that participated in the bitter partisan fighting that wracked Missouri during the American Civil War. After the war, the men continued to plunder and murder, though the motive shifted to personal profit rather than for the glory of the Confederacy. ..

For nearly a decade following the Civil War, the James–Younger Gang was among the most feared, most publicized, and most wanted confederations of outlaws on the American frontier. Though their crimes were reckless and brutal, many members of the gang commanded a notoriety in the public eye that earned the gang significant popular support and sympathy. The gang’s activities spanned much of the central part of the country; they are suspected of having robbed banks, trains, and stagecoaches in at least ten states: Missouri, Kentucky, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama, and West Virginia.

But back to Dago’s account. Here is some background on Cole Younger, and what prompted him to become an outlaw:

Cole Younger, 1889 (lived 1844 – 1916)

“A week after the battle at Lone Jack, Cole [Younger] risked coming to see his mother. He was caught in the house by Union militiamen… and escaped only through the connivance of Suse (short for Susan,) who had grown old as a Younger slave.

“Two months later, Union troops came to the house again in the middle of the night and searched it from cellar to garret for Cole. Infuriated by not finding him, they ordered Mrs. Younger to set fire to the place. She had her four youngest children with her. An early fall storm had put a few inches of snow on the ground. She pleaded that if the intruders were determined to make her burn her own home they wait until morning. …

“When she offered to cook them something to eat, they agreed to wait. At the crack of dawn, however, they hitched a horse to a wagon, tossed a mattress and some blankets into it. Some furniture having been gathered into a pile, they forced her to set it afire…

“In his autobiography, The story of Cole Younger, by Himself, published in 1903, he makes much of the burning of his old home and the treatment his mother and brothers and sisters received, though hundreds of other families were burned out in that fashion”

EvX: Dago quotes an excerpt from Kansas, a Guide to the Sunflower State about the state of things between Missouri and Kansas before the war:

For two years a state of open warfare existed. Armed bands of border ruffians from Missouri made forays into Kansas and were answered by retaliatory companies of Jayhawkers. Men were called out into the night and shot down for no other reason than they supported or were suspected of supporting the opposite cause…. Fields were laid waste and towns were sacked, all int he name of the cause, but more often to gratify personal revenge or avarice. …

Dago continues:

“While formal war was being waged between the North and the South, the old border warfare [between Kansas and Missouri] took on new dimensions, blazing up like a forest fire out of control as opposing bands of bushwhackers and guerrillas spread terror, death and destruction wherever they rode. As 1862 opened, a man could go to his door after nightfall only at the risk of being shot down. Every night in one direction or another, the sky was red as some farmer’s home went up in flames. It was murder, arson and robbery without hope of redress. The opposing factions pretended to have a quasi-military status. Actually, they had none. The flag under which they rode might be the stars and stripes of the North, or the stars and bars of the confederacy, but their real emblem would have been emblazoned with the skull and crossbones of piracy.

“Northern sympathizers were no safer from Red Legs and Jayhawkers than Southerners and vice versa. …

Jesse James:

Jesse and Frank James, 1872

“With the end of the war, families had begun streaming back to the Burnt District to begin life anew. … Dr. Samuel [Jesse James’s father] had the old home repaired and made livable… Between doctoring and farming, he was making a humble living, when Jesse catapulted the family into prominence by robbing the bank at nearby Liberty. After that, life was never the same for Zerelda [Jesse’s mother] and the doctor. Other robberies and train holdups followed, all attributed to the James-Younger Gang. The hunt for them was intensified, but dangerous as it was, they often slipped in out of the brush and spent the night at the Samuel house. It was not long before information to that effect was int he hand of the Pinkertons [a private detective agency.] What they did about it ended in stark tragedy. …

“For months, a score of the agency’s best operatives had been crisscrossing Missouri… the results were distinctly embarrassing… As the year of 1874 drew to a close, the score read: three detectives and only one outlaw, John Younger, killed… And trains continued to be held up and banks robbed with annoying frequency.

“However, on January 5, 1876, the agency got a break. Jack Lad, one of their best operatives, who had been working as a pseudo farmhand within several miles of the Samuel home, wired the Kansas City office that Frank and Jesse were visiting their mother…

The Pinkerton Detective Agency, founded in 1850, is still in operation

“There is some disagreement as to what followed, but it concerns only what one of the Pinkertons tossed through the window that he had opened. The only light within came from the fireplace. It was a bitter night, the temperature hovering around zero. The doctor, Zelda, their two young children–Archie, aged eight, and Fannie, aged five–and a Negro servant woman, who had come west from Kentucky with Zelda and her husband, had retired for the night. Whatever it was that came sailing into the room, it exploded, and the effect was ghastly. Zelda’s right arm was torn off at the elbow. Archie was disemboweled and died almost at once. Dr. Samuel and the Negro woman were seriously injured… The irony of it was that Frank and Jesse were a hundred miles away.

“A feeling of revulsion against the Pinkertons swept the state. …

“Wellman is one of the few [writers who do not think it was a grenade]… I can only ask: why not? I recall the part played by Pinkerton men in the bloody strike at the McCormick Reaper Company Works, in Chicago, and again in the revolt of the steelworkers at the Homestead Mills, in Pittsburgh. The Pinkertons of that era are not sacrosanct with me.”

EvX: Wikipedia gives an interesting account of this incident and its aftermath:

In 1874, the Adams Express Company turned to the Pinkerton National Detective Agency to stop the James–Younger Gang. The Chicago-based agency worked primarily against urban professional criminals, as well as providing industrial security, such as strike breaking. Because the gang received support by many former Confederate soldiers in Missouri, they eluded the Pinkertons. …

Allan Pinkerton, the agency’s founder and leader, took on the case as a personal vendetta. … On the night of January 25, 1875, he staged a raid on the homestead. Detectives threw an incendiary device into the house; it exploded …

Many residents were outraged by the raid on the family home. The Missouri state legislature narrowly defeated a bill that praised the James and Younger brothers and offered them amnesty.[10] Allowed to vote and hold office again, former Confederates in the legislature voted to limit the size of rewards which the governor could make for fugitives. This extended a measure of protection over the James–Younger gang by minimizing the incentive for attempting to capture them.

One man’s outlaw is another man’s, er, freedom fighter?

Interestingly, the Pinkerton Detective Agency is still around:

Pinkerton, founded … by Allan Pinkerton in 1850 and currently a subsidiary of Securitas AB.[1] Pinkerton became famous when he claimed to have foiled a plot to assassinate president-elect Abraham Lincoln, who later hired Pinkerton agents for his personal security during the Civil War.[2] … Pinkerton was the largest private law enforcement organization in the world at the height of its power.[3]

During the labor strikes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, businessmen hired the Pinkerton Agency to infiltrate unions, supply guards, keep strikers and suspected unionists out of factories, and recruit goon squads to intimidate workers. One such confrontation was the Homestead Strike of 1892, in which Pinkerton agents were called in to reinforce the strikebreaking measures of industrialist Henry Clay Frick, acting on behalf of Andrew Carnegie.[4] The ensuing battle between Pinkerton agents and striking workers led to the deaths of seven Pinkerton agents and nine steelworkers.[5] The Pinkertons were also used as guards in coal, iron, and lumber disputes in Illinois, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia as well as the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 and the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921.

But let’s get back to Dago. How well did outlawry pay?

“After the robbery at Liberty, in February, the James-Younger Gang did not strike again until October 30, more than eight months later, when they looted the bank at Lexington, Missouri. …

“three, possibly four, stagecoach robberies can be rightly charged up to them over the decade and a half of their spectacular banditry. In all that time, however, they entered only a dozen banks (counting their misadventure at Northfield) and held up only seven trains. Add to that the Kansas City Fairgrounds robbery and you have the complete score of their major undertakings–twenty in all…

“Many estimates have been made of how much money they got away with. The popular reckoning is half a million dollars. Cole Younger, who was the only one of the bandits to say anything about it, claimed that they never got half of what they wee supposed to have taken. … The best answer as to what became of the money is that it was spent. A little simple arithmetic is all that is required to arrive at that conclusion. If in fifteen years the loot totaled half a million dollars,t he yearly take was less than $35,000. Divided among eight to ten men, all it amounted to was handsome wages. Cole Younger says they got nothing like half a million dollars. ..

“Turn back to the robbing of the bank at Liberty. Greenup Bird, the cashier, in a sworn statement, says the outlaws rode off with $57,072, of which $40,000 was in bonds, $15,000 in gold coin an the balance, scarcely more than $2,000, in silver and greenbacks. The bonds were nonnegotiable, hence worthless to the bandits. The gold was an even more tantalizing problem, since there was so little of it in circulation that to start spending it was certain to fasten suspicion on whoever possessed ti as a member of the robber gang. The only way out of the dilemma was to dispose of the gold to a “fence”…

“all commentators agree that they got $9,000 for their $15,000 in gold. …

“If, as claimed, twelve men took part in the Liberty bank robbery, a little more arithmetic reveals that each man netted only a little over a thousand dollars.”

EvX: I note that this is the exact same problem many pirates had. It’s one thing to capture a galleon, and quite another to walk into town and buy a farm using a chest full of stolen doubloons without getting noticed.

“Though the proceeds of the Gallatin robbery added up to very little, it unleashed a veritable hornet’ nest of trouble on the James-Younger Gang. … It was high time t get out of Missouri again. By twos and threes, they crossed the line into Indian Territory and holed up in old Tom Starr’s domain, east of Eufala. They knew old Tom from guerrilla days. He had ten brothers, several sons and daughters. With all of his progeny and kinsfolk, he was the head of perhaps the largest of all Cherokee clans, and he ruled it with a cruel, iron hand. The “Starr country” was wild, desolate, without roads, and no one attempted to cross it who was not known to be friendly with its overlord. Its limestone cave were a perfect refuge for men on the scout. Then, too, a man could turn a dollar by stealing horse and cattle for Tom Starr.

An Amusing Incident:

“On June 3, 1871, the world heard from the James-Younger Gang again. This time it was the prosperous town of Corydon, Iowa… Several blocks from the Ocobock Brothers Bank, their objective, a political rally was in full swing. … When they walked out, the grain sack was bulging with $45,000 in assorted bonds, gold and paper currency.

“It was one of the gang’ richest hauls. Jesse felt so good about it that as they passed the meeting on their way out of town, he stopped and interrupted the speaker.

“‘What is it?’ the Great Man demanded with understandable annoyance…

“I’m sorry to interrupt,” Jesse called back, “But there’s something wrong down at the bank. In fact, it’s just been robbed. Maybe you better look into it, sir.”

“With a mocking laugh, he and his fellow conspirators put spurs to their horses and dashed away.”

Jesse’s First Train Robbery:

“…on July 21, Jesse had his way about it and they did the “spectacular”–their first train robbery. … Securing a spike bar and a sledge hammer, they went east of town a short distance, to a curve, pried off a fishplate, removed the spike and attached a rope to the loosened rail so that it could be pulled out of alignment. Hiding behind an embankment, they had nothing to do but wait until the express came panting around the bend.

“It was after midnight when it hove into view. Years later, Cole Younger said that they expected the train would stop when the locomotive left the tracks. Instead it plowed ahead a few feet and toppled over… the engineer was caught in the cab and scalded t death. …

“The express car yielded less than $3,000. … “Railroad records show,” says Croy, “that $75,000 went through the following night.” The gang had missed the jackpot by only twenty-four hours. …

“In the four weeks following the Gads Hill holdup, the Pinkertons sent their best men into Missouri. But no arrests were made. They complained to their superiors that they could get no cooperation from the inhabitants of the border counties of western Missouri, where the outlaws had a number of hiding places, that the James-Younger Gang had friends in every crossroads village and on every farm. It is true that there were many who, for one reason or another, were sympathetic to Jesse and his men, but the overwhelming majority kept silent because they were afraid to inform on them.

“What was more to the point, Jesse had perfected a secret intelligence system that worked so well that whenever a stranger appeared in Clay County word of his presence was quickly conveyed to him by his hangers-on.”

Frank and Jesse’s Weddings:

Zerelda Mimms, wife (and cousin) of Jesse James, not to be confused with Jesse’s mom who was also named Zerelda

“Jesse and Frank were back in Missouri in April. It was marriage, not robbery, they had on their minds this time. Not too much is known about Frank’s marriage in 1874 to Annie Ralson, the daughter of a respectable Clay County family, other than that her people objected so strenuously to her marrying Frank that she had to elope with him. On April 24, 1874, Jesse married Zerelda Mimms, who had been waiting for him for eight years. No elopement for him. Dressed in the finest raiment money could buy, he boldly came into Kansas City and was married by a minister.

“What kind of women were these who married famous outlaws, men with a price on their heads, wanted dead or alive? They were a far cry from what today we call “gun molls.” They lived on “outlaw” money, but on no other count can they be faulted. They took no part in the lawless deeds of their husbands … They were loyal to the men they married, and Frank and Jesse were true and loyal to them. If there is one untarnished page in the life of the James brothers, it is to be found in their marital relation with Annie and Zerelda.”

 

EvX: Things went pretty well for the James-Younger Gang until they decided to head north to Minnesota. They thought the Swedes would be easily-robbed pushovers, but instead they fought back. Of the 8 outlaws who walked into town that day, only two escaped. The three Younger brothers, Jim, Cole, and Bob, were captured and sent to prison, and three other men were killed.

Jesse and Frank went into hiding. Frank appears to have adjusted to settled life, but Jesse soon attracted a new gang of followers.

Jesse’s downfall:

“…Tucker Basham, well-heeled with his share of the Glendale lot, did some foolish bragging that led to his arrest. William H. Wallace, the newly elected and vigorous prosecuting attorney of Jackson County, put the screws on young Basham and got a full confession from him. …

“[Outlaw] Bill Ryan was picked up near Nashville, Tennessee, in the course of a week-long carouse… The description of him that was sent out caught the eye of Deputy U.S. Marshal Whig Keshlaer. … Ryan was brought back to face trial in Missouri.

People shook their heads in consternation–not over the outcome, which they regarded as certain, but at the prosecutor’s audacity in pushing through an indictment of Ryan. Never before had a member of the gang been brought to trial in Jackson County. There was not a chance in a million, they said, that he could impanel a jury that would bring in a verdict of guilty.

“Wallace’s life was threatened. …

[Jesse James then robbed a train and killed its conductor, Westphal.]

“In Independence, Wallace proceeded with the trial of Bill Ryan. Basham’s confession was introduced, and it created a sensation. … That night Tucker Basham’s home was burned to the ground. And now, unexpectedly, a remarkable thing happened. A score of men who had fought for the Confederacy, many under Quantrill, and who in their hearts were still as “unreconstructed” as on the day Lee surrendered at Appomattox, rallied behind Wallace. … The wavering jury took courage and stood firm. The evidence against Ryan piled up and he was sentenced to twenty-five years in the Missouri Penitentiary. …

“Frank was the only one Jesse had left… Of the men who had ridden with him since Northfield, four were in prison… Two were dead–Ed Miller and Wood Hite. Why he didn’t call it a day and get out of Missouri, even out of the United States, no one will ever know. …

“It happened on the morning of April 3, in the modest house in St. Joe in which Jesse was living with his wife and children, under the alias of J.D. Howard. A single shot was heard by the neighbors. They ran in and found the bearded man, whom they knew as Mr. Howard, lying dead on the floor.

“Bob Ford says in his sworn statement:

Jesse and I had a talk yesterday about robbing the bank at Platte City, and which Charley and I both agreed to assist.

“Between eight and nine o’clock this morning while the three of us were in a room in Jesse’s house, Jesse pulled off his coat and also his pistols, two of which he constantly wore, and then got up onto a chair for the purpose of brushing dust off a picture. …

“So as quickly as possible, I drew my pistol and aiming at Jesse’s head, which was no more than four feet from the muzzle of my weapon, I firered, and Jesse tumbled headlong from the chair on which he was standing and fell on his face.

“Bob Ford’s moment of glory was brief. A wave of revulsion at the cowardly manner in which the treacherous asssassination had been accomplished swept over Missouri. In the outburst of feeling Jesse’s crimes were temporarily forgotten, and men and women spoke of him as “our Jesse” … Bob Ford fled the state, only to be reviled wherever he went. … Four years after the slaying of Jesse, Charly Ford, in ill health and worn down by the stigma attached to him, committed suicide with a pistol in a clump of underbrush near his home in Richmond, Missouri.”

EvX: After Jesse’s death, Frank James turned himself in to the authorities, was tried, and acquitted.

Cole Younger was later pardoned and released from prison–a fascinating story, but too long to recount here. I urge you to read the book if you want to hear it.

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5 thoughts on “Anthropology Friday: The James-Younger Gang

  1. Your photograph of Jesse and Frank James is fake. There is not one certified Civil War image collector that thinks this photo is not a fake. Why this photo keeps popping up is a mystery when so many verifiable photos of Frank and Jesse are available. Check the CanteyMyersCollection.com for actual photos with provenance.

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