Jesse James: Rise of an American outlaw

The violence of the U.S. Civil War transformed Jesse James from Missouri farm boy to vicious killer.

Murderer and thief, Jesse James was heavily armed when he posed for this photograph in the 1860s.
Photograph by Bridgeman / ACI

In the words of the popular 19th-century ballad “Jesse James, ” the infamous Missouri outlaw "was a man that was knowed through all the land. For Jesse, he was bold and bad and brave." And, to a certain extent, Jesse James was all those things.

In the dozen years from 1869 to 1881, Jesse James may have taken part in as many as 19 robberies—banks, trains, and stagecoaches—stretching from Mississippi to West Virginia to Minnesota. Nearly 20 people died as a result, including seven of Jesse’s cohorts, yet the brazen holdups continued. Law enforcement and private detectives failed repeatedly to corral Jesse and his gang, and Missouri earned the epithet the “Robber State.”

But before there was the bold and bad and brave Jesse, and long before there was the mythic Jesse of song, dime novels, and films, there was a blue-eyed boy, son of a Baptist minister and a devoted mother, coming of age in a land torn apart over slavery and divided loyalties.

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