The Ballad of Jesse James

Ballads are lyrical books. For centuries and centuries they have been a source not only of entertainment but of information, shaping people’s attitudes toward events they would otherwise know little or nothing about. Like movie script writers, however, balladeers were at least as much concerned about telling an interesting story (and getting a rhyme in the process) as recording authentic history. Given this circumstance, it is remarkable that they do not distort the lives and exploits of their heroes more than they do.

“The Ballad of Jesse James” is a case in point. What is most noteworthy about it is not its factual rendering of Jesse James’ outlaw career, though all in all it is reasonably accurate, but the public sympathy toward the Missouri robber that it reflects. In portraying Jess James as a tragic hero rather than the ruthless murderer and robber he was, the ballad faithfully expresses the general public’s feeling toward him at the time he was killed in 1882. And so it is that the ballad can proclaim its chorus.

It was Robert Ford, that dirty little coward,
I wonder how does he feel?
For he ate of Jesse's bread and he slept in Jesse's bed
And laid poor Jesse in his grave. (refrain)

It was his brother, Frank, who robbed the Gallatin bank
And carried the money from the town;
It was in this very place that they had a little race
For they shot Captain Sheets to the ground. (refrain)

They went to the crossing not very far from there
And there they did the same,
With the agent on his knees, he delivered up the keys
To the outlaws, Frank and Jesse James. (refrain)

It was on a Wednesday night, the moon was shining bright
They robbed the Glendale train;
The people they did say for many miles away
It was robbed by Frank and Jesse James. (refrain)

He robbed from the rich and was a friend to the poor;
He had a heart and a hand and a brain.
With his brother Frank he robbed the Northfield Bank
And stopped the Glendale train. (refrain)

It was on a Saturday night, Jesse was at home,
Talking to his family brave,
Robert Ford came along like a thief in the night
And laid poor Jesse in his grave. (refrain)

The people held their breath, when the heard of Jesse's death
And wondered how he ever came to die;
It was one of the gang, called little Robert Ford.
He shot poor Jesse on the sly. (refrain)

Jesse went to his rest with his hand on his breast;
The devil will be upon his knee.
He was born one day in the county of Clay
And came from a solitary race. (refrain)

This song was made by Billy Gashade,
As soon as the news did arrive;
He said there was no many with the law in his hand,
Who could take Jesse James alive. (refrain)

Though it is probably not important, Jesse James had two, not three, children: Jesse Edward, who was about 7 when the outlaw was killed, and Mary, who was about 3. Mrs. James was pregnant at the time, so perhaps the balladeer was anticipating; however, she later miscarried.

Presumably most people would agree that the man who killed Jesse went about it in a cowardly way and therefore deserved the description, “dirty little coward.” By his own account at the inquest, Bob Ford decided to kill Jesse for the reward money because he knew he could not capture him. Accordingly, while a guest in the James home in St. Joseph, Ford waited until Jesse took off his two revolvers and mounted a chair to straighten a picture (some accounts say to dust it) in the living room. Ford drew his .44, pointed it at the back of Jesse’s head and cocked it. The sound prompted the outlaw to whirl around, and when he did Ford shot him above the left eye.

The other references to Jesse’s killer are in the second, seventh and eight stanzas. The second suggest that he should feel guilt and remorse for the killing because he partook of his victim’s hospitality, and the seventh that he employed stealth and the over of darkness to do in the famous robber, while the eighth repeats the theme of stealth and cowardice.

It is true that Ford was Jesse’s overnight house guest, having professed to join the gang, but he shot Jesse in broad daylight, not at night. Jesse’s wife and children were not talking to him at the time as the ballad indicates, but were in another part of the house. Ford certainly felt no remorse, as evidenced by the fact that he tried to make a living on the stage re-enacting the killing. He did well enough in the East for a short time, but in what is now the Midwest he was booed off the stage and threatened. Eventually, Ford opened a saloon in a Colorado mining town and was killed by a man whom he had quarreled earlier.

One part of the first stanza of the ballad is undeniably accurate. Jesse James did kill many a man, though no one knows how many, and he almost certainly robbed the Glendale train. The Glendale train was really the Chicago & Alton, and Glendale was a tiny hamlet in Jackson County, MO, where the robbery took place in 1879. Why the balladeer placed such emphasis on this holdup — it is the subject of the sixth stanza as well — is a mystery. It did follow the standard James gang modus operandi and perhaps was selected for that reason, along with the fact that it is a two-syllable word.

In the Glendale holdup, the robbers rounded up everyone in the hamlet and herded them into the depot. Then they set up the emergency stop signal and threw some timbers across the tracks for good measure. When the train stopped they forced the engineer to beat open the locked door of the express car, pistol-whipped the express agent, and departed with some $6,000, firing their revolvers wildly in the air as they galloped away.

The third stanza refers to the first robbery that can be attributed to the James brothers with certainty. The nation’s first bank robbery had taken place in 1866, but it was not until the Daviess County bank at Gallatin was held up in 1869 that contemporary accounts mention either Jesse or Frank as suspects. In this holdup, the robbers killed the bank president, John Sheets, even though he offered no resistance.

At any rate, after the shooting Sheets the two robbers escaped in a hail of gunfire from the townspeople, leaving one of their horses behind. It was traced to the James family farm near Kearney in Clay County, MO, where Jesse was born, as the ninth stanza points out. Their take on the holdup: nothing.

The fourth stanza apparently alludes to a train robbery at Winston, which is not far from Gallatin. Some authorities question whether the James brothers were involved in this holdup in 1881, because the usual procedure of signaling the train to a halt was not employed. Instead, four robbers got on the train at Cameron as though they were passengers, and held up the express agent as the train approached Winston, allegedly obtaining $10,000.

The sixth stanza contains a popular myth about Jesse James. There is not a shred of evidence that he was a “friend of the poor.” He robbed anyone he thought had money or valuables and there is no contemporary evidence to support the contention that he gave any of it to the poor. Furthermore, his ruthlessness would suggest that he was anything but a philanthropist.

With is brother, Frank, he did rob the Northfield (MN) bank as the fifth stanza says — or more accurately, he attempted to. Three members of the gang were killed in a gun battle with townspeople outside the bank and three others — Cole, Bob and Jim Younger — were captured. Only the James brothers escaped. They continued their outlaw careers for six years after the 1876 debacle in Northfield, but the gang was never as smoothly operated again. In addition, “responsible” citizens began demanding the capture of the James brothers and soon the Governor was offering rewards. It was only a matter of time until someone would be willing to bring Jesse James, dead or alive, for $10,000.

— written by Edward A Higgins, on the editorial page staff of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, for The Midwest Motorist published for August, 1973 (pp. 18-19)