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)

1881 Train Robbery at Winston, MO

This accounty is reprinted from the July 21, 1881, edition of the Gallatin North Missourian. It’s subheadings were: “Conductor Westfall and Frank McMillen Killed” and “The Express Car Robbed.”

This account is reprinted from the July 21, 1881, edition of the Gallatin North Missourian (with later photos added for display here). The report’s subheadings were: “Conductor Westfall and Frank McMillen Killed” and “The Express Car Robbed”:

Friday night the regular Kansas City and Chicago passenger train, on the Rock Island road, was robbed just this side of Winston, and the Conductor, Wm. Westfall and a passenger, Frank McMillan of Wilton, Iowa, were killed by the train robbers. The train was on time, and as it left Winston at 9:30 p.m., three armed men stepped onto the front end of the smoking car. They fired through the glass in the car door, three men disguised with heavy black whiskers entered the car and fired through the windows in the front end of the car. While thus terrifying the passengers they ordered “hands up.” Conductor Westfall was about the middle of the car, taking up tickets when he was shot in the back. He was between S.T. Brosius, Esq., and Joseph H. McGee of this place. They say he dropped his lantern and staggered to the door. Whether he fell off the platform of the car or was pushed off by one of the robbers they do not know. His body was found just this side of the section house at Winston.

One of the scenes painted by Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) featured in the Missouri State Capitol at Jefferson City features outlaw Jesse James in a mythical train/bank robbery. Benton’s work adorns the House Lounge on the third floor of the Capitol. The murals were commissioned by the legislature in early 1935 for $16,000 and completed in December 1936.

J.L. Penn and Frank McMillen were on the platform of the baggage car, and while looking in at the door window he was shot in the forehead and rolled off the car.

Two of the robbers went into the express car and ordered Murray, the express messenger, to open the safe. He began parleying with them, when instantly they knocked him down with a pistol and made him open the safe. It is not known but it is thought they got about $4,000.

They shot out the glass of the cab of the engine and made the engineer stop the train at the Dog Creek bridge. Quite a number of hands are at work at this bridge, and hearing the firing on the train they were aroused, and it is probable for this reason that the robber made the engineer run the train one half mile further to Little Dog Creek where they left the train. Their horses were tied in the brush about 200 yards south of the Dog Creek bridge. They did not take time to untie their horses but cut the halter straps, but before they mounted they threw out the empty shells from their pistols. Our City Marshal, Albert Gibbons, got the pieces of the halter straps left on the trees. He carefully examined where the horses stood and he thinks there were only three horses at that place.

This impressive stone culvert is located a mile east of Winston, MO, on the now abandoned railroad bed of the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad. This is about the location where the train robbery involving murder by outlaws Frank & Jesse James occurred. However, this stone culvert easily visible next to Highway 6 was constructed after the infamous crime occurred.

[Sidenote: The July 22, 1881, edition of the Liberty Tribune reported that the robbery and murder occurred “near some stone work being constructed by the railroad… after the flight of the gang, another man was found lying dead near the stone work. The opinion is, that he was a stone cutter who had tried to prevent the escape of the robbers and had been shot down in his tracks…”]

On Friday, two men having very fine horses, got their dinner at Kld. Benj. Machette. They told him that they lived at Plattsburg and were hunting horse thieves. That afternoon Kara Souls was in the brush near the Little Dog Creek bridge., and the same two men who were laying in the woods by their horses. They told him that they lived at Plattsburg, were resting and were going to Ben Matchetts to buy a cow. They had got their dinner at Matchett’s and that is the way they knew his name.

Sheriff Crozier and our City Marshal Gibbons tracked the three horses about seven miles towards the H & St. Joseph, and the lost the track. Young Caster living south of Winston, says he was up in the night and saw three men loping their horses past his house, and they were tracked past his house from Dog Creek. This is the last that was seen of them so far as we can hear.

About 11 o’clock the word came here of the robbery. Sheriff Crozier waked up about 30 of our citizens and hurried to the depot to get the train going to Winston. It was about 12 o’clock before the train left and then had orders to lay on the Highland switch until the robbed train passed. It was 2 o’clock before they got to Winston. The robbers then had 4 hours the start of them. Sheriff Crozier and Oscar Naylor hurriedly mounted horses and rode to Kidder, and gave the alarm. As soon as it was daylight they watched the road carefully to Winston for tracks of the robbers but did not see any until they came near Mr. Casters.

Mr. Walker, Division Superintendent of the Rock Island RR, was not at home or there would have been an extra through sooner.

Everything looks as if it was the work of the James boys or their gang. Westfall was the conductor on the train which carried the Pinkerton detectives to Mrs. Samuels the time her boy was killed and she lost her arm by the explosion of the shell which the detectives threw into her house. They James boys swore they would kill him, and they or their gang have done it.

Tuesday, Mrs. Samuels, the mother of the James boys, was in Kansas City. She talked freely with the reporters about the robbery. She says Frank and Jesse James are both dead, and could have had nothing to do with the robbery unless their ghosts were there.

Sheriff Crozier was out three days and nights but could get no clue to the whereabouts of the robbers.

The express company has offered $5,000 and the railroad company $5,000 for the robbers.

—  account published July 21, 1881, in the Gallatin North Missourian

Wm. Westfall [1843-1881] was killed during the train robbery at Winston by Frank & Jesse James on July 15, 1881. Westfall was the train conductor. He is buried in the old Plattsburg Cemetery. (1989 photo)