On this day in 1882 Jesse James was killed by Robert Ford.
Jesse Woodson James was an American outlaw, gang leader, bank robber, train robber, and murderer from the state of Missouri and the most famous member of the James-Younger Gang. Already a celebrity when he was alive, he became a legendary figure of the Wild West after his death.
Some recent scholars place him in the context of regional insurgencies of ex-Confederates following the American Civil War rather than a manifestation of frontier lawlessness or alleged economic justice.
James’s turn to crime after the end of the Reconstruction era helped cement his place in American life and memory as a simple but remarkably effective bandit. After 1873 he was covered by the national media as part of social banditry. During his lifetime, James was celebrated chiefly by former Confederates, to whom he appealed directly in his letters to the press.
Displaced by Reconstruction, the antebellum political leadership mythologized the James Gang exploits. Frank Triplett wrote about James as a “progressive neo-aristocrat” with purity of race. Indeed, some historians credit James’ myth as contributing to the rise of former Confederates to dominance in Missouri politics.
In the 1880s, after James’s death, the James Gang became the subject of dime novels that represented the bandits as pre-industrial models of resistance. During the Populist and Progressive eras, James became a symbol as America’s Robin Hood, standing up against corporations in defense of the small farmer, robbing from the rich and giving to the poor, while there is no evidence that his robberies enriched anyone other than his gang and himself.