Sandburg's Hometown

October 6, 2014

Jesse James, c1882
Jesse James, c1882

Jesse James

by Barbara Schock

Carl Sandburg and his young friends were quite taken with Jesse James, a legendary figure in the decades after the end of the Civil War. They read the paperback books about him, which sold for ten cents each, and believed that Jesse James was a modern Robin Hood. They could picture in their minds how Jesse was shot in his home by one of his gang members in 1882.

Jesse Woodson James was born in Clay County, Missouri, in 1847. His father was a commercial hemp grower and Baptist minister. He died when Jesse was three years old. The elder James had gone to the California gold fields to preach to the gold seekers and died there. Mrs. James remarried twice more and had several children by each of her husbands.

Missouri was a border state during the Civil War. Many of its farmers had come from the South and brought slaves with them to do farm work. Clay County was the center of this migration. After the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act by Congress in 1854, there was a great deal of turmoil. Different factions fought over whether Kansas was going to be slave or free.

When the Civil War began in 1861, guerrilla warfare broke out in Missouri. The James brothers participated in these “bushwacking” activities. Federal troops fought secessionists and tried to chase them from the state. Atrocities were committed on both sides. A major battle was fought at Wilson's Creek.

After the war ended, the Andrew Johnson Administration established a new constitution for the state which freed slaves and temporarily denied Confederates their civil rights. This created a very volatile situation. The James brothers began robbing banks which were now in the possession of Northerners and former members of the Union Army. For the gang, robbing these banks was a form of revenge and it didn't matter if a cashier or teller was killed in the process.

John Edwards, founder and editor of the Kansas City Times, campaigned through his newspaper to return Missouri to the hands of secessionist politicians. Jesse James wrote letters to the newspaper expressing his pride in the Confederacy. They were supported by favorable editorials. The James letters became more political as time passed.

The James brothers joined the ColeYounger gang in 1868 and began robbing banks from Iowa to Texas and from Kansas to West Virginia. Robbing trains to get the express company cash on board was a method of getting even with railroads, which seemed to be taking over the country.

In 1874 the Pinkerton Detective Agency was hired by the Adams Express Company to foil the train robberies. The following year the Pinkertons raided the James farm. They fire-bombed the James home and Jesse's mother lost an arm after being shot. One of her sons was killed. There was public outrage toward the Pinkerton detectives.

In 1876, a bank in Northfield, Minnesota, was robbed and a shootout resulted in several deaths. The James-Younger gang was decimated. Jesse James went into hiding under an assumed name. Robert Ford joined the James gang and in 1882, shot Jesse in the back for the reward money. The death of Jesse James was sensational news across the country. He was compared to Robin Hood because he never robbed passengers on the trains the gang had stopped. It was after the larger amount of money in the express company's safe. There is no known record that the James gang ever gave away any of the money they stole. They kept it for themselves.

Since the death of Jesse James, songs have been written about him and his cohorts. The activities of the James and Younger gangs have been the subject of books, silent movies, radio and television programs. As recently as 2007, Brad Pitt appeared in a movie playing the part of Jesse James and Casey Affleck played the part of Robert Ford.

More than a hundred and thirty years have passed and money is still being made off Jesse James' name. The profits are probably much larger than the amounts stolen by him.


Sandburg's Hometown
Date Title
October 6, 2014 Jesse James
Sept. 29, 2014 Lester T. Stone, Public Servant
Sept. 22, 2014 It's Who You Know
Sept 15, 2014 Mother of the Illinois Flag
Sept 8, 2014 The Scissors Grinder
Sept 1, 2014 Baseball
August 25, 2014 Howard K. Knowles, Capitalist
August 18, 2014  Alcoholic Beverages
August 11, 2014 Soda Water
August 4, 2014 Sweet Corn
July 28, 2014 Marching Through Georgia
July 21, 2014 The Knox County Fair
July 14, 2014 The Panic of 1893
July 7, 2014 The Rev. T. N. Hasselquist
June 30, 2014 The Knox County Courthouse
June 23, 2014 The Family Photograph Album
June 16, 2014 Parades
June 9, 2014 Lingonberries
June 2, 2014 Where We Live
May 26, 2014 Old Main
May 19, 2014 Rhythms of the Railroad
May 12, 2014 Spring Tonic
May 5, 2014 The Milkmen
April 28, 2014 Gray's "Elegy..."
April 21, 2014 Off to War
April 14, 2014 Swedish Easter
April 7, 2014 A Father's Face
March 31, 2014 Secret Societies
March 24, 2014 George A. Murdock, Merchant
March 10, 2014 Trade Cards
March 3, 2014 The Demorest Medal
February 24, 2014 Rip Van Winkle
February 17, 2014 Cabbage Soup
February 10, 2014 Lincoln's Birthday
February 3, 2014  The Colonel
January 27, 2014 The Lincoln Penny - A Little History
January 20, 2014 Walking to Work
January 13, 2014  A Small Abode
January 6, 2014 Birth of a Poet
December 30, 2013 Christmas 1880
December 23, 2013 Swedish Christmas
December 16, 2013 The Reporter Sees Santa
December 9, 2013 The Coming of Christmas
December 2, 2013 The Fire Boys Talk
November 25, 2013 Galesburg Will Feast on Turkeys and Cranberries - Thanksgiving 1893
November 18, 2013  Mary Sandburg Johnson
November 11, 2013 Carl Sandburg's Bicycle
November 4, 2013  Lace Curtains 
October 28, 2013 The Front Room
October 21, 2013 A Warm Breakfast
October 14, 2013 Marion D. Shutter
October 7, 2013 Cigars and Consumption
September 30, 2013 Forrest F. Cooke & August Sandburg
September 16, 2013 Forrest F. Cooke, Mayor
September 9, 2013 Dusty Streets
September 2, 2013 Typhoid Fever
August 26, 2013 Coffee and Water
August 19, 2013 A Horse! A Horse!
August 12, 2013 Gaddial Scott
August 5, 2013 The Racetrack
July 29, 2013 John Peter Algeld - Part II
July 22, 2013 John Peter Altgeld - Part I
July 15, 2013 Tramps, Tramps, Tramps
July 8, 2013 Lady Liberty
July 1, 2013 Galesburg's Fourth
June 24, 2013 John H. Finley
June 17, 2013 The World's Columbian Exhibition
June 10, 2013 Fruit Short-Cake
June 3, 2013 Horatio Alger, Author
May 27, 2013 Memorial Day, 1887
May 20, 2013 Professor Jon W. Grubb
May 13, 2013 Beginnings of Lombard University
May 6, 2013 Young Sandburg’s View of Lombard College
April 29, 2013 Thinking
April 22, 2013 Robert Colville, Master Mechanic
April 15, 2013 The Galesburg Opera House
April 8, 2013 Grocery Stores and Sample Rooms
April 1, 2013  A Hearty  Breakfast 
March 25, 2013  The Lost Wallpaper Legend 
March 18, 2013 Martin G. Sandburg
March 4, 2013 The Edison Talking Machine
February 25, 2013 Joe Elser, Civil War Veteran
February 18, 2013 Remember the Maine...
February 11, 2013 Lincoln's Birthday
February 4, 2013 Curiosity