Did Jesse James Commit Suicide?
By Gerald W. Fischer 2016
Frank and Jesse James became adopted sons of the state of Kentucky, and their Civil War exploits,
coupled with family ties, cemented that connection. Their favorite uncle, George Hite, and his son, Wood, lived about three miles outside Adairville, Logan County, Kentucky.
During the last six months of the Civil War, Frank James fought guerrilla actions over much of Central Kentucky, riding with William Clarke Quantrill and two of Quantrill’s raiders, Bud and Donnie Pence. The Pence brothers, after the war, became Kentucky lawmen and provided safe houses for Frank and Jesse in Nelson and Spencer Counties. Other safe houses used in the Civil War, such as James Heady Wakefield’s, were available to the James gang anytime they were needed.
The loyalty for these two men stemmed largely from the Civil War and the harsh treatment of Kentucky under General S. G. Burbridge’s General Order No. 59 and his Great Hog Swindle. Order No. 59 allowed for the execution of Confederate prisoners of war, chosen by drawing lots, to pay for a crimes of which they were innocent, as well as the indiscriminate confiscation of their private property. The hog swindle fixed the price of Kentucky pork below prevailing rates in abutting states. The U. S. Army procured the low cost pork, and in the process the people in charge profited at Kentucky’s farmers’ expense. Armed guards on bridges and ferries prohibited farmers from selling their pork across the river at the fair market price. Union Gen. John Schofield inspected Kentucky, and on October 3, 1864, sent a letter to Gen. William T. Sherman, expressing his displeasure with the military affairs in the state. He wrote that there was a criminal looseness and gross corruption in the administration of military justice. After the war, and before Burbridge left Kentucky, he complained he could not live in peace in his own state because he did his duty. His brother was gunned down apparently just for being his brother.
Frank James and Quantrill’s men were different and apart from the home-grown Kentucky guerrillas. Quantrill’s men could be distinguished at a distance because they wore their hair shorter than the Kentucky guerrillas and wore Union uniforms. Quantrill’s men were noted for their good manners and chivalrous behavior toward women. Frank James and his future brother-in-law, Allen Parmer, killed the rapist of Mrs. Clark, and with Sam Berry and Dick Mitchell turned in a second suspected rapist.
The popularity of the partisan rangers and the perception they were fighting against the tyranny imposed on Kentucky, contrasted with those men that hunted them down, such as Capts. “Bad” Ed Terrell and James Bridgewater, both of whom were shot down by their own town’s people for abusing the very population they were sworn to protect. The partisans, at least in legend, became Robin Hoods. It is interesting to me that Frank and Jesse perpetuated the Robin Hood myth, and it did them good service during and after the war.
There were other things that promoted the Robin Hood perception of these outlaws and murderers, such as the Wakefield family story of how Frank and Jesse saved the farm of a Spencer County widow.
According to James Wakefield, Frank and Jesse heard of the plight of a widow who was to be evicted by the sheriff at noon the next day. They visited the woman and gave her several hundred dollars to pay off the farm. The men admonished her to hold on to the money until she had a receipt for the funds in hand, the mortgage marked paid, and the deed. Only then was she to hand over the money. At noon the next day the sheriff rode up the lane to her house surprised and delighted he didn’t have to evict. He marked the mortgage paid, gave her the receipt and deed, she in turn gave him full payment. As he returned down the lane he was met at the gate by two men wearing masks who robbed him of all his money. It was of course Frank and Jesse James. They were not Robin Hoods, but they were robbing hoods. The perception became “they stole from the rich and gave to the poor.” Future outlaws such as Al Capone, Charles Arthur Floyd, and others emulated them. Frank and Jesse were not striking a blow for the Confederacy by robbing banks and trains. They were enriching themselves.
The James boys were long-time associates with the Youngers and other men who rode with Quantrill. But after committing robbery after robbery for nearly 15 years, intergang politics, higher rewards offered by the railroads, suspicion, and finally the assassination of Ed Miller, likely by Jesse James, eroded the gang’s cohesion. Not only was the outlaw organization unraveling, but Frank was tiring and wanting to go straight. To this end in October of 1881 he left Nelson County, Kentucky, where he and his wife were visiting, and moved through Tennessee, Virginia to North Carolina and back to Lynchburg, Tennessee where he once again settled down with his wife under the new name James Warren.
The end of the road for the James gang began……
Finish this story and more in our September 2016 issue!
Love History? Get 1,100 pages and 1,000 Pictures delivered to your door for a nickel a day! Yes, you read that right, a nickel.