Ghosts of the Prairie
HAUNTS OF JESSE JAMES
The Civil War conflicts in
Missouri are nearly forgotten today by those more interested in the epic
battles of the south and the east. There are many who do not even
remember that the issues which first boiled over into violence became so
heated in what was then known as the "west".
But Missouri was always torn in two directions. The state’s early settlers had come from the south, yet her economy was linked directly to the north. The state’s elected officials were mainly secessionists and intended to link Missouri to the Confederacy. There were a number of battles that took place in the state. In fact, a total of 1,162 battles and skirmishes were fought in Missouri during the official years of the war, a total exceeded only by Virginia and Tennessee.
More dangerous than the military expeditions and regular army campaigns were the bushwhacking raids of the guerillas. The leading guerilla bands, under William Clarke Quantrill, "Bloody Bill" Anderson, George Todd and William Gregg, were mostly backwoods farm boys. All of them seemed to share on thing in common though... all came from families who had been harassed, intimidated, robbed, burned out, or murdered by Federal soldiers . These men would become the prototype for the outlaws of the post-war west. They attacked, using only light weapons, but with an element of surprise that only small bands of riders can utilize. They were not above sneak attacks, guerilla warfare and shooting their enemies in the back. Thanks to the amount of local support they enjoyed, they found it easy to outmatch detachments of Union troops. Often, they would even dress in blue uniforms and hail the Federal columns as comrades before opening fire on them. It was a brutal and ruthless method of fighting, but dangerously effective.
The campaigns, raid and guerilla actions continued throughout the war and while they alone would not decide the question of the war, they would certainly manage to keep things bloody and violent for nearly four years. They would also serve as a training ground for future violence to come, providing valuable lessons for men like Union scout "Wild Bill" Hickok, a 7th Kansas recruit named William F. Cody and of course, for the James and Younger gangs.... who would leave the most lingering mark on the state of Missouri.
One would almost be surprised if the James Farm, near Kearney, Missouri was NOT haunted! It was hear that Zerelda Cole James Sims Samuel was married to three different husbands and bore eight children. It was also here that she saw her son Archie murdered by Pinkerton detectives in an attack where she lost her right hand. She also saw one of her husbands tortured and driven insane here and she lived in this house while her two famous, outlaw sons eluded capture, sometimes with her devoted assistance. She also guarded over the property where her son Jesse, after his murder, was buried in a grave that she could see from her bedroom window. Zerelda spent her years of widowhood on the farm, as did her daughter-in-law, Annie Ralston James.
And mostly they remained here alone, bereft of companionship save for the company of their household servants, a family of slaves who remained at the farm long after they were set free.
The James Family Farm has always had a reputation for being haunted... with lights that move about in the house and on the property, sounds of pounding hooves, shots, gun fire and cries that seem to come from nowhere. It has had a long and bloody history, dating back to events of the Civil War.
Robert Sallee James was a farmer and Baptist preacher who graduated from Georgetown College in Kentucky in 1843, just two years after he met Zerelda Cole at a revival meeting and married her. They settled on a farm in Clay County, Missouri and there, Zerelda gave birth to four children named Alexander Franklin (Frank); Robert (who only lived 33 days); Jesse Woodson; and Susan Lavina.
Reverend James was a well-liked and respected man in the community and in 1850, he was asked to serve as chaplain to a wagon train of local men who were going west to California to search for gold. Little is known as to what became of the Reverend, save for the fact that he died in a Placerville mining camp on August 18, 1850 and was buried in an unmarked grave.
Zerelda, faced with raising her children alone, married a neighboring farmer in 1852. He was killed in a horse accident a short time later, and in 1855, she married Dr. Rueben Samuel, a kindly doctor and farmer. She would go on to raise four more children with Dr. Samuel and he became the only father the James children would ever know.
The area where the James family resided was near the turbulent Missouri-Kansas border and it was hard to ignore the violence around them. Zerelda, who is remembered as a formidable frontier woman, had been raised in Kentucky and was a slave owner, so there was no question that at the outbreak of the war, her sympathies were directed toward the south. It came as no surprise in May of 1861 that Frank James enlisted in the Confederate Army. He fought under General Sterling Price in the battle of Wilson’s Creek in southwest Missouri, then after a brief period at home, joined up with Quantrill and his band of raiders. Frank, and his friend, Thomas Coleman "Cole" Younger, from Lee’s Summit, Missouri, were with Quantrill during the 1863 raid on Lawrence, Kansas.
Just three months after the Lawrence raid, a party if Union soldiers invaded the Samuel farm looking for information about the location of Quantrill’s camp. Jesse, who was just fifteen at the time, was questioned, then horse-whipped when he refused to answer the soldier’s questions. Dr. Samuel, who also denied knowing where the raider’s camp was located, was dragged from his house and was repeatedly hanged from a tree in the yard. Somehow, the doctor managed to survive the interrogation, but his mental state was so affected by the ordeal that he was placed in an asylum in St. Joseph. He remained there until his death in 1908.
Jesse, at the age of only 16, but with a hatred for the Union, joined up with the raiders in early 1864. He went to war under the command of "Bloody Bill" Anderson, a comrade of Quantrill with a reputation for being even more ruthless. Jesse would later take part in a battle at Centralia, Missouri where 25 Union prisoners were shot down. He was also credited with the murder of Major A.V.E. Johnson, the Federal officer who led 100 men in pursuit of Anderson’s band.
Jesse’s Civil War service also included fighting in support of Colonel Jo Shelby’s brigade in Northwest Arkansas, at Cane Hill near the Indian Territory and at Big Cabin Creek. He was mustered out in the spring of 1865 when he rode into Lexington, Missouri carrying a white flag. He was shot in the chest when he attempted to surrender.
After the war, he went to Rulo, Nebraska to recuperate from his wound and then returned to Missouri. He was living in Kansas City, with his aunt, when he fell in love with his cousin, Zerelda (named for Jesse’s mother) Mimms. He became known as a very likable young man, standing just five feet nine and weighing only 135 pounds. He always dressed well, enjoyed a good practical joke, read his bible and always went to church. It was said that he never swore or took the Lord’s name in vain, preferring when he was angry to make up his own swear words. His favorite was "Dingus!", which became his brother Frank’s favorite nickname for him.
In 1866, Jesse, Frank and their friends, Cole and Jim Younger, gained a new profession when they engaged in the country’s first peacetime bank robbery. On February 13, they robbed the Clay County Savings Association Bank in Liberty, Missouri and made off with around $60,000 a considerable fortune at that time. Several innocent bystanders were caught in the gunfire and killed.
And a new legend was born.
Over the course of the next 16 years, the names of the James-Younger gang would achieve both fame and notoriety. But the outlaws did not continue with their new profession right away. In fact, Frank and Jesse actually went to California for a time and did not return back east until 1868. When they did, meeting up with the Youngers around the Kentucky-Tennessee border, they discovered that the newspapers were blaming them for a number of robberies that had taken place in their absence. To live up to their reputation, they then proceeded to rob a bank in Russellville and made off with about $14,000.
Jesse and Frank spent most of 1868-1869 in the Nashville area, living under assumed names and spending their robbery proceeds at racetracks in Tennessee, Kentucky and southern Illinois.
Then, for the next 12 years, they stayed on the move, sometimes working with the Youngers and sometimes in partnership with other stage, train and bank robbers.
On December 7, 1869, Jesse and Frank robbed a bank in Gallatin, Missouri which gained them only $700 in cash but ended in the death of a teller named John Sheets. It turned out that Jesse hated Sheets, who was a former Union officer who may have been involved in the death of Bill Anderson. Jesse shot him in the back of the head. The Gallatin robbery resulted in a $3000 reward being posted for the brothers.
Shortly after this, began a public relations campaign, started by Zerelda James, during which the brothers were blamed for pretty much.. none of their crimes. This began the folksy tales of the James gang and their roles as Robin Hood figures, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor.
In 1874, Jesse took a respite from robbery and settled down for a time to marry and live with Zee Mimms, who he took to Texas for a honeymoon. Frank would marry a young lady named Annie Ralston later that year and their lives settled down... at least for a brief time.
In 1871, several bankers and railroad owners had hired Alan Pinkerton’s famous national detective agency to track down the James gang. By the early part of 1875, Pinkerton himself had become infuriated by the agency’s failure to arrest even a single member of the gang. Desperate times called for desperate measures...
In January 1875, Pinkerton had an agent posing as a field hand at work on a farm across the road from the Samuel Place. One afternoon, the agent thought he spotted Jesse and Frank at the farm house.... although in reality, the brothers were many miles away. On January 26, a force of Pinkerton detectives, brought in by special train, surrounded the Samuel farm house and tossed an incendiary device through the window. The bomb exploded and struck and killed Jesse’s young half-brother Archie. The blast also mangled Zerelda’s right forearm so badly that it had to be amputated at the elbow.
The Pinkertons later said the device was a flare, but contemporary newspaper reports simply called it "a bomb". It would later be discovered that the device had been a grenade-type explosive which had been obtained at the Rock Island, Illinois arsenal.
In August of that same year, Zee James gave birth to a son named Jesse Edward on a farm that Jesse had leased near Waverly, Missouri. It would be at this farm where plans for the Northfield, Minnesota Raid would be devised.
Jesse and Frank traveled to Minnesota in the company of the three Younger brothers, two Quantrill veterans named Clell Miller and Charlie Pitts and a local outlaw named Bill Chadwell. The gang had been lured up north by Chadwell’s tales of easy pickings in his home state and so they began a tour of the region, gambling and staying in whorehouses in St. Paul, then meeting up in a town called Mankato, which they planned to make their first target.
Before they could act, Jesse was recognized and they left town. Riding in pairs, they headed out for Northfield, located 50 miles to the northeast. They met on the outskirts of town on September 6, cased the First National Bank, then made plans to rob it the following morning.
At dawn, they rode quietly into Northfield, wearing long, linen dusters over their clothes and sidearms. Jesse, Bob Younger and Charlie Pitts rode into town, ate breakfast and then sauntered over to the bank, where they tied their horses out front. At that moment, the other five men suddenly rode into town, firing their six-guns into the air, shouting and hollering and scattering the people who were on the streets. While this was happening, Jesse, Bob and Charlie charged into the bank with their guns drawn. Jesse clobbered a bank teller and Bob Younger forced the other employees and customers to their knees while he cleaned out the drawers of cash. One clerk ran out the back door and was shot down by Charlie Pitts.
Meanwhile, the five outlaws outside of the bank were starting to draw gun fire from the local citizens. Clell Miller was hit by a shotgun blast and was knocked from his horse. He was the first to die.
Inside of the bank, Jesse shot the bank teller that he had clubbed and the men ran outside. A crossfire had erupted from the surrounding buildings and the seven outlaws were caught in the middle of it. Bill Chadwell was shot from his horse and killed. Cole Younger got a bullet in the shoulder. Frank was hit in the leg. A bullet struck Jim Younger in the face and his brother Bob’s horse was shot out from under him. Bob was hit in the thigh and in the right arm before his brother Cole could pull him onto his own horse.
The Northfield Raid was over in 20 minutes and the outlaws arranged to meet between the town and Mankato. After that, they scattered to the wind. Jesse and Frank headed out for the Dakota Territory. The Youngers were captured one week later, just east of Mankato. In the shootout that followed, Charlie Pitts was killed and the Youngers, all of them wounded, surrendered. Each was sentenced to a life term in prison.
Jesse and Frank pulled off a few more jobs over the next five years including a train robbery at Glendale, Missouri, a stage hold-up near Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, and a few others... but the Northfield disaster really marked the beginning of the end for the James brothers.
In 1879, Jesse took his family to Nashville and they lived for a time with Frank and Annie. That year, Zee gave birth to a daughter, Mary Susan, and Jesse took her to visit the Mimms family in Kansas City. Shortly after, on Christmas Eve 1881, they moved to St. Joseph, Missouri where he rented a house under the name of Thomas Howard.
Here, Jesse began planning his last great bank robbery. He had decided to call it quits and retire, with enough money to become a gentleman farmer. He planned to purchase some land in Nebraska with the proceeds from this last robbery.
At this point, the Youngers were all in prison and Frank was running from the law himself, so Jesse took on two new gang members, Bob and Charley Ford. They planned to rob the Platte City Bank in Kansas City and on April 3, 1882, Jesse called the Fords to his home in St. Joseph to discuss the job. Jesse was relaxing in the parlor, reading the newspaper and Zee was working in the kitchen. The three men sat down and talked for awhile and then Charley went out into the backyard while Bob made small talk with Jesse.
As he was reading, he glanced up and noticed that a framed needlepoint picture, done by his mother, was hanging crookedly on the wall. He moved a cane chair over to the wall and stepped up to straighten it, his back to the room.
When he turned, Bob Ford pulled out a revolver and shot Jesse just below the right ear.
The gun shot resounded throughout the house and Jesse’s children were the first to reach him. In seconds, Zee followed and tried desperately to stop the blood that was pouring from her husband’s head. Bob Ford ran from the house, jumped the back fence and vanished. Charley spent a few moments trying lamely to explain the shooting as an accident, then he ran off after his brother.
In a few minutes, the authorities arrived and Zee tried to continue the masquerade that Jesse was actually a businessman named Tom Howard. This was shattered when the Fords returned to the house and revealed Jesse’s true identity. Zee soon grew to believe that the assassination had been arranged by Missouri Governor Thomas T. Crittenden, who had previously offered a reward of $10,000 for Jesse James, dead or alive. And Zee may have been right... as Crittenden quickly pardoned the Fords for previous crimes and awarded them the bounty.
A coroner’s inquest was held on April 4 and Zee and others formally identified the body. Jesse was then packed in ice and taken by train to Kearney, where he was displayed and viewed by hundreds of friends and admirers, including many old Quantrill veterans. Jesse was later buried on the family farm with only close family and friends present. His seven-foot deep grave was placed near Zerelda’s front door, so that she could keep an eye out for trespassers and souvenir hunters.
Later, when Zerelda could no longer live alone, her son’s body was moved, on July 29, 1902, to the Mount Olivet Cemetery in town. Zee had died in 1900 and Jesse was placed next to her.
Frank James was present at the re-burial of his brother. He had surrendered to Governor Crittenden on October 5, 1882 but despite the efforts of the state’s attorneys, all cases against Frank were thrown out of court for lack of evidence and dismissed. He worked at various honest jobs for the rest of his life and in 1903, joined with Cole Younger (who had been paroled in 1901) in the James-Younger Wild West Show. Frank died at the James Farm on February 18, 1915.
Bob Ford, who became known as "the dirty little coward who shot Mr. Howard" was forced to leave Missouri after being pardoned by Governor Crittenden. He traveled about the west, spending some time performing in a stage show about (ironically) the James gang. He was shot and killed in Creede, Colorado in 1892, by an ex-policeman named Ed O. Kelly.
Ten years before, Charley Ford had committed suicide in Richmond, Missouri.
Jesse may have been re-buried beside his wife in the Mount Olivet Cemetery in 1902... but the question remains as to whether or not he really rests in peace?
Strange disturbances at the family farm have been commonplace for many years.. as have the unusual stories. In 1982, the Kansas City Star newspaper arranged an overnight vigil in the house, which was held on the 100th anniversary of the death of Archie Samuel, the only person to ever die violently in the house. Unfortunately, the three men, two from Chicago and the third a writer for the newspaper, experienced nothing more than cold chills in the house. Milton F. Perry, a curator of the house museum explained that this was typical... of any old unheated house in January.
Despite this less than encouraging "ghost hunt", people who work in the house, who are mostly volunteers and staff members of the museum, claim to have had some interesting experiences. They have been present when doors have slammed closed on their own, when lights have been seen moving about in the locked house and when a presence has been so intense in the house that guides refuse to be there alone.
One staff member also admitted that she has, more than one time, heard the low voices of men in the woods near the house and has heard the sounds of restless horses, when no horses are present. On several occasions, she has even gone into the woods later and has found no sign or tracks that any (living) horses had been there.
Restless phantoms... or the sounds of the violent past simply replaying themselves, like a needle stuck in a record groove on an old Victrola? You be the judge...
© Copyright 2000 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.