It was reputed to be the first the first armed, daylight bank robbery in American history. On February 13, 1866 in Liberty, Missouri a passing college student was shot dead in the escape. 17 year old Jesse James, still recovering from a gunshot wound to the chest by Union troops, and his older brother Frank James have been credited with the robbery.
Not quite, but certainly an early heist, one that set the stage for bold gang assaults on banks that spread across post-Civil War America and continued—with some continuity of gang members—into the Bonnie and Clyde/Dillinger era.
The very first American bank robbery may have occurred on March 19, 1831 when someone made off with $250,000—a truly vast fortune in those days—from the City Bank of New York. The Directors of the bank, anxious to avoid publicity around their catastrophic loss provided scant information. Only sketch press accounts survive an historians are unsure if the theft was an armed robbery or a burglary.
During the Civil Way in 1864 Confederate raiders based in Canada staged an assault on St. Albans, Vermont which included the robbery of the town’s three banks. But historians tend to count that as an act of war rather than a common crime.
On December 15, 1863 a man walked into a bank in Middlesex County, Massachusetts, shot the 17-year-old bookkeeper and stole about $5000 in bank notes.
The James boys certainly were familiar with the St. Albans Raid, which made national headlines. They were probably unaware of the New England solo robbery. At any rate their modus operendi in the Liberty robbery resembled a guerilla raid.
Both James boys had ridden with various Confederate irregular bands, including those of William Quantrill, Bloody Bill Anderson, and Archie Clement. One or both of them had participated in the massacre of more than 200 pro-Union men and boys in the raid on Lawrence, Kansas and the ambush and massacre of more than 100 Union troops under the command of Major A.V.E. Johnson near Centralia. Most of the men were killed and scalped after surrendering and Jesse was reported to have personally dispatched the Major.
The Liberty bank robbery was the beginning of the transition from Rebel guerrillas into simple outlawry. By 1869, with numerous murders and robberies under their belts, Jesse and Frank James and their cousins the Dalton boys were famous across the country. Jesse became his own press agent dispatching letters denying specific murder charges but painting himself as a proud Confederate out to avenge his people on the oppressive Republican administration of the state. Sympathetic journalists wrote glowing editorials.
All the while the body count climbed. The gang pulled raids from West Virginia to Texas. In 1873 they turned to train robbery when they derailed a locomotive at Adair, Iowa and robbed both passengers and the express box while garbed in Ku Klux Klan hoods. More train robberies followed resulting in railroad interests hiring the Pinkerton Detective Agency to track down and eradicate the gang.
Allan Pinkerton himself planned a raid on the farm home of Zerelda Samuel, the James boy’s mother. In the attack their young half-brother Archie Samuel was killed and Zerelda’s arm was blown off by a grenade. The botched operation resulted in considerable public sympathy for Frank and Jesse.
|After the disastrous Northfield, Minnesota raid the Pinkertons kept up the pressure on the James boy with this poster. Jesse was eventually killed to try and claim this reward.|
In 1874 Jesse married his first cousin Zee and soon was raising a family in-between robberies. But when the James-Dalton Gang attempted a bank robbery in Northfield, Minnesota in 1876 the outraged locals, many of them Union veterans fought back. In a wild gun fight two gang members were killed and others wounded. A militia posse chased the gang and killed another member and arrested the gravely wounded Younger brothers. Somehow the James boys managed to escape unhurt.
The brothers laid low in Nashville, Tennessee for some years. Frank seems to have given up crime entirely, but Jesse felt the siren call of the old ways and assembled a new gang in 1879 that committed a string of high profile robberies. The band lacked the battlefield cohesion of the old Confederate raiders and its members were killed, arrested, or fell to fighting among themselves. Jesse reportedly killed one himself.
Living under the assumed name of Thomas Howard in St. Joseph, Missouri, Jesse was trying to reassemble his gang and was boarding the last surviving members of his last outfit, the brothers Charles and Robert Ford. While preparing to go on other job, Jesse stopped to straighten a picture. Bob Ford shot him at close range in the back of his head hoping to earn a $5,000 railroad reward. James was identified by old wounds and a missing finger.
Stories that the man killed was not Jesse and that he lived into the 20th Century persist. But like most of the romantic nonsense associated with the Jesse James story there is no real evidence for any of a number of claimants to his identity.