Frank and Jesse James were both legends in their own time, though Jesse is better remembered today because of his more dramatically violent death. The two Missouri brothers drifted into a life of crime after serving in Confederate guerilla forces during the Civil War. They began robbing banks in 1866, and their bold and impudent style won them a good measure of popular admiration. Once Jesse stopped to tell a crowd of townspeople gathered for a political speech that he thought something might be wrong at the bank he and Frank had just robbed. On another occasion, they staged an audacious hold-up of a Kansas City fair box office in the middle of a crowd of 10,000 people.
In an era of lingering sectional hatred and increasing public dislike for large corporate railroads and banks, some Americans began to see the James brothers as heroes, modern-day Robin Hoods who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. Newspapers, eager to increase their readership, contributed to this mythic view of the brothers. In reality, the James brothers were brutal criminals who willingly killed innocent victims in their pursuit of money, but misguided public sympathy for the men was so great that the Missouri state legislature at one point nearly approved a measure granting amnesty to the entire James gang.
After the brothers murdered two innocent men during an 1881 train robbery, though, the state of Missouri came to its senses and offered a reward of $5,000 each for the capture of Jesse and Frank. Shot down for reward money in 1882 by one of his own gang members, Jesse achieved a false but enduring reputation as a martyr in the cause of the common people against powerful interests. One Kansas City newspaper mournfully reported his death in a story headlined, “GOODBYE JESSE.”
Had Frank suffered the same fate, no doubt he too would have achieved martyrdom and been the subject of popular songs like the “Ballad of Jesse James.” However, Frank wisely preferred long life to martyrdom, and he turned himself in a few months after his brother was murdered. Prosecutors were unable to convince juries that Frank was a criminal, and he was declared a free man after avoiding conviction at three separate trials in Missouri and Alabama.
Entering middle age and having grown weary of the criminal life, Frank James was not so foolish as to tempt fate and the watchful eyes of Missouri law officers by resuming his old ways. For the next 30 years, he lived an honest and peaceful existence, working as a race starter at county fairs, a theater doorman, and a star attraction in traveling theater companies. In 1903, he joined forces with his old criminal partner Cole Younger to form the James-Younger Wild West Show. Frank retired to his family’s old farm in Missouri, where he died at the age of 72 in 1915.