The gunifights of Jesse James

The gunifights of Jesse James – The Ayoob Files

Massad Ayoob

Situation: A long and spectacular gunfighting career ends abruptly in a single moment; of complacency.

Lesson: Carry backup. Suck up wounds and keep fighting. If you want to hit center, aim. Perhaps above all, when in danger remain both armed — and alert.

More than 120 years after his death, Jesse James remains one of the largest figures in the history of “the Wild West.” From his contemporary times to the present, he has been seen as a heroic Robin Rood, defending his family and the lost Confederacy alike against monolithic forces of oppression. However, some historians take a revisionist view that casts the famed outlaw as a cold-blooded murderer who indulged in, or at least stood by and watched, the mutilation of those who could not defend themselves, including scalping and even emasculation. (1) T.J. Stiles, author of the recent bestseller “Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War,” calls his subject “a compulsive thrill seeker who could not bear to abandon the criminal life. It is true he was daring, brave, and capable of astonishing feats of endurance; but it’s also true most of his homicide victims after the Civil War were unarmed and helpless, as were many of the men he murdered as a teenage guerrilla.” (2)

Steeped in the lore of our own nation’s birth in a bloody but righteous revolution, we Americans have an innate appreciation of the rebel. While all gunfighters certainly were not bandits, and all bandits likewise were not gunfighters, there is no question that Jesse James belonged to both categories. Whether he was the wronged good guy painted by legend or the sociopath more darkly depicted by Stiles, he was unquestionably the successful winner and survivor of multiple shootouts. For that reason alone, the lessons learned in his exploits are worth study by today’s lawfully armed good people.

Lesson 1: Pack Up Some Backup

Jesse James and his brother Frank appear to have carried multiple revolvers virtually all the time. They put these “backup guns” to good use on multiple occasions. During the Civil War, these were .36 caliber Navy Colts. On the morning of October 20, 1864, the brothers and their guerrilla band were surrounded by the enemy. Stiles writes, “Cocking and firing in rapid succession, Jesse blazed away at the men on horseback as they appeared through the trees. He clicked through one cylinder, then pulled another revolver, emptied it, and pulled another, until finally both he and Frank had spent all their loads. They succeeded in holding back the enemy for a few precious minutes, but now the were cut off from the rest of the guerrillas, who were themselves scattered by another squad of militiamen that had caught them in an open field. The brothers wheeled their horses into the brush and spurred east, the unexpected direction.” (3)

James’ bloody career began under the tutelage of famed guerrilla leader William Quantrill, and after the latter’s death under Quantrill’s protege “Bloody Bill” Anderson. Writes Stiles of the band, “The most common pistol in use in Missouri was Colt’s 1851 Navy Model, a (cap and ball) .36 caliber revolver … Loading was such time-consuming work that each guerrilla carried four or even six revolvers into combat, simply drawing a new pistol when one was emptied or jammed.” (4) Anderson was said to keep as many as eight readily at hand, either on his person or in saddle holsters.

Later, as the leader of the James-Younger outlaw gang, Jesse would have reason to give thanks for the fact that he and his cohorts had kept up the practice of carrying multiple handguns after the war’s end. In the autumn of 1874, Jesse, his brother and Jim Younger faced off with a band of policemen including St. Louis officer Flourney Yancey. Stiles recounts the incident:

“‘Halt!’ Jesse shouted, and he and Younger opened fire. But Yancey kept his nerve, drew his revolver, and shot Jesse, sending him crashing to the dirt. Jesse got to his feet and remounted as Yancey and Younger continued to shoot, pulled his other revolver, and began to fire again. Seconds later, the brief, intense skirmish suddenly ended. Yancey’s horse, already dancing skittishly from the noise, went wild as the firing intensified and galloped away uncontrollably, carrying Yancey with it. ‘The fright of his horse,’ the St. Louis Globe reported, ‘probably saved his life.”‘ (5) Only slightly wounded, Jesse escaped thanks to his cohort’s ability to sustain fire by drawing a second handgun.

Lesson 2: Handle Carefully

Sometime in the year 1863, the mid-teen Jesse James lost the tip of his left middle finger. No fewer than three theories have been postulated as to how this occurred. The general consensus of historians is that he got careless and shot it off by accident with one of his Navy Colts, perhaps while loading the gun. There is a lesson here: even if you are destined to be one of the great gunfighters of history, you need to take constant and scrupulous care in the way you handle firearms.

James biographer Marley Brant has a different take on the accident that amputated the young outlaw’s distal digit. In “Jesse James: the Man and the Myth,” he notes, “Jesse had been given the nickname Dingus’ by his guerrilla buddies he had pinched off the tip of his finger while cleaning his gun. The boy reacted to the injury by claiming that the weapon responsible for the accident was the ‘dodd-dingus pistol’ he had ever seen. The nickname would stick to Jesse for the rest of his life.” (6)

If this was indeed the case, then the lesson is, one has to be as careful in the cleaning of one’s handgun as in any other element of its handling. That said, while the hammer of a percussion Colt revolver falls with a lusty snap and the charging lever exerts great pressure, it is hard to image either one amputating the distal joint of a mature male’s middle finger. If this happened, it was indeed a “dodd-dingus pistol.”

Another explanation is more plausible. Some believe Jesse James’ finger was shot off by opposing gunfire in 1864, when the guerrilla band under the leadership of Anderson lieutenant Fletcher Taylor surrounded two brothers named Bigalow, one of whom had founded the Enrolled Missouri Militia, a group which opposed the Quantrill/Anderson/Taylor band. The Bigalow brothers were killed after an intense firefight, which some historians believe was actually young Jesse James’ first taste of return fire.

Lesson 3: Aimed Fire

There are few contemporary witness accounts of what style of shooting Jesse James used for the most part, but such as exist indicate he was most successful delivering fight-stopping hits when he aimed his revolver at eye level rather than point shooting. On the afternoon of December 7, 1869, James believed he had tracked down the man who had killed his beloved mentor, Bloody Bill Anderson: one Samuel P. Cox, now working at the Daviess Count Savings Association in Gallatin, Missouri. Here is Stiles’ account of what followed.

“Jesse reached under his coat, pulled out a revolver, and cocked the hammer. ‘Cox,’ he said with a curse, thinking he was talking to Samuel P. Cox, ’caused the death of my brother Bill Anderson, and I am bound to have my revenge.’ He aimed the barrel at the cashier’s chest and squeezed the trigger. The ear-splitting crack would have echoed in that small room, flame from the slow-burning black powder leaping Out of the muzzle as the bullet tore straight through the man’s heart. Before the cashier could topple from his chair, Jesse aimed squarely at his forehead and fired again. A startled (Attorney William A.) McDowell leaped for the door. Jesse wheeled and snapped off two quick shots, one of them tearing through the lawyer’s arm as he darted to safety.” (7)

Analyzing the above as Stiles reconstructs it from his research, we note when Jesse James aimed and squeezed, he hit heart and brain. Two shots, two decisive hits. “Snap-shooting” with an equal number of rounds, he scored one miss and one non-neutralizing peripheral hit.

Stiles reports another incident, one in which a young Jesse’s aimed fire trumped the snap-shooting of his opponent: the killing of Union Major “Ave” Johnston in a battle with Anderson’s guerrillas. He recounts it thus:

“In the center of Anderson’s line, Jesse bounded forward. He aimed right for Johnston, who shouted and snapped off shots. The boy aimed his revolver and fired. The Federal officer pitched to the ground.” (8) The experienced Union combat vet who point-fired missed the young boy who then aimed and killed him with a return shot.

Lesson 4: Who You Shoot

In the Gallatin bank incident, Jesse had killed the wrong man. What he had thought was the cold-blooded revenge murder of an unarmed former combatant turned out to be the utterly needless execution murder of a prominent and locally-beloved banker, John W. Sheets.

The slaying enraged the populace and led to a long manhunt, which endangered Jesse and his brother multiple times and ended with the brothers rampaging through the streets of Kearney, Missouri. In that incident, notes historian Stiles, “To all appearances, they arrived in a state of rage. For half an hour they terrorized the town as they cantered through the streets, Frank with five revolvers tucked into a belt outside his coat, Jesse with three revolvers and a Colt’s revolving rifle.” (9)

If Jesse James was the noble warrior and decent man his admirers claim, this mistaken identity killing must have seared his soul. Even if he was the monster his detractors describe, outrage at the killing cost him much-needed grassroots support.

Lesson 5: Keep Going

In addition to the minor injury inflicted by the St. Louis policeman and the loss of part of a finger that may have taken place during a fight, Jesse James was shot and seriously wounded on at least three other occasions. Each time he responded with strenuous fight, strenuous flight, or both. Not until his last moment on Earth would the hardy outlaw be neutralized by a gunshot wound.

While attempting to steal a horse in Ray County, the teenage Jesse was shot by its owner, an armed citizen of German extraction named Heizinger. Jesse fled with his brother Frank, nursing what historians agree was a large caliber gunshot wound track that ran through and through his right chest. He would later describe the unimaginable pain of the injury, but he kept riding until he reached a safe house. With only routine first aid and bed rest, the wound healed without surgical intervention, and he was back riding with the guerrilla band some six weeks later.

A year later, in 1865, now 17, he was wounded again in a skirmish with Federal troops. The slug drove deep into his right chest, parallel to where he’d been wounded before. James went down, but not out. Getting back to his feet and running into the woods to take cover, he killed the horse of his lead antagonist, causing the rider and his companions to fall back. Jesse was able to make his way to a creek bank where he huddled through the night, until morning came and friends found him and transported him to safety.

This wound was more consequential. It nearly killed him and took much longer to heal, but eventually mended, again without surgery. It would leave him short of breath and more easily tired for the rest of his days, however. During his long convalescence he was nursed by his cousin Zee Mims, whom he fell in love with and subsequently married. In the year 1995, Jesse James’ body was exhumed and examined to confirm his identity, after more than a century of rumor that someone else was buried in his grave. Modern autopsy found a .36 caliber lead slug lodged in the bones of the dorsal chest, exactly consistent with the wound described by the James family. Forensic examination of the projectiles showed markings consistent with it having been fired from an 1851 Model Navy Colt.

Flash forward to September 14, 1876, a week after the James-Younger gang was cut to pieces by the gunfire of armed citizens in the famous aborted bank robbery in Northfield, Minnesota. Bedraggled, exhausted, and desperately on the run, Jesse and Frank had at least emerged from the epic gun battle unwounded. They were riding heading for the Dakota Territories when they were ambushed. Jesse was hit in the right knee with a blast of buckshot.

The injury was serious, but he was able to escape on foot with his brother, who had sustained a less severe buckshot wound of one foot. Both men were slowed but not stopped. Getting patched up as they went, finally ordering a physician to treat Jesse’s leg at gunpoint, they managed to find transportation and, in a long and grueling ordeal, escape to freedom. Jesse James appears to have recovered from this serious wound with no lingering debilitation.

The lesson is clear: if the wound hasn’t killed you, ignore the pain and keep going. There is an excellent chance this determination will be rewarded with survival, as it was so many times for Jesse James.

Lesson 6: Learning Points

As everyone reading this probably knows, Jesse James was shot in the back of the head and killed instantly by Bob Ford on the morning of April 3, 1882. The murder — it can’t be called anything else — was committed in the living room of the small house at 1318 Lafayette Street in St. Joseph, Missouri, where Jesse lived under the name of Thomas Howard with his wife and children.

Some details of the incident are debated to this day, but we know that Jesse was hosting Bob and his brother Charlie Ford, “wanna-be” James gang hangers on, while his wife Zee was cooking breakfast for them. It was unseasonably hot, too warm for a concealing outer garment, and Jesse said something about not wanting the neighbors to spot the two guns he was wearing.

He removed the holstered revolvers and set them aside, then stood on either a stool or a straight back chair to either straighten or dust a portrait on the wall. It was then that a single large caliber bullet smashed into his brain from behind.

The exact nature of the hardware in the room at that fateful moment is still disputed. The great gun expert Elmer Keith wrote, “Jesse James carried a .45 Schofield S&W in one holster and a Colt single action .45 in the other, and he was probably one of the fastest gunmen of the times.” (10)

S&W’s official historian Roy Jinks writes of the company’s #3 American revolver, “Records have been found that indicate this model served in the hands of such legendary figures as Jesse James ..” (11) There is also the matter of the gunleather involved on the fateful day. According to British gun experts Richard Law and Peter Brookesmith, “Jesse James carried a … Schofield in a shoulder rig, which one day he reputedly took off after removing his jacket in the presence of his friend Bob Ford — who drew the gun and shot James dead.” (12) Legendary holster expert Chic Gaylord confirmed, “There were some ‘shoulder scabbards’ in use during the Civil War, but these were little more than the conventional belt scabbard attached to a rather crude shoulder harness — Jesse James was reputed to have concealed his guns in this fashion at times.” (13) However, Stiles’ research indicates on the morning of his death Jesse was wearing two sixguns in conventional holsters on a separate, dedicated belt which he unbuckled an d set down in the presence of the Fords. (14)

Almost certainly, at least one of the guns Jesse took off moments before his death was a Smith; historians argue whether its mate was a twin, or a Colt Single Action Army, or a Merwin & Hulbert. In the end, it doesn’t matter, because contrary to the popular legend that he was shot with his own gun, evidence indicates that Bob Ford brought his own weapon with which to do the deed.

The Fords both admitted later they came to Jesse’s house with the intention of killing him and collecting the bounty on his head if he gave them an opening to do so. Both habitual armed criminals, it is almost certain they brought their own weapons. Bob Ford was emphatic he did so. On February 12, 1884, Ford wrote the exact following words to the Missouri Republican newspaper: “I had the proper orthority to bring Mr. James to Justice which I did but did it in no ones presence but my Brother Chas. & I did it whith my own Revolver which I payed for…” (15) He did not mention the brand. However, authoritative S&W historians Jim Supica and Richard Nahas wrote, “(A New Model) #3 is reported as the gun used by Bob Ford to kill Jesse James, serial number 3766.” (16)

Incidentally, there is reason to believe Ford aimed rather than pointed the fatal shot. Autopsy showed the fatal bullet entered the occipital, behind and slightly below James’ right ear, and lodged inside his skull at the location of his left ear. This is only a slight upward angle. The victim was 5’l0″ tall, and standing on furniture; his assassin was a shorter man standing on the floor. The shallow upward angle of the wound track is consistent with the death weapon being at the shooter’s eye level when the shot was fired.

Obviously, one lesson is that bunted men shouldn’t turn their backs on people they don’t trust; Jesse had made it clear to his cohorts, including Charley Ford, that he didn’t trust Bob. However, the lessons go deeper than that. An important learning point is, being unarmed when your life is at all at risk is hazardous to your survival.

Even though both had brought their own guns, it is almost certain that even with his back turned, Jesse wouldn’t have been shot if he had kept his guns on. Stiles found the following quotes to confirm this. ” ‘My brother and I had made it up to kill him,’ Charley said. ‘I knew he was quicker than I, and I would not try it when he had his arms on. He was so watchful no man could get the drop on him.’ Bob agreed. ‘We waited a long time to catch Jesse without his revolvers,’ he noted, ‘knowing that unless he put them off we could not fetch him.'” (17)

Yet there’s another, even more subtle warning for us to heed in the death of Jesse James. His own reputation for ruthless vengeance likely brought about his own demise. Bob Ford knew he was implicated in the murder of Jesse’s beloved cousin Wood Hite, and felt it was only a matter of time before Jesse found out and killed him for it. His mortal fear of Jesse James led him to kill the famous outlaw, not just for the reward money, but as a preemptive strike to save his own life. Fear creates hate. Hate can lead to murder. It’s a formula as old as mankind.

It was also, in the end, the formula that created the famed outlaw himself, whether as a hero or as a murderer. Various incidents in which members of his family were wrongfully tortured, imprisoned, maimed and killed by Union forces and Union sympathizers engendered in Jesse James an implacable hatred and thirst for revenge that led to many deaths and much tragedy. It was a cycle that did not end until, in a classic example of “what goes around, comes around,” the exact same dynamic led Bob Ford to shoot him in the back of the head the first time Jesse dropped his guard.

(1) Stiles, T.J., “Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War,” New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002, P.126. (2) Ibid., p.394. (3) Ibid., pp. 134-135. (4) Ibid., p. 88. (5) Ibid., p.266. (6) Brant, Marley, “Jesse James: the Man and the Myth,” New York: Berkley Books, 1998, p. 37. (7) Stiles, op. cit., p.203 (8) Ibid., p. 126. (9) Ibid., p. 205. (10) Keith, Elmer “Sixguns by Keith,” New York: Bonanza Books, 1955, p.28. (11) Jinks, Roy, “History of Smith & Wesson,” North Hollywood, CA: Beinfeld Publishing, 1977, p. 70. (12) Law, Richard and Brookesmith, Peter, “The Fighting Handgun,” London: Arms and Armour Press, 1996, p.39. (13) Gaylord, Chic, “Handgunner’s Guide,” New York: Hastings House, 1960, p. 155. (14) Stiles, op.cit. p. 375. (15) St. Louis Missouri Republican newspaper, April 7, 1882. (16) Supica, Jim, and Nahas, Richard, “Standard Catalog of Smith & Wesson,” Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 1996, p.66. (17) Stiles, op. cit., p. 374.

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