One more shot at the legend of Jesse James


Notorious outlaw Jesse James, the most famous member of the James-Younger gang, entered the pantheon of folk legend after he was shot in the back by Robert Ford on April 3, 1882, at the age of 34. The myth hasn’t diminished over the past 125 years: His legacy has been romanticized, dissected and reenvisioned in novels, songs and, most especially, films.

Over the years, Tyrone Power, Robert Wagner, Robert Duvall, Clayton Moore, James Dean, Christopher Jones, Colin Farrell, Rob Lowe and Lawrence Tierney have played James in film and on television.

Even his son, Jesse James Jr., got into the act, starring as his infamous father in 1921’s “Jesse James Under the Black Flag” and “Jesse James as the Outlaw.”


The latest entry in the James movie canon is “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” opening Friday. Brad Pitt, who just won best actor at the Venice Film Festival, plays James, with Casey Affleck costarring as his assailant.

So how did James’ murder turn him into the stuff of legend?

By 1882, the James gang was a shadow of its former self on account of arrests, death and defections. The only people James felt he could trust were Charley Ford, who had been a veteran of James’ raids, and his brother Robert Ford, who was eager to prove himself.

James went so far as to invite the brothers to live with him and his family, unaware that Robert Ford secretly had been in meetings with Missouri Gov. Thomas T. Crittenden about bringing the bandit to justice.

On that fateful April 3, James climbed a chair in his house to dust a picture. Both Ford brothers drew their pistols, with Robert’s bullet striking James in the back of the head, killing him instantly.

Many felt the governor conspired to have James killed after he quickly pardoned the Fords following their arrest. With the brothers allowed to go free, James was turned into a martyr. Even his epitaph, which was chosen by his mother, reads: “In loving memory of my beloved son, murdered by a traitor and coward whose name is not worthy to appear here.”

Fate didn’t look kindly on the Fords. Charley Ford committed suicide two years later; Robert Ford was shot in the throat by Edward Capehart O’Kelley in 1892 in Creede, Colo.


-- Susan King