Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Jesse James: Riding Hell-Bent for Leather into Legend

Growing Fame

Performing their next job, the robbery of the Daviess County Savings Bank in Gallatin, Missouri, the siblings proved worthy of each other again. It had been rumored that one John Sheets, a cashier at the bank, had been the commander of the group who shot Jesse on his way to sign the oath of loyalty in Liberty at the end of the Civil War. The grapevine was enough to send the James-Younger Gang whirling towards Gallatin.

When they entered the bank, Frank approached a teller's cage and handed the employee a $100 bill, asking him for change in twenties; this was his usual ruse to busy the teller while his other hand dove beneath his frock for a revolver. Cashier Sheets, seated at his desk behind the counter, overheard Frank's suspicious request (for a $100 bill was a rarity in that area) and alarmed; he reached into his desk drawer for a handgun. Jesse spotted Sheets' movements and fired two bullets into him, killing him instantly. (One might have been enough, but Jesse had noticed the placard on his desk that identified him as their man.) As customers screamed, Frank reached through the cage to grab a sack of money lying there, $700 worth of greenbacks, and raced through the front door. Jesse scooted beside him, pistol still smoking. A guard's shotgun roared behind them, splintering the frame of the door through which the bandits ran.

At the boardwalk, they leaped for their saddles. But, Jesse's steed had unnerved at the clamor. When Jesse attempted to mount, the nag bolted, twisting him sideways, boot caught in the stirrup, and sped higgledy-piggledy down the street, dragging Jesse along the ground. Frank saw that the animal led his brother smack-dab toward an armed mob forming outside the town market, but faced the devil and rode off to save him. Revolvers blazing, Frank charged the vigilantes, brushed through their midst, unloosened the bruised Jesse from the knot, helped him onto his own horse, then tore off towards the edge of town.

In reining his horse too quickly around the nearest corner, however, the steed skidded and stumbled, throwing both men from its back. Jesse grabbed another horse hitched to a post across the street and, with a posse inches behind, returned Frank's favor by this time rescuing him. Yanking Frank onto the stolen horse, the winded bandits galloped away from a stunned posse into the setting sun.

Madcap antics like these merited the boys a growing fame. Even detracting lawmen admitted that the James' were the most daring duo they had ever encountered. Their reputation, the James' soon learned, preceded them. When they staffed up for what they thought would be a difficult hit the well-guarded Ste. Genevieve (Missouri) Bank in November, 1873, they were surprised at how agreeably the task went simply because of their notoriety. Jesse and Frank, flanked by the Youngers, rushed the bank, guns drawn; outside three hire-ons, Clell Miller, Bill Chadwell and Charley Pitts, stood defensive and ready. Employees' and customers' hands shot up immediately; not even the guards intimated resistance. A clerk, affable despite Jesse's Colt tapping his chin, uttered, "You're Jesse James, aren't ya'?"

"Yes, so what about it?" Jesse asked.

"Nuthin', sir. I ain't gonna sass back to no Jesse James. The money's yours!"

Jesse James grinned. "Why, ain't that the most dingus-dangest thing?" He had been wanting everyone, especially the Yankees, to know just who was stealing Yankee money. Obviously, everyone did.

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