Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Jesse James: Riding Hell-Bent for Leather into Legend

The Opposition Organizes

But, banking associations and state authorities were fit to be tied. Newspapers started calling Missouri "the Mother of Bandits" because of its bad history of producing border ruffians and churning out highwaymen. The governor of Missouri was heard to exclaim, "Get me Jesse James!" but Jesse James was not to be gotten. How to catch a pariah when the ocean itself covets him? Failures notwithstanding, special forces rode out of Jefferson City and Liberty and Joplin and Kansas City and St. Louis to cover all state limits and topographies. When gossip buzzed that the James-Younger Gang oft concealed itself in the foothills of the Ozarks, posses covered every inch of the landscape, but found no one. Truth is, the gang had discovered the maze-like tunnels of Maramec Caverns during the Civil War; Quantrill's Raiders could have hidden indefinitely from Union troops if they had chosen. In the caves, deep and dank and forever, Jesse and his professionals sometimes lived for months; here they stored food, powder and armaments.

By the mid-1870s, bank robbing was getting riskier, however. The state's rewards issued for the gang prompted townsfolk to establish tighter vigilance on banks and to increase security to the extent that time lock vaults were replacing the older combination type. "Minute man" volunteer organizations stayed armed, powdered and ready around the clock; some towns commissioned special deputies to post the banks night and day.

Jesse, Frank and the Coles unanimously agreed to lay low on bank activity for a while, at least until the civic prudence wore thin which they knew would eventually happen. The gang tried its hand at stagecoach stick-ups for a term, sacking whatever valuable shipments they conveyed, but results were minimal. Most banks, post offices and supply companies depended now on railroads to ship their more precious cargoes and payrolls state to state, territory to territory.

A typical steam-driven train of early 1870.
A typical steam-driven train of early 1870.

There, then, was the gang's answer to new profit: trains. Frank James decided to do a little research before he and his partners-in-crime invested time and money and possibly the peril of death into the new venture. Pens author Jay Robert Nash, "Frank James had taken several trains west, as far as Omaha, Nebraska, riding the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Express (while reading Pilgrim's Progress). He reported to the rest of the gang that when the express reached Adair (Iowa) on July 21, 1873, it would be carrying more than $100,000 in gold, destined for eastern banks."

Clell Miller
Clell Miller

A train loaded with that kind of freight would not be given to easy surrender; stopping it would require drastic measures. On the evening of July 20, 1873, members of the gang gathered in tiny Adair. There, the James, the Youngers, Clell Miller, Bob Moore and the colorfully-named Comanche Tony broke into an unguarded handcar house and stole track tools. At sunrise the following morning, they reassembled outside of town to remove rail spikes and wooden rail bars on a quarter-mile section of track along a shallow dirt embankment. Using thick hemp, they looped the rails in four places, then lay in wait within the dense foliage below and away from the track line, grasping the other ends of the ropes.

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