Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Jesse James: Riding Hell-Bent for Leather into Legend

Guerrilla Warfare

Jesse's first major engagement abreast of his new comrades-in-arms took place in Centralia, Kansas. Riding apart from the rest of Quantrill's column, Anderson's detachment (including the James boys and Cole Younger) swooped down on the sleepy little hamlet in late September, 1864. Shopkeepers were dragged from their stores and shot to death, women were raped in the streets. Jesse, who legend claims abhorred any form of abuse practiced on women, is believed to have been innocent of this latter charge but not so of the destruction of the village itself. He helped torch the wooden buildings along the main street and fan the fire until every timber crackled under flame. Just another Yankee rat-trap fried to a crisp.

Twenty-six Union soldiers en route to St, Joseph, Missouri, were hauled from a train at the Centralia depot, lined up by the guerrillas, then, one at a time, shot through the head by "Bloody Bill" himself. To the first in line it was over quick, but to the last it must have been excruciating. Witnesses, even those of Anderson's company, would later write that they had never seen such a glut of ferocity practiced by any one man during the Civil War.

Anderson's murderous ways ended shortly thereafter. Within the month, a Union scouting party, having heard of the Centralia massacre, caught Anderson on the run dead-on and pumped more than two dozen bullets into his chest. Quantrill, hearing the news, sensed a dread he had never experienced. "Bloody Bill" had been known to be the slyest fox of his band, an eternal nothing in heaven or hell, it was said, could trap him but someone did trap him. The Unionites, it became clearer now, had honed their wits and were closing in.

Quantrill, nevertheless, continued to fight. Alongside him, quickly making a name for himself was young Jesse James. His gaunt teenage arms had turned muscular, and his fellow Raiders marveled at his display of marksmanship with both revolver and rifle. He seemed to be afraid of nothing. In one skirmish with the enemy, reports Nash, "Jesse James was seen riding pell-mell into the Union ranks, the reins of his horse held by his teeth, firing two pistols. He shot down six Northern soldiers and was credited with killing three of them."

Jesse was, naturally, well liked by his peers, for both his bravery and his easy-going manner (that is, when not enraged at the sight of a blue tunic). One evening, when cleaning his Remington revolver around a campfire, the handgun accidentally discharged blowing off a tip of one of his fingers. He coolly studied the damage, never winced, but only shook his head. "Now ain't that the most dingus-dangest thing you ever seen?" he replied, drawing laughter from those around him and inspiring Cole Younger and others from then on to nickname him "Dingus" in fond memory of the burlesque.

Quantrill eventually went the way of his sanguinary lieutenant, Anderson, when a federal patrol blew him off his saddle in Kentucky. Severely wounded, they gave him little care, but tossed him into a local jail, where he bled to death within forty-eight hours. Union forces had absolutely no use for him nor his cold-blooded buccaneers who, upon their leader's death, disbanded.

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