By Ted P. Yeatman
The house at 1318 Lafayette St. in St. Joseph, Missouri, was a one-story white wood cottage with green shutters, sitting in a lot on the brow of a hill overlooking the town. It was Monday, April 3, 1882, and over breakfast the man who rented the house, who was going by the name Thomas Howard, commented on a newspaper article about the surrender of Jesse James Gang member Dick Liddil to Missouri authorities. Liddil was a traitor and ought to be hanged, he said. There was considerable unease among the two guests, brothers Charlie and Bob Ford, but they pretended not to care.
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After breakfast, Mr. Howard and Charlie Ford went to a stable behind the house to curry the horses. Upon returning to the house, the two men entered the living room. “It’s an awfully hot day,” said Howard, pulling off his coat and vest and tossing them aside. “I guess I will take off my pistols,” he continued, explaining that he didn’t want anyone who might be walking by outside to look through the window and see him armed. He picked up a feather duster and stepped up on a chair to clean some pictures on the wall. Bob and Charlie quickly moved between Howard and his guns, Charlie giving a wink to Bob. Both drew revolvers on the man on the chair, now with his back turned. Hearing the click of a weapon being cocked, Howard started to turn his head, and then the report of Bob’s six-shooter reverberated through the house. Charlie didn’t even bother to fire but lowered his gun as the man fell to the floor, with a bullet in his skull.
Howard’s wife rushed into the room, and the brothers tried to explain that the six-shooter had accidentally gone off. “Yes,” the wife said as she bent over her husband’s corpse, “I guess it went off on purpose.” The Fords dashed to the telegraph office down the way and sent messages to Clay County Sheriff Henry Timberlake, Kansas City Police Commissioner Henry H. Craig and Missouri Governor Thomas Crittenden. Last, they used a newfangled device known as a telephone to call the office of City Marshal Enos Craig. Thomas Howard, the man they had killed, had earlier used the alias John Davis “Dave” Howard, among others. But his real name was Jesse James.
The Ford boys first became acquainted with outlaw Jesse James in the summer of 1879. Jesse had been living in Tennessee since 1877, trying to “go straight” following the disastrous attempt to rob the Bank of Northfield, Minn., the year before. While his older brother Frank made the transition to peaceful citizen, Jesse suffered from malaria and found it difficult to adjust to honest work. He returned to Missouri to put together a new gang and in the process crossed paths with the Fords. James T. and John Ford, the father and brother of Bob and Charlie, had served in Virginia under Colonel John Singleton Mosby, the legendary “Gray Ghost” of the Confederacy, and were fellow guerrillas. Jesse, who had served under guerrilla leaders William Quantrill and “Bloody Bill” Anderson, probably swapped more than a few war stories on his occasional visits. Jesse liked to at least maintain the pretense of being harassed by former Unionists in order to obtain food, shelter and information from ex-Confederates while he was on the dodge.
One of the recruits to this new outfit was Ed Miller, whose brother Clell had been killed in the September 1876 Northfield raid. Miller knew the Fords, and it was Miller who first brought Jesse to the Ford house, the Harbison place, outside the town of Richmond, in Missouri’s Ray County. In the summer of 1880, Jesse and Miller had a falling out. The exact details are unclear, but it appears that Ed wanted to leave the gang, and Jesse got the notion he was going to be betrayed and fatally shot Miller. Jesse turned up at the Harbison place with Miller’s horse, which he left there, telling Charlie Ford that Ed had become ill and had gone down to Hot Springs, Ark. Enter Jim Cummins, a former guerrilla comrade of Jesse’s. Jim’s sister Artella had married Bill Ford, uncle of Bob and Charlie. The couple now lived at the old Cummins place in Clay County, a few miles from the James farm. Cummins became suspicious that something bad had happened and tried to locate Miller. A trip to Nashville, Tenn., where Jesse was living, in the winter of 1880-81, brought similar suspicions on Cummins, when he started asking too many questions. He fled in the night to avoid a likely bullet from Jesse.
On Friday evening, March 25, 1881, almost two weeks following the robbery of a Corps of Engineers payroll at Muscle Shoals, Ala., gang member Bill Ryan became drunk at a small store a few miles north of Nashville. Brandishing a revolver, he claimed to be Tom Hill, “outlaw against State, County, and the United States Government.” He was soon taken into custody. On his person was found some of the Muscle Shoals loot, and he was quickly lodged in the Nashville calaboose. Clearly, Jesse’s choice of gang members left a lot to be desired. It would only get worse.
The bad news about Ryan arrived via the local newspapers, and Frank, Jesse, their respective families and gang member Dick Liddil were soon beating a hasty retreat to Kentucky, with the law on their tail. Soon that state was getting too hot, and they decided to go back to Missouri. Jesse saw this as a chance to lure his now unemployed brother Frank back into the holdup business. He also wanted to keep an eye on legal proceedings against Ryan, who was extradited to Independence, Mo., in June, to be tried for his part in the Glendale train robbery, and to follow up leads on Jim Cummins.
Jesse soon settled in Kansas City, and was planning a raid on the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad somewhere near Gallatin, Mo. It was said that the trains brought large sums of cash to the Farmer’s Exchange Bank there twice a week. On the evening of July 15, 1881, the gang struck near the whistle stop at Winston. Conductor William Westfall was killed in the process. It was later said that Westfall had been on the train that took Pinkerton detectives on their 1875 raid on the James farm, but this was apparently not known at the time. The crime created a sensation in the press. Governor Thomas T. Crittenden, who had vowed to rid the state of the James Gang in his campaign the year before, held a meeting in St. Louis with railroad and express company executives, who promised a collective reward of $50,000 to put the gang out of business. Frank and Jesse had a reward of $5,000 each on their heads for their capture and delivery to authorities, with another $5,000 on conviction. There was no mention of it being dead or alive. Handbills were printed to this effect, though in later years counterfeit “Dead or Alive” posters would be marketed to unwary tourists.
Following the Winston robbery, the gang scattered. Dick Liddil spent a good bit of time at the Harbison place with the Fords, and the brothers were reportedly initiated into the holdup business in August 1881. Liddil, a convicted horse thief prior to joining Jesse’s new gang in 1879, took Charlie Ford with him to rob a stage running between Excelsior Springs and Vibbard. The driver was hauling just one passenger. “Charlie made them stand and I made them deliver,” Liddil recalled in his later confession, the take being a whopping $30. About a week later, Liddil put together another sub-gang consisting of himself, Jesse’s cousin Wood Hite, and Bob and Charlie Ford. On Thursday evening, August 25, they robbed a man with a wagon of $20 to $30 halfway between Lexington and the railroad junction at North Lexington. They tied up their victim and continued to wait for other prey. About five minutes later, they halted a stage with seven passengers, six men and a woman.
“All of you hold up your hands and get out of there,” one of the outlaws commanded. Bob and Wood held double-barreled shotguns on the men after they stepped down, while Dick and Charlie, armed with revolvers, relieved them of around $200 and several watches. All the bandits wore blue masks. The woman, a Miss Hunt from St. Joseph, was allowed to remain in the coach and to keep her valuables. One of the victims, C.W. Horner of Appleton City, a cripple studying for the ministry, was relieved of $52. Oddly, it was the same stage driver, a Mr. Gibson, who had been robbed by the James-Younger Gang seven years before, almost to the day, near the same place.
More Plans for Jesse
Meanwhile, Jesse James had other plans afoot. Gang member Bill Ryan was being held in jail in Independence to face trial for the robbery of the Chicago & Alton at Glendale. Jesse would kill two birds with one stone—rob the railroad again, not far from the same spot; and at the same time intimidate railroad employees, some of whom might testify at Ryan’s trial. On Wednesday night, September 7, 1881, six years to the day after the Northfield robbery attempt, the James Gang went to work at a 30-foot chasm along a curve known as Blue Cut. The trains were known to slow down at this point, and men could be placed along the rim of the cut to cover the proceedings below.
A masked man was placed on the track, beside a pile of rocks, where he waved a lantern to get the oncoming westbound locomotive to halt. Wood Hite and Charlie Ford were to take the engine and express car. A few blows to the door by the now captive engineer were enough to open the latter, and the agent for the U.S. Express, who had slipped out, was coerced to return with threats on the engineer’s life. This and a perceived slowness at opening the safe caused Charlie Ford to pistol-whip the clerk. Less than $400 was found inside, and Ford gave the man another whack for good measure.
Little did the bandits know that an Adams Express safe, hidden under a pile of chicken coops, contained more cash. Frustrated, the outlaws proceeded to rob the passengers. The whole affair lasted about half an hour. Before leaving, one of the outlaws, thought to be Jesse, shook hands with engineer “Chappy” Foote, gave him $2 and told him to “spend it on the boys.” The outlaw then warned Foote: “You’d better quit running this road. We’re going to make it so hot for this damned Alton road they can’t run.” Newspaper accounts reported the anguished passengers’ arrival at the Union Depot in Kansas City. Many had lost every cent they had and were stranded.
In the latter part of September, Ryan went on trial in Independence. An official of the Chicago & Alton told Jackson County prosecutor William Wallace that his superiors didn’t think any of the gang could be convicted in Missouri but that if Ryan was convicted, the railroad might be singled out for further raids. He asked Wallace not to call any railroad men as witnesses. During the course of the trial, some of Ryan’s friends, fully armed, hovered ominously about the courthouse.
Wallace’s key witness was former gang member Tucker Bassham, convicted and sentenced to 10 years for participation in the Glendale heist. Crittenden offered him a full pardon for his testimony. Ryan was found guilty and sentenced to 25 years in prison. There was talk of a possible rescue attempt, but the old jail was built like a fortress, and the prisoner was guarded by Captain M.M. Langhorne, described as “one of the coolest, gamest men” of Joe Shelby’s former Confederate Brigade. Several other guards were also former Confederates, and even prosecutor Wallace had been forced to relocate with his family during the war after their homestead was ransacked by Kansas jayhawkers. “The jury that convicted Ryan broke the back of outlawry in the state of Missouri,”commented Wallace. “Thousands of mouths that had been locked by fear were opened….”
Death of a First Cousin
Sometime in the fall of 1881, Jesse James resumed his pursuit of Jim Cummins. This took him to the home of Bill Ford, whose wife was Cummins’ sister. In an effort to get information on Cummins’ location, Jesse roughed-up Samuel Ford, 15-year-old first cousin of Bob and Charlie. It was a bad mistake. John W. Shouse, a neighbor who lived about a mile or so from the James farm, was a fellow Southern sympathizer who was also getting tired of the brigandage. When he learned of what had happened to the Ford boy, he enlisted several neighbors who were armed and went on the watch for Jesse. It was around this time that Bill Ford and William Wysong, one of the neighbors of Shouse, brought Bob Ford into the fold.
Meanwhile, Dick Liddil, during a trip to Kentucky, got into an argument with Wood Hite, first cousin of Frank and Jesse James. Liddil was said to be having an affair with Hite’s stepmother. It all culminated in a shootout at the Harbison place on December 4, 1881, with Hite and Liddil firing at each other and then Bob Ford joining the fray. Ford fired one shot at Hite, which he would claim was the fatal bullet. In fact, Liddil had shot Hite as well, and it’s still unclear who deserved credit for the killing. Both, however, would be considered equally guilty if Jesse only knew.
An arrangement was made for Bob Ford to meet Governor Crittenden on January 12, 1882, in Kansas City. While Bob would later claim that he struck a deal to get Jesse “dead or alive,” both his brother Charlie and the governor later denied this. It was for the “capture” of Jesse. Bob was to coordinate with Shouse, Wysong and other neighbors, as well as Sheriff Timberlake of Clay County and Police Commissioner Craig of Kansas City. “There was no sort of bargain about his receiving a portion of the reward and a pardon if he would kill Jesse James,” Crittenden later said. “It was of course known that the outlaw had sworn never to be taken alive, and men who went in search of him were acquainted with this fact.” If you went after Jesse you took your own chances. Dick Liddil decided not to risk it. On January 24, he secretly surrendered to authorities and soon helped Craig and Timberlake capture Clarence Hite, Wood’s brother. Clarence was taken without a fight (and without extradition papers) at his home near Adairville, Ky., on February 11 and hustled back to Missouri by rail to answer for his role in the Winston and Blue Cut robberies.
Time was running out for Jesse James. “He said he expected to be a bandit as long as he lived,” recalled Charlie Ford, who had helped Jesse move from Kansas City to St. Joseph in November 1881 and lived with Jesse and his family. In early March 1882, Charlie accompanied Jesse in casing a number of banks in northeast Kansas. Jesse asked Charlie if he knew of any possible recruits to help with future robberies. Charlie suggested his brother Bob. After looking over likely targets, Jesse and Charlie headed back to pick up Bob. On the day of the killing, April 3, Jesse had talked of leaving for Platte City, to rob the bank there the following day. A trial was in progress, and he felt this would distract the local population. The Fords wondered if he hadn’t suspected them after reading about Liddil and would try to gun them down as he had Ed Miller, out in the middle of nowhere.
The reaction of Commissioner Craig and Sheriff Timberlake to the news of Jesse’s death was mixed. “Hurrah for you,” telegraphed Craig, who said he was coming to St. Joseph. Timberlake, on the other hand, had expected to be in on the capture and to have a piece of the reward. According to one of his deputies, the news of Jesse’s killing “was a dampener.” Timberlake, who had served in the Confederate Army and knew Jesse from before his days as an outlaw, identified the body, as did others who passed through the funeral parlor where the corpse was displayed and photographed. The body bore wounds from the Civil War that matched those carried by Jesse James. Jesse’s death had been reported at least as early as late 1879, when a hoax was perpetrated by former gang member George Shepherd, who claimed he had killed the bandit in a shootout in southwest Missouri. Authorities wanted to be sure they had their man. In fact, on April 4, the day after the shooting, the Los Angeles Times raised the doubts in an editorial comment. “Jesse James is like a cat; he has been killed a great many times, only to as often enjoy a resurrection.” The Boston Globe had a rebuttal two days later, “Any Western reporter who now resurrects Jesse James ought to be shot.”
After the Assassination
Indeed there had been a full coroner’s inquest, an autopsy and photographs taken of the corpse. The body was taken to Kearney, Mo., for burial in the yard at the farm where Jesse had been born. The Fords had been taken into custody and lodged in jail. Wood Hite’s body was dug from the Harbison place when someone got the idea that there was a reward, only to discover that, as with Jesse, it was for his capture. Bob and Charlie were arraigned on charges of first-degree murder on April 17, 1882, and sentenced to hang after both pleaded guilty, but they were pardoned that same afternoon by Governor Crittenden. If the Ford brothers had expected any reward money, though, they were most likely disappointed. There was considerable commotion over the killing of Jesse for the next several months as newspapers found that, in death as well as life, he could sell papers.
But that wasn’t all. Jesse’s widow, Zee, had to support herself and her two children—6-year-old Jesse Edwards and 2-year-old Mary Susan—and was forced to sell some personal effects at the house in St. Joseph, including the family dog. Ten cents admission was charged to visit the house, and souvenir hunters reportedly made off with almost as much as they bought, chipping off pieces of the fence, house and outbuildings. Henrietta Saltzman, owner of the house, would sue Missouri and Governor Crittenden, claiming that the killing was the work of state agents. Mrs. Saltzman had been renting the house for $14 a month to Jesse James, but a few weeks after his death, she moved back and began charging visitors a quarter a head to visit the place, now replete with bullet hole in the wall. Over the next year and a half, she would make a killing. A reporter who visited the house in September 1883 estimated that she had made, between admission charged to thousands of visitors and splinters of wood sold as mementoes, $1,500 off the house as a tourist attraction. The reporter also noted that there were some 50 “bullets that killed Jesse James” floating around. Never mind that the slug had never exited the head and had been pulled out of Jesse’s brain during the autopsy.
Bob and Charlie Ford were lured to the stage, and by early August 1882 were in Chicago playing what was described as a “State Street dive.” The brothers considered moving on to Cincinnati, but instead took their act to Chicago’s Park Theater, where they began to do a depiction of the killing of Jesse James. At the end of the month, Bob was arrested for disorderly conduct and carrying concealed weapons. From Chicago the Fords moved on to New York, playing Brooklyn in late September. At Bunnell’s Museum, they were occupying a spot in Curiosity Hall when a woman thought by Bob to be Frank James’ wife appeared and sent panic through the brothers. The boys decided to move on to the Broadway Museum, which they played through the first week in October.
Bob Ford was due back in Missouri that month for trial at Plattsburg on charges of murdering Wood Hite. The jury brought in a not guilty verdict on the 26th, and Bob and Charlie again left to pursue their career on the stage in the East. On December 21, they were slated to give “a descriptive lecture” at Hartford, Conn., in Allyn Hall, but the door receipts amounted to only $2 and the appearance was cancelled. Next stop Boston, where the brothers played the Dime Museum at Horticultural Hall. This institution, which billed itself as a “select family resort for ladies and children,” was reported to be “packed to suffocation” for the Fords’ appearance, at a dime a head.
The boys had just been introduced to the crowd when a young man in the front row, thought to be intoxicated, called the Fords “damned cowards.” Charlie was restrained from jumping off the stage, but there were other remarks, and the manager, somewhat indignant himself, allowed the boys to go into the audience. Guns were reportedly drawn and two men were pistol whipped. The audience stampeded, a woman screamed and fainted and a large group smashed a window to escape, while others surrounded the Ford boys. A police officer named Robinson led half a dozen other policemen to the building, and they were about to haul the boys off when the manager intervened. He begged the police to charge the Fords later, and he would vouch for them to appear. The police agreed, and the Fords made their later performances at the Dime Museum. There were some hisses from the crowd, and the atmosphere was tense, but the show went on to conclusion without further outbursts. A Chicago Daily Tribune editorial commented that it was “a grave mistake…in allowing them any greater freedom than a comfortable cell affords.” A few days later, after the brothers had jumped bail and left Boston, the Boston Globe commented that “but for the undesirableness of the presence of the Fords in the city under any circumstances,” the paper would suggest that Officer Robinson be made to find, arrest and return the Fords at his own expense. But their checkered career on the stage had a year further to run, in which time they threatened the manager of the National Theater of Philadelphia, who sarcastically replied via mail that he had an opening for them in July 1982, nearly a century later, if they wished to play there.
Meanwhile, on the evening of July 2, 1883, Charlie Ford left his pistol in a Kansas City saloon, and when barkeep George Wampel pointed it at a patron named Webster, the gun accidentally went off, killing the teamster. A month later, Charlie was arrested and charged with participation in the 1881 Blue Cut train robbery, but he made the $5,000 bond. He claimed in the press that he was working with local lawmen to infiltrate the James Gang at the time, but Sheriff Timberlake, Commissioner Craig and Governor Crittenden were dumbfounded by his statement. On September 20, the Fords appeared in a Louisville, Ky., variety house, in what was called The Brother’s Vow; or, The Bandit’s Revenge. They were hissed and hooted by the audience at the point where Bob killed Jesse.
In addition to Blue Cut, Charlie had been charged with the 1881 stage robbery north of Lexington, and was to go on trial in Richmond on November 23, but apparently a continuance was granted in the case, which had been brought by Jesse James’ widow and mother, in an attempt at revenge. The stage career of the Fords ended in St. Louis in January 1884. Charlie, suffering from tuberculosis and addicted to morphine, shot himself. He had forfeited bond in the Richmond case, having failed to appear in court. Bob Ford would move west to Las Vegas, New Mexico Territory, where he operated a saloon briefly with Dick Liddil and had an equally lackluster career as a policeman. Finally settling in Creede, Colo., where he ran another saloon, the man who shot Jesse James was gunned down on June 8, 1892, by Ed O’Kelley, with a sawed-off shotgun. Although O’Kelley might have had other reasons for murdering the unpopular Ford, one possible motive was that while growing up in Missouri, O’Kelley had viewed the notorious Jesse James as a hero.
This article was written by Ted P. Yeatman. Ted Yeatman is considered one of the nation’s foremost authorities on the James brothers. This article originally appeared in the December 2006 issue of Wild West magazine. For more great articles, be sure to subscribe to Wild West magazine today!