Jesse James: Riding Hell-Bent for Leather into Legend
Jesse's Last Job
The gang successfully hit the Chicago & Alton train at Glendale, Missouri, in October of 1879, riding away with $40,000. Jesse lauded their performance and told them, as he divvied the take, that they "played the game" like old hands. He then let them lie low for many months so as not to get the Pinkertons on their tail before they'd barely begun. When they did strike again, he made sure it was out of Missouri to confuse the detectives who might be expecting another incident in that same state. On September 3, 1880, they robbed a Wells Fargo stagecoach near Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, a job planned well and executed well, but which netted a mere $1,400. Their next job, however, brought in several thousand dollars from a Muscle Shoals, Alabama, paymaster office. Ever moving, they then blasted their way into the Sexton Bank, Riverton, Iowa, to claim a profit of $5,000. The James Gang was definitely back in action.
Jesse was back on top, larger than ever before, larger, in fact, than life. Dime novel readers thrilled to his fictitious adventures that dwarfed even the Northfield caper. To the ire of law enforcement agencies, many of the fabrications had him working on the side of law and order against bloodthirsty banditos and assortments of snarling, cloaked baddies. Jesse loved the reputation; he relished in it. He grew a beard in the style of the day, not to conceal his face as in the past, but to appear the jaunty rascal that everyone wanted to love.
The time had come, he figured, to again strike in Missouri. When the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific train rolled into Winston on July17, 1881, the James Gang was there to meet it. William Westphal, the engineer, refused to cooperate when the bandits boarded his train and, in an ensuing fracas, was slain. Grabbing only $500 in the theft, Jesse planned to make up for it by once again assaulting the Chicago & Alton Railroad at Glendale, the same train he had robbed two years previously. The take was not much better than in Winston, some $1,500, but, according to author Jay Robert Nash, Jesse had a great time playing his heroic derring-do to the hilt.
"The bandits used a pickaxe to chop their way into the locked express car. (After finding) a small amount of money in the safe, (they) walked through the train, robbing the passengers. Jesse (was) the only bandit without a mask. 'I'm Jesse James,' he said to several stunned passengers, and then he boldly introduced other members of the gang...
"This," Nash emphasizes, "was Jesse James' last robbery."
Missouri's governor, Thomas Crittenden, had had enough. He offered an enormous reward $10,000 to anyone bringing in Jesse and Frank James, alive or dead. There had never been a bounty so lofty on an American criminal's head.