While none of us grow up without knowing too many names of famous criminals, one name should always spark the interest of the American mind. If it doesn’t then I hope to enlighten any reader on the name of one famous outlaw that has a connection to the Baldpate Inn Key Room, and that is Jesse James. While never actually staying here, or even owning the key that is connected to him here, the key to the Old Southern Bank of Kentucky in Russellville, KY would not soon forget, since it was robbed by the famous outlaw and his gang in 1868.
Jesse James is a man from a stereotypical upbringing during the mid-19th century. Born on September 5, 1847 to Robert S. James, a farmer and Baptist preacher, and Zerelda Cole James, he knew his father for only a short time before Robert James went west to minister to the gold miners in California. He had two full siblings, Alexander Franklin “Frank” and younger sister, Susan Lavenia, and four half siblings after his mother married twice after the death of Robert James.
As the years went by living in the state of Missouri was increasingly difficult since it was a border state as the United States increased in hostility and polarized into the North and South. Since the population was nearly 75% Southern born, animosity grew increasingly and lead to militia groups on both sides attacking, making Missouri a dangerous place to grow up in. This style of fighting, which has been classified as guerrilla warfare, gripped most of Missouri throughout the 1850s and even through most of the Civil War. Jesse’s older brother Frank joined a group known as the Drew Lobbs Army and then later was identified as a member of a different guerrilla warfare group that led Union militia soldiers to search and raid the James-Samuel farm, even torturing Reuben Samuel and, according to rumor, Jesse as well.
In 1864, Jesse joined his first outlaw squad under the leadership of Fletch Taylor, but soon after Jesse and Frank James joined a group under the command of Bloody Bill Anderson. During that summer it is reported by the local marshal that Jesse and Frank James were part of the Centralia Massacre where 22 unarmed Union soldiers were killed. After some time the brothers separated and had their own adventures, Jesse was even mortally wounded twice during the absence of his brother.
Over the next several years Jesse James became more prominent. In 1866 he and Frank met up with Cole Younger and began to plan several bank robberies as they also recruited to their gang. This is where the key from our collection comes into the scene. While being reported as the first bank ever robbed by Frank and Jesse James, there are several reports that state that they had robbed a couple of banks before reaching the Old Southern Bank of Russellville, KY including the Clay County Savings Bank in Liberty, Missouri and the Alexander Mitchell and Co. Bank in Lexington, Missouri. Yet this is one of the first banks that were ever robbed by the brothers and their gang, which gives significance to this place and to the key that is from it. Now our information that was given to us by the donator of the key to this bank in Russellville, KY says that there was $17,000 stolen, yet according to my research I have found that they got away with as much as $14,000. Either way this was a good haul for them and continued to help propel them towards infamy.
Jesse and Frank James soon became famous with their crimes and evasion of the law. Rewards were posted for them at $5000 dollars a piece by different companies in the state of Missouri but not any by the government since there was a bar on the governor from seeking a suitable reward for their capture. By this time many of the original members of the James-Younger Gang were dead and so recruiting was required to keep up the nomadic and reckless lifestyle that Jesse James had become accustom to by the late 1870s. These recruits however were not battle hardened as were the original members and it made it difficult for Jesse to trust them by 1882, he trusted only two but should have trusted none. On April 3, 1882 while getting ready to go out for another robbery, Charley and Robert Ford prepared the horses. In a moment of weakness and trust, Jesse James turned his back to adjust a picture on the wall and was shot in the back of the head by Robert Ford.
Thus ended the life of Jesse James, but it did not end the legend. Jesse James was already famous during his lifetime, his death sky-rocketed him to the spotlight of notorious outlaws and rightfully so in my opinion. The story of his life has been recounted in many aspects ranging from reenactments and TV shows to literature, comics and even plenty of movies. During one traveling adventure out west, Oscar Wilde wrote this after visiting Jesse James’ hometown in Missouri, “Americans are certainly great hero-worshippers, and always take heroes from the criminal class.” This seems to definitely be true in the case of Jesse James. While being a person with little morality, he is still a fascinating individual to research.
I would like to conclude the post today with a reminder that this Wednesday at 7pm, we will once again be having Summer Enchanted Evening with guest speaker, Pat Washburn, whose topic is called “The Other Mills Brother.” Also looking ahead a little further, I will be speaking on July 9th focusing on 10 of the most famous keys and their history, so I would love for people to come out for that event.
Until next time,
Key Room Curator