The ‘Desperadoes’ in the James-Younger Gang
For eight years, Jesse James rode with a group of former Confederate guerrillas called the James-Younger Gang, robbing banks, trains and stagecoaches from their home base in Missouri. From 1868 to 1876 the gang, whose core members were brothers (Frank and Jesse James, and Bob, Cole, Jim and John Younger), had incredible success: every robbery attempt succeeded and the brothers were never captured although one, John, was killed. The more they got away with, the more the public became fascinated with their exploits—and newspapers responded to their readers’ interest.
A correspondent named “Curtis” wrote an article supplying many details of the gang members and their remarkable string of successful robberies. His article was published by the Inter-Ocean and reprinted by the Little Rock Daily Republican (Little Rock, Arkansas) on the front page of its April 9, 1874, issue:
Among the Outlaws
Who and What Are the James and Younger Brothers—Full Details of the 'Brotherhood of Death'
[Special Cor. Chicago Inter-Ocean]
Appleton City, [Mo.] April 1, 1874
One of the outgrowths of border warfare in the late rebellion was a generation of ruffians, whose ambition seems to be to fill graves. This state especially is full of them. Those from the adjoining states have gone further west, unable to endure the restraints of law which followed loyal rule, and unable to accustom themselves to civilized life. Their reputation stands proportionately as they can shoot and ride, and they look with contempt upon one who has not “killed his man.” They defy law and laugh at military authority, and their career will be closed—not in a prison or on a gallows, but they will die as they have lived—in their saddles. Each western state has its type of the desperado…in Missouri they are robbers and cut-throats, men whose religion is revenge; whose business is outlawry. They are worse than any other class. They have no cattle to herd, no minerals to mine, and their living is the booty they find wherever they care to fall.
They will never be arrested, they cannot be brought to justice, and the only way to stop their depredations is to shoot them down like wolves. These men in the different states have their characteristics…in Missouri personal prowess, reckless disregard of one’s own, as well as other men’s lives, is the ideal to study. His superiority to his class in other states is summed up in the fact that his manner of life makes him more hardy, cooler, quicker and more reckless.
“Dead men tell no tales,” and he leaves no victims alive. He values his life no more than he values the lives of other men, hence he prefers to meet danger rather than escape it. He would rather have a dozen bullets in his body than one, and he fills his victims full of lead. He has the fleetest and best trained horses, recognizes no superior either as a horseman or a pistol-shot. He always carries a double-barreled shot-gun loaded with slugs, which he reserves for long-range, but carries half a dozen dragoon revolvers, which hold an ounce ball. One never sees a knife on a Missourian. He never leaves his saddle, and won’t allow an opponent to come within arm’s length of him.
In Missouri there are hundreds of these men, and they are not easily distinguishable in a crowd, for they are always well dressed, gentlemanly and hard to offend. They will laugh off an insult, but “spot” their man for a second meeting. Most of them fought with Quantrill, Anderson and other guerilla chieftains, and range from twenty-five to forty years of age. They all belong to the famous “Brotherhood of Death,” which is still in existence in this part of the country. Its laws require the avenging of a member’s death from every individual fellow. If a member is killed the murder of all who were implicated is required; if a member is arrested, the whole brotherhood flock to the headquarters of the nearest fellow and plot for his release; if a member is wounded, he is nursed, protected and his wrongs revenged. “Cole” Younger and Arthur McCoy, it is said, swore the awful oath over the grave of John Younger, and vowed that “Allen” should answer for it with his life.
Mr. Pinkerton knows the leaders in this brotherhood; he has descriptions of them, and is acquainted, it is said, with the password and other secrets of the fraternity. He knows the men he is fighting; their habits and characteristics; and the people here wondered why he sent a single man to one of their haunts near Kansas City, and only two into the wilderness of Monigaw. These ruffians never go alone; always in pairs, and sometimes in gangs of three or four. You never find their horses unsaddled, or more than a rod away; you never find them unarmed, or the chambers of their revolvers empty. They never offer offense, and always avoid a fight in the presence of spectators, but take their victims unawares, or lead their pursuers into a place of their own choosing. They either leave those whom they capture “cold,” or release them unharmed, always taking whatever shooting material the prisoner may have with him; but they never ask quarter for themselves.
The brotherhood has no officers. Each member enforces his own and the rights of all. It has no constitution, no covenant but an oath, and no by-laws but an outlaw’s honor. Its motive and purpose is all summed up in one word—death.
The principal men in this fraternity of desperadoes are the Youngers, who make their headquarters here; the James brothers, who call Clay county their home; Arthur McCoy, of Ste. Genevieve, this state; and Bob Kirkpatrick, of Vernon county; and eight men more daring and desperate cannot be found between the oceans. They were all in the Confederate Army, most of them as guerillas, some as scouts and spies, and all continue to express their adherence to “the lost cause,” making the barbarism of some federal soldiers during the war an excuse for their later outrages. A sketch of these men and some incidents of their career will be interesting.
I have already alluded to the Youngers, three of whom are now living, with an even more determined purpose, and a mission to revenge their brother’s blood. Those who know “Cole” Younger, the eldest and most intelligent of all, say that he loved John, whom Lull shot, with a devotion which is so often marked in these men that he has often nursed him tenderly when wounded, and wept like a child at one time when it was supposed that he would die. He retired from the leadership of the gang to give his brother’s ambition play, and has shown him in many instances a tenderness that seems remarkable in such a being. Now that John is dead, his blood has turned to fire, and while he nurses his other brother wounded in those Monigaw hollows, he is “nursing his wrath to keep it warm.”
The James brothers are quite as famous in the state as the Youngers. There are two, Jesse and Frank, the sons of a Baptist clergyman, who came as a missionary to Missouri in early days, organizing many churches, and founding what is known as William Jewell college. His widow is now living on a farm, two miles south of Kearney, Clay county, and three leagues from Kansas City. Her blood has turned to bitterness, it is said, and, as my informant puts it, “is a regular she-devil.” The boys, twenty-eight and thirty years old, fine-looking and intelligent…Frank, the eldest, is a silent fellow, and, it is said, never laughs or smiles. His companions call him “the dismal man,” but he is fierce, determined and courageous in his work of blood. In appearance he is tall—about six feet two inches—slim, but not ungraceful, with a large head, square, massive jaws, dark hair and eyes, and full beard. Jesse, who from his disposition is naturally his brother’s leader, is a dashing, restless fellow, fully six feet tall, but more shapely than his brother. His hair is a curly brown, his complexion fair and rosy, his eyes blue, and is said to “giggle like a school-girl.” He wears a handsome mustache and goatee, and is very fastidious about his dress. His hands and feet are his especial pride, and a Kansas City man says he has the handsomest hand in Missouri. Both of them have a price set on their heads. Frank feels keenly that he, of the old Kentucky aristocracy, is outlawed, it chafes him, and awakens the tiger in his heart. Jesse jokes about it—says the older he grows the more valuable his head becomes, and boasts that he will make them raise the price to $50,000. He cares nothing for life, and when death comes, in the words of the old song, he will meet him: “I was reckless in life, but you’ll keep me free; Sit down, old fellow, and drink with me.”
They claim that they were driven into the guerilla service by the cruelty of the federal soldiers, and having been over the state with Quantrill, the people will not let them settle down as peaceable citizens. Both served with Quantrill, Anderson, Taylor and Todd, all famous guerilla captains, and Jesse was second in command under the notorious Bill Anderson. He was seven times wounded during the war, and in 1867 [1868 –ed.] was compelled to go to California to get cured of a wound in the right lung. Wild stories are told of both of them—their bravery, recklessness and cruelty.
Both men were in the Centralia massacre, one of the bloodiest of the war; when Bill Anderson stopped a train-load of wounded federal soldiers, and butchered not only them, but all the women and children—standing them up in line and shooting them down like sheep. The cars were then set on fire, the engine steamed up to explosiveness, the valves opened, and the train sent on like the wind to collide with and destroy another that was due from an opposite direction. It is said that this last deed of deviltry was the suggestion of Jesse James. On the following day he led the charge of Anderson’s guerillas on a detachment of Federals under Maj. Johnson, and murdered the prisoners he took—only twenty out of one hundred and eighty men in Johnson’s command being left to tell of the massacre.
Frank has a similar war record. In a raid into Kansas his squad captured the chaplain of an Iowa regiment. He carried no arms, and told them who he was, but Frank ordered him to be shot. The man wished a few moments to pray.
“Pray, h—l,” responded James, “you should have prayed before the devil got you.” And he put a bullet through the chaplain’s head.
Since the war they have kept up their [bushwhacking], and as they once told the sheriff of Jackson county, “We are not citizens. You cannot arrest us on those papers. We have never surrendered to the authority of the United States.” Thus they excuse many of their deeds; and they have frequently announced to county officials that they recognized no authority but that of the Confederate States. It requires only opportunity to call out from them, as from all their gang, the most desperate and reckless courage.
Once Jesse was lying at home sick, and five men, thinking their game was cornered, went to take him. His mother heard them pounding at the door, and informed him who they were and what they wanted.
“Bar that door,” he said, “till I get down.” Taking a rifle and two revolvers, he left his bed, and went to the door at which the men were rapping impatiently; he listened till he got range, then shot through the panel with his rifle, killing one, and sprang into the crowd with two revolvers, firing from both hands like a volley of musketry. The men scattered like sheep. Jesse dressed himself, sprang onto his horse, and was fifty miles away by daylight.
The robberies in which these men and their comrades have been engaged recently, are the Gallatin, Mo., bank robbery, in which the cashier was killed; the Ste. Genevieve bank robbery; the Iowa and Iron Mountain train robbery; and the stage robbery near Hot Springs. Their last horror is the murder of Detective Whicher, near Liberty, which is a horror of common comment.
I have no positive information as to the present whereabouts of the Jameses. They are hard men to find, and still harder men to follow when you do find them. The brothers are scarcely ever separated, but travel together, Jesse leading in his reckless way, and Frank following silently.
Another desperado of the same type, and a familiar associate of the James and Younger boys, is Arthur McCoy, as daring and powerful as any, and more brutal than all. He was a painter in St. Louis before the war, entered the Confederate service, became a confidential spy and dispatch-bearer, and at the close of the war went into the mines, where it is said he became acquainted with John Younger, with whom he came to Missouri to join the band. McCoy has a wife and several children living near Ste. Genevieve, but he has not been seen in that neighborhood since the robbery of the bank. He is Irish by birth, and more ignorant and illiterate than any of the gang. His is brute force, and his prowess is purely animal courage and tenacity. All the stories that are told of him are full of the pure bloodthirstiness, and if there was fiend incarnate it is Arthur McCoy. He is very tall and gaunt, reaching six feet four inches, but stoops so much that he appears a man of ordinary size; nervous and uneasy whenever at rest, with an eye as cold and gray as that of a tiger; a face massive, especially at the jaws, and very bony, with black beard, generally closely cut. I have good reason to believe he is in the Monigaw country, with the Youngers. John Younger was an especial favorite of McCoy’s. Naturally sullen and indifferent, he seemed to follow John more readily and take more interest in his plans than those of any other of the gang; and he, it seems, with Cole Younger, have taken the responsibility of avenging his death.
…I have descriptions of others in this immediate vicinity, but their lives have not been as notorious, and I will save my notes for their obituaries when the governor’s $10,000 has been expended for their benefit.
Click here for more articles about Jesse James, the James-Younger Gang, and America’s “Wild West.”