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By Paul Thompson
Broadcast: February 13, 2005
People in America, a program in Special English by the Voice of America.
Two of the most famous outlaws of the old American west were brothers. I'm Tony Riggs. Today, Maurice Joyce and I tell about Frank and Jesse James. We begin their story on a cold day in February, eighteensixty-six.
Liberty, Missouri. Two o'clock in the afternoon.
Twelve men on horses ride slowly into town. Their hats are low on their faces. They stop in front of the Clay County Savings Bank. Two of the men get off their horses and enter the bank. The bank manager asks if he can help them. The two men pull out guns from under their heavy coats. They demand money.
In less than two minutes, they return to the street. Now the gang is in a great hurry. All twelve men begin shooting.
Several people are wounded. A young college student is killed.
What happened on that day was the first bank robbery, during business hours, in peacetime, in the United States.
History books say the two men who went into the bank were Frank James and his younger brother Jesse. But this was never proved. Frank and Jesse James told lawmen they were home that day. Several of their friends confirmed the story.
True or not, during the next sixteen years, the James brothers did become two of the most famous outlaws in America.
History experts say they robbed at least twelve banks, perhaps many more. They stopped seven trains, taking money from passengers and the United States Postal Service. They robbed as many as seven stagecoaches, the horse-pulled vehicles used back then as public transportation.
They traveled from their home in Clay County, Missouri, to Minnesota in the North and to Texas in the West. Hundreds of lawmen hunted them. But the James Brothers were never caught. Much later, their story was told in songs.
Who were Frank and Jesse James? Why were they so famous?
Frank and Jesse were the sons of Robert James, a religious minister who owned a farm in Clay County,Missouri. People who knew the family said the James boys were polite and friendly. At least until the time of America's Civil War.
Many people in Missouri believed in the cause of the southern, or Confederate, states during the Civil War. However, Missouri was on the border between the North and the South. Almost as many people there supported the Union as the Confederacy. Terrible fighting took place in Missouri and in other border states.
Guerrilla groups from both sides were responsible for the fighting.
History experts say much of the violence in the American West was a result of the situation after the Civil War. Many former Confederate soldiers returned home, but did not put down their guns. They continued to fight what they saw as symbols of northern oppression. These included banks and railroads.
Many local people agreed with the former soldiers and supported them.
A lack of government control in the West also led to increased violence after the war. Records show that violent crime increased at that time by as much as fifty percent.
Frank and Jesse James are perhaps the most famous examples of the soldier-turned-outlaw.
During the Civil War, the James family suffered attacks by Union guerrillas. As a way of fighting back, Frank and Jesse became Confederate guerrillas. They rode with two of the most violent guerrilla groups. After the war, they continued their violent ways.
The James brothers were extremely successful. Their gang rode for sixteen years. Hundreds of government lawmen tried to catch them. Agents of the private Pinkerton National Detective Agency tried, too. But no one did. Most lawmen did not even know what the two brothers looked like.
Jesse James enjoyed being famous. He often wrote letters to newspapers denying that he was guilty of any crime.
Once, he ate dinner with a well-known Pinkerton detective who was searching for him. The detective got a big surprise later when he opened a letter from Jesse James. Jesse said how much he enjoyed their dinner together. He also wished him 'good luck'!
Stories like this were printed in newspapers all over the country. They helped Make the James brothers famous. People liked the stories. Those who had been robbed did not. Soon, large amounts of money were offered for the capture of Frank and Jesse James. The state of Missouri offered as much as ten housand dollars or the brothers. . . dead or alive.
It was easy for the James brothers to hide in their home area. Yet most often they hid in large cities. Many years later, Frank James told reporters that it was easy to hide in a city, because everyone there looked like everybody else.
When one place became too dangerous, the James brothers moved to another. That was one reason they decided to go to Minnesota. There they planned to rob the bank in the town of Northfield.
Frank and Jesse rode to Northfield with six friends. Three of the friends were brothers: Cole, Jim and Bob Younger. Like the James brothers, the Youngers were former Confederate guerrillas, now outlaws.
From the beginning, their attempted robbery of the bank in Northfield was a failure. First, when Jesse demanded money from bank workers, they said the safe could not be opened.
Next, the gang decided to get out of town fast. But the people of Northfield knew something was wrong. Many had gone to their homes or offices for their guns. Then the shooting began.
Two members of the gang were killed in town. Another was killed later. And Cole, Jim and Bob Younger were captured. Only two men escaped -- Frank and Jesse James. Frank was wounded, but he stayed on his horse. Lawmen chased him and his brother for more than a week before they lost their trail.
In the years that followed, the James brothers tried again to form another gang. They were never very successful.
In eighteen eighty-two, Jesse James was living in Saint Joseph, Missouri, with his wife and children. People knew him as Mister Howard. One day, another outlaw, Bob Ford, shot him in the back of the head. He killed Jesse James for the money that had been offered for his capture. Bob Ford never collected the money. He was tried for murder, instead.
Several months later, Frank James surrendered to the governor of Missouri. He was charged with several crimes and tried two times. Both juries refused to find him guilty.
Cole, Jim and Bob Younger spent many years in prison for their part in the Northfield, Minnesota, raid. After Cole was released from prison, he and Frank James earned money by speaking to groups. They told about their days as outlaws. . . and the evils of crime.
Frank James lived to be seventy-two years old. He died in the same room in which he was born, on the James family farm in Clay County, Missouri. Today, that farmhouse is a museum that tells the story of the two most famous outlaws of the American West.
This Special English program was written and produced by Paul Thompson. Your narrators were Maurice Joyce and Tony Riggs. Listen again next week to another People in America program on the Voice of America.