Outlaw Frank James Was Nothing Like His Infamous Brother Jesse

Published May 14, 2018
Updated May 22, 2018

While Jesses James preferred the spotlight, his brother Frank James preferred a good book and the company of his family. Still, his gun was always at the ready.

Frank James Portrait

Wikimedia CommonsAn older Frank James at 55-years-old.

Frank James was the older brother to the now-legendary American outlaw Jesse. Although on the surface they seemed very similar, in truth the siblings were quite different.

Jesse was showy, daring to the point of recklessness, and had a thirst for fame that would eventually be his downfall. Frank was shy, preferred to spend his time reading, and married a schoolteacher. What both brothers did have in common was a fierce love of their Southern home and a deep resentment of the “Northern aggressors.”

The Start Of The James Gang

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Wikimedia CommonsJesse James and his older brother Frank (right).

Seemingly in contrast with his bookish nature, Frank joined up with William Quantrill‘s famously bloody Confederate guerrillas during the American Civil War. Jesse eagerly followed his older brother into battle and together they terrorized the countryside, attacking both Union soldiers and civilians as part of the guerrilla gang.

Far from healing the nation’s wounds, the Civil War left deep scars of regional divisions throughout the United States. Some in the former Confederacy harbored feelings of resentment towards the North; to the agricultural South, the post-war boom of industry and finance represented the triumph of the Union victors. Although their side had lost, Jesse and Frank were not ready to surrender their arms, and the cash-carrying trains and banks presented tempting targets.

On Feb. 13th, 1866, a group of unidentified outlaws carried out the first daytime bank robbery in the United States. The robbery was notable because rather than slink in anonymously under the cover of darkness, the thieves had boldly walked in, beat up the cashier, and made off with nearly $60,000 worth of cash, gold, and bonds. Although it has never been proved, it’s believed this 1866 robbery was the first committed by the James brothers and their gang.

It certainly fits the pattern: Jesse’s flair for showmanship combined with the gang’s choice of targets (the Clay County Savings Association that was robbed in 1866 was run by former Republican militiamen) would characterize the gang’s exploits during their decade-long reign.

James Gang Reward Poster

1881 Reward poster for the James Brothers

Newspapers quickly realized the popularity of stories about the outlaw brothers and eagerly published as many stories as possible about the James brothers’ exploits, presenting them as heroes of the repressed Southern states. James-mania reached such a fever-pitch in the South that the state legislature of Missouri actually came close to granting amnesty to their entire James–Younger Gang, despite their string of violent escapades.

Jesse thrived in the spotlight and even began dropping his own press releases at the crime scenes. Frank, however, eventually tired of a life on the run. After a botched robbery, he recalled the days he had spent with his family on a farm as “the happiest I have spent since my boyhood.”

The Public Turns On The Jesse And Frank James

Jesse James In His Coffin

Getty ImagesAmerican outlaw Frank James (second from left) and others pose over the dead body of his brother Jesse James at Sidenfaden Funeral Parlor in St. Joseph, Mo. April 4, 1882.

Public sympathy for the James Brothers did have its limits.

The golden boys of the South lost their Robin Hood-like image as protectors of the poor after an 1881 train robbery. Conductor William Westfall was shot in the back as he was collecting tickets while passenger Frank McMillen was shot straight through the forehead as he peered through a car window. There was no positive spin the formerly-fawning press could put on these murders.

After popular support for the brothers eroded, Missouri put out a $5,000 reward for each of them. Jesse’s band of merry men clearly valued cash over loyalty and the outlaw was brutally shot down by Robert Ford, a member of his own gang. Showing that his hold on the popular imagination had not quite broken, one newspaper wistfully reported the story with the headline “GOODBYE JESSE.”

Although his brother’s death had sealed Jesse’s status as an American legend, Frank James decided he preferred to live on in the real world rather than just American lore. Five months after his brother was murdered, he turned himself in to the governor of Missouri, stating, “I have been hunted for twenty-one years, have literally lived in the saddle, have never known a day of perfect peace. It was one long, anxious, inexorable, eternal vigil.”

Luckily for him, the allure of the James brothers lingered long enough to ensure that three separate juries failed to convict Frank of any crime.

Frank went on to live a relatively normal life for the next three decades.

He coasted off of his former celebrity status by touring the country as part a traveling theater company. Far from lapsing back into his former outlaw ways, the only connection he had with his past life as a criminal was when he and his old fellow gang-member Cole Younger teamed up to produce the “James-Younger Wild West Show. ”

In contrast to his brother’s bloody demise, Frank James passed away peacefully on his family’s Missouri farm at the ripe old age of 72.


Next, read about the Robert Ford, the man who killed Jesse James. Then learn about Ned Kelly, Australia’s armored outlaw turned folk hero.

Gina Dimuro
Gina Dimuro is a New York-based writer and translator.
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