Western Trips

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Jesse James And The Blue Cut Train Robbery

frank and jesse james
Jesse, Frank James 1872

The Last Train Robbery

It happened five years to the date of the failed Northfield Minnesota bank robbery which turned out to be the start of the decline of Jesse Woodson James and the James Gang.

This second event was the Blue Cut Train Robbery which occurred near Glendale Missouri on September 7, 1881. The robbery itself was not a big event as far as what was stolen. Reports were that this new James Gang stole something between $1,000 and $3,000 from the train's express car depending on which news report you believe along with personal items and money from it's passengers. Some historic reports claim that the money stolen was quite larger.

Regardless, reports were that Jesse thought there was quite a bit more money on the train than there actually was. No one was shot during the holdup. At the end of the robbery Jesse exclaimed to the express agent that the James gang would ruin the Chicago & Alton Railroad. The Blue Cut train robbery was nothing like the violent crimes in years prior involving Frank and Jesse James.  The gang wasn't the same. They weren't the violent pro-Confederate holdouts of the James-Younger days. The Younger brothers were in jail for the shootings in Northfield Minnesota and the law was after Jesse like never before. Blue Cut proved to be the second turning point in Jesse James criminal career.

The Northfield robbery attempt in September of 1876 went bad from the start and as a result the James gang was decimated. It just so happened that the local town folk in the farming community of Northfield were tipped off to what was occurring at the bank and didn't wish to lose their hard earned money to the gang. The gang members appearance at the bank seemed to stand out in this farming community. In other words they were conspicuous in this type of town. A large firefight ensued and the Younger brothers, major members of the gang, were captured and sentenced to long terms in Minnesota. Jesse and his brother Frank were not only on the run but their future as robbers was quite in doubt.

There was detailed reporting of crimes in the newspaper. The same is true today however the wording of the era was quite different from today. Following is an excerpt from the Sunday Times of Chicago on September 10, 1876, three days after the robbery..

" The robbers did not get into the vault, nor did they find the cashiers drawer, except the nickel drawer, and the handful of nickels taken from it was thrown to the floor. The citizens of Northfield behaved like old veterans, as many of them are. A. R. Manning and Hewey Wheeler and others were conspicuous for their conduct.
This is the most daring attempt at robbery that ever occurred in Minnesota; and we are very much inclined to the opinion that if the remainder of the gang are arrested they will go to meet their comrades in a great deal shorter time than the process of courts will give them".

It Wasn't the Same Old Gang

chicago and alton railroad route map
Chicago & Alton RR Route Map
Returning to the story of the Blue Cut robbery, over the years since the botched Northfield robbery Jesse was able to cobble together another group of followers, many of whom were also ex-confederate soldiers and/or sympathizers.

There were still many available even years after the American Civil War ended although many contend that this new group were simply petty thieves. The area of Missouri and Kansas was one of the more divisive parts of the country during the war. It was an easy area to recruit anti-establishment outlaws.

Being west of the Mississippi River and geographically between the north and the south there were people from all parts of the east who had migrated there. Union supporters and southern sympathizers were everywhere and the bitterness between them was legendary. One result of this bitterness was the raid on Lawrence Kansas in 1863 which resulted in the deaths of over 200 boys and men. The town was completely ransacked during the raid where 180 buildings were set ablaze and was was supposedly revenge for a raid earlier by Union supporters.

In this part of the country old feelings died hard. The person responsible for the attack on Lawrence was none other than William Quantrill, a guerrilla leader with southern sympathies whose gang of marauders were referred to as Quantrill's Raiders. Quantrill's guerrillas were so violent and out of control the Confederacy disavowed any connection to them. Jesse James was a member of Quantrill's band and the end of the Civil War did nothing to alter Jesse's hard nosed pro-southern attitude. Some historians contend that the crimes and mayhem perpetuated by the outlaw Jesse James was his way of continuing his own private war.

william quantrill photo
William Quantrill, guerrilla leader
This new group of anti-social outlaws planned crimes mostly put together by Jesse James himself. The Blue Cut robbery was one of them. Blue Cut refers to a 25 mile section of curving track of the old Alton and Chicago Railroad near Glendale Missouri.

The location was chosen because the trains had to slow down to 20-25 MPH to manage the turn. Masked men blocked the tracks. The engineer could see someone waving a lantern and he also saw that he was masked. At that point he realized these were robbers and had no choice than to brake. When the gang entered the express car they demanded that the safe be opened. The express agents tried to say they didn't have the combination. There was a brief struggle and finally one of the agents opened the safe. During this time other gang members robbed passengers in the cars to the rear.

A Long Career of Crime

Most historians contend that between 1866 and 1882 Jesse James  and his gangs robbed nine banks, eight trains, four stagecoaches, the box office of the World Agricultural Exposition in Kansas City and a government paymaster. By the same token, the newspapers of the day may have attributed a few more crimes to the James Gang than what actually occurred. Some of the press no doubt were guilty of sensationalizing some of the crimes. In fact, in those days the press liked to sensationalize many stories, not just those about Jesse James. This type of reporting can produce a legend. Sometimes the legend and reality can be two different things. There were instances in which Jesse James corresponded with the press pointing out that such and such a robbery had nothing to do with him.

The photo below left is the Clay County Savings Association. It is considered the site of the first daylight bank robbery in U.S. history. While it was attributed to the actions of Jesse James there is some doubt whether he was involved.

clay county bank historic site
Clay County Bank site
An example of how some of the public sentiment in regards to Jesse James, the excerpt below from a letter to the St. Louis Post Dispatch dated June 5, 1874 from a unnamed sender is telling.

"Not many days ago I saw the celebrated Jesse W. James in the city of Galveston, talked with him, was introduced to his wife, and recognized in her an old acquaintance of Jackson County—a lady whom I had known both before and since the war, and one who had been of immense service to the Southern guerrillas when they were operating upon the border in 1862 and 1863.
I had a long talk with Jesse. He was waiting for a vessel bound for Mexico, where it was his intention to go with his wife to Vera Cruz and from there into the interior, and take him a farm. Frank was with him, and they appear to have many friends and acquaintances in Galveston."

Nobody knows for sure if the above statement was actually sent to the paper, but if it was it illustrates how newspaper stories can build celebrity images when perhaps the image shouldn't apply. You could probably compare this to how some papers reported on Bonnie and Clyde and John Dillinger. Papers reported on the personal doings of outlaws similar to how the media today reports on Hollywood celebrities. A few facts and lots of embellishment.

A Bounty On His Head

bonnie and clyde photo
Bonnie and Clyde 1932-34
After the Blue Cut train robbery there was a lot of pressure to capture Jesse James. He was using an assumed name. The Missouri governor put out a $10,000 reward for his capture. The gang was squabbling over dividing the Blue Cut spoils which wasn't nearly a large as what Jesse expected.

The gang was nothing like to earlier James Younger group. Everyone distrusted the other and the Blue Cut train robbery proved to be Jesse James last. The west was changing in the 1880's. The Indian Wars further west were beginning to end and the lawlessness that had to a degree been tolerated since the end of the Civil War in states like Missouri  was also coming to an end. States like Missouri were becoming more organized including their law enforcement efforts and the marauding nature of James escapades were becoming harder to pull off.

 Much of the mayhem generated by the earlier James gang was attributed by many journalists to their anti-Union sentiment and this too was fading away with the years. The James gang was no longer relevant to the civil progress being made in Kansas and Missouri.

patee house in st joseph missouri
Patee House, St Joseph, MO
Jesse James cheated death for decades. One site that remains quite popular to tourists and tourist/historians is the house where Jesse James was assassinated by his former gang partner Robert Ford.
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There have been several Jesse James movies produced.  If you saw the recent movie "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" you saw much of the story of Jesse James death and final days. If you haven't seen the movie I highly recommend that you do. The Jesse James Home Museum is located in St. Joseph Missouri. It was moved a few blocks from it's original location and is at 12th and Mitchell, St. Joseph.

Another point of interest in St. Joseph is the Patee House shown above located at 1202 Penn, St. Joseph's only National Historic Landmark. The Patee House was originally built in 1858 as a luxury hotel. It's museum is filled with artifacts from the frontier era of Missouri as well as items regarding Jesse James history. The hotel was the site of the formal investigation undertaken after James assassination. It was also the headquarters for the Pony Express in 1861. An excellent companion trip with a St. Joseph visit is the Oregon Trail History of Independence Missouri.

Another interesting story you'll enjoy is that of the Tombstone Epitaph.

(Clay County Bank and Patee House photos courtesy of Americasroof at en.wikipedia. Creative Commons 2.5, Additional photos and images from the public domain)