During the American Civil War, Jesse and Frank James fought with honour under Captain Anderson in the Southern army. When it ends in 1865, they struggle to survive – as Jesse says in the film: “We can’t even vote.” Meanwhile, greedy railroad companies and banks have come to Missouri.
One day, a gunman from the Rock Central Railroad offers the two brothers $1 an acre for their farm. ‘Get off our land,’ says Jesse. ‘Wrong answer’, says the gunman, and he shoots Jesse’s step-father dead. Jesse rides after him and kills him in a fair duel (in which Jesse is wounded).
Frank and the wounded Jesse hide in the homestead of a poor widow, until John A Sheets, Vice-President of the Gallatin Bank, comes by to collect her mortgage. The bank, says Sheets, is owned by the Rock Central Railroad. He also boasts that he himself ordered the death of Captain Anderson. Frank happens to have saved $350, and he pays off the widow’s mortgage, but then – in a moment of cheeky revenge – the brothers decide to get their money back! They re-form their old army unit – with Cole Younger, his brother Bob Younger (who is mute), Clell Miller and Arch Clements (a timid man with a stutter) – and they rob the bank. During the raid, Jesse meets Sheets again, and shoots him dead.
Forced now to live as outlaws, the gang robs banks and stagecoaches. In 1873 they commit the first-ever robbery of a moving train. But – realising that their best weapon is the love of ordinary people – they never rob a working man. A Chicago newspaperman named Zack Murphy makes them local heroes.
Frank and Jesse, however, are relentlessly chased by Allan Pinkerton, an evil man who will do anything for his rich, cigar-smoking Rock Railroad boss. In 1873 his men shoot the Jameses’ mother in the back, and next year they kill the Youngers’ 15-year-old brother John. In 1874 Pinkerton’s nephew even tries to murder Jesse – although Jesse is saved by his pretty wife, Zee.
Finally, Pinkerton tortures Charlie Ford – a member of the James gang – until he agrees to betray Jesse and Frank. When, in 1876, the gang go to rob their next bank (in Northfield, Minnesota), Pinkerton and his agents are waiting. Arch Clements and Clell Miller are killed. Jesse tries to use the bank clerk as a hostage, but the Pinkerton men cynically shoot him dead. The gang kill a dozen Pinkerton men, and escape through a hail of bullets – although Bob Younger is so badly wounded that Cole Younger has to shoot him … he was holding them up as they fled.
After Northfield, Frank and Jesse both go straight, but Pinkerton is still after them. In 1882, because Pinkerton has threatened him with the noose, Charlie Ford and his brother Bob track Jesse down and try to kill him. Jesse foils their plot but then hears his son – who is being put to bed – complaining to his mother: ‘Will we have to move again. I don’t wanna move no more.’ Jesse realises that only his death will save his family.
Leaving his gun on the table in front of his would-be killers, he turns his back on them to straighten a sampler which reads: ‘God bless this house’. Then he prays quietly, and Bob Ford – coward that he is – shoots him in the back. Frank turns himself in, but three juries refuse to convict him, and he dies a free man at the age of 72.
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(Note that many events in Frank and Jesse’s life are disputed, but this is the best I can ascertain.)
||Frank James fought for
the South as a guerrilla in the American Civil War.
||Jesse James joined ‘Bloody Bill Anderson’ and also fought as a guerrilla for the South. When Anderson was killed (by Union Colonel Samuel Cox), Archie Clements (who did not have a stammer) took over as leader of this gang.
Trying to get information, Union troops tortured the James brothers’ stepfather (he survived, and lived until 1908).
||When the Civil War ended, Clements and his gang carried on as outlaws. Frank surrendered, but when Jesse tried to surrender, he was shot by Union troops; he escaped and went into hiding. Southern ex-soldiers were forbidden to vote.
||Archie Clements was killed. Frank joined Jesse and they lived as outlaws. Jesse’s son tells a story from these early days, how his father once gave a poor widow $500 to pay her mortgage, but then robbed the lender and got his money back.
||Frank and Jesse became famous when they robbed the Gallatin Bank, and Jesse shot the bank clerk, John W. Sheets.
||The gang committed many robberies there is little evidence they spared working people. John Edwards, editor of the Kansas City Times published stories glamourising the James brothers, and made them famous.
||The James gang robbed a train by derailing
it (there is no evidence that a ‘Rock Central Railroad’ ever
||The Adams Railroad Company hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency to hunt down the gang. John Younger (aged 23) was killed in a shoot-out with Pinkerton agents. A number of Pinkerton agents were killed
||The Jameses’ farm was fire-bombed – probably by Pinkerton agents – killing their brother Archie and blowing off their mother’s arm.
||The James gang attacked the First National Bank at Northfield, Minnesota. Jesse killed the Bank Clerk when he refused to open the safe. Local people gathered outside the bank and shot at the gang (it was not a Pinkerton ambush). One of the townspeople was killed by a stray bullet, and two gang members – Clell Miller and Bill Chadwell – were killed. Cole and Bob Younger were captured and sent to prison, where Bob (who was NOT mute) died of TB in 1889.
||Frank tried to go straight, but Jesse formed a new gang.
||Two new members of Jesse’s gang were Bob and Charley Ford. They went to live with Jesse and his family. Bob Ford shot Jesse in the head to get the $5000 reward, when Jesse took off his gun because the weather was hot. He was dusting a picture of his favourite horse, Skyrocket. Jesse’s son was eating breakfast in the kitchen at the time.
Shortly after this, Frank turned himself in, but was found not guilty by a jury.