Did Jesse James – that most infamous of American outlaws – once live in Rutherford County?
Jesse James as a young Confederate partisan.
The life and death of James, an ex-Confederate partisan, is the focus of a new motion picture starring Brad Pitt. The movie pitches Jesse as one of America’s first celebrities and has rekindled interest in the Missouri native.
It is well documented that James, along with his brother Frank and their families, did live in Tennessee following the Sept. 6, 1876 Northfield, Minn. raid. But did the outlaw ever live in the Murfreesboro area?
An old newspaper article contends he did, at least temporarily. The story, published March 28, 1941 in the now-defunct Rutherford Courier, claims Jesse and his brother Frank spent part of a summer “hiding out” around the Kittrell area.
Despite this evidence, it is impossible to accurately prove or disprove the possibility the dastardly duo did hide out in this county.
The narrow line between fact and fiction is hair-thin when dealing with the exploits of Jesse James and the infamous James-Younger Gang.
Poet/historian Carl Sandburg wrote, “Jesse James is the only American bandit who is classical, who is to this country what Robin Hood or Dick Turbin is to England whose exploits are so close to the mythical and apocryphal.”
Dozens of books have been written about James; however, only a handful of them take an objective, academic look at the outlaw and his deeds. Many of the books are highly fictionalized and contain little if any information that can even roughly be approximated as the truth. To a writer trying to compile accurate information on Jesse, these books are worthless. To the writer interested in folklore they are a gold mine of fables and tales.
Perhaps the only undisputed facts about Jesse James are that he lived and he died. However, even the stories of his death differ greatly with some contending he died only recently (in the 1950s.)
But some Jesse James stories have been documented to the point they can be considered truthful.
Among these is the fact both Jesse and Frank James lived in Tennessee for a period of at least two years following the ill-fated Northfield, Minn. raid. This does tend to offer a bit of support for the 1941 Courier story. Written by the late Esten Macon, the story appeared on page one of the newspaper. The author was the son of Uncle Dave Macon, a well-known spinner of tall tales.
“The famous outlaws, Frank and Jesse James, otherwise known as the bad men from Missouri, spent many a day as the guests in the humble cabin of the late Uncle Fate Jennings, the old horse swapper, and his wife in the Sugar Camp Hollow community a few miles north of Kittrell, during the years 1870-1880 when the county sheriffs were searching the country for the outlaws,” Macon wrote.
“The aged Negro couple, now dead, liked to sit around their home and tell their younger friends about the two men who came almost daily for a spell to their little cabin and asked for food.
“‘It was about 9 o’clock one morning,’ said the old horse swapper, ‘when two heavy built men rode up to my front gate and hitched their horses. I noticed that they were careful not to make any racket. The two fellows came on up to the front door and knocked. I went to the door and the two asked me if I couldn’t give them a bite to eat.’
“At first, I told them I couldn’t feed strangers, but when they told that they were the James boys, Frank and Jessie, I changed my mind at once. I hollered back into the house and told Tina, my wife, to heat some water and I dashed out in the yard and picked up two of the best fryers that I could find.’
Macon wrote that the elderly black couple learned much about the outlaws’ personalities and daily routine.
“The James boys spent the nights during this hide-out in a cabin somewhere between Halls Hill and Milton. This cabin must not have been so far away from the Sugar Camp Hollow, since the outlaws paid almost a daily visit to the old Negro’s home for food.
“Frank James was a heavy-built man with broad shoulders, a high forehead and heavy set of black hair.
He was peaceful in his dealings and liked to site around and chat with the old Negroes in the quietness of their home. Frank was an excellent singer of the old-time tunes.
“Jesse James was the daring one of the two brothers. He was a slender young man with keen eyes, black hair and he always kept his eyes and ears open for any emergency. He too, appeared to be calm and easy to get along in the Sugar Camp Hollow community. He liked to sing the old-time tunes according to the Missouri versions.
“Uncle Fate Jennings and his wife pictured the James boys as tender-hearted in the manner similar to Robin Hood and his band of outlaws in England. Jesse and Frank were especially kind to widows and orphans. Frank and Jesse told the old Negro couple about the commonly-reported event of the James boys coming to the rescue of a widow woman in Tennessee.”
In his article, Macon said Jennings told that the James brothers gave the widow enough money to stop foreclosure on her little farm. They then laid await for the sheriff, overpowered him and took their money back.
“Strangely enough, Jesse James Jr., in his book, ‘Jesse James, My Father,’ related the same incident,” Macon wrote.
“Uncle Fate said he was sure that the James boys spent the greater part of one summer in Middle Tennessee and that the boys liked to sing religious hymns for the old Negro and his wife in payment for the meals they took at their home. Jesse would sing soprano and Frank ‘would carry the bass,’” Macon concluded.
Despite their reputedly mild manners, the brothers were both well-documented killers. Both learned their bloody trade from a master, William Clarke Quantrill. A rank opportunist, Quantrill used the Civil War as an excuse to form a band of ruffians, who under the guise of Confederate soldiers, terrorized the Missouri-Kansas border area.
Quantrill and his raiders were ruled outlaws by the federal government. U.S. Gen. James Totten declared they “will be shot down by the military upon the spot where they are found perpetrating their foul acts.”
Instead of causing Quantrill's raiders to dissolve, Totten’s order enraged much of the populace, causing Quantrill’s force to increase in numbers. The partisans “raised the black flag” declaring they would given Union forces death without quarter.
His border army became a school for criminals. Frank James and his 16-year-old brother, Jesse, joined as well as Thomas (Cole) Younger and his brothers, Bob, Jim and John. In 1863, these men were to take part in an incident which has been described as “the most fiendish massacre of the Civil War,” the Lawrence, Kan., raid.
On Aug. 21, 1863, Quantrill and 450 raiders attached Lawrence, a town of 3,000 people. In a two-hour period, the raiders slaughtered 150-200 defenseless boys and men in an orgy of drunken killing.
In 1865, Quantrill was killed but his band continued its murderous ways even after the end of the Civil War. Because they were guerrillas, the men did not receive post-war amnesty like other Confederate soldiers, and Union forces continued to hunt them down. In one incident, James and five other raiders attempted to surrender, only to be fired upon by federal troops. Despite being seriously wounded, Jesse managed to escape.
After dodging troops for months, Jesse, despite his youth, became leader of a small group of ex-guerrillas, which soon became the nucleus of the James-Younger Gang.
On Feb. 16, 1866, the gang pulled its first bank robbery in Liberty, Mo., starting a 16-year career of lawbreaking.
It didn’t take long for the legends to start accumulating.
While it is virtually impossible to determine exactly what the gang did during those 16 years, it is possible to determine the James brothers did spend time in Tennessee. Jesse’s wife confirmed it during a number of newspaper interviews following his death.
“Last winter Jesse told me that he wanted to settle down on a farm. We couldn’t ever keep in one place, though; the officers were always after us. We lived in Nashville two years under the name of Howard and then were driven away,” Mrs. James said.
Dates provided by the countless James historians differ, but it is possible the brothers spent five or more years living in Tennessee with, and without, their families. Most of this time was spent in Davidson County and possibly in Humphreys County where Jesse’s wife, Zee, reportedly have birth to twin sons, who died shortly after birth.
While in Tennessee, the outlaws reportedly helped the widow mentioned in the old Rutherford Courier article. Some historians have discounted this story as pure bunk. In fact, other outlaws, including Butch Cassidy, claimed the tale as their own.
In 1882, Zee James was interviewed by a Kansas City journalist and revealed some about the outlaws’ years in Tennessee. The news caught Nashville citizens off-guard, but fortunately, reporters managed to record a bit of the reaction for posterity.
The April 18, 1882 edition of the Nashville Banner said this about Jesse James:
“There is no doubt, whatsoever, but that Nashville has been, for the past few years, the home and headquarters of the greatest robber of whom any account has been given in the entire history of crime.
“In the years of 1875 and 1876 he lived with his wife and one child, on Boscobel Street, in East Nashville. During the time of living there, James assumed the name of ‘J.D. Howard,’ which he afterwards bore while here.”
“Mr. Howard” told his neighbors and acquaintances he was a wheat speculator. This “trade” explained his frequent absences from home.
The Banner reporter said that John Ventress, a neighbor’s son, would stay at the Howard’s home while he was away. When the wheat dealer returned home, he would pay young Ventress handsomely for his kindnesses. Zee James also became close friends with Mrs. Ventress.
“On one occasion, Mrs. James who was well thought of by her neighbors, being a handsome blonde and an intelligent, kind-hearted woman, exhibited to Mrs. Ventress about $1,500 worth of diamonds, stating to her that she had received them from an uncle in Illinois who ‘had bought them for a mere song at an auction sale.’”
Ventress also reported “Mrs. James would keep a brace of very fine pistols in the house all the time, and would frequently say that if anyone should come to molest her or any of the family, she would be sure to shoot them.”
The Howard family moved from Boscobel Street after neighbors began to gossip the “wheat speculator” was actually a gambler. The family then moved to Hyde’s Ferry Road, then to Mrs. Kent’s Boarding House on South Summer Street. They then moved back to east Nashville, taking a home on the 800 block of Woodland Street. While on Woodland, Dr. W.C. Cook vaccinated the James children. Yet another move took them to Russell Street.
Both men, using their aliases, did show up in the 1880 Davidson County census. Jesse was listed as George D. Howard and Frank was Ben J. Woodson. They told the census taker they were brothers in law.
“The two were great lovers of horses, and at one time, Howard owned the well-known horse, Jim Malone,” the Banner reported in its April 19, 1882 edition. At all times, he kept two horses, which was considered unusual by some neighbors.
During the winter of 1880, James was a regular at a poker game held in the Colonnade building on the corner of Cherry and Deaderick Streets in Nashville.
The Banner article said a “correct wood cut” depicting Jesse had been shown around Nashville to several persons who knew “Mr. Howard.” Without failure, all of these parties identified the man in the “wood cut” as Howard.
“One peculiar part of his history is that he never at any time committed any depredations in the immediate locality, or that portion of the state in which he kept his family. This, of course, enabled him to elude the officers of the law,” the article continued.
“At home among his neighbors, he was a quiet, say-nothing sort of fellow and a man not calculated to create any very great suspicion, only in the matter of his leaving and returning home in such a mysterious manner.”
James’ caution had increased following the Sept. 7, 1876 raid on Northfield, Minn. A 100-man posse chased the gang members, but Jesse and Frank managed to escape and work their way to Tennessee where they remained inactive for almost three years before returning to their life of crime.
Eventually, the brothers returned to there home state where Jesse, still using the name “Mr. Howard,” was shot to death in April 1882 by cohort Bob Ford in the parlor of his St. Joseph, Mo. home.
Several months after Jesse’s “assassination,” Frank James surrendered to Missouri Gov. Thomas T. Crittenden, who was the cousin of Union Gen. T. Leonidas Crittenden, who fought at the Battle of Stones River.
In later years, the surviving James brother tried to capitalize on his career as an outlaw by touring the nation. Among his stops was Murfreesboro where he told those attending his tent show about living in the area.