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On This Day: Robert Ford Shoots Jesse James

A so-called coward made his most infamous move on April 3, 1882.

Contemporary illustration of Robert Ford shooting Jesse James
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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On this day in 1882, Robert Ford shot Jesse James in the back of the head. Since that day, Ford’s name has been nearly synonymous with cowardice and treachery. Even if you’ve heard of the killing or watched the Pitt-Affleck film, you may have questions about exactly what went down on that morning.

To understand the killing, it’s necessary to go back in time to the 1860s. James was only 13 when the Civil War broke out in 1861, but his life was greatly affected nonetheless. After his older brother, Frank, fell ill while in a local Confederate company, he returned home, pursued by Union soldiers. The Union soldiers hung up James’s stepfather Reuben, although they did not kill him, and supposedly also lashed James, by then 15 years old.

Just as James was being lashed, Ford was being born in Missouri. Although too young to take part in the Civil War, a young Ford soon began to adulate Jesse and Frank James, who were both well-known bushwhackers, or Confederate guerilla soldiers, by the end of the war. As the James brothers transitioned into a career of train robbery and outlaw life, Ford admired them all the more. He made it his life goal to join the James-Younger gang.

Around Ford’s 19th birthday, his dream came true. After meeting James a year earlier, he was in. The gang robbed trains and banks, killed lawmen, and lived as they pleased.

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But by 1882, the gang was facing hard times—many members had fled, assuming that their life of crime was about to catch up to them. Others were in jail after a failed bank robbery; others still had been killed in the course of their crimes.

In his time of need, James mistakenly placed his trust in Robert and his older brother Charles Ford. He moved in with the Fords, not knowing that Ford and fellow gang member Dick Liddil had been thumbed by local sheriff James Timberlake for the murder of Wood Hite, another James gang member. Timberlake told Ford he would be pardoned... should he kill Jesse James himself.

Left: Wanted poster for Jesse James; Right: Death picture of Jesse James
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  • Left: Wanted poster for Jesse James. Right: Image of Jesse James after death, sold around country.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

One April morning, James read the newspaper, only to discover Liddil’s confession for the murder of Hite. Immediately suspicious, he asked the Ford brothers why they hadn’t reported this to him, then turned away to clean a dusty picture. Seizing the moment, Ford shot James in the back of the head.

Robert and Charles Ford surrendered themselves to Governor Thomas Crittenden. Rather than being immediately pardoned, they were sent to trial, where they were indicted, pled guilty, and sentenced to death in just one day. Two hours later, Crittenden issued their pardon.

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The Ford brothers became infamous for betraying their leader. Charles, addicted to morphine and slowly succumbing to tuberculosis, committed suicide two years after James’s death.

Robert made money posing for photographs as the man who killed Jesse James for some time, then moved to Colorado to capitalize on the silver rush. After surviving one assassination attempt in 1889, Robert was murdered by Edward O’Kelley in 1892. Ford was 30 years old. His grave marker bears one line: “The man who shot Jesse James”.

Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons