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April 1, 2024

Double-Crossed: Robert Ford and the Betrayal of Jesse James

As we begin our journey into the life of Jesse James, while it was a short life, he did a fair amount of crime that put his life in danger, but he also created a name that is readily recognized today.1 James was a mustang when it came to the adventures he had. From train heists to robbing people, he was considered to be a Robin Hood of his time.2 Jesse’s involvement in the Civil War, particularly as a Confederate guerrilla fighter, contributed to his notoriety and eventual status as a household name. He was from below the Mason-Dixon line and had strong ties to the South. However impressive his life was, our focus will be on the events leading to the end of Jesse James’s life.

Fresh into adulthood, Robert Ford embarked on a daring adventure on the rugged frontier. It was 1880, and at eighteen, he was drawn into the world of the notorious James-Younger gang.3 Enamored by tales of Jesse’s exploits, Robert, along with his older brother Charles, eagerly sought to be a part of the action. From holding horses during daring raids to providing safe havens for Jesse and his comrades, Robert and Charles threw themselves wholeheartedly into the gang’s endeavors. For Robert, the thrill of the chase and the allure of the outlaw lifestyle were irresistible, and it would also be his downfall. Before delving into Robert Ford’s involvement with the James-Younger Gang, some members of the gang had just completed a heist, with multiple participants of the gang scattering everywhere to find refuge to avoid getting caught by the law. Unfortunately, they never considered the law would find them through the betrayal of one of their own.4 While others made it out untouched, some had to hide out at Robert Ford’s sister’s house, including two individuals, Wood Hite, who was also Jesse’s cousin, and Dick Liddil. There was an argument that started between Hite and Liddil, which resulted in guns being drawn and bullets being fired. However, they didn’t do much damage to each other; both had superficial wounds. Nevertheless, it caused Robert Ford to want revenge on Wood Hite due to the wounds received by Liddil. Robert wanted a reason to kill Hite. Later, Robert found himself aiming his gun directly at Hite, firing a single bullet that pierced through his skull, resulting in immediate death. Robert knew what he had done, and quickly realized that he had created a problem.5 He must hide the body of the deceased cousin of Jesse James. Robert tried to hide the body a mile from the house in a shallow grave. No surprise, he was not successful. Robert Ford was charged with the murder of Wood Hite but was later released, on one condition.6 He would have to bring in the legendary outlaw Jesse James, dead or alive for a $5,000 reward.

Jesse James wanted poster | Courtesy of media.liveauctiongroup.net

On the wonderful but dreadful day of April 3, 1882, in the small town of St. Joesph, Missouri, as the morning sun cast a soft glow on its beautiful landscape across the wonderous plains, Jesse James, the infamous outlaw, went about the daily things anyone would be doing at that time. He was doing household chores and readying the home for visitors. Jesse was in the process of making lifestyle changes, such as becoming more of a family man. He was ready to put the outlaw lifestyle behind him and settle down. Little did he know he would never get the chance; he would be double-crossed in a most cowardly fashion. Just around the corner waiting to strike was Robert Ford and his brother Charlie. Inside the modest home of a beautiful area on Lafayette Street, James stood on a chair, carefully adjusting a picture on the wall.7 His wife Zerelda and their children were nearby, going about their day, not knowing the tragedy that was about to befall their family. While James was just minding his business in the safety of his home, two members of his own gang, Robert and Charlie, made their way into the house just waiting for the perfect moment to strike, inching, creeping towards James with their hearts racing, knowing the vile act they were about to do. Their nerves were rushing throughout their body as if they were aware that what they were about to do was wrong and cowardly, as they approached with anticipation. Robert gripped his revolver with two hands because just one hand was not enough due to Robert’s body shaking with doubt and fear. There might have been an exchange of a nervous glance with his brother Charlie. The entirety of the plan was simple yet overwhelming with excitement and a bit of audacity. As that silly yet perfect moment approached, Robert pulled the trigger on an unaware Jesse James.8 A single bullet broke the sound barrier, traveling through the back of James’s head, splatting it everywhere against the wall, leaving a trickle of smoke floating in the air. Everyone in the immediate area and the community heard the shot. All Robert Ford and his brother could think of at this very moment was the smell and greed of the reward promised by the local law. The lure of the reward money weighed heavily on Robert’s mind, but so too did the fear of James’s legendary quick draw. Suddenly, the room fell silent, as both brothers looked at each other and pondered on the death of Jesse James. They looked and gazed at the body, making sure he was dead, as they feared his fast hands. But after looking over, they could see that James’s tale ended very quickly, as it was a direct shot in the head. That was it, the very moment they had been waiting for. The lifeless body and the reward waiting for him.

Robert Ford famously shooting Jesse James in the back | Courtesy of History.howstuffworks.com

The double crossing of Jesse James sent a wave of thoughts and emotions throughout the town of St. Joseph, and traveled across the United States. Robert and Charlie Ford, once thought to be some of the closest friends of Jesse James, were now branded as traitors and cowards. Following the news of James’s double-crossed killing, crowds of the small townspeople gathered and started to form a posse outside his home, pushing and shoving to see the once-famous outlaw for a glimpse of the now-fallen outlaw. Meanwhile, the law authorities arrived on the scene, launching an investigation into the circumstances surrounding James’s killing. In the days and weeks that followed his death, Robert’s betrayal would be dissected and debated by historians, journalists, and regular people. Most condemned Ford as a cowardly individual who just wanted to save his skin and walk away with a nice reward for that time. Other people just wondered about the motivations and the complexities of loyalty or regular betrayal. For Robert Ford, the aftermath of Jesse James’s killing was filled with disgust and doubt.9 Despite initially receiving a pardon for his role in James’s death along with a reward, Ford would spend the rest of his life–which wasn’t that long, as Robert lived for ten more years–grappling with the consequences of his actions looking into the idea that everyone that believed and adored Jesse James now looked at Robert Ford as a coward. And though he may have thought he had secured his place in history, he would forever be remembered as the man who betrayed the legendary outlaw Jesse James.

Initially, after doing what he did, Robert Ford found himself center stage, his name drowned in debt across newspapers and whispered as a coward across the town saloons throughout the country. While some had agreed to see him as a hero, and a brave man who had rid the world of a notorious outlaw. Others condemned his cowardice and labeled him a traitor, accusing him of betraying his friend whom he had once admired. Despite the mixed reactions, Robert Ford could not escape the gravity of his choices. Everywhere Ford went, he felt the horror of Jesse James’s gaze bearing down on him through everyone in the vicinity, all accusing him of his betrayal. Along came the sleepless nights and the haunting nightmares of the moment when he had pulled the trigger. Desperate to escape his past, Robert Ford sought solace in alcohol and in the company of dubious characters who frequented the saloons and gambling halls of the Wild West. But no amount of whiskey could drown out the guilt that gnawed at his soul or the fear that lingered in the shadows, waiting to consume him.10 As the years passed, Ford’s life descended into a downward spiral of self-destruction. He was forced to move from town to town, with a broken spirit that was haunted by what he did. Jesse James was always over his shoulder, casting a shadow of despair and anguish. Robert was the creator of his own infamy. That being said, the story of Robert Ford after he killed Jesse James was one of tragedy and regret, a cautionary tale of the consequences of betrayal and the heavy burden of guilt. In the end, he paid the ultimate price for his actions.

Jesse James and the gang |Courtesy of Dr M D Magee

Robert Ford’s actual reward for killing Jesse James was less than what he had anticipated. Initially, Robert and his brother Charlie were promised a reward of $5,000 each, which would be an equivalent amount to $300,000 in today’s currency. It was Missouri Governor Thomas T. Crittenden’s offer for the capture or killing of Jesse James. But, after the terrible way Robert killed him, the public turned against the Ford brothers, and there were doubts about the legality of the reward. The Governor, fearing political backlash, arranged for the reward money to be paid discreetly, and the Ford brothers received only a fraction of the promised amount. The Ford brothers both received a small sum of about $500 each, which would only be about $30,000 in today’s currency. In the end, Ford’s own tale met a tragic conclusion. On June 8, 1892, in a saloon in Colorado, Robert Ford met his own demise when he was shot and killed by Edward O’Kelley. There are many views on why he killed Ford, but we like to think it was his character and personality that led to his seeking the possibility of revenge for Jesse James. O’Kelly at least had the decency to look him in the eye when he killed Robert. Thus, the story of Robert Ford, a man driven by ambition and consumed by his own treachery, ended in a final act of retribution. As they say, there is no honor among thieves.11.

  1. T. J. Stiles, Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War, 1st edition (Vintage, 2003), 471-472.
  2. Allison McNeill et al., eds., “James, Jesse,” in Westward Expansion Reference Library, vol. 2, Biographies (UXL: Detroit, MI, 2000,) 145–153.
  3. The James-Younger gang was made up of Jesse James, Frank James, Cole Younger, Jim Younger, Bob Younger, Clell Miller, Arthur McCoy, Charlie Pitts, Bill Chadwell (also known as Bill Stiles), John Jarrett, William “Bloody Bill” Anderson, John “Red” Hamilton, Bill Ryan, Charlie Ford, Robert Ford, and many others.
  4. Daniel Rennie, “The Story of Robert Ford – The ‘Coward’ Who Assassinated Jesse James,” All That’s Interesting (website), March 14, 2018, https://allthatsinteresting.com/robert-ford.
  5. “Robert Ford – Jesse James’ Killer.” Legend of America, n.d. (January 2004).
  6. Daniel Rennie, “The Story of Robert Ford – The ‘Coward’ Who Assassinated Jesse James,” All That’s Interesting (website), March 14, 2018, https://allthatsinteresting.com/robert-ford.
  7. “Jesse James Biography,” Biography.com Editors, (April 3, 2014).
  8. “Jesse James Biography,” Biography.com Editors, (April 3, 2014).
  9. Daniel Rennie, “The Story of Robert Ford – The ‘Coward’ Who Assassinated Jesse James,” All That’s Interesting (website), March 14, 2018, https://allthatsinteresting.com/robert-ford.
  10. Daniel Rennie, “The Story of Robert Ford – The ‘Coward’ Who Assassinated Jesse James,” All That’s Interesting (website), March 14, 2018, https://allthatsinteresting.com/robert-ford.
  11. “Robert Ford – Jesse James’ Killer.” Legend of America, n.d. (January 2004)

Tags from the story

Jesse James

Murder

Robert Ford

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