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Jesse James and the Widder Woman

by Tom Baker about a year ago in fact or fiction

A Folktale from the Wild West

Gentleman Bandit: The immortal Jesse James.

In all the annals of the Old West, there are few names accorded as much honor and respect as that of Jesse James. The bold, brash young outlaw, an exemplar of derring-do, had an unquenchable thirst for revenge against the system that he felt had wronged him; it lead him to become one of the most notorious outlaws in all of American history, the terror of the craggy, dry-bone, dust-choked and tumbleweed-riddled badlands, up until the point dastardly Bob Ford shot and killed him, while his back was turned and his defenses down, no less. Jesse had been innocently straightening a picture when Ford, a member of his own gang, and his cowardly brother struck, quickly fleeing the residence, running past Zerelda, Jesse's wife, as she came in the door.

Jessie and brother Frank had both cut their bloody teeth riding with Quantrill's Raiders during the war, becoming the nightmare terror of Yankee Jayhawkers and Union loyalists. Later, under the command of "Bloody" Bill Anderson, they perpetrated the massacre at Centralia. The Centralia Massacre is generally conceded to be one of the worst wartime atrocities of the Civil War.

It begin with a raid on a train carrying twenty-two Union troops. These men being quickly dispatched, their uniforms were stolen and used as disguises for the rest of the raid. "Bloody Bill" and his four hundred guerillas descended like a terror from the Bible upon Centralia, which they knew was harboring many Jayhawkers (guerillas whose sympathies were pro-Union) and Union troops. When one hundred and twenty-five Billy Yanks began to pursue Anderson and his guerrilas, they were quickly surrounded and slaughtered--having been essentially lead into a trap. The motive for the massacre, it is said, was the imprisonment of some of Anderson's relatives by Centralia Unionists, and the death, presumably killing, of some of his women kin.

Cutting quite a romantic figure in this photograph, William T. "Bloody" Bill Anderson

Within a month, Union soldiers would hunt down and dispatch Anderson himself as revenge. Shortly later, Quantrill himself, the original leader of the gang, was also killed. This was June 6, 1865.

Jesse, as it has been stated, was not killed until many years later; and, when it happened, it was a cowardly act, perpetrated by a yellow-bellied, horn swaggling, scalawag of a no-good poltroon, name of Bob Ford. It were a foul deed, one so infamous that it became celebrated in bitter verse, in a popular folk ballad that has, itself, crossed over into being an American classic. Here's a bit of it:

Jesse James was a lad that killed many a man,

He robbed the Glendale train,

He stole from the rich and he gave to the poor,

He'd a hand and a heart and a brain.

Well it was Robert Ford, that dirty little coward,

I wonder how he feels,

For he ate of Jesse's bread and he slept in Jesse's bed,

And he laid poor Jesse in his grave.


Well Jesse had a wife to mourn for his life,

Three children, [now] they were brave,

Well that dirty little coward that shot Mr. [Mister] Howard,

He laid poor Jesse [Has laid Jesse James] in his grave.

Jesse was a man, a friend to the poor,

He'd never rob a mother or a child,

There never was a man with the law in his hand,

That could take Jesse James alive.

There are various versions of the song, but it has been recorded by artists ranging from Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger to Johnny Cash and "The Boss" himself, Bruce Springsteen.

Jesse James, seated beside baby faced killer Bob Ford, in an ironic final photo.

As the song states, "Jesse was a man, a friend to the poor"; and, indeed, that seems to have been true. The following tale illustrates just that point.

Once, Jesse James and his gang stopped, after a long, weary ride, at the home of a poor widow woman. She had hardly anything to her name, but she raced around and prepared what food for them as she had, and this touched the softhearted, goodnatured Jesse to his core.

Later, when the men were seated in the parlor smoking, they heard the sound of weeping coming from the kitchen. It was the widow, whom Jesse tried to console, and to whom he inquired whatever might be the matter.

"Oh," she intoned, "it's the house. I'm going to lose it soon! I-I can't pay the mortgage, and the man from the bank is coming to foreclose unless I can pay him the full amount."

Well, at hearing this, Jesse was so heartbroken, he immediately reached for his money,  counting out the widow an enormous sum.

"Oh! I can't take this! I could never possibly pay it back!"

Jesse just smiled and said, "M'am, now don't you worry a hair on your head about paying that money back. Just give it to the man when he gets here, and we'll take care of the rest."

Jesse and his gang rode off later that day. Situating themselves in a remote area not far from the road, the gang waited. Soon, they saw a tall, bespectacled scalawag in a top hat come driving a buggy down the road, whistling to himself. Immediately, they knew this to be the man from the bank.

They waited until he pulled up to the poor widow's house. He went inside, but he did not tarry long, it seemed. An hour later, perhaps, he came back out, a wad of bills in his hand. He was whistling to himself, and happy as a clam counting his cash. Of course, he was actually counting Jesse's cash.

He got in his buggy and started back off down the road. It was just then that Jesse and the gang got the jump on him.

"Put your hands in the air!"

In short, the Jesse James gang got back every penny of that money, plus interest. And, since she could hardly be blamed for the loan officer getting robbed, the poor widow got to keep her house.

(Source: Popular American folklore.)

fact or fiction

Tom Baker

Author of Haunted Indianapolis , Indiana Ghost Folklore, , Midwest Maniacs, Midwest UFOs and Beyond, Scary Urban Legends, 50 Famous Fables and Folk Tales, Notorious Crimes of the Upper Midwest :

Read next: 'Pennyworth:' S01.E05. "Shirley Bassey"

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