A Myth is Born

Jesse James
Jesse James

The 1872 Kansas City Industrial Exposition attracted nearly 60,000 visitors each day, twice the population of Kansas City itself. The four-day exposition presented innovative industrial machines, fine art, floral displays, and horse races in a manner reminiscent of a World’s Fair. At the end of the fourth day on September 26, 1872, three masked men, including Jesse and Frank James, robbed the ticket office and escaped with $978.

The robbery took place in front of an estimated 10,000 fairgoers leaving the exposition at sunset. When the three riders approached the ticket office, one robber grabbed the cash box as the other two held up the crowd at gunpoint. The stunned crowd watched as one of the robbers fired a shot and wounded a young girl in the calf. Despite a large police force patrolling the parade grounds, the James brothers successfully exited the scene.

If the robbery was something of a spectacle, the amount plundered was disappointing. Had they arrived thirty minutes earlier, they could have stolen $12,000 before it was removed for safe keeping by the exposition’s treasurer.

The financial disappointment notwithstanding, the exposition robbery transformed prevailing views of the James gang. The James brothers had pulled off audacious robberies before, but according to historian T. J. Stiles in his book, Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War, the exposition robbery was one of the earliest to draw outright approval among the general population.

Kansas City Times owner John Newman Edwards helped redefine the exposition robbery from a criminal story into one of heroism and a battle against corruption. After the exposition, Edwards wrote dozens of articles portraying the James brothers as modern-day Robin Hoods who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. Edwards then used this chivalrous image to claim that the robbers were Southern heroes who waged an ideological battle against the Union’s occupation of the South that followed the Civil War.

Though Edwards’ link between the robbery and national politics was entirely fictional, the image of the James Gang as champions of the ordinary people stuck. After the exposition robbery, the James Gang shifted their strategy to robbing train safes carrying bankers’ money, while mostly ignoring the ordinary passengers.

The train robberies could be justified as a rebellion against the Northern financiers, enormous railroad corporations, and corrupt Republican politicians of the North and East who many Missourians resented. These Southern sympathizers thus became James Gang sympathizers, which helped the gang to grow in fame and wealth.

Jesse James continued robbing trains until April 3, 1882, when he was shot in the back of the head at his home by a member of the James gang, Robert Ford, who hoped to collect a $10,000 reward. Frank James surrendered five months later to Thomas Crittenden, governor of Missouri, and resigned from the outlaw lifestyle.

Sympathetic Missouri juries acquitted Frank James of his crimes, and he never served time in jail. He held several jobs in the ensuing years that capitalized on his fame in one way or another, and he died peacefully on February 18, 1915.

 

View images of Jesse James and the Kansas City Industrial Exposition from the Missouri Valley Special Collections.

 

Check out the following books and articles about Jesse James.

 

Visit the following museums containing exhibits on Jesse James.

  • The James Farm, 21216 James Farm Road, Kearney, Missouri 64060, (816) 628-6065; birthplace of Jesse James
  • Jesse James Bank Museum, 103 N Water St, Liberty, MO, (816) 781-4458; the first bank robbed by Jesse James
  • Jesse James Home Museum, Pony Express Historical Association, 12th and Penn. Streets, St. Joseph, MO 64503, (816) 232-8206; where Jesse James was shot

 

Carry out your own research on Jesse James or the Industrial Exposition using the following archival resources.

 

References:

Christensen, Lawrence O. Dictionary of Missouri Biography. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999, pp. 428-431.

Dyer, Robert L. Jesse James and the Civil War in Missouri. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1994, p. 61.

Green, George Fuller. A Condensed History of the Kansas City Area: Its Mayors and Some V.I.P.s. Kansas City, MO: The Lowell Press, 1968, p. 169.

Prassel, Frank Richard. The Great American Outlaw: A Legacy of Fact and Fiction. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993, pp. 125-138.

Stiles, T. J. Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War. New York: A. A. Knopf, 2002, pp. 220-236.

Whitney, Carrie Westlake. Kansas City, Missouri: Its History and Its People, 1808-1908, vol. 1. Chicago, IL: S. J. Clarke Publishing, 1908, p. 223.

About the Author

Dr. Jason Roe is a digital history specialist and editor for the Library’s digitization and encyclopedia website project, Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865. He earned a doctorate in American history from the University of Kansas in May 2012 and is the author of the Library’s popular “This Week in Kansas City History” column. For assistance with general local history questions, please contact the Missouri Valley Special Collections.
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