Jesse James: outlaw, bank robber, husband and father

April 24, 1874

On this day 27-year-old bank robber and bandit, Jesse James, married his 29-year-old first cousin, Zerelda “Zee” Mimms.  History reveals he may have had a domestic side quite unlike his outlaw persona.

Engaged for nine years, their betrothal apparently resulted after Zerelda (below) nursed Jesse back to health  at her father’s  Lexington, Missouri, boarding house after he was wounded by Union soldiers.   It was a needless injury, occurring a month after General Robert E. Lee’s 1865 surrender at Appomattox.

Jesse was already a famous outlaw at the time of the nuptials.   The two  surviving James children, Jesse Jr. (called “Tim”) and Mary Susan, were known by the surname Howard as a result.  Jesse Jr. was born in 1875, his sister Mary in 1879.   Twin boys, Gould and Montgomery, born in 1878,  died in infancy.  All  were listed as having been born in Tennessee.

After the ill-fated Northfield, Minnesota, bank robbery of 1876, Jesse and brother Frank, both took a brief hiatus from crime.  The Younger brothers and the rest of the gang were dead or in prison and by all accounts, Frank was apparently happy as a farmer.  Jesse, not so much.  By 1879, he’d recruited a new bunch of bandits and returned to robbing trains.

Part of the new gang, the Ford brothers, Charley and Robert, were living with Jesse, wife Zee and the two children in a rented house in St. Joseph.  Preparing  to leave for a robbery in Platte City on April 3, 1882, Jesse, in another incongruous dash of domesticity, stepped up on a chair to straighten a picture.  Robert Ford (right) shot James in the back of the head, notified the governor to collect a reward, was arrested for murder and granted a full pardon by said governor, all on the same day.

Zerelda, Jesse Jr., seven at the time and three-year-old Mary, were in the next room when Ford took aim at Jesse’s head and created a national sensation.

Bandits like James weren’t big on putting something away for a rainy day, however.  Jesse, Jr (right) was quickly cast in the role of breadwinner while still very young.  Reason enough to suspect the 23-year-old of holding up a Missouri Pacific train.  Arrested, he was tried and acquitted of all charges for lack of evidence. 

Following his acquittal the outlaw’s son found a more legitimate connection to the court.   He owned and operated a cigar stand in the Jackson County courthouse.  The cigar business was good enough that he graduated from law school in 1907, sold the cigar stand and opened a law practice in Kansas City.

By 1899, finally acknowledging his notorious parent, he authored a book, “Jesse James, My Father.” As a result, in 1920 he was coaxed into investing in several dubious movie projects based on the book.  The films failed and he was forced to sell his house to pay back friends he’d convinced to invest, as well.

Financial pressures took a serious toll on James, resulting in what was termed a “mental collapse” at the time.  Lasting two years, it may have caused permanent emotional scars, according to contemporary sources.

He died in 1951 at the age of 75 in Los Angeles and was buried at Forest Lawn.  His wife of 50 years, Stella McGowen James, survived her husband by 20 years.  

His sister, Mary Susan, (left) apparently escaped  much of the notoriety that plagued her brother.  She married Henry Lafayette Burr, was the mother of three sons and a daughter who died in infancy.  She died at 56 and was buried in Fairview Cemetery in Kearney, Missouri.

As for Zerelda, she lived 18 years past her husband’s murder.  She died in 1900 in Kansas City at the age of 55. After her death, Jesse’s body was reinterred alongside his wife on the James Farm in Clay County, Missouri. 

Perhaps the final irony by descendants of America’s most famous bank robber was provided by his last surviving grandchild.   Ethel Ross James Owens,(left) Jesse Jr.’s youngest daughter, worked for many years in the Federal Reserve Bank of Los Angeles.  She died in 1991, leaving her notorious grandfather’s artifacts to the museum in Kearney, Missouri.   

The Jesse James Birthplace, 21216 James Farm Road, Kearney, Missouri, features tours through the restored farm home displaying the largest collection of artifacts from the outlaw’s past.  Visitors can see the gravesite and walk along the creek where Frank and Jesse spent much of their time as children.  The property is administered by the Department of Clay County Historic Sites. The museum and grounds are open Monday through Friday, 9 to 4 and Sunday, noon to 4.  Admission is $8.50 for adults, $7.50 for seniors, $5 for children 8 to 15 and children under 8, free.  For more information go to, fax: (816) 736-8501 or call (816) 736-8500.  

The Jesse James Bank Museum, 103 N. Water, Liberty, 15 minutes south was the site of the first daylight robbery.  The bank museum with its 1866 period furnishings is open March through December, Monday through Saturday, 10 to 4.  Admission is $6.50 for adults, $6 for seniors, $4 for children 8 to 15 and children under 8, free.  For information call (816) 736-8510 or e-mail  

© Text Only – 2018 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.