Jesse James was married – but not altogether domesticated

April 24, 1874

On this day 27-year-old bank robber and bandit, Jesse Woodson James, added “bridegroom” to his resume, marrying his 29-year-old first cousin, Zerelda “Zee” Mimms.  Perhaps James was not as domesticated as it would appear, however. 

 He’d become engaged to Zerelda,(right) when she nursed him back to health after he was wounded by Union soldiers in 1865.  But James was not one to rush to the altar, perhaps for good reason.  

Some five years into the couple’s protracted, nine-year betrothal, it appears in 1870 a 14-year-old named  Maggie Goodteacher (Wabasha) (left) gave birth to Jesse’s son, Joseph Jesse “Tazmawaste” Chase, (below) at Santee, Nebraska.  Maggie’s 13-year-old sister, Mdoza is listed as a partner to Frank James and the mother of his daughter, Emma, the same year. She may have also had two more children with Frank, as well. 

Both teenagers may have been part of the resettlement of Native people to Nebraska from Minnesota following the 1865 Dakota War; Maggie born in Minnesota in 1856 and Mdoza in 1857 in South Dakota.  The James brothers’ Nebraska descendents appeared to have led quiet lives as members of the Santee community with little notoriety regarding their infamous ancestors. 

Jesse was already a famous outlaw at the time of his nuptials.   Zerelda’s two surviving children, Jesse Jr. called “Tim,” born in 1875 and Mary Susan, born in 1879, were known by the surname Howard as a result.  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 in 1876, Jesse took a brief hiatus from crime.  The Younger brothers and most of the old gang were dead or in prison and by all accounts, brother Frank was happily retired as a farmer.  Jesse, not so much.  Thee years later he’d recruited a new bunch of bandits and returned to robbing banks.

Rented house in St. Joseph where Jesse James was killed

Part of the new gang, brothers Charley and Robert Ford, were living with Jesse, Zee and the two children in a rented house in St. Joseph.  

In another incongruous dash of domesticity, on April 3, 1882, while preparing to rob the bank in Platte City,  Missouri, Jesse stepped up on a chair to straighten a picture.  The 20-year-old 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 the same day.

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

Not surprising, bandits like James weren’t big on putting something away for a rainy day.  Jesse Jr. was soon cast into the role of breadwinner while still much too young.  In 1898 at age 23, he was suspected of robbing a Missouri Pacific train.  He was arrested, tried and acquitted of all charges. 

Following his acquittal, the outlaw’s son operated a cigar stand  in the Jackson County courthouse where his trial had been held.  The cigar business and then a pawn shop were profitable enough he was able to graduate from law school in 1907 and open a law practice in Kansas City.

By the age of 24, Jessie, Jr., (above) was ready to acknowledge his notorious parent and authored “Jesse James, My Father” in 1899.  Two decades later a burgeoning Hollywood film industry coaxed him into investing in several dubious movie projects based on the book.

Moving to Los Angeles, he and his sister, Mary Susan, appeared in the films but they were box office failures.  James was forced to sell his house to pay back the friends he’d convinced to invest, as well.

Those financial pressures took a serious toll, resulting in what was termed in the day a “mental collapse.”  Lasting two years, according to contemporary sources, it may have caused permanent emotional scars,.

Having given up practicing law, James opened a restaurant, The Jesse James Inn.   He remained in California until his death at the age of 75 and was buried at Forest Lawn.  His wife of 50 years, Stella McGowen James, survived her husband for 20 years.  

Mary Susan (right) apparently escaped much of the publicity that plagued her brother.  Married to Henry Lafayette Barr, she was the mother of three surviving sons.  She died at 56 and was buried in Fairview Cemetery in Kearney, Missouri.

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

Perhaps the final irony surrounding America’s most famous bank robber, was provided by his grandchildren who made a living looking after other people’s money.  Mary Susan’s oldest son, Lawrence Henry Barr, was a payroll clerk at Hallmark Cards for nearly four decades. 

The last surviving grandchild, Jesse Jr.’s daughter, Ethel Ross James Owens, (above) retired after working for many years in the Federal Reserve Bank of Los Angeles.  She died at 83 in 1991, leaving her notorious grandfather’s artifacts, including his boots, six-gun and Winchester rifle, 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 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 are free.  For more information go to claycountymo.go, 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 are free.  For information e-mail or call (816) 736-8510. 

 © Text Only – 2019 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.