Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Robert Ford – The Man Who Shot Jesse James

Robert Ford posing with the gun that killed Jesse James

Robert Ford was an outlaw from Missouri born on January 31, 1862. Like many young Missouri men of his time, he grew up admiring the war record and exploits of the famous bandit, Jesse James, a fellow Missouri native.

Robert, who went by the nickname Bob, and his older brother Charles finally got the chance to meet Jesse when they befriended him in 1880 while he was recruiting new members for his gang.

The James-Younger gang had disbanded in 1876 after a botched robbery and James was in need of new recruits. Although he allowed Charles and Robert to join, neither brother played a large role in the gang. Charles did help Jesse rob a train in Glendale in September of 1881 but there are no records of Robert participating in any robberies.

Dick Liddel
Two of the gang members, Wood Hite, a cousin of Jesse James, and a friend of Ford's named Dick Liddel, were on the run from the law and taking refuge at the house of Robert Ford's sister when an argument between Hite and Liddel got out of hand. The men took shots at each before Ford stepped in and shot Hite in the head, killing him instantly. Fearing James would kill him and Liddel for murdering his cousin, Ford buried him in a shallow grave in the woods.

The authorities detained Ford to question him about Hite's death. When they discovered he was a member of James' gang, they struck a deal. Governor Crittenden offered Ford a pardon for the murder and a $10,000 reward for the capture of either Jesse James or his brother Frank, dead or alive. Greedy and desperate to avoid prison, Ford agreed.

After Liddel turned himself in to authorities in January of 1882, due to fears that Jesse James would kill him if he discovered he had killed Hite, Ford kept the arrest secret from James to prevent arousing suspicion.

Knowing what a quick draw James was, the Ford brothers knew they had to wait for a moment when James took his gun belt off in order to shoot him. This moment came when James sat down to read the paper the morning of April 3, 1882 at his home in St. Joseph's and he noticed an article about Liddel's arrest for Hite's murder. Although he didn't say so, the Ford brothers worried that James was suspicious of them for not reporting the murder or arrest to him and decided it was time to act. As James got up to straighten a picture on the wall, he laid his gun belt on the table and stood up on a chair to reach the picture. Robert Ford then cocked his gun and shot James in the back of the head before fleeing the house.

Charles Ford
James was buried in the front yard of his parent's farm in Kearney, where his mother could protect his grave from being desecrated, with a tombstone that read “Jesse W. James, Died April 3, 1882, Aged 34 years, 6 months, 28 days, Murdered by a traitor and a coward whose name is not worthy to appear here.” James' body was later moved and buried with his wife in nearby Mount Olivet Cemetery.

The Ford brothers plead guilty to the murder of Jesse James and were sentenced to be hanged but Governor Crittenden came through on his word and pardoned them. The brothers tried to continue on with their lives but their reputation as murderers combined with life on the run from Jesse's brother Frank, who was trying to kill them, made life unbearable. Charles Ford committed suicide in 1884. Robert attempted to earn a living off of his notoriety by posing for photos with the gun he used to kill James and starring in a play titled the “Outlaws of Missouri” where he recounted the day of the murder.

In 1889 a man attempted to kill Robert Ford at a casino in Kansas City. Ford described the event to the New York Times:

One man made himself particularly obnoxious to me. He referred in an insulting manner to the Jesse James affair, but I took no notice of him, preferring to escape a row if I could. He continued to abuse me all the evening and I continued to take no notice of him. Early this morning. After I had been sitting at the table all night, I felt cramped and uncomfortable and leaned back in my chair. As I did so I threw my head back, and at that instant my abuser drew a knife from his pocket, held my head back by my hair, and was about to draw the knife across my throat when my friend warded off the blow. The knife cut through the collar my collar and grazed my neck, inflicting a slight wound. I was unarmed, or I would have shot him on the spot. As it was he took to his heels and escaped.”

Robert Ford's tent saloon in Creede
A few years later, Ford opened a tent saloon in Creede, Colorado in June of 1892. One June 8th, a man by the name of Edward O'Kelley, a possible member of a gang Ford had quarreled with, walked into the saloon with a sawed off shotgun, said “Hello Bob” and shot Ford in the chest, killing him instantly.

Ford was buried in Colorado but his body was later moved to Richmond City Cemetery in Missouri. His headstone, which accidentally lists his birthday as 1841, reads: “Bob Ford, Dec. 8 1841 – June 8, 1892, The Man Who Shot Jesse James.”


PBS.Org: The Death of Jesse James

New York Times; Bob Ford's Narrow Escape; December 1889

New York Times; The Ford Brother's Indicted, Plead Guilty, Sentenced to Be Hanged, And Pardoned All In One Day; April 1882

"Frank and Jesse James"; Ted P. Yeatman

The State Historical Society of Missouri; Famous Missourians; Robert Ford (1860-1892)

"Jesse James Was His Name"; William A. Settle;

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