JAMES, Jesse Woodson (1847-1882), outlaw gunman. Autograph letter signed ("Jesse W. James") to his step-father, Dr. Reuben Samuel, Lafayette County, Missouri, 23 March 1875. 6 pages, 8vo, in pencil, slight soiling and minor smudging at folds, but in excellent condition.
"STRAIN EVERY NERVE TO TO HAVE THE MIDNIGHT ASSASSINS PUNISHED...I HAVE PLEDGED MY SELF TO LET THE LAW TAKE ITS COURSE"
Probably the finest extant letter of the legendary Western outlaw, vividly expressing his outrage and simmering anger in the aftermath of the notorious assault on his family's home in Kearney, Missouri and calling for the punishment of the "midnight assassins." On the night of 25/26 January, a band of unidentified men--agents and associates of the Pinkerton Detective Agency--having heard from local informants that the James brothers were in the house, were transported by special train from Kansas City to the vicinity of the home of Dr. Samuel and his wife, Zerelda (the mother of Frank and Jesse James). Local Pinkerton spies, anxious to collect the rewards, were also present. A smoke bomb was thrown through the parlor window. It exploded violently, mutilating Zerelda's right arm (later amputated) and killing Archie Peyton Samuel, Jesse's 9-year-old half-brother. The Pinkertons and their informants fled, empty-handed. The incidenbt aroused widespread public sympathy for the James/Samuel families, who were regarded as innocent victims of the railroad's unscrupulous hirelings. Here, Jesse writes from an unknown hideout to his step-father, trying to orchestrate the testimony before the local grand jury that was to investigate the fatal bomb attack. James is convinced that he knows the instigator, one Hardwick, and rather ominously warns that if the legal system cannot bring the perpetrators to justice a "bloody and desperate" mob of his friends may be compelled to take action. (Transcript preserves James's idiosyncratic spelling):
"As I have written a letter to Ma I will write to you and send you two letters from Sam Hardwick[e]...that were sent to Major [John N.] Edwards in St. Louis to be sent to me. I want you to take the letters before the Grand Jury. Hardwicke wanted the letters burnt but knows they are too valuable to me. They can not be a doubt but Hardwicke is the instigator of the brutal murder and he knows every mane [man] that was there & I am convinced Hardwick was with the murder[er]s when poor little Archie was so crually murdered. Hardwick sed Jno. Grooms [Sheriff of Clay County] was knowing to all that he done. I do not believe Grooms had any hand in it...He sed he tol[d] all to Gov Hardin Gov Wootson [Missouri Governor Woodson] & Gen Bingham. Be sure to have Gov Hardin Gov Wootson & Bingham summonsed before the grand Jury. Also have Major Jno. N Edwards of St. Louis sumonsed...He has several letters of Hardwicks and he knows much that Hardwick has told him that will probably endict H. Be sure to attend to this for H is the most guilty of all. When the Gran[d] Jury are done with H. letters you get them & keep them for me. If any one doubt[s] the authorship of H[ardwick's] letters have Sheriff Patton Dr Allen and others to testify to H. hand writing."
"D[o] have this horrible v[i]lian thoroughly investigated. For I want the Law to take its course and spair Clay Co[unty] of a mob that will be bloody and desperate. I have pledged my self to let the law take its course but my friends will be forced to mob the murder[er]s of poor Archie if the grand Jury don['t] have the guilty party indicted. They [there] cannot be a doubt but H[ardwick] is guilty. He made propositions to Oscar Thomason to go out to your house with him the night of the Trajedy Have G.E. Patton summonsed before the Grand Jury & tell the Jury to ask Patton if Oscar Thomason told him about Hardwicks propositions and then have Oscar Thomason to go before the Jury & confirm Pattons statement...Oscar Thomason can bring much to light on this subject. Give this letter of mine to the foreman of the Jury and Hardwicks letters & tell him to return them...after Court. Tell the Jury to present Hardwicks too [two] letters when Hardin, Wootson Bingham & Edwards are before the Jury. Also have sheriff Grooms to go before the grand Jury. Strain every nerve to have the midnight assassins punished. yours Jesse W. James."
In the end, the Clay County Grand Jury brought murder indictments against Allan K. Pinkerton, Jack Ladd, a Pinkerton spy and six other men for the death of Archie Samuel. But justice was thwarted when no arrests were made and no prosecutions mounted, almost certainly due to the behind-the-scenes influence of the Pinkerton Agency, railroads and local officials. The "bloody and desperate" mob of his friends that Jesse mentions did not materialize. Sympathy for the family was so strong that a bill was introduced in the Missouri legislature calling for amnesty for the whole James Gang, which soon resumed their bold robberies of railroads, teaming up with the Younger gang for the disastrous Northfield, Minnesota bank robbery in September 1876, just six months after this letter.
Letters of Jesse James are extremely rare. It appears that there are not quite a dozen in existence (some of these still in family hands). Since 1975, only one other Jesse James letter is listed at auction by ABPC. That letter, also in pencil, dated 5 June 1875, in which Jesse denies the "slander" that he is a horse-thief, is presently on the market at an asking price of $4,000,000 (see Document 30008 at http://www.historyforsale.com/html/). That letter and this one are described by the late Charles Hamilton in The Signature of America, pp.88-89; a third letter, dated 1880, is illustrated in Warren R. Anderson, Owning Western History, p.24; family-owned examples are noted in James R. Ross, I, Jesse James.
Provenance: Charles Hamilton, New York - Robert F. Batchelder, purchased in 1978 by the father of the present owners.