Convicted double murderer Alex Murdaugh is settling into this new home these days, the Kirkland Correctional Institution outside Columbia. It will be a mighty long stay.
There are claims (as reported here) that some fellow inmates are eagerly awaiting an opportunity to get their hands on the famous killer. That’s not surprising. A certain deranged mindset is attracted by the prospect of killing a celebrity criminal. In fact, it happened to the most famous bad guy of them all.
April 3, 1882, was a bad day for Jesse James. A very bad day.
I’ve always been interested in his shooting because it happened in St. Joseph, Missouri, the city where I was born. St. Joe, which was the eastern terminus of the Pony Express, refers to itself as the place “where the Pony Express began and Jesse James ended.” My great-grandfather Elisha Powell even got a post-mortem peek at the legendary outlaw in his coffin as a teenager.
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I don’t have a rosy, romanticized view of Jesse James. He put innocent men in the ground and stole money from innocent people. Murderous thievery doesn’t qualify one for hero status in my eyes. Still, there was a sad tenor to the way his life ended. And there was a weird poetic justice for Bob Ford, the man who dispatched Jesse to the hereafter, too.
The heat was on back in the early spring of 1882, so Jesse and his family were lying low in a small frame house in St. Joe. He rented it under the name “Mr. Howard,” an alias he’d used before. The James Gang had fallen on hard times and Jesse was trying to regroup for a comeback.
Brothers Bob and Charley Ford were handsome men in their early 20s. They were also snakes. For while they were worming their way into Jesse James’ world, they were also secretly negotiating with Missouri’s governor for the $5,000 reward (about $150,000 today) on James’ head. A deal was cut: Kill Jesse and get the cash, plus a full pardon.
April 3 was an unusually warm Monday. After finishing breakfast in the little house, James noticed a picture hanging crooked on a wall. With his guns resting on a nearby table, he was straightening it when Bob Ford shot him. Jesse James was no hero; but shooting an unarmed man from behind was the ultimate in cowardice. Conspiring to collect $5,000 for it added a Judas Iscariot quality to the killing, too.
But while Jesse James’ story was over, Bob and Charley Ford’s tale was just beginning. They wired the governor to collect their ill-gotten gain, then turned themselves in to authorities. Imagine their surprise when they were indicted for murder, tried, found guilty, and sentenced to hang – all in one day! Two hours later, the governor spared them from the gallows with a pardon. But he ripped them off on the reward, paying only $500, a far cry from the $5,000 they were promised. (then as now, it seems thievery wasn’t limited to outlaws).
It was all downhill from there for the Brothers Ford. Killing a celebrity made them celebrities in turn, but in a bad way. Bob was viewed much like John Wilkes Booth, who also shot Abraham Lincoln from behind. Even people who loathed Jesse James felt he didn’t deserve an ending like that.
Bob and Charley tried to cash in on their new-found fame. Bob posed for pictures in cheap arcades, a forerunner to Pay Per View. The brothers re-enacted the shooting on stage, but the audience’s dislike of them and their inability to act doomed the show.
Two years later Charley, riddled with tuberculosis and addicted to morphine because of the pain, committed suicide.
Bob Ford stumbled from job to job. He opened a saloon in New Mexico Territory, tried his hand at being a policeman in Las Vegas, and finally wound up in Colorado where he opened another saloon/casino. When it burned down, he reopened in a tent. Then it was yet another saloon in yet another town.
He was working in it on June 8, 1892, when a man walked in and said, “Hello Bob.” As he turned around, Edward O’Kelley fired both barrels of a double-barrel shotgun, killing Ford instantly.
O’Kelley became known as “The Man Who Killed the Man Who Killed Jesse James,” until he himself was killed in 1904 while trying to shoot a policeman in Oklahoma City.
The long, deadly path that produced such a high body count that started in that little house with a betrayal by a supposed friend was finally over.
My advice to Alex Murdaugh: Watch your back.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR ...
J. Mark Powell is an award-winning former TV journalist, government communications veteran, and a political consultant. He is also an author and an avid Civil War enthusiast. Got a tip or a story idea for Mark? Email him at [email protected].
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