The Plot to Assassinate Jesse James
By Phil Stewart
This article first appeared on Stray Leaves in 1999 as part of Phil Stewart’s Article Archive
Jesse James was killed on April 3, 1882. What began as a desire of several neighbors to the fear and killings since the days of the Civil War had developed into a death plot to kill a wanted outlaw. Jesse James was assassinated in every definition of the word.
The plot against Jesse was building. On December 6, 1881, Wood Hite arrived at the home of Martha Bolton. In addition to being a member of the gang, Wood Hite was Jesse’s cousin. Hite’s presence made it impossible for the gang to discuss, plan, or coordinate their assassination efforts. The next day, Dick Liddil and Bob Ford killed Wood Hite.
The first attempt to capture Jesse James occurred on or around December 28, 1881 in Richmond, Missouri. Jesse walked into Cap Ford’s store asking where he could find Dick Liddil and Wood Hite. Cap Ford told him he had not seen Wood at all. The last time he had seen Liddil was at the Bolton home. As Jesse rode out of town, Cap Ford telegraphed Sheriff Timberlake. By the time a posse arrived at the Bolton’s, Jesse had gone.
Two days after the raid on the Bolton home, in the little town of Greenville, just a few miles east of the James family’s farm, James Rhodus was having a New Year’s party for the young people of the neighborhood. One of those who arrived was eighteen-year-old John Samuel, the half-brother of Frank and Jesse. Rhodus wanted no trouble. It became obvious that John Samuel and his two friends had a bottle. They were becoming increasingly boisterous. Rhodus asked them to leave. Young John pointed out that he was the brother of Jesse James. He would not be told what to do by Rhodus or any man. Rhodus simply pushed him out the door and into the January cold. John Samuel began throwing rocks at the door and windows. Rhodus took a pistol, walked out on the porch, and shot John Samuel in the belly. Many believed the young man would not survive.
Rumors spread, that Jesse would soon arrive to avenge his younger brother. Few would have given a plug nickel for the life of James Rhodus. The group of neighbors discussed the situation. Terry Stephenson, who lived less than a half mile east of the Samuel farm, was selected to give Zerelda a message. The message was clear and to the point. If one hair was harmed on the head of James Rhodus, the Samuel home would be burned to the ground. If the family happened to be inside at the time, so be it.
On January 6 of the new year, Sheriff James Timberlake was contacted with Dick Liddil’s proposal. Dick would surrender and assist with the efforts to capture or kill Jesse James in return for a full pardon by the Governor and a part of the reward money if the plan was successful. Both Timberlake and Crittenden agreed.
Dick Liddil surrendered to Sheriff Timberlake on January 24, 1882. He met with Governor Thomas T. Crittenden. He received the Governor’s assurance that he would not be prosecuted if he cooperated and provided information that would bring an end to Jesse James. Dick must have sung like a bird. Within a week, a group of Kansas City officers, led by Commissioner Craig, went to Kentucky. Clarence Hite was arrested and returned to Missouri to stand trial for the Winston train robbery, Commissioner Craig gave to Liddil $500 of the $5,000 reward.
On February 13, Bob Ford “surrendered himself” to Commission Craig in Kansas City. On February 22, the entire group, including Governor Crittenden and Sheriff Timberlake, Commission Craig, Dick Liddil, and Bob Ford, met at the St. James Hotel in Kansas City to finalize plans and agreements. The group now had an “inside man.”
In late March of 1882, there was another bank to rob. Perhaps it would be his last, for Jesse had inquired about a farm that was for sale in Nebraska. His “gang” now consisted solely of himself and Charlie Ford. Jesse wanted one more man to accompany him on the raid. Two men inside the bank and one outside to hold the horses. It was a tried and proven plan. Charlie suggested his young brother, Bob Ford. Bob was a brash little cuss and could be depended upon. Jesse had little choice in the quality of men who rode with him. Bob Ford, the governments “inside man,” would have to do.
On March 30, 1882, Jesse and Charlie arrived at the home of Martha Bolton. He asked if Bob was around. He was told Ford was with his Uncle Cap in Richmond. Showing boldness, of not arrogance, Jesse rode right into Richmond to the home of Cap Ford. Jesse asked Bob if he was interested in a “little job.” Bob agreed to join him. As Jesse and the Ford brothers left town, Cap Ford sent a message to Sheriff Timberlake and Commissioner Craig. The trap was set. Within day, Jesse James would be assassinated by the “inside man.”
Following the events on the morning of April 3, 1882, Charlie Ford received as much condemnation for killing Jesse James as his brother, Bob Ford. The evidence indicates Charlie knew nothing about it until the night before Jesse was killed. Sheriff Timberlake stated he knew that Jesse was living in Leavenworth or Atchison, Kansas, or in St. Joseph, Missouri. These are the exact towns Jesse was checked when searching for a home after leaving Kansas City. Cap Ford said he knew Jesse was living in St. Joseph and he had advised Timberlake of the fact. Timberlake did not want the world to know that he knew where Jesse was living. That fact would not only support the position that Jesse James could have been captured.