JESSE JAMES ROBBED WEST VIRGINIA BANK - Legends Link Outlaw To Region, "All Bad People Came To Bear Fork"

By Bob Weaver

Jesse James continues to rise from folklore dust to be the subject of Hollywood movies.

Central West Virginia stories abound about over-night stays and backwoods encounters with outlaw James and his brother Frank.

One such account is linked to Clay County WV, the namesake county of his Missouri birthplace.

Numerous legends have been told about James and his bunch hiding out in the Bear Fork Wilderness.

James, a notorious train robber, killer and desperado, rose to folklore fame after his death.

Certainly James and his deadly gang wandered through West Virginia, and likely traveled through our regional counties, much like the travel tales of Daniel Boone.

Boone was certainly connected to several early Calhoun settlers.

On Jesse Jame's 28th birthday, he and three other members of the James-Younger Gang robbed the Huntington Bank in Huntington, West Virginia making off with cash estimated between $10,000-$20,000.

That was a lot of dough back then.

Jesse James (left) and brother, Frank James

A news story from 1922 says, "Among the many tales of pioneer life in Wayne County is the story of the escape of Jesse James, the bandit, through this county in 1875 after his "gang" had robbed the Huntington Bank." "When the James "gang" were making their escape from Huntington toward Kentucky, they stopped over in the town of Wayne (then Trout's Hill) and ate dinner with Aunt Lizzie Christian in the old house which formerly stood on the Northwest corner of the Freizzells Square."

"While here they talked with the citizens but not until the next day did the people of the town discover that they had entertained the noted "Jesse James" crew that were in those days well known in the yellow back novels."

"It was Huntington's first big robbery and the story as told by John H. Sanborn, D. I. Smith who was sheriff at the time, and Gene Salmon, deputy clerk of the county court, reads more like one of the tales of Jesse and Frank James and his gang, printed in one of the yellow backed dime novels."

"On September 15, 1875, the robber quartet appeared at noon at a blacksmith shop owned by Mr. Sanborn's father. Hitching their horses, members of the gang approached the bank. One entered the store operated by Lindsay T. Powell, ordered Powell and Dr. S. J. Unseld to sit down and remain silent. One bandit stood outside the bank, two others entered."

"Robert T. Oney, cashier, cowed at the point of two guns, gave up $10,252. Leisurely, the bandits left, mounted their horses and trotted out 12th Street and Fifth Avenue. Reaching that point they flourished their guns, fired a fusillade of shots in the air and spurred their horses and trotted their horses past 5th and Ninth Street and thence out 8th Street Rd toward Four Pole."

"Sheriff Smith organized a posse. The chase grew so hot the bandit gang divided, James and Younger swinging to the north and McDaniel and Miller continuing over the original route to the Cumberland mountains of Tennessee. The loot was divided. A rendezvous in northern Texas was decided upon."

Several days later, a man identified as Jack Keene AKA Tom Webb was arrested in Tennessee. Unable to explain $4500 he had on his person, he was returned to West Virginia where he stood trial for the Huntington robbery. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison.

On April 3, 1882, as James prepared for another robbery in Kansas, he climbed a chair to dust a picture, taking his gun off.

The Ford brothers seeking to kill James completed their mission. Bob Ford was the fastest, firing a shot into the back of Jesse's head, killing him instantly.

Jesse (pictured left) as photographed in his coffin

The Fords were promptly pardoned by the governor, suggesting that he was well aware that the brothers intended to kill, rather than capture James.

On her 86th birthday, Ruby Kyer Burkhimer returned from Ohio to her Bear Fork wilderness home, telling the Hur Herald, "They were always telling tales about Jesse James killing people in Bear Fork, but there were lots of other treacherous stories about people getting murdered, many which which were true. They always said all the bad people come to Bear Fork."

Perhaps the most famous song about James is one that portrays him as an unlikely hero:

"Jesse James was a lad that killed many a man,
He robbed the Glendale train,
He stole from the rich and he gave to the poor,
He'd a hand and a heart and a brain."

"Well it was Robert Ford, that dirty little coward,
I wonder how he feel,
For he ate of Jesse's bread and he slept in Jesse's bed,
And he laid poor Jesse in his grave."


Well Jesse had a wife to mourn for his life
Three children now they were brave
Well that dirty little coward that shot Mr. Howard
He laid poor Jesse in his grave.

Jesse was a man, a friend to the poor,
He'd never rob a mother or a child
There never was a man with the law in his hand
That could take Jesse James alive.

It was on a Saturday night and the moon was shining bright,
They robbed the Glendale train,
And people they did say o'er many miles away
It was those outlaws, they're Frank and Jesse James.


Now the people held their breath when they heard of Jesse's death,
And wondered how he ever came to fall
Robert Ford, it was a fact, he shot Jesse in the back
While Jesse hung a picture on the wall.

Now Jesse went to rest with his hand on his breast,
The devil will be upon his knee.
He was born one day in the County Clay,
And he came from a solitary race.