The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

On this day in history, outlaw Jesse James took a bullet to the brain

If there is anything to be learned from the death of Jesse James on April 3, 1882, it is this: If you see a picture hanging crooked on a wall, and there is a bounty on your head, leave the picture alone.

Whether James had obsessive compulsive disorder in addition to a rebellious, murderous streak — he and brother Frank led an outlaw gang that robbed, killed and terrorized — is a diagnosis lost to history, but it is undeniable that the unquenchable urge to straighten a photo led to his demise. (Some historians say the picture needed dusting. Either way, bad idea.)

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It was just after breakfast. James was renting a home in St. Joseph, Missouri, hiding out as the law closed in. There was a $5,000 bounty on his head. Paranoid about being caught, and with his gang nearly annihilated, James welcomed a young fellow named Robert Ford into the fold.

James never completely trusted Ford, but this was in the days before a gangster could check on a new guy’s loyalties by surreptitiously reading his text messages or searching his browser history. In other words, James had no way of knowing that Ford and his brother Charley had been secretly plotting with Gov. Thomas T. Crittenden to collect the bounty.

“We waited a long time to catch Jesse without his revolvers,” Robert would say later, according to “Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War,” a biography by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian T.J. Stiles.

Having filled their bellies, Jesse and Charley went outside to feed their horses. It was hot.

“By the time they returned, Jesse had become uncomfortable in his customary finery,” Stiles wrote. He took off his coat, which revealed his pistols. Then he removed his pistols, fearing the neighbors would see him armed.

The picture caught his eye. He pulled a chair over and stood on it, then reached up to straighten (or dust) it. “Then he heard a sound more familiar to him than any other: the metallic clack of cocking pistols,” Stiles wrote. “He turned his head toward the noise just as enormous roar erupted, accompanied by the brief sensation of his skull disintegrating just behind his ear.”

Jesse James was dead.

The outlaw’s legend continues 135 years later — in history books, novels, music, and movies. In 2008, Brad Pitt starred as James opposite Casey Affleck as Ford in the critically-acclaimed screen adaptation of the novel, “The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford.” The film depicts Ford regretting ending the life of an outlaw some had revered.

“You know what I expected?” Ford/Affleck said toward the end of the movie. “Applause. I was only 20 years old then. I couldn’t see how it would look to people. I was surprised by what happened. They didn’t applaud.”

Not long after, a man named Edward O’Kelley, armed with a sawed-off shotgun, walked into a saloon Ford owned. Nobody ever figured out who O’Kelley was or why he showed up that day looking for Ford.

In the movie, Ford has his back to O’Kelley.

“Hello, Bob,” he says, raising his shotgun.

Ford turns around.

The screen goes black. The movie ends.

But you know what happens next.

That’s how things were done back then.

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