Kearney, MO

Historians believe Jesse and Frank James from Kearney, Missouri were the first bank robbers in the country

CJ Coombs

Correction: The title previously indicated the James brothers were from St. Joseph, Missouri and they are from Kearney.
Clay County Savings in Liberty, MO nka Jesse James Bank Museum.Americasroof at en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 2.5 , via Wikimedia Commons.

Were the James brothers the first bank robbers in the United States?

Historians believe the first bank robbery in the United States occurred when associates of Jesse and Frank James robbed the Clay County Savings Association in Liberty, Missouri on February 13, 1866. (Source.)

In 1866, when the Clay County Savings Association (not to be confused with today's Clay County Savings Bank) in Liberty, Missouri was robbed, thieves escaped in broad daylight with $60,000 "in bonds, paper currency and gold and silver coin" which in today's value is over $1 million. This was a time when deposit insurance wasn't available. This is believed to be the first daytime bank robbery which was a small town back in 1866.

According to PBS, American Experience, "[b]ased solely on longevity, Jesse James was one of America's most successful bank robbers; he eluded authorities for nearly 15 years."

The culprits, who got away after killing a passer-by, were assumed to be ex-bushwhackers and the James brothers may have been among them. (Source.)

The bank which was owned by former militia officers was robbed during peacetime. As a sidenote, the officers, prior to the robbery, conducted the first Republican Party rally in Clay County's history. The passerby who was killed was a 17-year-old student from William Jewell College.
Jesse (25) and Frank James (29), 1872.U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photographer unspecified or unkn, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Is it fact or fiction?

Whether it's not supported by evidence that Jesse and Frank James participated in the Clay County Bank robbery, they might have been credited with being participants because they had already become legendary and successful bank robbers. It stands to reason it's believable they were involved in leading the robbery.

It has been argued in rebuttal that James was at the time still bedridden with his wound. (Source.)

One argument supporting the reason that Jesse didn't rob the bank was because the wound he had was a chest wound and he was very ill; he had a collapsed lung at the end of the war.

There were stories that after the bank robbery, a man was having trouble mounting his horse. It's believed that was Jesse. You could say he planned the robbery but wasn't there, but there's the belief that if he did plan it, he wouldn't want to miss being there. And there's the story that some of the bank robbery gang members were recognized but people didn't want to come forward because they were afraid for their lives, or the lives of their family members.

The bank robbery

As the story goes there were close to a dozen men who arrived in town and they were hanging around the bank. There were only two employees in the bank, a father who was the head cashier and his son who was a clerk. Two of the men entered the bank. They asked for change but ended up drawing their guns and wanting money. The son loaded the feed sack the robbers were holding. The robbers had the employees go into the bank's vault before they left.

There are conflicting stories as to why the innocent bystander mentioned above was killed. Some say it might have been because of problems a rider was having in mounting a horse causing a gun to go off. Supposedly, the whole incident didn't last longer than 15 minutes.

There is little doubt that Jesse James planned the robbery. It was styled after many of the robberies the men had participated in during the War Between The States. It is probable that Frank James was at this robbery. However, no one was ever convicted of this robbery. (Source.)

Because of insufficient funds, the bank was forced to close. It sold assets, collected on loans, and bank depositors were paid 60 cents on the dollar. The stolen money was never recovered.

The bank today

Today, the bank that was robbed and closed is a museum. If you're in Liberty, Missouri, it should be added to your places to visit list. The bank is located at Liberty's historic square amidst shops and restaurants within 19th Century buildings.

The bank museum is located at 103 North Water, Liberty, Missouri 64068 (Phone: 816-736-8510). Visitors will be able to see the bank as it was in 1866.

Jesse James

It is interesting that rumors took off that Jesse James was still alive after it was announced he was dead. Biographers of James's history believe it. Interestingly, too, in 1995, the body believed to be his that was buried in Kearney, Missouri was exhumed. The mitochondrial DNA recovered confirmed that it was a match to one of Jesse's relatives along the female line. Jesse left a wife and four children and had three siblings (including Frank) and four half-siblings.
Jesse James taken in 1882.Photographer unkn., Public Domain in the United States, via Wikimedia Commons.

Jesse's gravesite is in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Kearney, Missouri. northwest of Kansas City. His remains that used to be in his mother's backyard were moved to Mount Olivet Cemetery in 1902. Born September 5, 1847, Jesse died April 3, 1882, at the age of 35.

Frank James

According to Frank's obituary, he died at age 74 on February 18, 1915. He left behind his wife, Annie Ralston James, and a son. Frank is interred at Hill Park Cemetery in Independence, Missouri.
Alexander "Frank" James in 1898.Photo by Guerin, St. Louis, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Thank you for reading.

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30 years of legal secretarial experience, and a BA in Eng Journalism & Creative Writing. Thinker, giver, and lover of life. Born into Air Force service life, my life has taken me to Louisiana, Idaho, Kauai, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Missouri. I love family, art, truth, non-fiction, reading, history, and travel.

Kansas City, MO

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