The Truth About The Widow Of Jesse James

In the very best folk song tradition, nobody quite knows who wrote it, but plenty of people (including Bruce Springsteen) have covered it, almost all of them including these words: "Poor Jesse had a wife to mourn for his life, / Three children, they were brave; / But the dirty little coward that shot Mr. Howard / Has laid poor Jesse in his grave." The Jesse in question was Jesse James, who with his brother Frank and a rotating cast of neighbors and relatives did indeed rob, though there's no evidence he gave to the poor — except himself and his gang members. They robbed banks and trains, and shot people who got in their way.

The year 1876 was busy in the American West. That was the year George Armstrong Custer got himself and most of his command killed at Little Bighorn in Eastern Montana; Wild Bill Hickok was murdered, shot from behind in Deadwood, South Dakota; and the James Gang was shot all to pieces trying to rob a bank in Northfield, Minnesota, says Biography. Frank became a farmer, and Jesse went to ground with his family in St. Joseph, Missouri. That family was Jesse, two children, and his wife, Zee — Zerelda — described as his "longtime sweetheart" whom he'd married two years before, in 1874, after what Legends of America says was a nine-year courtship. Besides being sweethearts, they were first cousins — her mother was the sister of Jesse and Frank's father, Robert James.

The Widow James became a recluse

One of their children had died in infancy, and twins were stillborn, says Historic Missourians, but two children survived and were in the kitchen with their mother when Robert Ford, recruited for a new gang, shot Jesse in the back of the head as the outlaw straightened a picture on April 3, 1882.

At Jesse's death, Zee seems to have sunk into a grief-driven depression from which she never really recovered. Part was no doubt because Jesse left her destitute. There was no hidden loot; just a few weapons and stolen pieces of jewelry. She was forced to move in with her brother in Kansas City. She refused all offers to publish her story (or stories). She became something of a recluse; her son went to work at the age of 11 to support the family.

Even if you wanted Jesse's girl, she wasn't really available. In the best Victorian tradition — the tradition of Queen Victoria of England, widowed herself in 1861 and never remarrying — Zee James remained a widow for the rest of her life. And, like the Queen across the ocean, Zee wore black for the rest of her days as well. Mrs. James died November 13, 1900, in Kansas City, Missouri. She was 55 years old.