October 05, 2015 14:27 UTC


Frank and Jesse James, Brothers in Crime in the Old West

Download this story as a PDF

TONY RIGGS: PEOPLE IN AMERICA, a program in Special English by the Voice of America.

Two of the most famous outlaws of the old American west were brothers. I'm Tony Riggs. Today, Maurice Joyce and I tell about Frank and Jesse James. We begin their story on a cold day in February, eighteen sixty-six.


MAURICE JOYCE: Liberty, Missouri. Two o'clock in the afternoon.

Twelve men on horses ride slowly into town. Their hats are low on their faces. They stop in front of the Clay County Savings Bank. Two of the men get off their horses and enter the bank. The bank manager asks if he can help them. The two men pull out guns from under their heavy coats. They demand money.

In less than two minutes, they return to the street. Now the gang is in a great hurry. All twelve men begin shooting.

Several people are wounded. A young college student is killed.


TONY RIGGS: What happened on that day was the first bank robbery, during business hours, in peacetime, in the United States.

Jesse James
Jesse James
History books say the two men who went into the bank were Frank James and his younger brother Jesse. But this was never proved. Frank and Jesse James told lawmen they were home that day. Several of their friends confirmed the story.

True or not, during the next sixteen years, the James brothers did become two of the most famous outlaws in America.

MAURICE JOYCE: History experts say they robbed at least twelve banks, perhaps many more. They stopped seven trains, taking money from passengers and the United States Postal Service. They robbed as many as seven stagecoaches, the horse-pulled vehicles used back then as public transportation.

They traveled from their home in Clay County, Missouri, to Minnesota in the north and to Texas in the west. Hundreds of lawmen hunted them. But the James Brothers were never caught.


Who were Frank and Jesse James? Why were they so famous?

TONY RIGGS: Frank and Jesse were the sons of Robert James, a religious minister who owned a farm in Clay County, Missouri. People who knew the family said the James boys were polite and friendly. At least until the time of America's Civil War.

Many people in Missouri believed in the cause of the southern, or Confederate, states during the Civil War. However, Missouri was on the border between the North and the South. Almost as many people there supported the Union as the Confederacy. Terrible fighting took place in Missouri and in other border states.

Guerrilla groups from both sides were responsible for the fighting.

MAURICE JOYCE: History experts say much of the violence in the American West was a result of the situation after the Civil War. Many former Confederate soldiers returned home, but did not put down their guns. They continued to fight what they saw as symbols of northern oppression. These included banks and railroads.

Many local people agreed with the former soldiers and supported them.

A lack of government control in the West also led to increased violence after the war. Records show that violent crime increased at that time by as much as fifty percent.

TONY RIGGS: Frank and Jesse James are perhaps the most famous examples of the soldier-turned-outlaw.

During the Civil War, the James family suffered attacks by Union guerrillas. As a way of fighting back, Frank and Jesse became Confederate guerrillas. They rode with two of the most violent guerrilla groups. After the war, they continued their violent ways.

The James brothers were extremely successful. Their gang rode for sixteen years. Hundreds of government lawmen tried to catch them. Agents of the private Pinkerton National Detective Agency tried, too. But no one did. Most lawmen did not even know what the two brothers looked like.

MAURICE JOYCE: Jesse James enjoyed being famous. He often wrote letters to newspapers denying that he was guilty of any crime.

Once, he ate dinner with a well-known Pinkerton detective who was searching for him. The detective got a big surprise later when he opened a letter from Jesse James. Jesse said how much he enjoyed their dinner together. He also wished him good luck.

Stories like this were printed in newspapers all over the country. They helped make the James brothers famous. People liked the stories. Those who had been robbed did not. Soon, large amounts of money were offered for the capture of Frank and Jesse James. The state of Missouri offered as much as ten thousand dollars or the brothers, dead or alive.

TONY RIGGS: It was easy for the James brothers to hide in their home area. Yet most often they hid in large cities. Many years later, Frank James told reporters that it was easy to hide in a city, because everyone there looked like everybody else.

When one place became too dangerous, the James brothers moved to another. That was one reason they decided to go to Minnesota. There they planned to rob the bank in the town of Northfield.

Frank and Jesse rode to Northfield with six friends. Three of the friends were brothers: Cole, Jim and Bob Younger. Like the James brothers, the Youngers were former Confederate guerrillas, now outlaws.

MAURICE JOYCE: From the beginning, their attempted robbery of the bank in Northfield was a failure. First, when Jesse demanded money from bank workers, they said the safe could not be opened.

Next, the gang decided to get out of town fast. But the people of Northfield knew something was wrong. Many had gone to their homes or offices for their guns. Then the shooting began.

Two members of the gang were killed in town. Another was killed later. And Cole, Jim and Bob Younger were captured. Only two men escaped -- Frank and Jesse James. Frank was wounded, but he stayed on his horse. Lawmen chased him and his brother for more than a week before they lost their trail.

In the years that followed, the James brothers tried again to form another gang. They were never very successful.


TONY RIGGS: In eighteen eighty-two, Jesse James was living in Saint Joseph, Missouri, with his wife and children. People knew him as Mister Howard. One day, another outlaw, Bob Ford, shot him in the back of the head. He killed Jesse James for the money that had been offered for his capture. Bob Ford never collected the money. He was tried for murder, instead.

Several months later, Frank James surrendered to the governor of Missouri. He was charged with several crimes and tried two times. Both juries refused to find him guilty.

MAURICE JOYCE: Cole, Jim and Bob Younger spent many years in prison for their part in the Northfield, Minnesota, raid. After Cole was released from prison, he and Frank James earned money by speaking to groups. They told about their days as outlaws and the evils of crime.

Frank James lived to be seventy-two years old. He died in the same room in which he was born, on the James family farm in Clay County, Missouri. Today, that farmhouse is a museum that tells the story of the two most famous outlaws of the American West.


TONY RIGGS: This Special English program was written and produced by Paul Thompson. Your narrators were Maurice Joyce and Tony Riggs. Listen again next week to another PEOPLE IN AMERICA program on the Voice of America.


This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments page of 2
by: Antonia
05/01/2012 5:53 PM
I like this story and the music. Thank you, VOA.

by: stanislaw
04/27/2012 10:55 AM
many thanks!

by: Ching-Ru Yang
03/25/2012 10:44 AM
I from Taiwan.
I'm a senior high school student.
Thanks u guys very much!!!!!!!!!!!

by: Slava
03/18/2012 3:52 PM
Did Jesse James have two children? I know a song from Bill Gahade from magazine VTM, when I was little.

by: hakusyou
03/15/2012 1:58 AM
is there anyone who can introduce the song in the story?
i like that song just following the sentences 'much later their story was told in song'

by: Cicero Neto
03/12/2012 11:23 AM
Excellent article for foreign english language students.
Thank you for make it available.

by: Ave
03/11/2012 7:35 AM
A fascinating story! We all love special heroes.

by: jhon diego
03/06/2012 12:20 PM
wow, that was awesome!!!

by: Oliver
03/06/2012 10:02 AM
It`s good,I like the story and its music.Thank you.

by: Tri
03/06/2012 8:27 AM
this story is use a simple word, so i can read and understand the story. Thank VOA special English about interesting times.

Comments page of 2

Learn with The News

  • Audio How Competitive Is Your Country?

    The Word Economic Forum released its latest Global Competitiveness Report this week. There was little change among the top countries. But one economist says top countries are leading in what she calls the human factor. Find out what that means. More

  • Audio UN Could Ban Luxury Goods to North Korea

    A South Korean official says the United Nations may consider new actions against North Korea if the country fires a long-range missile. He said the possible actions include expanding a ban on the export of luxury goods and strategic materials to North Korea. More

  • Audio Kenyan Church Welcomes LGBT Members

    In early September, the Anglican Church of Kenya cancelled the license of clergymen suspected of homosexuality. Some feared that Kenyan churches do not welcome homosexuals. But one location offers religious services to gays, homosexuals, bisexual and transgender people. More

  • Video Drought Affecting California’s Sequoias

    California is suffering under a historic four-year drought and scientists say even the state's famed sequoia trees are feeling the pain. The National Park Service has started detailed research to see how it can help the oldest living things on earth survive. More

  • Video Father of Oregon Victim Says Gunman Targeted Christians

    U.S. officials are investigating an attack Thursday at a college in rural southern Oregon. Officials identified the gunman as 26-year-old Chris Harper Mercer. They said he killed at least nine people at Umpqua Community College. More

Featured Stories

  • Audio Everyday Grammar: Comparatives and Superlatives

    When we want to compare things we use comparative and superlative forms. Find out some of rules and exceptions of these important forms in Everyday Grammar for this week. More

  • Video ‘The Martian’ Mixes Science, Science Fiction

    Hollywood's latest space operation gone wrong movie stars Matt Damon as an astronaut mistakenly left on Mars. The film is a hit with movie critics. But what do science critics think? More

  • The Open Boat by Stephen Crane, Part 2

    Video The Open Boat by Stephen Crane, Part Two

    We continue the story of “The Open Boat” by Stephen Crane. As we told you last week, the story is based on true events. In eighteen ninety-six, Crane was traveling to Cuba as a news reporter. On his way there, his ship sank in the Atlantic Ocean. Crane climbed into the last remaining lifeboat. More

  • Audio Great Barrier Reef Choking on Pollutants

    The Great Barrier Reef is off the coast of Queensland in northeastern Australia. It is the largest living organism on Earth. However, the reef is being damaged by climate change and pollutants from farms that flow into the reef. More

  • Caffeine could help your memory.

    Audio Coffee Before Bed Does More Than Keep You Awake

    Sleep is important for our mental and physical health. But, an internationally popular drug may interfere with that. Caffeine is found in coffee and other foods and drink. Researchers now say to be careful about when you drink it! More

Practice Your Writing

Confessions of an English Learner
Confessions of an English Learner blog

Tell us About Our Programs