by Jerrad Hardin
Two years after the Wyeth-Tootle Mansion was fashioned, within earshot of a gunshot from the flower garden, Bob and Charley Ford decided to say goodbye to Jesse James in a way the world refuses to forget. Suspiciously, legitimate stories about the Ford Boys are under-told, if not completely disregarded in the overall tale. You can find interpretations within the James’ Gang narrative, but can you imagine why not a single book is published regarding their biography? As outlaws go, the Ford’s careers were among the most law-abiding, even if their story in the papers is displayed through the lens of a general villainy. Research into their lives after the assassination reveals the brothers actively building a side-show business to promote their story. In an era of side show-ism, the Ford Brothers successfully entered the tourism industry in the early 1880s.
From the papers, October 1882 -
“Dear sir — Your act was one which could only have been accomplished by a man of courage. You have rid the world of a human tiger. What hunter would have thrust himself in the lair of a tiger with a tigress and young. You saved the country from a terror that preyed with artful devilry upon defenseless man and woman. … I take pleasure in calling you my friend. Miss — — ”
If you were to glance through the newspapers and see the anonymous commentary published about the Ford Brothers, aside from the above quote, you would assume the Ford’s weren’t very well-liked. According to the papers, people around the country had internalized the notion that the Fords were still just useless outlaws, even after having subdued a serious criminal. Considering the industry in which the Ford’s began performing, it is possible that they penned the above quote themselves. The year 1882 occurred during the sideshow era. Live theater was peaking in the Wild West. Dime museums were advertising hourly exhibitions in hundreds of cities. Sideshows and outlaw carnivals were steadily becoming a contender to the highbrow theaters that ruled the market. In the months immediately following Bob Ford’s assassination of Jesse James, the Ford brothers, Bob and Charley, went on a live theater tour, side showing their assassination for audiences in places like Brooklyn, Chicago, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Arkansas. Naturally, the Fords were stirring up publicity, and their quotes and interviews are curious and entertaining.
The outlaw Jesse James transitioned out of this world in early April 1882, and by late May, Bob Ford could be found performing a reenactment of the assassination in a Kansas City variety show. In the weeks and months ahead, newspapers often printed shameful accounts of the Fords; “The Ford boys … are not a pleasant pair to look on; one is a thin face looking scoundrel, whose black eyes are constantly on watch, as if a spectre is at his back”. From a newspaper in Massachusetts, “The Ford Boys endeavored to clean out a whole audience in Boston, because someone volunteered they were no good, and were only quieted by the arrival of the police. The prejudice against the boys all came out of a refusal on their part to eat baked beans”!
Despite the reviews, by the Fall, the brothers were a regular house feature in Bunnell’s Dime Museum in Brooklyn. One day, during regular exhibition hours, while Bob and Charley were behind glass, a woman dressed in black, and appearing to be the wife of Frank James, entered Bunnell’s museum. Alarmed, Bob allegedly fled to the manager’s box to tell the staff, just as the mysterious woman left in a hurry. “(The Fords’) agitation and fright at the mere sight of a woman who resembles Frank’s wife, show the terror in which they live, and the haunting apprehension that sooner or later they will pay the penalty of their fame”. But the Ford brothers continued their show, and lines of people were turned away. Upon the entrance of Bunnell’s museum, written in drippy red paint, read the words “The Ford Boys: Slayers of Jesse James”.
Chicago, Sept 1, 1882 — Bob Ford, who slew Jesse James in St. Joseph last spring, was arrested on State Street this morning … For the past two weeks both of the Ford boys have been in this city playing at the cheap theater on State Street in a blood and thunder drama. They have … (been) … looking for notoriety and running with fast women of the town and frequenting the cheap variety saloons.
Bad publicity was evidently good for the Fords, as they sold out crowds in some of the largest cities in the country. By 1883 Bob was living at the Charles Hotel, dressed in the latest New York fashion with a diamond pinned to his lapel. Confronted by a reporter about the acquittal of Frank James for his role in a train heist, Bob insisted that he “shall try to keep out of his way and live a peaceable life”. The short news bite wraps up in a way that sounds more like a script written to prepare the audience for the next act; “I know very well if anyone had killed my brother, as I killed Jesse James, I should not rest until I had taken his life”.
Come November, newspapers around the country were reporting that Bob Ford was dead. Bob said he didn’t know what his brother Charley meant by “circulating such a report. I wrote him a few weeks ago at Detroit, and my letter must have miscarried”. Bob assured the reporter that he and Charley would be back touring soon, and that if his avengers dared to confront him, he’d have his pistol ready. Then he drew a revolver from his pocket. “The cause of the rumor is based on the fact that his brother, now in Kansas City, has not heard from Bob who went to New York since October 14th. The probabilities are Bob is off somewhere on a drunk, as he is known not to be a prohibitionist or a teetotaler.” Newspaper — 11/14/1883
Bob hadn’t died in New York, but Charley was succumbing to tuberculosis. His sickness took him home to Missouri and, tragically, he ended his life in early May 1884. Less than two years into their theater careers, Charley was dead at 26. Upon his death, and regarding Charley’s persona, one paper wrote, “He impressed upon the casual acquaintance as a boy with a mild, girlish disposition”.
Lore surrounding the death of the outlaw Jesse James has attracted generations and hundreds of thousands of passionate relic hunters and tourists into our city since 1882. As with much of history, the James Gang Legacy is filled with contradictions and varied interpretations as to how it all went down. Just a few weeks after the assassination, according to the guest book records, Bob Ford himself paid twenty-five cents to enter the Jesse James Museum.
With the passing of his brother, their sideshow days passed too. By December 1884, Bob was in Las Vegas, New Mexico. On Christmas Day, a newspaper from that city published that Bob had gifted them two bottles of Champagne, thanking him. Zerelda James, the widow of Jesse James, at least once attempted to get discounted train fair from Omaha to Denver, where she was giving exhibitions on her shooting ability that year, 1886. The railroad men did not give her a discounted rate.
A decade after he shot Jesse James, thirty-year-old Bob Ford was assassinated at his bar in Creede, Colorado. Edward O’Kelly, who committed the murder, never gave a motive for the crime.