Who killed Jesse James’ killer? Next book in the Missouri vigilante series delves into the legend | St. Louis Public Radio

Who killed Jesse James’ killer? Next book in the Missouri vigilante series delves into the legend

Dec 9, 2015

Joe Johnston has been cataloguing the history of Missouri’s vigilantism for years—last November, he joined “St. Louis on the Air” to discuss the sweeping highs and lows of such history. On Wednesday’s show, Johnston joined host Don Marsh once again to talk about “It Ends Here: Missouri’s Last Vigilante,” his latest book.

Joe Johnston.
Credit Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio

The book catalogues the rise and fall of Edward Capehart O’Kelley, who killed Jesse James’ killer. Johnston said that after his first two books, one detailing the murder of Mack Marsden and the other giving a broad sweep of Missouri’s vigilantism, he didn’t feel the history was quite tied up.

“Missouri had the longest and bloodiest history of vigilantism in the West,” said Johnston. “Why aren’t we riding around the streets on our horses shooting the bad guys today?”

The answer to that question is tied up in the story of Jesse James, Robert Ford and O’Kelley. 

“Bob Ford is fairly well-known as the man who killed Jesse James,” said Johnston. “Bob Ford was wanted for a murder and some other crimes and had a deal with Missouri’s Governor Thomas Crittenden which was ‘deliver Jesse to us and we’ll forget these other crimes.’”

Ford would later say that the deal was for Jesse James, the notorious Missouri outlaw who fought for the Confederate Bushwackers during the Civil War, “dead or alive.” The governor of Missouri disagreed.

“The tragic figure is not only Jesse but Bob Ford,” said Johnston. “He was not a hero by any means.”

There were a lot of people like Jesse in Missouri during the Civil War, and in some circles, he was held as a hero for his outlaw status.

“Bob Ford bore a terrible burden after [killing him],” said Johnston. “Every place he went, there was somebody who knew who he was and what he had done. The real problem with what Bob did was that he shot Jesse in the back. You just didn’t do that. Even the men who thought Jesse should be taken out of commission, thought Bob went about it the wrong way. There were several attempts on his life.”

In one example, he was sitting in a theatre and a man tried to slit his throat. Ultimately, he met his end violently at the hands of Ed O’Kelley, also a Missourian.   

Edward Capeheart O'Kelley.
Credit Wikimedia Commons

“Ed O’Kelley grew up in the southeastern part of the state and his parents had given him away to be raised by his grandparents,” Johnston said. “His father fought for the Union and his grandparents were from a confederate family—he was separated from his parents physically and also ideologically. He grew up idolizing Jesse and dreaming of riding with him.”

After Jesse James’ death, O’Kelley wandered the west for a while and ended up in Creed, Colorado, a silver boom town…where Bob Ford also made his living with a saloon and gambling house.

The two got into a fight in the saloon. Many people in the town already had a beef with Ford, so O’Kelley was eventually persuaded to gather his justice from Ford by killing him. O’Kelley would serve ten years in a Colorado prison for that murder.

When he was released, he tried to make his way in Oklahoma but confronted a lawman and was killed himself.

“Ed O’Kelley changed history killing the man who killing Jesse James,” Johnston said he. “He came to his own end at the hands of a dedicated law man and that signals the end of the vigilante era because we had career lawmen. Not just somebody who took the job, a county clerk who was sheriff for a couple of years, but men who were dedicated and spent their whole lives enforcing the law.”

While O’Kelley may be Johnston’s “last vigilante,” he also said that it is hard for Missouri to outgrow this history and lose its vigilante-esque streak.

“As we grow toward peace and civilization, we have to understand there are ways we can serve the law without arming ourselves and taking to the streets,” Johnston said. 

Related Events

What: Joe Johnston Discussion and Signing
When: Wednesday, Dec. 9 at 7:00 p.m.
Where: Missouri History Museum's AT&T Foundation Multipurpose Room, Lindell and DeBaliviere in Forest Park, St. Louis, MO 63112
More information.

What: Joe Johnston Discussion and Signing
When: Thursday, Dec. 10 at 7:00 p.m.
Where: St. Louis County Library Headquarters, 1640 S. Lindbergh Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63131
More information.

"St. Louis on the Air" discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter and join the conversation at @STLonAir.