Jesse James 18471882

Unidentified photographer
Albumen silver print, 1882

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

This portrait of Jesse James was marketed to audiences not long after the famous outlaw was killed in 1882 at the age of thirty-four. Given James’s elusiveness, his wife provided confirmation that it was he who was pictured in this photograph.

James’s life of violence began when he became a member of a Confederate guerrilla group as a teenager—along with his older brother Frank—in part to avenge an assault on his family by Union troops during the Civil War.

After the war, James failed to return to the life of a law-abiding citizen and instead began robbing banks and trains in Missouri. A Kansas City newspaper editor who supported James’s Confederate sympathies transformed his criminal activities into sensationalized fiction and made James appear more as a forgivable Robin Hood figure than the unrepentant bandit that he was.