MY KENTUCKY: The Invincible Zerelda Cole James

By Sam Terry
Managing Editor
Jobe Publishing, Inc,

ZERELDA COLE JAMES, mother of outlaws Frank and Jesse

A native of Woodford County, 16-year old Zerelda Cole married Robert James, a college student, in Stamping Ground on December 28, 1841. Within a year, the newlyweds moved to Clay County, Missouri where they had four children – Alexander Franklin, Robert who died as an infant, Jesse Woodson, and Susan Lavinia. In 1850, Robert, who had become a Baptist preacher, decided to travel west to preach to gold miners in the great California Gold Rush. He died within a few months and there is no record of where his remains were buried.

Widowed at age 25, Zerelda Cole James needed a husband and in 1852 married Benjamin Simms, a wealthy neighbor. The marriage proved to be a failure and the couple separated within a year. Simms died a year later in 1854. Within a few months Zerelda married her third husband, Dr. Reuben Samuel who was described by contemporaries as “completely under the control of his wife.”

When the Civil War paralyzed the country, young Frank James ended up fighting for the south; when his comrades were driven from Missouri, he joined the “bushwhackers” who continued fighting Union soldiers and sympathizers. When federal officials visited the Samuel farm, Dr. Samuel was tortured for information about Frank’s whereabouts and Zerelda was jailed until she signed an oath of allegiance in order to be free of federal officials.

In 1864, Zerelda’s sons Frank and Jesse were part of a massacre of unarmed soldiers, an act their mother felt admirable and about which she boasted. Standing nearly 6 feet tall, Zerelda was a force to be reckoned with and as one Union officer stated, she was “one of the worst women in this state.” She was banished from Missouri to Nebraska in 1865 but when the war was over, she returned to Missouri.

ZERELDA COLE JAMES at the grave of her son, outlaw Jesse James.

When Jesse James was murdered in 1882, Zerelda rejected an offer of $10,000 for his body. Worried that grave robbers would steal Jesse’s body, she had him buried in her front yard, an extra few feet deep and within clear sight of her bedroom window.

Eventually, the lure of money caught her attention and she opened her home to visitors for 25-cent tours of the house in which the James boys were reared. A feature of the tour was her recounting of the Pinkerton Detectives’ raid on the home during which an explosive device thrown into the house detonated causing Zerelda to lose an arm.

Unquestionably, the highlight of the tour was a visit to Jesse’s grave where, for a few cents more, visitors could select a rock from Jesse’s grave. When the supply of pebbles ran low, Zerelda replenished with a new batch from a nearby stream. When visitors were sufficiently impressed with her story, she sometimes offered to sell them one of Jesse’s guns – always old, rusted, and inoperable. The result was thoroughly enchanted visitors convinced they had purchased one of Jesse James’ guns when in reality, Zerelda was purchasing old guns to fuel her thriving business.

Living to be 86 years old, Zerelda died in 1911 near Oklahoma City while on a train headed to San Francisco. She was buried beside her third husband (who had died three years earlier in an insane asylum due to the torture he endured years earlier) and her son, Jesse.

Sam Terry’s “My Kentucky” is published weekly in Jobe Publishing newspapers in celebration of the 225th anniversary of Kentucky’s statehood. Past columns can be accessed at www.jpinews.com

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