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Fine Books and Manuscripts / THE MOST IMPORTANT JESSE JAMES LETTER EXTANT. JAMES, JESSE WOODSON. 1847-1882. Autograph Letter Signed (Jesse W. James) to Dr. Samuels identifying and seeking lawful vengeance on the men who were behind the Pinkerton killings of his 8-year-old nephew Archie and the loss of his mother's arm, a pivotal event in the life and career of James,

A Private Collection of Americana and World Manuscripts
Lot 161
THE MOST IMPORTANT JESSE JAMES LETTER EXTANT.
JAMES, JESSE WOODSON. 1847-1882.
Autograph Letter Signed ("Jesse W. James") to Dr. [Samuels?] identifying and seeking lawful vengeance on the men who were behind the Pinkerton killings of his 8-year-old nephew Archie and the loss of his mother's arm, a pivotal event in the life and career of James,
28 June 2022, 10:00 EDT
New York

US$300,000 - US$500,000

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THE MOST IMPORTANT JESSE JAMES LETTER EXTANT.

JAMES, JESSE WOODSON. 1847-1882. Autograph Letter Signed ("Jesse W. James") to Dr. [Samuels?] identifying and seeking lawful vengeance on the men who were behind the Pinkerton killings of his 8-year-old nephew Archie and the loss of his mother's arm, a pivotal event in the life and career of James, in pencil on lined paper, 6 pp, 208 x 130 mm, Lafayette County, Missouri, March 23, 1875, folds strengthened, minor staining.
Provenance: Charles Hamilton; Charles Batchelder, sold in 1978 to an unknown buyer; sold Christies New York, December 16, 2004, lot 397.

IMPORTANT LETTER FROM JESSE JAMES ON THE MURDER OF HIS NEPHEW ARCHIE BY PINKERTON DETECTIVES. On January 25th, 1875, the James's farm in Kearney, Missouri was raided by Pinkerton detectives and James's 9-year old half-brother Archie was killed, uttering his final words, "Tell my mama I'm better." His mother Zerelda Samuel lost her right arm. The incident was pivotal in James's life and career and incited great public sympathy for the James brothers. In the words of Sheriff George Patton, "The grand move has made hundreds of friends for the James boys when they had but few" (Stiles, p 285).
In this long letter, James sends his father in law two letters from Samuel Hardwicke, asking Dr. Samuels to bring them to the grand jury that was convened to investigate the brutal killing, eventually indicting Allan Pinkerton and 7 other men. He identifies many of the men present that night, and indicates that he is willing to let the law take its course, adding, "but my friends will be forced to mob the murder[er]s of poor Archie if the grand Jury don['t] have the guilty party indicted."

For many years, there was great uncertainty surrounding the events at the James's farm that evening, but the discovery of letters between Pinkerton (using the pseudonym E.J. Allen) and Samuel Hardwicke in the Pinkerton Archives in the 1990s revealed a pre-existing plan coordinated by Pinkerton, punctuated by the order, "Above all else destroy the house, wipe it from the face of the earth" (E.J. Allen to Hardwicke, December 28, 1874, The Pinkerton Archive).

Despite the grand jury, none of the men who were indicted were convicted and all of the charges seem to have been dropped. On April 12, Daniel Askew, whose nearby farm formed the base of operations for the Pinkerton men but who was not indicted, was killed outside his farm by an unknown assailant widely thought to be Jesse James.

Letters of Jesse James are very rare, perhaps less than 12 extant, with only two recorded at auction in the last 30 years (this one and one sold in these rooms in 2019). A third letter, dated 1880, can be seen in Anderson's Owning Western History, p 24, and Ross's I, Jesse James cites a small number still in the family's possession. This one, providing missing and pertinent information illuminating a watershed moment in his life, stands as likely the most important. See Stiles, Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War, New York, 2002; Hamilton The Signature of America, pp 88-89 (published). Contact us for a full transcript.

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