Robert Ford (outlaw)

Robert Newton Ford (January 31, 1862 – June 8, 1892) was an American outlaw best known for killing his gang's leader Jesse James in April 1882, to collect a reward and a promised amnesty for past crimes. For about a year, Ford and his older brother Charles performed paid re-enactments of the killing at publicity events. Later he drifted around the West, operating saloons and dance halls.

Robert Newton Ford
Robert Ford, c. 1883
Born(1862-01-31)January 31, 1862
DiedJune 8, 1892(1892-06-08) (aged 30)
Cause of deathGunshot wounds (shot)
Resting placeRichmond Cemetery in Richmond, Missouri
OccupationGangster; Saloon owner
Known forThe assassination of Jesse James
Parent(s)James Thomas and Mary Bruin Ford

Ford was shot to death at the age of 30 in Creede, Colorado, by Edward Capehart O'Kelley, who attacked him in Ford's temporary tent saloon. Ford was first buried in Creede. His remains were later exhumed and reburied in the Richmond Cemetery in Richmond, Ray County, Missouri.

Early years

Robert Ford was born in 1862, in Ray County, Missouri. He was the youngest child of James Thomas Ford and his wife, the former Mary Bruin. As a young man, Robert became an admirer of Jesse James for his Civil War record and criminal exploits. In 1880, at the age of 18, he finally met James.

Ford's brother Charles is believed to have taken part in the James-Younger gang's Blue Cut train robbery[1] in Jackson County, west of Glendale, Missouri (renamed Selsa and now part of Independence), on September 7, 1881.[2][3]

Joining the gang

In November 1881, after the train robbery, James moved his family to St. Joseph, Missouri and intended to give up crime. The James gang had been greatly reduced in numbers by that time; some had fled the gang in fear of prosecution, and many of the original members were either dead or in prison after a botched bank robbery in Northfield, Minnesota. After the train robbery, James' brother Frank James had also decided to retire from crime and moved East, settling in Lynchburg, Virginia.[4]

By the spring of 1882, with his gang depleted by arrests, deaths, and defections, James thought that he could trust only the Ford brothers.[5] Charles had been out on raids with James before, but Bob was an eager new recruit. The Fords resided in St. Joseph with the James family, where Jesse went by the alias Thomas Howard.

Hoping to keep the gang alive, James invited the Fords to take part in the robbery of the Platte City Bank in Missouri, but the brothers had already decided not to participate; rather, they intended to collect the $10,000 bounty placed on James by Governor Thomas T. Crittenden. In January 1882, Bob Ford and gang member Dick Liddil had surrendered to Sheriff James Timberlake at their sister Martha Bolton's residence in Ray County. They were brought into a meeting with Crittenden, as they had been around the James' cousin Wood Hite the day Hite was murdered. Crittenden promised Ford a full pardon if he would kill James, who was by then the most wanted criminal in the USA.[6] Crittenden had made capturing the James brothers his top priority; in his inaugural address he declared that no political motives could be allowed to keep them from justice. Barred by law from offering a sufficiently large reward, he had turned to the railroad and express corporations to put up a $5,000 bounty for the delivery of each of them and an additional $5,000 for the conviction of either of them. [7]

Living with the James' family, the Fords became part of the daily routine, and James' wife cooked for them. They were nervous and bored, looking for opportunity, and feeling restless. The confession of Liddil to participating in Hite's murder made the news, and pressure began to build around James.

Killing Jesse James

On April 3, 1882, after eating breakfast, the Fords and James went into the living room before travelling to Platte City. By reading the daily newspaper, James had just learned of gang member Liddil's confession for participating in Hite's murder and grew increasingly suspicious of the Fords for never reporting this matter to him. According to Robert Ford, it became clear to him that James had realized they were there to betray him. However, instead of scolding the Fords, James walked across the living room to lay his revolvers on a sofa. He turned around and noticed a dusty picture above the mantel, and stood on a chair in order to clean it. Robert Ford drew his weapon and shot James in the back of the head.[9][10]

After the killing, the Fords wired Crittenden to claim their reward. They surrendered themselves to legal authorities but were dismayed to be charged with first degree murder. In one day, the Ford brothers were indicted, pleaded guilty, and sentenced to death by hanging, but two hours later Crittenden granted them a full pardon.[11]

Later years

Public opinion turned against the Fords for betraying their gang leader, and Bob was seen as a coward and traitor for killing James. This sentiment clashed with the general public opinion at the time of James' death that it had been time for James to be stopped by any means. For a period, Bob earned money by posing for photographs as "the man who killed Jesse James" in dime museums.[12] He also appeared on stage with his brother Charles, reenacting the murder in a touring stage show.

Charles, terminally ill with tuberculosis and addicted to morphine, committed suicide on May 4, 1884.[13] Soon afterward, Bob Ford and Dick Liddil relocated to Las Vegas, New Mexico, where they opened a saloon.[14] According to legend, Ford had a shooting contest with Jose Chavez y Chavez, a comrade-in-arms of Billy the Kid's during the Lincoln County War. Ford lost the contest and left town.[15]

On December 26, 1889, Ford survived an assassination attempt in Kansas City, Kansas when an assailant tried to slit his throat.[16] Within a few years, Ford settled in Colorado, where he opened a saloon-gambling house in Walsenberg. When silver was found in Creede, Ford closed his saloon and opened one there.[17]

On the eve of Easter 1892, Ford and gunman Joe Palmer, a member of the Soapy Smith gang, were drinking in the local saloons and then went outside and shot out windows and street lamps along Creede's Main Street.

Ford purchased a lot and on May 29, 1892 opened Ford's Exchange, said to have been a dance hall.[18] Six days later, the entire business district, including Ford's Exchange, burned to the ground in a major fire. Ford opened a tent saloon until he could rebuild.


Three days after the fire, on June 8, 1892, Edward O'Kelley entered Ford's tent saloon with a shotgun. According to witnesses, Ford's back was turned. O'Kelley said, "Hello, Bob." As Ford turned to see who it was, O'Kelley fired both barrels, killing Ford instantly. O'Kelley hence became "the man who killed the man who killed Jesse James". O'Kelley's sentence was commuted because of a 7,000-signature petition in favor of his release and a medical condition, and he was released on October 3, 1902.[19][20][21] O'Kelley was subsequently killed on January 13, 1904 while trying to shoot a policeman.

Ford was buried in Creede. His remains were later moved and reinterred at Richmond Cemetery in his native Richmond in Ray County, Missouri; "The man who shot Jesse James" was inscribed on his grave marker.[22]

Cultural depictions


The James and Ford brothers were popular subjects of Western films in the 1940s and 1950s:



  • The lyrics of the folk song "Jesse James" (first recorded in 1924 and later recorded by others, such as The Kingston Trio, Bruce Springsteen and The Pogues) refer to Ford as "Well it was Robert Ford/that dirty little coward/I wonder now how he feels/for he ate of Jesse's bread/and he slept in Jesse's bed/and he laid poor Jesse in his grave."
  • In the Bob Dylan song "Outlaw Blues", Dylan alludes to Ford with the lines, "I ain't gonna hang no picture/Ain't gonna hang no picture frame/Well I might look like a Robert Ford/But I feel just like a Jesse James".
  • Elton John's song "I Feel Like a Bullet (In the Gun of Robert Ford)", from the Rock of the Westies (1975) album, refers to a betrayal in a romantic relationship that is metaphorically likened to Jesse James' assassin.
  • In Warren Zevon's song "Frank and Jesse James", Ford is noted in the lyrics, "Robert Ford, a gunman/In exchange for his parole/Took the life of James the outlaw/Which he snuck up on and stole".
  • In The Sugarhill Gang's song "Apache", Ford is referenced in the lyrics, "My tribe went down in the Hall of Fame/'Cause I'm the one who shot Jesse James".
  • In song by Australian singer-songwriter Dave Graney, ‘Robert Ford On The Stage’, from Graney’s 1989 Album, ‘My Life On The Plains’ (Dave Graney With The White Buffaloes). Graney’s song is a potent evocation of Ford’s tortured psychological state after he killed the notorious Jesse James. The song weaves a haunting narrative, mixing references to the closing moments of an imaginary Australian Rules Football match, and the bizarre stage-show created by Ford and his brother, which toured the countryside, enacting the infamous assassination.


Television series


  1. Yeatman, Ted P. (2000). Frank and Jesse James, page 254. Cumberland House Publishing.
  2. Settle, William A. (1977). Jesse James was His Name, page 117. Bison Books.
  3. "New Facts on the "Blue Cut" and Glendale". Retrieved February 7, 2014.
  4. Yeatman, Ted P. (2000). Frank and Jesse James. Cumberland House Publishing. pp. 263–64.
  5. King, Susan (September 17, 2007). "One more shot at the legend of Jesse James". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved December 7, 2008. By 1882, the James gang was a shadow of its former self on account of arrests, death and defections. The only people James felt he could trust were Charley Ford, who had been a veteran of James’ raids, and his brother Robert Ford, who was eager to prove himself.
  6. Stiles, T.J. (2003). Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War. Vintage. ISBN 978-0375705588.
  7. Hanes, Elizabeth. "Jesse James Wanted Poster Goes Up for Auction". A&E Television Networks. Retrieved September 17, 2018.
  8. Williams, Michael D. (November 29, 2017). "Death of the man who killed, the man who killed Jesse James". Retrieved September 5, 2018.
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  10. Yeatman, Ted P. (2000). Frank and Jesse James: The Story Behind the Legend. Cumberland House Publishing. pp. 264–9. ISBN 1-58182-325-8.
  11. "Jesse James's Murderers. The Ford Brothers Indicted, Plead Guilty, Sentenced To Be Hanged, And Pardoned All In One Day". The New York Times. April 18, 1882. Retrieved December 7, 2008.
  12. Yeatman, Ted P. (December 2006), "Jesse James's Assassination and the Ford Boys", Wild West, History Net, retrieved November 26, 2012
  13. "Ford Family archival data". Archived from the original on March 18, 2012.
  14. William Preston Mangum II (April 2007). "Liddil Rode Beside The James Brothers; But later turned against them". 19 (6). Wild West. p. 20.
  15. Hurst, James W. (January 10, 2003). "Jose Chavey y Chavez Hombre Muy Malo". Southern New Archived from the original on October 19, 2011.
  16. "Bob Ford's Narrow Escape. An Admirer Of Jesse James Tries To Cut His Throat" (PDF). The New York Times. December 27, 1889. Retrieved December 9, 2008.
  17. Rocky Mountain News, March 7, 1892, p.2.
  18. Ries, Judith (1994). Ed O'Kelley: The Man Who Murdered Jesse James' Murderer. St. Louis, Mo.: Patches Publication. p. 104. ISBN 0-934426-61-9.
  19. Ries, Judith (1994). Ed O'Kelley: The Man Who Murdered Jesse James' Murderer. Marble Hill, Missouri: Stewart Printing and Publishing Co. ISBN 0-934426-61-9.
  20. Warman, Cy (1898). Frontier Stories, "A Quiet Day In Creed". New York, NY: Charles Scribner's Sons. pp. 93–101. Retrieved May 16, 2012.
  21. The Wild Bandits of the Border. Chicago, IL: Laird & Lee. 1893. pp. 355–363. Retrieved May 16, 2012.
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  23. Smith, Ronald L. (December 9, 2009). "The Horror Hams: Laird Cregar, John Carradine and Basil Rathbone". Horror Stars on Radio: The Broadcast Histories of 29 Chilling Hollywood Voices. McFarland & Company. p. 95. ISBN 9780786457298.
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  29. Cole, Jake (October 3, 2017). Gonzalez, Ed; Cinquemani, Sal (eds.). "The Long Riders". Slant Magazine. Retrieved March 28, 2018.
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  32. Bauer, Alex (January 7, 2017). "Casey Affleck's First Run-In With 'Oscar'". Medium. Retrieved March 28, 2018.
  33. Honeycutt, Kirk (August 30, 2017). "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford". The Hollywood Reporter. Lynne Segall. ISSN 0018-3660. Retrieved March 28, 2018.
  34. Walker, J.P. (February 26, 2015). The American Old West: Gangs, Outlaws & Gunfights: Gangs, Outlaws & Gunfights. p. 311. ISBN 9781312948969.
  35. Chance, Norman (January 7, 2011). Who was Who on TV. Xlibris Corporation. p. 293. ISBN 9781456824563.
  36. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on September 2, 2009. Retrieved July 7, 2010.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  37. "The Aftermath" Episode 75 overall, episode 8 of season 4, originally aired November 7, 1977. Publication # 4008.

Further reading

  • Ries, Judith. Ed O'Kelley: The Man Who Murdered Jesse James' Murderer. St. Louis, Mo.: Patches Publication. 1994
  • Yeatman, Ted. Frank and Jesse James Nashville: Cumberland House, 2001.
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