Zee James: Wife of Jesse James

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Zerelda Amanda Mimms James was the wife and first cousin of outlaw Jesse James. Zerelda, who went by the name Zee, was born in Logan, Kentucky on July 21, 1845 to Pastor John Wilson Mimms and Mary Elizabeth James. She was one of twelve children born to the couple.

Zee is often described as diminutive and dark-haired and was a devout Methodist. Zee’s mother, Mary James, was the sister of Robert James, Jesse’s father.

After Jesse James was shot in the chest while trying to surrender to Union troops in the spring of 1865, he hid out at her father’s boardinghouse near Kansas City until the fall, while Zee nursed his wounds. The couple became secretly engaged shortly after and finally married nine years later on April 24, 1874 at Zee’s sister’s house in Kansas City, Missouri, with their Uncle Reverend William James presiding.

During the wedding ceremony, the couple had a brief scare when someone reported two detectives were approaching, prompting everyone to temporarily flee, but they returned when it was discovered to be a false report.

Zerelda Mimms James circa 1898
Zerelda Mimms James circa 1898

The couple spent their honeymoon in Galveston, Texas before returning to Kansas City, Missouri. Jesse’s friend, John Edwards, wrote up an article about the wedding for the St. Louis Dispatch, which was published on June 9, 1874, and falsely claimed the couple planned to settle in Mexico in order to throw off detectives looking for James.

Edwards quoted Jesse discussing his new bride, stating: “Her devotion to me has never wavered for a moment. You can say that both of us married for love, and that there cannot be any sort of doubt about our marriage being a happy one.”

Edwards himself described Zee in the article as a young lady “with an elegant form, beautiful eyes, and a face that would be attractive in any assembly.”

Frank and Jesse James moved their families to Tennessee sometime in the first half of 1875 and assumed the aliases B.J. Woodson and Thomas Howard, while Zee assumed the alias Josie Howard.

On August 31, 1875, Zee and Jesse James had their first child, a son they named Jesse Edward James.

On February 28, 1878, they had twins, whom they named Gould and Montgomery after the two doctors who attended Zee, but the twins were either stillborn or died the same day. According to Frank James’ wife, Annie, after the twins died Zee breastfed Annie’s own newborn son, Robert, because Annie couldn’t produce enough milk for him.

On June 17, 1879, Zee and Jesse had a daughter they named Mary Susan James.

In March of 1881, when one of the James gang members, Bill Ryan, was captured and identified in Tennessee, the James brothers decided to move their families back to Missouri, where they settled in St. Joseph.

The following spring, on April 3, 1882, Jesse James met with Bob and Charles Ford at James’s rented house in St. Joseph to plan a new robbery when Bob Ford shot Jesse in the back of the head after he turned to straighten a photo on the wall.

Zee was in the kitchen at the time and came running in as the Ford brothers fled the house, although Charles paused long enough to tell Zee the gun had gone off by accident. The brothers ran to the telegraph office to wire the news to Sheriff James Timberlake, Police Commissioner Henry H. Craig and Missouri Governor Thomas Theodore Crittendon.

When the police arrived, Zee at first identified the dead man as Thomas Howard but eventually admitted he was Jesse James.

A coroner’s inquest was held at the St. Joseph Courthouse later that day from 4pm until 6pm. Zee James, the Ford brothers, Coroner Dr. J.W. Heddens, and others testified on the events of the day. At 10pm, an autopsy was performed by Dr. J.W. Heddens, Dr. Jacob Geiger, Dr. F.C. Hoyt and Dr. George C. Catlett.

On April 5, Zee James, Zerelda Samuel, Zee’s children and other family members accompanied James’ body to Kearney, Missouri by train and he was buried on the James family farm where he was born.

Although many sources claim that Zee refused all offers to publish a book about Jesse James, on April 15, 1882, Zee and Zerelda met with a publisher named J.H. Chambers to discuss his plans to publish a book about Jesse James, titled The Life and Times of and Treacherous Death of Jesse James by Frank Triplett. It is believed that Zee and Zerelda either dictated the story or at least filled in some of the missing details.

Chambers, paid Zee and Zerelda a $50 advance royalty payment for the book and the two women met with Triplett and Chambers on April 28 and 29 to read the proofs and make any necessary changes. The book was published the following month.

Frank James is said to have objected to the book’s publication and was angry at Zee and Triplett,

particularly for including an article in the book, which had originally appeared in the Kansas City Times on April 11, 1882, that accused Frank and Jesse of fathering illegitimate children.

When the publishing company later failed to make anymore promised royalty payments, Zee and Zerelda sued the publisher and were awarded $942 in royalties.

Zee continued to struggle financially after James’ death and suffered from terrible depression for years. John Edwards actively tried to raise money for Zee and her children and continued to write articles defending Jesse James and his legacy.

Zee James died on November 13, 1900, at the age of 55, and was buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Kearney, Missouri. Two years later, Jesse James’ body was moved from the family farm and buried next to her.

If you want to read more about Zee and Jesse James, check out this article on the best books about Jesse James.

Sources:
Settle, William, Jr. Jesse Was His Name. University of Missouri Press, 1966.
“Zee James (1845 – 1900).” The State Historical Society of Missouri, historicmissourians.shsmo.org/historicmissourians/name/j/jamesz/

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