Crime as a Family Occupation

Crime as a family occupation is as old as family and the concept of crime. After all, when the world turns against you, family still stands at your back. Brothers stand together, and sons try to emulate fathers. Yet without a support structure, even the tightest criminal father-son team can’t get away with it forever. For this reason, families where crime is a family occupation come in two varieties: the small gang or partnership which lasts at most a few years, and the extended family criminal organization that, often counting dozens or even hundreds of living members, spans generations.

Frank and Jesse James

Perhaps the best known family criminals are Frank and Jesse James, who along with the four Younger brothers became the founding members of the James-Younger gang. This group of bank and train robbers turned to crime after the end of the American Civil War, when members of the Missouri Confederate bushwacker units returned home to discover a Missouri in shambles and their own homestead at risk. Cole Younger and his brothers had an additional reason to hate the Republican former Unionists: their father, two sisters, and three cousins had been killed by Union militiamen during the Civil War.

Probably no one will ever know the real reason the James brothers began robbing banks along with Archie Clement and later Cole Younger. Newspaper letters written by Jesse portray him as a Confederate loyalist who resented Reconstruction and all that came with it, but Jesse was skilled at image management. Records from that period show that Union abolitionist militia auxiliaries were commonly involved in arson, rape, and murder of Confederate sympathizers, but there is no evidence that any of the James family was targeted until after Jesse had attracted the personal enmity of Allan Pinkerton.

The Clay County Savings Association became victim of the first ever daylight robbery of an American bank. It was owned by Republican militia officers, but there is no evidence that either Frank or Jesse James was involved in this first robbery. It was only after the fact that their legend linked them to the Clay County robbery. Later bank robberies by the James-Younger gang were often tied to railroads, hated for their link with state-supported eminent domain, but this could easily have been because these banks also carried the railroad payroll.

In 1879, Jesse was forced to recruit a new gang that contained neither brother nor brothers-in-arms. It was the beginning of the end. The new recruits had not bonded on the battlefield, they were not battle-hardened, and the old loyalties were gone. Three years later, Jesse James was dead, shot by one of the two men he thought he could trust.