Jesse James’ gang pulled first daylight bank robbery at Liberty, Missouri

Jesse James
The Liberty bank was the sight of the first daylight bank robbery in American history. Jesse and Frank James’ gang was credited with it.

For a “law and order, good guys always win” kind of guy, I have a weird fascination with all things Jesse James. We’ve visited the farmstead of his youth, the house where he met his untimely demise, and even saw the first coffin used to carry his body after he was murdered by Bob Ford. I have additional locations on my bucket list to visit that are Jesse James-related: a hide-out at the Meramec (Missouri) caverns, sight of the first daytime train robbery in the west (Iowa) and a Minnesota bank robbery attempt.

So, it seemed fitting to visit Liberty, Missouri – the sight of the first daytime bank robbery in American history. The James Gang was credited with the robbery. The bank was turned into the Jesses James Bank Museum.

The bank sits on a corner near the town square. Liberty strikes visitors as Anytown USA. Liberty is also home to the “Liberty Jail,” where Mormon prophet Joseph Smith and others were held in custody for a few months.

Back to the bank robbery. It was a cold, snowy day when a group of men rode into town on February 13, 1866. Frank James and another man walked into the bank at 2 p.m. The bank was empty except for the clerk and his assistant (who happened to be his son). Frank warmed his hands over the wood-burning stove. Then, he walked to the counter and asked the banker if he could cash a certificate.

Jesse James
The bank as it looked on the day of the robbery in 1866.

As the banker – Greenup Bird – turned to walk toward the opened vault, Frank pulled his revolver and jumped atop the low-lying counter and he moved toward Bird and the vault. Then, the second robber jumped on the counter, pulling his gun. He pushed Bird’s son toward a fireplace.

Jesse James
The bank’s vault, where the James Gang scored $60,000 (millions today).
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The robbers had about $60,000 worth of cash and certificates thrown into a bag. That included stamps required to cash the certificates. The robbery would have been worth millions today.

Jesse James
Stamps used for bank certificates during the 1800s.

As the group of men made off with their loot, they fired off several rounds to create a diversion. During the escape, they shot and killed a 17-year-old college student, George Wymore. The victim attended William Jewell College in Liberty.

The men made their way to the river not far from town. They managed to get their horses and themselves aboard a ferry boat and across the water before a posse could catch up with them. The posse was slowed by a storm that rolled in during the chase.

The bank – opened in in 1858 – couldn’t recoup its losses and eventually closed. Back then, there wasn’t federal insurance to protect customers’ deposits.

The museum reflects the way the bank looked that February afternoon. Bars were added to the bank counter for effect, our guide told us.

Jesse James
The actual bank ledger from Feb. 13, 1866, the day of the robbery.

The museum has a small gallery displaying bank-related memorabilia sponsored by a descendant of George Wymore. Photographs are not allowed to be taken there.

Jesse James
Replica of the bank clerk’s desk.

The Jesse James Bank Museum – aka the Clay County Savings and Loan Association – is open 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. Monday-Saturday.

For more information, including admission fees, please visit www.claycountymo.gov/Historic_Sites/Jesse_James_Bank_Museum.