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The Jesse James Bank Museum was the site of the first successful daylight bank robbery in US peacetime, which was also the first bank robbery attributed to the notorious Jesse James Gang. On a cold, calm February afternoon in 1866, about a dozen gunmen rode into Liberty and robbed the bank of over $60,000. The bandits were never caught, and their identity was never absolutely proven, but the consensus among historians is that Jesse James almost certainly had a hand in the planning of the robbery, and members of his gang are credited with implementing it. The bank has been converted into a museum that appears as it did on the day the robbery was committed.

  • The Jesse James Bank Museum
  • Jesse James (1847-1882)
  • The vault from which the Jesse James gang took $60,000.
  • The safe inside the vault.
  • A school group on a tour of the museum
  • A close-up of the rare Seth Thomas clock, set to the time of the robbery.
  • The historical marker on the building

The Jesse James Bank Museum is the only antebellum commercial building still standing in Liberty, Missouri. The Farmers Bank opened in the historic town square of Liberty, Missouri in 1859, just after construction of the building was complete. In 1864, the Farmers Bank had failed, and the building was rented out to the Clay County Savings Association. [1]

On Tuesday, February 13, 1866, the bank’s cashier, Greenup Bird, and his son William, were quietly working when a two young men came in and asked for change for a large bill. The men then pulled revolvers on them and told them to empty the vault into a sack. Other gunmen entered the bank; accounts say that about ten or twelve were involved in the heist. When the vault was empty, the gunmen told the Birds to get inside and shut the door on them but failed to lock it completely. As they mounted their horses and rode away, one of the gunmen shot at George Wymore, a student at William Jewell College in Liberty. [3, 4]

Greenup and William Bird were able to escape from the vault shortly after the bandits rode away and ran out into the streets shouting for help. However, a snowstorm blew in that afternoon and covered up the tracks of the robbers. They got away with about $60,000 in cash and government bonds [3], or about $1 million adjusted for inflation in 2019. A few days later, the family of George Wyman received a letter apologizing for the death of their son and stating that it was not their intention that anyone be killed. It was signed by Frank and Jesse James. As Frank and Jesse James were not yet notorious criminals, it is unlikely that the note was a forgery. [5]

The Liberty robbery was the first associated with Jesse James, although it is still not clear whether he was actually present at the robbery itself. Some sources put him at his family farm in nearby Kearney, recuperating from a near-deadly wound to his lung. However, other witnesses who knew Frank and Jesse personally positively identified them as part of the gang, but kept quiet out of fear. [1] Whether they were present or not, the James brothers almost certainly had a hand in planning the robbery in the months before it occurred, and other well-known members of the gang like Cole Younger and Arch Clements were likely involved. [5] Historian Deon K. Wolfenbarqer has said: “Despite the uncertainties and ambiguities, most historians of the postbellum banditry on the Middle Border have asserted that the careers of the James gang began on February 13, 1866, at Liberty with the robbery of the Clay County Savings Association.” [1]

The James Gang went on to commit many more notorious bank, stagecoach, and train robberies over the next several decades. The Liberty bank has been preserved as the Jesse James Bank Museum. The museum is set up inside with period pieces to appear as it was on the morning of the robbery. One of the furnishings is a rare Seth Thomas clock, one of only two in existence, which is set to the time when the robbery occurred. The original bright green and gold painted vault labeled “Clay County Savings Association” still exists. Photographs and other documents that tell the story of the other exploits of the James Gang are also on display. [4,6]

1.      Wolfenbarger, Deon K. “National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination Form: Clay County Savings Association Building.” Missouri Department of Natural Resources Website. Form prepared 1992. Accessed December 5, 2019.

2.      Clarke, Jay. “Missouri bank cashes in on Jesse James.” Chicago Tribune Online. May 2, 2004. Accessed December 5, 2019.

3.      A History of Clay and Platte Counties, Missouri. St. Louis: National Historical Company, 1885. Accessed December 5, 2019.

4.      Trudell, Tim. “Jesse James’ gang pulled first daylight bank robbery at Liberty, Missouri.” The Walking Tourists Blog. April 18, 2016. Accessed December 5, 2019.

5.      “February 13, 1866: Jesse James’ First Bank Robbery.” Plaza College Official Website. February 13, 2012. Accessed December 5, 2019.

6.      “Jesse James Bank Museum.” Clay County Tourism Official Website. Accessed December 5, 2019.

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