Jesse James in fact and fiction
Well, almost apotheosis. If he hasn’t become a god, he’s been pretty well sanctified or beatified since his death. The Jesse James of popular understanding is a good man: or at the very least a bad man with many saving graces. On the screen he has been a hero. It’s in many ways curious that a sociopath, a young guerrilla fighter from a slave-owning family who participated in atrocities and what today would be called war crimes, a man who after the war turned to robbery and murder, a vain and violent fellow, a plain bad egg in other words, should become the gallant knight of myth and popular legend.
Jesse Woodson James (1847 - 1882)
As with the likes of Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill Hickok, the process started while he was still pursuing his chosen profession – in Jesse James’s case stealing from and killing innocent people. The James Gang made the leap from local to national fame when they switched from robbing local banks to holding up trains in 1873 to ‘74. Suddenly they were famous in an altogether different way. A story was published as early as 1874 in the New York World describing a gunfight between the James gang and Pinkerton detectives.
In 1877 passionate James partisan JN Edwards published Noted Guerrillas in which he argued that Jesse and his comrades were a knightly warrior class carrying on the Great Cause by other means (he did not call these means thieving and killing). The James boys were ‘natural aristocrats’ and heroic fighters. Edwards placed James and his accomplices within the Southern tradition of ‘honor’, with the right to defend himself, his home and his beliefs with deadly force. James wasn’t just a criminal: he was the inheritor of the whole Southern tradition.
James partisan JN Edwards
In the wake of the Glendale robbery (1879) there appeared The Life and Adventures of Frank and Jesse James and the Younger Brothers by Joseph A Dacus and this was frequently later revised and updated to include the later criminal career of Jesse, including his assassination. Dacus was a believer in the negative effects on the economy and on society of the great railroad companies, and his Jesse became a hero of the little man battling against corporate greed.
The James Gang hold up a train
In actual fact, Jesse James didn’t target the railroads at all: he assaulted the express companies. It was a key difference. Express companies oppressed no one, and Missouri farmers had little if anything to do with them. The railroad companies generally ignored the bandits, only really acting from 1881 at the urging of Governor Crittenden. It was the express companies that paid the Pinkertons and the state governors who obsessed about ‘law and order’ for political reasons.
There was huge coverage of the James Gang’s depredations in the press but hardly any mention at all of their targeting railroads or other ‘big business’. The bandits were also perfectly capable of robbing stage travelers, passengers on trains and small banks. The idea of Jesse James as the cavalier fighting corporate America was a later construct.
Right after James’s assassination in 1882 a key book appeared: Frank Triplett’s Life, Times and Treacherous Death of Jesse James. Triplett’s Jesse was a paragon of his white race, trained in Quantrill’s school of “rough riders” (barbarous guerrillas have become brave and skilled horsemen) and “Anglo-Norman Comanches” (Jesse was no common Anglo-Saxon; he was of nobler stock). Jesse treats all women chivalrously and at one point avenges the rape of a girl by Indians.
The Ballad of Jesse James also gained currency extraordinarily fast after the outlaw’s death, story-songs being so popular and such an effective way of making a legend ‘go viral’, as we would say today. The author of the song is not known for certain but is often thought to be a certain Billy Gashade, and some versions include a statement to that effect in one of the verses. In the song, Jesse was a Robin Hood:
He stole from the rich and he gave to the poor,
He'd a hand and a heart and a brain.
Of course there is no evidence whatsoever that he had such altruistic motives. We are told that “that dirty little coward” Robert Ford “laid poor Jesse in his grave”. And indeed, the manner of James’s demise earned him a lot of sympathy from those prepared to overlook his past. TJ Stiles, in his fine biography of Jesse James, quotes the diary of a Kansas City rabbi who called the killing of James “a stroke into the face of morality and civilization.”
The best book on Jesse James
And of course there came the dime novels. Between 1881 (i.e. before Jesse’s death) and 1883 Frank Tousey published a whole series of (wholly fictional) stories which followed the Deadwood Dick formula. The James Gang are chivalrous heroes victimized by the law. Rapidly, Jesse James became the leading hero of the dime novel genre, even more so than Deadwood Dick, in a way that no other outlaw ever did.
Dime novel Jesse
Earlier Western figures of legend had their origins in Cooper’s hero Hawkeye: they were brave Indian fighters, often rescuing maidens from captivity. But from the Reconstruction period on, pulp literary heroes were more often bold individuals battling for the rights of the individual against corrupt law and greedy corporations. Jesse James’s story could be easily adapted to that agenda. Again and again he was the brave fighter in combat against the wicked and grasping railroad companies. The dime novel industry was booming at the time and the ‘literary’ works were not only read by the poor. All classes perused them eagerly – except of course the illiterate, which included African-Americans deliberately deprived of education.
And the Jesse James of myth was of course taken up by the motion picture industry. There have been over a hundred portrayals of the Missouri outlaw on the big and small screen from 1921 onwards (many reviewed on this blog) and what used to be called Hollywood is still producing them (another is planned for 2017). None show the ‘true’ Jesse James; all show to a greater or lesser degree the mythic one. The pattern was set by the very first, silent movie: it was made by and starred Jesse James’s own son, and viewing it you would say that Jesse was a much-maligned, very good man, a true hero. Little has fundamentally changed since in screen Jesses. Only Brad Pitt’s in 2007 really gave us a glimpse of what the real Jesse may have been like.
Jesse James Jr. was the first to play him on screen
In the 1950s the Jesse James ‘story’ got a new boost from an unlikely source: the British Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, who wrote in Bandits (1959) about what he called the ‘social bandit’, and specifically used Jesse as an example. Social bandits, said Hobsbawm, are “peasant outlaws whom the lord and state regard as criminals, but who remain within peasant society, and are considered by their people as heroes, as champions, avengers, fighters for justice, perhaps even leaders of liberation, and in any case as men to be admired, helped and supported.” James was a good example of the social bandit because he was the victim of injustice; he righted wrongs; he stole from the rich and gave to the poor; he killed only for just revenge or in self-defense. (It seems that Hobsbawm had swallowed the pulp/Hollywood idea of Jesse James rather than the real one.)
The thesis gained international currency and soon all sorts of Wild West figures were being identified as social bandits, but none more so than Jesse James. More recently the idea has received criticism. The Western historian Richard White, for example, pointed out that as there were no peasants in nineteenth century Missouri the theory was a little flawed.
Jesse James was in many ways not a ‘Western’ outlaw at all, but a Southern one. The James Gang were Confederate heroes, even more so after the war was over. Of course many ex-Confederates frowned on the criminal activities of the James Gang, but almost all their supporters (and there were many, from all classes) were former rebels. As the Kansas City Journal of Commerce noted, “These outlaws have been harbored and befriended … by men who harbored and befriended them during the war, and by nobody else, and for no other reason.” James and his cohorts thrived in a context of deep-seated white-supremacist racism, anger at Reconstruction, and nostalgia for the ante-bellum way of life. Jesse James did not stand up for the Missouri farmer against the big corporations: he stood for certain Missouri farmers against those with Union sympathies. JN Edwards wrote in his eulogy for Jesse James, “Would to God he were alive today to make a righteous butchery of a few more of them.” James fans expressed their support after his assassination by chanting “Hurrah for Jeff Davis.”
The real Jesse James: he was always a Confederate at heart
When Jesse James was killed he was already an anachronism. With the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and the re-emergence of the Democrats, as the Civil War receded into the past, he was less and less relevant, and was branded, by both sides, as just a common robber. The James Gang had anyway been pretty well destroyed as a serious force in 1876 and James’s late 1870s activities were a pale imitation of what he had done in the war and immediately after.
Jesse's mother was a formidable woman and a huge influence
Jesse James always had an eye for publicity and was a shrewd manipulator of the press, especially in partnership with JN Edwards (for he was a partner of Edwards, not his puppet). He probably got it from his mother, who played the crowd with such skill at the inquest on and funeral of her son. Despite his moderate education, Jesse James was articulate, well-read on current events, and he much enjoyed what we would today call his celebrity status. He did have saving graces: he was a loving husband and father, and he had a sharp sense of humor. But those graces didn’t save much. He was really an unpleasant thug. Yet he is worshiped as a hero. And if he is worshiped, well then, perhaps apotheosis is the right word after all.
Tyrone Power as Hollywood Jesse in 1939