Archive for Sunday, January 26, 2003

Outlaw’s life shrouded in myth

Jesse James was no noble Robin Hood, author argues

January 26, 2003


Back when my wife and I ran the newspaper in tiny Bern, I wrote a story about an old but well-preserved stone house on the outskirts of town. The owners shared a handed-down account about how Frank and Jesse James' gang had once spent the night there, and how, after they left, the woman of the house found a $20 gold piece under one of the James brothers' breakfast plates.

According to the owners' long-dead relatives' memories, the James brothers were brooding but generous, sort of like Robin Hood.

Years later, when we were running the twice-weekly newspaper in Neodesha, I wrote about a local man who said his relatives had long ago let a hermit take up residence in a rundown shack on their farm. The hermit didn't say much, only that he'd come from St. Joseph, Mo., and that he preferred to be left alone. He rarely went to town.

The hermit later died. When the family went to gather his belongings, they found a small trunk under his bed. Inside was an inch-thick collection of newspaper clippings about Jesse James' exploits and assassination.

They also found three pieces of antique jewelry that sure looked like those worn by Zerelda James, Jesse and Frank's mother, in the famous photograph of her, seated, stern-faced, holding a revolver.

The man insisted the hermit was Jesse James, who, as barroom rumor had it, had staged his death so that he could live in peace and anonymity. To remove all doubt, he took me to a township cemetery to see the hermit's simple tombstone. It read, "James."

That's 'nonsense'

I shared these stories during a recent telephone interview with T.J. Stiles, author of "Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War," a fascinating biography that's as much about life along the Kansas-Missouri border before, during and after the Civil War as it is about the youngest James brother.

He'd heard them many times before. He said the notion James staged his assassination is "one of the biggest pieces of nonsense that's circulated over the years."

Stiles said James was definitely shot and killed by turncoat Bob Ford on April 3, 1882, as he dusted a picture in the living room of a house he had rented six months earlier in St. Joseph, Mo. His back was turned; he'd tossed his holstered revolvers onto the bed a minute earlier.

Ford and his brother, Charley, who also was in the room, were tried and convicted for James' murder. Both were soon pardoned by Gov. Thomas Crittenden, who made sure the railroads followed through on their promised rewards.

Stiles, who spent four years -- three of them full-time -- researching James and his times, said James was definitely dead.

"Nobody who's looked into the story of Jesse James' death doubts that he was assassinated or that it was really him," Stiles said.

The story about the Jameses leaving a $20 gold piece under the breakfast plate could be true, he said, though it's probably not.

"I've heard that story many times from many different people. I've also read it," Stiles said. "But I've never found it mentioned in a contemporary newspaper account or in a letter from the time.

"But there are accounts of their moving through an area, and that they paid handsomely for whatever it was they needed," he said. "So, it's possible the gold-piece story is true, but it's also possible -- and more likely -- that it's part of the 'urban myth' that circulated after Jesse James' death and that, over the years, has taken on a life of its own."

Dismantling a myth

Rich in detail and thoroughly readable, "Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War" is all about dismantling the myth (the one I helped perpetuate!) that James robbed banks and trains the way Robin Hood robbed the rich and tyrannical, that he was somehow a champion for the post-Civil War underdog.

Stiles makes clear that while bad things did, in fact, happen to the James family, Jesse was still a thug whose conscience didn't get in the way when it came to killing people. A noble outlaw he was not.

But James' thuggery, Stiles argues, is intertwined with pre- and post-Civil War politics and nuance, and to understand James requires an understanding of his time and place.

Violence was both commonplace and random. Or, as Stiles writes, James and his cohorts were guerillas who had " lines, no objectives, no strategy, no command structure. Theirs was a purely tactical war, a war to inflict pain, to punish, to kill, and destroy. Every barn and brook was a battlefield; every citizen either an ally or a target."

James, who with brother Frank killed his first Unionist at 16, rode with gangs of bushwhackers led by William Quantrill and, later, the aptly monikered "Bloody Bill" Anderson. After the war, James, finding himself adrift in a Unionist society he'd come to despise, kept on robbing and killing. The Lost Cause became his cause.

Stiles argues that James' mixing violence and politics made him a terrorist. In the prologue, he writes: "In the life of Jesse James, we see the place where politics meets the gun."

Clearly, those were violent times, and Stiles spares few details in telling how pro-slavery and abolitionists were, when the opportunity presented itself, quick to kill each other. His account of Anderson's gang executing 22 Union soldiers -- all of them wounded and unarmed -- encountered during a train robbery at Centralia, Mo., is especially brutal.

An avid reader, James wasn't above playing the media when it came to turning his crimes into political statements. My favorite example is when James, frustrated by reporters often failing to make the connection, left an explanatory press release after robbing a train at Gads Hill, Mo.

Not knowing how much the robbery would net, he left a blank space for the railroad to fill in.

Kansas' role

Lawrence is mentioned a few times in "Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War," usually within the context of Frank James taking part in Quantrill's infamous massacre. Jesse James had not yet joined Quantrill's group.

Stiles endorses Lawrence-area historians' claim that the Civil War began around here. He writes: "In many ways, the bloodshed in Kansas proved to be both a precipitating factor in the outbreak of the Civil War and a first skirmish in the conflict between North and South."

These skirmishes, he said, also had the effect of pitting pro-slavery and abolitionist Missourians against each other. For James, that meant neighbors killing neighbors.

It's worth noting that while most Kansans view Missouri as a pro-slavery state -- that's what we're taught in high school -- most Missourians were not Confederates.

"When you look at the numbers of troops who served on each side," Stiles said, "between two-thirds and three-fourths of the men in Missouri were Unionists."

So why the misperception?

In part, Stiles said, it's because that's what James wanted us to believe. It, too, is part of the myth.

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