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Jesse James c. 1882
|Born||Jesse Woodson James|
September 5, 1847
Kearney, Missouri, U.S.
|Died||April 3, 1882 (aged 34)|
St. Joseph, Missouri, U.S.
|Children||Jesse E. James, Mary James Barr|
|Parents||Robert S. James, Zerelda Cole James|
Jesse James c. 1882
|Born||Jesse Woodson James|
September 5, 1847
Kearney, Missouri, U.S.
|Died||April 3, 1882 (aged 34)|
St. Joseph, Missouri, U.S.
|Children||Jesse E. James, Mary James Barr|
|Parents||Robert S. James, Zerelda Cole James|
Jesse Woodson James (September 5, 1847 – April 3, 1882) was an American outlaw, gang leader, bank robber, train robber, and murderer from the state of Missouri and the most famous member of the James-Younger Gang. Already a celebrity when he was alive, he became a legendary figure of the Wild West after his death. Some recent scholars place him in the context of regional insurgencies of ex-Confederates following the American Civil War rather than a manifestation of frontier lawlessness or alleged economic justice.
Jesse and his brother Frank James were Confederate guerrillas during the Civil War. They were accused of participating in atrocities committed against Union soldiers. After the war, as members of one gang or another, they robbed banks, stagecoaches and trains. Despite popular portrayals of James as a kind of Robin Hood, robbing from the rich and giving to the poor, there is no evidence that he and his gang used their robbery gains for anyone but themselves.
The James brothers were most active with their gang from about 1866 until 1876, when their attempted robbery of a bank in Northfield, Minnesota, resulted in the capture or deaths of several members. They continued in crime for several years, recruiting new members, but were under increasing pressure from law enforcement. On April 3, 1882, Jesse James was killed by Robert Ford, who was a member of the gang living in the James house and who was hoping to collect a state reward on James' head.
Jesse Woodson James was born in Clay County, Missouri, near the site of present day Kearney, on September 5, 1847. Jesse James had two full siblings: his older brother, Alexander Franklin "Frank", and a younger sister, Susan Lavenia James. Across a creek and up a hill from the house on the right was the home of Daniel Askew, where Askew was killed on April 12, 1875. Askew was suspected of cooperating with the Pinkertons in the January 1875 arson of the house (in a room on the left). James's original grave was on the property but he was later moved to a cemetery in Kearney. The original footstone is still outside, although the family has replaced the headstone.
His father, Robert S. James, was a commercial hemp farmer and Baptist minister in Kentucky, who migrated to Bradford, Missouri, after marriage and helped found William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri. He was prosperous, acquiring six slaves and more than 100 acres (0.40 km2) of farmland. Robert James traveled to California during the Gold Rush to minister to those searching for gold and died there when Jesse was three years old.
After Robert James' death, his widow Zerelda remarried twice, first to Benjamin Simms and then in 1855 to Dr. Reuben Samuel, who moved into the James home. Jesse's mother and Reuben Samuel had four children together: Sarah Louisa, John Thomas, Fannie Quantrell, and Archie Peyton Samuel. Zerelda and Reuben Samuel acquired a total of seven slaves, who served mainly as farmhands in tobacco cultivation in Missouri.
The approach of the American Civil War overshadowed the James-Samuel household. Missouri was a border state, sharing characteristics of both North and South, but 75% of the population was from the South or other border states. Clay County was in a region of Missouri later dubbed "Little Dixie," as it was a center of migration from the Upper South. Farmers raised the same crops and livestock as in the areas they migrated from. They brought slaves with them and purchased more according to need. The county counted more slaveholders, who held more slaves, than other regions of the state. Aside from slavery, the culture of Little Dixie was Southern in other ways as well. This influenced how the population acted during and for a period of time after the American Civil War. In Missouri as a whole, slaves accounted for only 10 percent of the population, but in Clay County they constituted 25 percent.
After the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, Clay County became the scene of great turmoil, as the question of whether slavery would be expanded into the neighboring Kansas Territory came to dominate public life. Numerous people from Missouri migrated to Kansas to try to influence its future. Much of the tension that led up to the Civil War centered on the violence that erupted in Kansas between pro- and anti-slavery militias.
The Civil War may have shaped Jesse James' life. After a series of campaigns and battles between conventional armies in 1861, guerrilla warfare gripped the state, waged between secessionist "bushwhackers" and Union forces which largely consisted of local militia organizations ("jayhawkers"). A bitter conflict ensued, bringing an escalating cycle of atrocities by both sides. Guerrillas murdered civilian Unionists, executed prisoners and scalped the dead. Union forces enforced martial law with raids on homes, arrests of civilians, summary executions, and banishment of Confederate sympathizers from the state.
The James-Samuel family took the Confederate side at the outset of the war. Frank James joined a local company recruited for the secessionist Drew Lobbs Army, and fought at the Battle of Wilson's Creek, though he fell ill and returned home soon afterward. In 1863, he was identified as a member of a guerrilla squad that operated in Clay County. In May of that year, a Union militia company raided the James-Samuel farm, looking for Frank's group. They tortured Reuben Samuel by briefly hanging him from a tree. According to legend, they lashed young Jesse.
Frank eluded capture and was believed to have joined the guerrilla organization led by William C. Quantrill. It is thought that he took part in the notorious massacre of some 200 men and boys in Lawrence, Kansas, a center of abolitionists.
Frank James followed Quantrill to Texas over the winter of 1863–1864. In the spring he returned in a squad commanded by Fletch Taylor. After they arrived in Clay County, 16-year-old Jesse James joined his brother in Taylor's group.
In the summer of 1864, Taylor was severely wounded, losing his right arm to a shotgun blast. The James brothers joined the bushwhacker group led by Bloody Bill Anderson. Jesse suffered a serious wound to the chest that summer. The Clay County provost marshal reported that both Frank and Jesse James took part in the Centralia Massacre in September, in which guerrillas killed or wounded some 22 unarmed Union troops; the guerrillas scalped and dismembered some of the dead. The guerrillas ambushed and defeated a pursuing regiment of Major A.V.E. Johnson's Union troops, killing all who tried to surrender (more than 100). Frank later identified Jesse as a member of the band who had fatally shot Major Johnson. As a result of the James brothers' activities, the Union military authorities made their family leave Clay County. Though ordered to move South beyond Union lines, instead they moved across the nearby state border into Nebraska.
After Anderson was killed in an ambush in October, the James brothers separated. Frank followed Quantrill into Kentucky; Jesse went to Texas under the command of Archie Clement, one of Anderson's lieutenants. He is known to have returned to Missouri in the spring. Jesse was shot while trying to surrender when they ran into a Union cavalry patrol near Lexington, Missouri. Jesse James suffered the second of two life-threatening chest wounds.
At the end of the Civil War, Missouri was in shambles. The conflict split the population into three bitterly opposed factions: anti-slavery Unionists, identified with the Republican Party; the segregationist conservative Unionists, identified with the Democratic Party; and pro-slavery, ex-Confederate secessionists, many of whom were also allied with the Democrats, especially the southern part of the party. The Republican Reconstruction administration passed a new state constitution that freed Missouri's slaves. It temporarily excluded former Confederates from voting, serving on juries, becoming corporate officers, or preaching from church pulpits. The atmosphere was volatile, with widespread clashes between individuals, and between armed gangs of veterans from both sides of the war.
Jesse recovered from his chest wound at his uncle's boardinghouse in Harlem, Missouri (north across the Missouri River from the City of Kansas' River Quay [changed to Kansas City in 1889]), where he was tended to by his first cousin, Zerelda "Zee" Mimms, named after Jesse's mother. Jesse and his cousin began a nine-year courtship, culminating in marriage. Meanwhile, his old commander Archie Clement kept his bushwhacker gang together and began to harass Republican authorities.
These men were the likely culprits in the first daylight armed bank robbery in the United States during peacetime, the robbery of the Clay County Savings Association in the town of Liberty, Missouri, on February 13, 1866. This bank was owned by Republican former militia officers who had recently conducted the first Republican Party rally in Clay County's history. One innocent bystander, a student of William Jewell College (which James's father had helped to found), was shot dead on the street during the gang's escape. It remains unclear whether Jesse and Frank took part.
After their later robberies took place and they became legends, there were those who credited them with being the leaders of the Clay County robbery. It has been argued in rebuttal that James was at the time still bedridden with his wound. No concrete evidence has surfaced to connect either brother to the crime, or to rule them out. On June 13, 1866 in Jackson County, Missouri two jailed members of Quantril's gang were demanded to be freed by a gang and the Jailor killed it is believed the James Brothers were involved.
This was a time of increasing local violence; Governor Fletcher had recently ordered a company of militia into Johnson County to suppress guerrilla activity. Archie Clement continued his career of crime and harassment of the Republican government, to the extent of occupying the town of Lexington, Missouri, on election day in 1866. Shortly afterward, the state militia shot Clement dead, an event James wrote about with bitterness a decade later.
The survivors of Clement's gang continued to conduct bank robberies over the next two years, though their numbers dwindled through arrests, gunfights and lynchings. While they later tried to justify robbing the banks, these were small, local banks with local capital, not part of the national system that was an object of popular discontent in the 1860s and 1870s. On May 23, 1867, for example, they robbed a bank in Richmond, Missouri, in which they killed the mayor and two others. It remains uncertain whether either of the James brothers took part, although an eyewitness who knew the brothers told a newspaper seven years later "positively and emphatically that he recognized Jesse and Frank James ... among the robbers." In 1868, Frank and Jesse James allegedly joined Cole Younger in robbing a bank at Russellville, Kentucky.
Jesse James did not become famous, however, until December 7, 1869, when he and (most likely) Frank robbed the Daviess County Savings Association in Gallatin, Missouri. The robbery netted little money, but it appears that Jesse shot and killed the cashier, Captain John Sheets, mistakenly believing him to be Samuel P. Cox, the militia officer who had killed "Bloody Bill" Anderson during the Civil War. James's self-proclaimed attempt at revenge, and the daring escape he and Frank made through the middle of a posse shortly afterward, put his name in the newspapers for the first time. An 1882 history of Daviess County said, "The history of Daviess County has no blacker crime in its pages than the murder of John W. Sheets."
The 1869 robbery marked the emergence of Jesse James as the most famous of the former guerrillas and the first time he was publicly labeled an "outlaw," as Missouri Governor Thomas T. Crittenden set a reward for his capture. This was the beginning of an alliance between James and John Newman Edwards, editor and founder of the Kansas City Times. Edwards, a former Confederate cavalryman, was campaigning to return former secessionists to power in Missouri. Six months after the Gallatin robbery, Edwards published the first of many letters from Jesse James to the public, asserting his innocence. Over time, the letters gradually became more political in tone, denouncing the Republicans and voicing James' pride in his Confederate loyalties. Together with Edwards's admiring editorials, the letters turned James into a symbol of Confederate defiance of Reconstruction. Jesse James's initiative in creating his rising public profile is debated by historians and biographers, though the tense politics certainly surrounded his outlaw career and enhanced his notoriety.
Meanwhile, the James brothers joined with Cole Younger and his brothers John, Jim and Bob as well as Clell Miller and other former Confederates to form what came to be known as the James-Younger Gang. With Jesse James as the public face of the gang (though with operational leadership likely shared among the group), the gang carried out a string of robberies from Iowa to Texas, and from Kansas to West Virginia. They robbed banks, stagecoaches and a fair in Kansas City, often in front of large crowds, even hamming it up for the bystanders.
On July 21, 1873, they turned to train robbery, derailing the Rock Island train in Adair, Iowa and stealing approximately $3,000 ($51,000 in 2007). For this, they wore Ku Klux Klan masks, deliberately taking on a potent symbol years after the Klan had been suppressed in the South by President Grant's use of the Force Acts. Former rebels attacked the railroads as symbols of threatening centralization.
The James' gang's later train robberies had a lighter touch. In only two train hold-ups did they rob passengers, because James typically limited himself to the express safe in the baggage car. Such techniques reinforced the Robin Hood image that Edwards created in his newspapers, but the James gang never shared any of the robbery money outside their circle.
The Adams Express Company turned to the Pinkerton National Detective Agency in 1874 to stop the James-Younger gang. The Chicago-based agency worked primarily against urban professional criminals, as well as providing industrial security, such as strike breaking. Because the gang received support by many former Confederate soldiers in Missouri, they eluded the Pinkertons. Joseph Whicher, an agent dispatched to infiltrate Zerelda Samuel's farm, shortly afterwards was found killed. Two others, Captain Louis J. Lull and John Boyle, were sent after the Youngers; Lull was killed by two of the Youngers in a roadside gunfight on March 17, 1874. Before he died, Lull fatally shot John Younger. A deputy sheriff named Edwin Daniels also died in the skirmish.
Allan Pinkerton, the agency's founder and leader, took on the case as a personal vendetta. He began to work with former Unionists who lived near the James family farm. On the night of January 25, 1875, he staged a raid on the homestead. Detectives threw an incendiary device into the house; it exploded, killing James's young half-brother Archie (named for Archie Clement) and blowing off one of the arms of the James family's matriarch Zerelda Samuel. Afterward, Pinkerton denied that the raid's intent was arson, but biographer Ted Yeatman located a letter by Pinkerton in the Library of Congress in which Pinkerton declared his intention to "burn the house down."
The raid on the family home outraged many, and did more than all of Edwards's columns to create sympathy for Jesse James. The Missouri state legislature only narrowly defeated a bill that praised the James and Younger brothers and offered them amnesty. Allowed to vote and hold office again, former Confederates voted to limit reward offers that the governor could make for fugitives. This extended a measure of protection over the James-Younger gang. (Only Frank and Jesse James previously had been singled out for rewards larger than the new limit.)
Jesse and his cousin Zee married on April 24, 1874, and had two children who survived to adulthood: Jesse Edward James (b. 1875) and Mary Susan James (later Barr) (b. 1879). Twins Gould and Montgomery James (b. 1878) died in infancy. Jesse, Jr., became a lawyer who practiced in Kansas City, Missouri, and Los Angeles, California.
On September 7, 1876, the James-Younger gang attempted a raid on the First National Bank of Northfield, Minnesota. After this robbery and a manhunt, only Frank and Jesse James were left alive and uncaptured. Cole and Bob Younger later stated that they selected the bank because they believed it was associated with the Republican politician Adelbert Ames, the governor of Mississippi during Reconstruction, and Union general Benjamin Butler, Ames' father-in-law and the Union commander of occupied New Orleans. Ames was a stockholder in the bank, but Butler had no direct connection to it.
The gang attempted to rob the bank in Northfield about 2 p.m. on September 7, 1876, but the robbery was bungled because several gang members had been drinking that morning, something Jesse James would never have permitted had he been present in Northfield. This was a primary reason Jesse James was never indicted for the Northfield crimes. Jesse James was highly disciplined; he never drank alcohol and never permitted his gang members to drink alcohol on the job because he had seen the disastrous results of drunken raids during and after the Civil War. Northfield residents had seen the gang members leave a local restaurant near the mill shortly after noon, and they testified in Faribault at the Younger brothers' trial that they smelled of alcohol and that gang members were obviously under the influence when they greeted General Ames near the mill. To carry out the robbery, the gang divided into two groups. Three men entered the bank, two guarded the door outside, and three remained near a bridge across an adjacent square. The robbers inside the bank were thwarted when acting cashier Joseph Lee Heywood refused to open the safe, falsely claiming that it was secured by a time lock even as they held a bowie knife to his throat and cracked his skull with a pistol butt. Assistant cashier Alonzo Enos Bunker was wounded in the shoulder as he fled out the back door of the bank.
Meanwhile, the citizens of Northfield grew suspicious of the men guarding the door and raised the alarm. The five bandits outside fired in the air to clear the streets, which drove the townspeople to take cover and fire back from protected positions. Two bandits were shot dead and the rest were wounded in the barrage. Inside, the outlaws turned to flee. As they left, one shot the unarmed cashier Heywood in the head. Historians have speculated about the identity of the shooter but have not reached consensus on his identity.
The gang barely escaped Northfield, leaving two dead companions behind. They killed two innocent victims, Heywood, and Nicholas Gustafson, a Swedish immigrant from the Millersburg community west of Northfield. A massive manhunt ensued. It is believed that the gang burned 14 Rice County mills shortly after the robbery. The James brothers eventually split from the others and escaped to Missouri. The militia soon discovered the Youngers and one other bandit, Charlie Pitts. In a gunfight, Pitts died and the Youngers were taken prisoner. Except for Frank and Jesse James, the James-Younger Gang was destroyed.
Later in 1876, Jesse and Frank James surfaced in the Nashville, Tennessee, area, where they went by the names of Thomas Howard and B. J. Woodson, respectively. Frank seemed to settle down, but Jesse remained restless. He recruited a new gang in 1879 and returned to crime, holding up a train at Glendale, Missouri (now part of Independence, Missouri), on October 8, 1879. The robbery was the first of a spree of crimes, including the holdup of the federal paymaster of a canal project in Killen, Alabama, and two more train robberies. But the new gang did not consist of battle-hardened guerrillas; they soon turned against each other or were captured, while James grew paranoid to the point where he scared away one of his gang, and it is believed by some that he killed another.
By 1881, with authorities growing suspicious, the brothers returned to Missouri where they felt safer. In December, Jesse rented a house in Saint Joseph, Missouri, not far from where he had been born and raised. Frank, however, decided to move to safer territory, heading east to Virginia.
With his gang nearly annihilated, James trusted only the Ford brothers, Charley and Robert. Although Charley had been out on raids with James, Bob was an eager new recruit. For protection, James asked the Ford brothers to move in with him and his family. James had often stayed with their sister Martha Bolton and, according to rumor, he was "smitten" with her. James did not know that Bob Ford had conducted secret negotiations with Thomas T. Crittenden, the Missouri governor, to bring in the famous outlaw. Crittenden had made capture of the James brothers his top priority; in his inaugural address he declared that no political motives could be allowed to keep them from justice. Barred by law from offering a sufficiently large reward, he had turned to the railroad and express corporations to put up a $5,000 bounty for each of them.
On April 3, 1882, after eating breakfast, the Fords and James prepared to depart for another robbery. They went in and out of the house to ready the horses. As it was an unusually hot day, James removed his coat, then removed his firearms, lest he look suspicious. Noticing a dusty picture on the wall, he stood on a chair to clean it. Bob Ford shot James in the back of the head. James' two previous bullet wounds and partially missing middle finger served to positively identify the body.
The murder of Jesse James became a national sensation. The Fords made no attempt to hide their role. Indeed, Robert Ford wired the governor to claim his reward. Crowds pressed into the little house in St. Joseph to see the dead bandit, even while the Ford brothers surrendered to the authorities but they were dismayed to find that they were charged with first degree murder. In the course of a single day, the Ford brothers were indicted, pleaded guilty, were sentenced to death by hanging, and two hours later were granted a full pardon by Governor Crittenden.
The governor's quick pardon suggested that he knew the brothers intended to kill James rather than capture him. The implication that the chief executive of Missouri conspired to kill a private citizen startled the public and added to James' notoriety.
After receiving a small portion of the reward, the Fords fled Missouri. Sheriff James Timberlake and Marshal Henry H. Craig, who were law enforcement officials active in the plan took in the majority of the bounty. Later the Ford brothers starred in a touring stage show in which they reenacted the shooting.
Suffering from tuberculosis (then incurable) and a morphine addiction, Charley Ford committed suicide on May 6, 1884, in Richmond, Missouri. Bob Ford operated a tent saloon in Creede, Colorado. On June 8, 1892, a man named Edward O'Kelley went to Creede, loaded a double barrel shotgun, entered Ford's saloon and said "Hello, Bob" before shooting Bob Ford in the throat, killing him instantly. O'Kelley was sentenced to life in prison. O'Kelley's sentence was subsequently commuted because of a 7,000 signature petition in favor of his release. The governor pardoned him on October 3, 1902.
James' mother Zerelda Samuel wrote the following epitaph for him: In Loving Memory of my Beloved Son, Murdered by a Traitor and Coward Whose Name is not Worthy to Appear Here. James's widow Zerelda Mimms James died alone and in poverty.
Rumors of Jesse James's survival proliferated almost as soon as the newspapers announced his death. Some said that Robert Ford killed someone other than James, in an elaborate plot to allow him to escape justice. These tales have received little credence, then or later. None of James's biographers has accepted them as plausible. The body buried in Kearney, Missouri, as Jesse James's was exhumed in 1995 and subjected to mitochondrial DNA typing. The report, prepared by Anne C. Stone, Ph.D., James E. Starrs, L.L.M., and Mark Stoneking, Ph.D., stated the mtDNA recovered from the remains was consistent with the mtDNA of one of James's relatives in the female line. This theme resurfaced in a 2009 documentary, Jesse James' Hidden Treasure, which aired on the History Channel. The documentary was dismissed as pseudo-history and pseudo-science by historian Nancy Samuelson in a review she wrote for the Winter 2009-2010 edition of The James-Younger Gang Journal.
One prominent claimant was J. Frank Dalton, who died August 15, 1951, in Granbury, Texas. Dalton was allegedly 101 years old at the time of his first public appearance, in May 1948. His story did not hold up to questioning from James' surviving relatives.
James's turn to crime after the end of the Reconstruction era helped cement his place in American life and memory as a simple but remarkably effective bandit. After 1873 he was covered by the national media as part of social banditry. During his lifetime, James was celebrated chiefly by former Confederates, to whom he appealed directly in his letters to the press. Displaced by Reconstruction, the antebellum political leadership mythologized the James Gang exploits. Frank Triplett wrote about James as a "progressive neo-aristocrat" with purity of race. Indeed, some historians credit James' myth as contributing to the rise of former Confederates to dominance in Missouri politics (in the 1880s, for example, both U.S. Senators from the state, Confederate military commander Francis Cockrell and Confederate Congressman George Graham Vest, were identified with the Confederate cause).
In the 1880s, after James's death, the James Gang became the subject of dime novels that represented the bandits as pre-industrial models of resistance. During the Populist and Progressive eras, James became a symbol as America's Robin Hood, standing up against corporations in defense of the small farmer, robbing from the rich and giving to the poor, while there is no evidence that his robberies enriched anyone other than his gang and himself.
In portrayals of the 1950s, James was pictured as a psychologically troubled individual rather than a social rebel. Some filmmakers portrayed the former outlaw as a revenger, replacing "social with exclusively personal motives."
Jesse James remains a controversial symbol, one who can always be reinterpreted in various ways, according to cultural tensions and needs. Although some of the neo-Confederate movement regard him as a hero, renewed cultural battles over the place of the Civil War in American history have replaced the long-standing interpretation of James as a Western frontier hero. Some point to his absolute commitment to slavery and his vow after the Civil War to shoot any black in Missouri not fulfilling the role of a slave.
While his "heroic outlaw" image is still commonly portrayed in films, as well as in songs and folklore, recent historians place him as a self-aware vigilante and terrorist who used local tensions to create his own myth among the widespread insurgent guerrillas and vigilantes following the American Civil War.
Museums and sites devoted to Jesse James:
The Defeat of Jesse James Days in Northfield, Minnesota, is among the largest outdoor celebrations in the state and is held annually in September during the weekend after Labor Day, though it is now documented and in dispute whether Jesse James was ever in Northfield because he was never indicted for his crimes. Thousands of visitors watch reenactments of the robbery, a championship rodeo, a carnival, performances of a 19th-century style melodrama musical, and a parade during the five-day event.
Jesse James' boyhood home in Kearney, Missouri, is a museum dedicated to the town's most famous resident. Each year a recreational fair, the Jesse James Festival, is held during the third weekend in September.
During the annual Labor Day weekend Victorian Festival at the 1866 Col. William H. Fulkerson estate Hazel Dell in Jersey County, Illinois, Jesse James' history is told in stories and by reenactments of stagecoach holdups. Over the three-day event, thousands of spectators learn of the documented James Gang's stopping point at Hazel Dell and of their connection with ex-Confederate Fulkerson.
Russellville, Kentucky, the site of the robbery of the Southern Bank in 1868, holds the Jesse James International Arts and Film Festival. The JJIAFF completed its second annual event in April 2008 and the third annual is planned for April 25, 2009. The festival has featured a bluegrass band from San Francisco and experimental bands from southern Kentucky as well as painters, sculptors, photographers and comic artists. Children's activities are a mainstay of the festival. A highlight for adults is the film festival held at the Logan County Public Library in Russellville. Past entrants have included films from Norway and northwestern Kentucky, modern silent film projects, nature studies, and fan films.
In addition, the annual Tobacco and Heritage Festival in Russellville features a reenactment of the James-Younger Gang's robbery of the Southern Bank. Today used as a residence, the historic structure on South Main Street has been preserved by the town and county.
The small town of Oak Grove, Louisiana, also hosts a town-wide annual Jesse James Trade Days, usually in the early to mid fall. This is a reference to a short time James supposedly spent near this area.
The James brothers became a staple in dime novels of the era, peaking in the 1880s following Jesse's death. James has often been used as a fictional character in many Western novels, including some published while he was alive. For instance, in Willa Cather's My Antonia, the narrator reads a book entitled 'Life of Jesse James' - probably a dime novel.
In Charles Portis's 1968 novel, True Grit, the U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn describes fighting with Cole Younger and Frank James for the Confederacy during the Civil War. Long after his adventure with Mattie Ross, Cogburn ends his days in a traveling road show with the aged Cole Younger and Frank James.
During his travel to the "Wilde West," Oscar Wilde visited Jesse James' hometown in Missouri. Learning that James had been assassinated by his own gang member, "...an event that sent the town into mourning and scrambling to buy Jesse's artifacts," "romantic appeal of the social outcast" in his mind, Wilde wrote in one of his letters to home that: "Americans are certainly great hero-worshippers, and always take [their] heroes from the criminal classes."
In 1969, artist Morris and writer René Goscinny (co-creator of Asterix) had Lucky Luke confronting Jesse James, his brother Frank, and Cole Younger. The adventure poked fun at the image of Jesse as a new Robin Hood. Although he passes himself off as such and does indeed steal from the rich (who are, logically, the only ones worth stealing from), he and his gang take turns being "poor," thus keeping the loot for themselves. Frank quotes from Shakespeare, and Younger is portrayed as a fun-loving joker, full of good humor. One critic has likened this version of the James brothers as "intellectuals bandits, who won't stop theorising their outlaw activities and hear themselves talk." In the end, the at-first-cowed people of a town fight back against the James gang and send them packing in tar and feathers.
In his adaptation of the traditional song "Jesse James", Woody Guthrie magnified James's hero status. "Jesse James" was later covered by the Anglo-Irish band The Pogues on their 1985 album Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash, and by Bruce Springsteen on his 2006 tribute to Pete Seeger, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions.
A somewhat different song titled "Jesse James", referring to Jesse's "wife to mourn for his life; three children, they were brave," and calling Robert Ford "the dirty little coward who shot Mr. Howard," was also the first track recorded by the "Stewart Years" version of the Kingston Trio at their initial recording session in 1961 (and included on that year's release Close-Up).
Echoing the Confederate hero aspect, Hank Williams, Jr.'s 1983 Southern anthem "Whole Lot Of Hank" has the lyrics "Frank and Jesse James knowed how to rob them trains, they always took it from the rich and gave it to the poor, they might have had a bad name but they sure had a heart of gold."
Warren Zevon's 1976 self-titled album Warren Zevon includes the song "Frank and Jesse James", a romantic tribute to the James Gang's exploits, expressing much sympathy with their "cause." Its lyrics encapsulate the many legends that grew up around the life and death of Jesse James. The album contains a second reference to Jesse James in the song "Poor Poor Pitiful Me" with the lyric "Well, I met a girl in West Hollywood, I ain't naming names. She really worked me over good, she was just like Jesse James." Linda Ronstadt covered the song a year later with slightly altered lyrics.
In her album Heart of Stone (1989), Cher included a song titled "Just Like Jesse James", written by Diane Warren. This single, which was released in 1990, achieved high positions in the charts and sold 1,500,000 copies worldwide.
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's album Uncle Charlie and His Dog Teddy features the song "Jesse James", ostensibly recorded on a wire recorder.
Jon Chandler has also written a song about Jesse and Frank James entitled "He Was No Hero", written from the perspective of Joe Hayward's widow cursing Bob Ford for cheating her out of killing Jesse James.
Around 1980 a concept album titled The Legend of Jesse James was released. It was written by Paul Kennerley and starred Levon Helm (The Band) as Jesse James, Johnny Cash as Frank James, Emmylou Harris as Zee James, Charlie Daniels as Cole Younger, and Albert Lee as Jim Younger. There are also appearances by Rodney Crowell, Jody Payne, and Rosanne Cash. The album highlights Jesse's life from 1863 to his death in 1882. In 1999 a double CD was released containing The Legend Of Jesse James and White Mansions, another concept album by Kennerley about life in the Confederate States of America between 1861-1865.
There have been numerous portrayals of Jesse James in film and television, including two wherein Jesse James, Jr. depicts his father. In many of the films, James is portrayed as a Robin Hood-like character.
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|Wikisource has the text of a 1920 Encyclopedia Americana article about Jesse James.|