“Jesse James is the only American bandit who is classical, who is to this country what Robin Hood or Dick Turpin is to England, whose exploits are so close to the mythical and apocryphal.” — Carl Sandburg, “The American Songbook” (1927)
•••• •••• ••••• •••• ••••
Newspaper reporter Maxwell Scott tears up his notes and throws them into a pot-bellied stove.
“You’re not going to use the story, Mr. Scott?” asks Senator Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart), who has just revealed to the reporter that there is no truth to the legend that led to his election to the U.S. Senate, even though everyone believes it to be fact.
“No, sir,” replies the reporter, refusing to do damage to a legend the public believes true. “This is the West, sir. When a legend becomes fact, print the legend.” — From the conclusion of director John Ford’s 1962 western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
•••• •••• ••••• •••• ••••
On February 13, 1866, in the dead of winter, the first daytime bank robbery during peacetime took place in Liberty, Missouri, only a few miles from the James Farm.
Bandits robbed the Clay County Savings Association of $58,000, a huge sum in those times, and killed an innocent bystander, a 19-year-old student at William Jewell College, where Rev. Robert James, Frank and Jesse’s dad, had been a trustee seventeen years earlier.
The James brothers may, or may not have, taken part in the robbery. Opinions vary. I share Frank and Jesse biographer Ted P. Yeatman’s assessment that Frank was very likely a participant, while Jesse wasn’t. Jesse was still under the care of his cousin and future wife Zee, recuperating from the second very bad chest would from his bushwhacker days.
Local authorities suspected the robbery was the work of Archie Clement’s gang, which Frank and Jesse had once ridden with and which was still in circulation.
The bank was, after all, Republican owned, and Clement and his men hated Republicans. To them, Republicans meant Yankees and everything they despised about the North, the victor in the Civil War, the reason their cause had become the “lost cause.”
To make things even more disagreeable, the Republican Party had just held its first-ever rally in Clay County, an event that no doubt aroused the rancor of Archie, his gang, and every Southern sympathizer in that part of Missouri.
Whether or not Frank and Jesse took part in the Liberty robbery, the James brothers were before long robbing banks on a regular basis. Cole Younger and his brother Jim, both former bushwhackers hardened by years of guerrilla war, soon were riding with them.
The Younger Brothers and New Fame
But younger men joined up too, like the two youngest Younger brothers, John and Bob. John and Bob had been too young to fight in the war, but they learned quickly from the men who had.
The Youngers came from Jackson County, just south of Clay. They weren’t blood relatives of Frank and Jesse, although they are very often portrayed as cousins, particularly in the movies.
By one count, the James Gang robbed seven banks, four trains and two stagecoaches in the course of its career. And while committing their robberies, killed a couple dozen victims, including lawmen, innocent bystanders, and others.
It’s difficult to compile a definitive list of the gang’s deeds. Jesse wrote letters to newspapers denying participation in robberies everyone thought they had done. To compound the matter, as the gang grew famous, robberies were ascribed to them that they could not possibly have committed. At the height of the gang’s fame, it seems everyone’s attitude was if you had to be robbed, you wanted the James Gang to do the deed.
When did Jesse and Frank become famous? It happened quickly after their December 7, 1869 robbery of the Daviess County Savings Association in Gallatin, Missouri. The take wasn’t much — a few hundred dollars — but the boys made one of their amazing, against-all-odds escapes, which were to contribute so much to their legend.
But more memorable was the fact that Jesse killed a bank teller, shooting him point blank. According to Jesse, it was a pure revenge killing. He claimed he recognized the teller as Sam Cox, the man who had killed his friend (and guerrilla band leader), Bloody Bill Anderson.
The teller wasn’t Sam Cox, however. He was John Sheets, a popular Gallatin resident. What the murder showed above all was what Jesse was capable of, and how he never forgot what happened during his guerrilla days.
John Newman Edwards and the Kansas City Times
But the chief reason that the gang woke up one morning and found themselves famous was that Jesse had landed the group its perfect publicist. After the Gallatin robbery, Jesse wrote John Newman Edwards, a founder and editor of the Kansas City Times, a Democratic newspaper established to counter the hated Republicans, who now ran the Missouri government.
Jesse — an avid reader of newspapers — guessed that Edwards would be sympathetic. He couldn’t have been more right. Over the next few years, the pair would work as a team: Jesse would send Edwards letters about the gang’s exploits and Edwards would turn it all into legend.
Who was John Newman Edwards? He was a son of the Old South, born in Front Royal, Virginia in 1842, near where my grandfather had been born seven years earlier. Like my grandfather, Edwards fought for the South in the Civil War.
But unlike my grandfather who, according to family legend, fled for safety in the West Virginia mountains after he had killed a Yankee soldier in 1866, Edwards continued his wartime occupation, but in different circumstances.
He joined Confederate General Jo Shelby and about 1,000 of Shelby’s who refused to surrender to the North when the war ended. Instead, Shelby, Edwards, and the 1,000 embarked on what was easily the most ill-conceived and most lost of Lost Cause ventures following the Southern defeat.
They went south to Mexico where they planned to join Austrian Archduke Maximilian and support Maximilian’s quixotic ambition to become Emperor of Mexico. Shelby hoped to establish a colony named Carlota (after Maximilian’s wife) where Confederate soldiers and their families could make a home.
The plans were delusional – to say the very least – and quickly came to naught. Mexican troops captured Maximilian and executed the would-be emperor by firing squad. Shelby and Edwards returned to the United States, Edwards to become a newspaperman championing the South and playing, with great style, his version of the Southern gentleman.
For Edwards that meant weaving stories of Rebel heroism and grandeur (compared to Yankee and Republican greed and cravenness) as often as possible into his newspaper.
To Edwards and to Southerners like him, the South was a land out of the novels of the Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott, where fearless warriors and the stalwart maids who supported them fought against oppressive tyrants bent on destroying their way of life.
Scott’s novels – Ivanhoe, Waverley and many others were perfect fits for the South, where they were bestsellers both before and after the Civil War. Indeed, one wag of that time, a Virginian, referred to the South as “Sir Walter Scottland.”
I suspect that John Newman Edwards fancied himself a character in a Scott novel. He’d followed Shelby into Mexico, for example. And he didn’t hesitate to fight duels, challenging a fellow newspaperman who had called him a liar (at a time when many newspapers were packed with lies and distortions) to settle their dispute by mutual combat. Neither man was harmed.
He was also a devotee of drink. Edwards went on periodic binges, when he would tell family and associates that he “was off to Indian territory” for a few days, then lock his door and turn to the bottle.
It was to this man with his devotion to all things Southern that Jesse James shrewdly turned. Overnight, Edwards became a devoted fan of the James Gang. He nothing short of idolized Jesse.
Edwards printed the letters Jesse sent the newspaper, probably embellishing them to heighten effect. They quickly earned a reading public.
The Kansas City Exposition and Ben Wallace
But the newspaper editor wrote his own stories as well and in no instance was this more the case than Edwards’ reaction to the September 26, 1872 robbery at the Industrial Exposition in Kansas City, a popular trade fair.
On that fall day, three masked men rode into the annual event, robbed the Fair’s cashbox and left, hardly creating a ripple. The large crowed numbered tens of thousands, which made the deed seem brazen and daring, which it was, up to a point.
But in some ways it was not remarkable at all. The thieves netted just under $1,000, a fraction of the $12,000 they would have carried away if they’d planned better. The lion’s share of the day’s take had already been taken to a bank for deposit.
There were complications. A young girl got wounded when one of the bandits fired a gun. A brave man from the crowd struggled with the outlaws, but to no avail. That man happened to be Ben Wallace, later to be the father of Bess Wallace, who would become the wife of the Missouri-born Harry Truman, America’s 33rd president.
With the Kansas City Exposition robbery, Edwards had a field day, turning this second-rate act into the cleverest and most audacious thing that had ever happened in Missouri, if not the whole United States.
In a front page story in the Kansas City Times, written in his characteristic florid prose, Edwards trumpeted: This was “A deed so high-handed, so diabolically daring and so utterly in contempt of fear that we are bound to admire it and revere its perpetrators.”
With a disingenuousness that bordered on the monumental, he claimed that he deplored the robbery and the wounding of the little girl, but then went on to declare that he had nothing but esteem for the men who had carried out the bold deed, “who so coolly and calmly planned and so quietly and daringly executed a scheme … in the light of day, in the face of the authorities and in the very teeth of the most immense multitude of people that was ever in our city … ”
- Had this happened in our time, Edwards would no doubt have imagined in terms of George Clooney, Ben Affleck, and Matt Damon to play the film roles of the clever and rascally crooks. After all, we expect outlaw parts to be played by Hollywood’s handsomest, smartest, and most cool male stars.
A few days later, Edwards published another piece he called “The Chivalry of Crime.” It reads like hero worship from a 13-year-old boy: “There are men in Jackson, Cass, and Clay [Counties] – a few there are left – who learned to dare,” intoned Edwards. “With them booty is but a second thought; the wild drama of adventure first.”
Then he piled on the rhetoric ever deeper, comparing Jesse and Frank to the Knights of the Round Table and heroes of Sir Walter Scott’s novels.
“The 19th century … is not the social soil of men who might have sat with Arthur of the Round Table, ridden tourney with Sir Lancelot or won the colors of Guinevere, who might have … shivered a lance with Ivanhoe,” he claimed.
When he finally concluded, Edwards bestowed the mantel of sublime heroism on the robbers. “It was as though the three bandits had come to us … with the halo of medieval chivalry upon their garments and shown us how things were done that the poets sing of.”
Haloes! Poets singing!! But Edwards didn’t stop, even there: “Nowhere else in the United States or in the civilized world, probably could this thing have been done,” making Kansas City a very special place indeed.
“It was done here, not because the protectors of persons and property were less efficient but because the bandits were more dashing and skillful, not because honest Missourians have less nerve but because free-booting Missourians have more.”
From Jesse, Frank, and the gang as heroic knights of old, it was but a short step to Jesse James as Robin Hood. Edwards’ readers, who were numerous and growing in number all the time, loved the stuff. Soon all of America was reading about the James Gang and wanting more and more.
The Northfield, Minnesota Fiasco
Despite the mushrooming legend, the gang’s luck came to an end on September 7, 1876, when they attempted to rob the First National Bank of Northfield, Minnesota They had been lured so far from Missouri by rumors of big money. Moreover, the bank was deep in Yankee and therefore enemy territory.
They were far from home and defeat was assured almost the moment the raid on Northfield began. The town’s residents quickly figured out what was happening and took immediate measures to put a stop to it.
Gang member Charlie Pitts was killed. Three Younger brothers, Cole, Bob, and Jim were captured and sentenced to life in the Minnesota state prison at Stillwater.
Frank and Jesse escaped, but this time the marvel of their escape was overshadowed by the gang’s defeat. The brothers went into hiding in Tennessee. Jesse used the name Thomas Howard. Frank became B.J. Woodson.
The New James Gang with Charley and Robert Ford
Eventually, Jesse formed a new band of outlaws, but it was a pale image of the former gang. No longer was it comprised u of former bushwhackers with war and fighting experience or with the bitter resentment of Southern defeat to drive their anger.
The new gang was made up mostly of outlaw wannabes, raw and inexperienced youth lured by ambition and the magic of being in the presence of Frank and especially, Jesse.
The new gang robbed a train at Glendale, Missouri, an episode that got mentioned in “The Ballad of Jesse James” after his death. They also robbed a Federal paymaster in Alabama and places of business in Mississippi.
Among the Jesse wannabes were Charley Ford and his younger Brother Robert. The Ford boys came from Ray County, Missouri, just east of Clay County. Charlie was 23, Robert, just short of 20.
The Fords claimed great respect for Jesse, but in truth they harbored no loyalties whatever. Secretly they negotiated with Missouri Governor Thomas Crittendon who offered a $10,000 reward each for Jesse and Frank, half on capture and half on conviction.
In the spring of 1882, Jesse, Zee, and their two children, Jesse and Mary, were living in St. Joseph, Missouri, a town in the northwestern part of the state on the Missouri River. Jesse was using his Tom Howard alias. Robert and Charlie Ford were staying with them.
On the morning of Monday, April 3 – it was Holy Week and Easter would fall on the coming Sunday – Jesse stood on a chair in the living room of their home to dust and straighten a picture hanging on the wall. Taking advantage of the now world famous outlaw’s vulnerability, Robert shot him from behind, in the back of his head.
Charley and Robert fled the house, running down St. Joseph’s streets shouting that they’d just killed Jesse James. It took some time for the town’s inhabitants — who knew the man as Tom Howard — to absorb the news, but when they did, they went crazy.
“Now everybody in St. Jo remembers / they sold him coal or shook his hand / or petted his dog,” writes poet Paulette Jiles in “Assassination” from her The Jesse James Poems. Or they remembered the friendly man they knew as Tom Howard who would stop to chat – a man they now could hardly believe was Jesse James.
We have a world famous eyewitness to what transpired. The great Irish wit and playwright, Oscar Wilde, was in the area, on the Missouri leg of his famous tour of America. In a letter to an English friend, Wilde wrote about what he saw in the days following Jesse’s assassination.
For a Jesse James memento, Wilde noted with amusement, St. Joseph’s residents would pay anything. The “door-knocker and dust-bin” from Jesse’s home, “went for fabulous prices.” Wilde described two men angrily arguing over a “hearth-brush.” The two nearly came to “pistol-shots,” Wilde claimed, until one of them calmed down when he was offered a rain barrel from the side of the house instead.
The man who got the rain barrel paid, “… the income of an English bishop” for it, Wilde wrote, adding that a picture from the house “was sold at a price which in Europe” only the works of such great masters as Titian would fetch. Wilde doesn’t say if the picture was one Jesse was dusting and straightening when he was shot.
In a prescient observation that has since become famous, Wilde said that Americans “are certainly great hero worshippers, and always take their heroes from the criminal classes.” The Irish wit phrased his aphorism with perfect art to sound at first hearing glib and viciously clever. But its cleverness disguises an insight worth pondering.
The Legend of Jesse James Grows
Jesse’s death was front-page news in The New York Sun and The New York Times. Most everywhere, the spin put on the story by the newspapers was that a family man, a man of admirable parts, who happened to be a bandit, had been shot by a base coward and member of his own gang.
Jose Marti, the Cuban patriot and poet, was living in New York City at the time, in forced exile from his native land. He had followed Jesse’s career in the newspapers and admired him as an exemplary rebel.
Marti penned a story, “Gran Bandido,” which appeared in La Opinion Nacional of Caracas, Venezuela. Its full title in English was “Jesse James: Great Bandit, His Brave Deeds, His Fame, His Death.” The boy born on an obscure Clay County farm 34 years earlier had become world famous.
But newspaper stories are ephemeral and quickly forgotten, even when they’re by people as famous as Marti or appear in major newspapers. The first solid sign that Jesse’s fame would endure was the emergence of “The Ballad of Jesse James,” soon after his death.
The Ballad was one of America’s great hymns and was handed down in various forms by anonymous folk artists who sang the version they knew for family and friends in places like the Ozarks and elsewhere in rural Missouri where Jesse’s memory was held dear.
Jesse biographer William A. Settle Jr. believed that no printed copy of the Ballad existed before 1900. In the 1920’s, the great folksinger Bascom Lamar Lunsford, the “Minstrel of the Appalachians,” made the first known recording. About the same time poet Carl Sandburg included it in his anthology, The American Songbag, and referred to Jesse as “the great American bandit.”
“The Ballad of Jesse James” sums up his legend in a few memorable stanzas and a refrain, but then that’s precisely what ballads do, whether their subject is Davey Crockett or John Henry.
The version I like best has these opening lines, defining Jesse as a complete man, someone who feels as well as thinks:
Jesse James was a lad that killed many a man,
He robbed the Glendale train,
He stole from the rich and he gave to the poor,
He’d a hand and a heart and a brain.
The powerful second stanza condemns Robert Ford for all time:
Well it was Robert Ford, that dirty little coward,
I wonder how he feels,
For he ate of Jesse’s bread and he slept in Jesse’s bed,
And he laid poor Jesse in his grave.
I cannot hear those lines, perhaps the best in the ballad, without thinking how unfortunate for Robert Ford that Jesse used the alias Howard since Howard so conveniently rhymes with coward, branding Ford for all eternity as a scoundrel.
On the Ballad goes, dividing its time between fact, “with his brother Frank he robbed the Chicago bank” and the Jesse of legend, “a friend to the poor.”
The Ballad makes Jesse invincible: “There never was a man with the law in his hand, / That could take Jesse James alive.” It also describes him as coming “from a solitary race,” which makes him very different from the rest of us, a superhero with no peers, not unlike modern-day Superheroes such as Spiderman.
The Ballad has never gone out of style. Legendary folksingers like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger sang it regularly in public appearances in the mid-20th century. When Seeger composed “The Ballad of Jesus Christ,” he sang it to the same tune as “The Ballad of Jesse James,” implying Jesse had been a martyred hero.
The bluegrass group, “The Country Gentlemen,” recorded their version in the 1960’s. More recently, Van Morrison recorded it and Bruce Springsteen recorded it in his 2006 album, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions.
I am particularly fond of the version done by the Celtic punk group, The Pogues on their 1985 album Rum, Sodomy, & Lashing and the very recent (2014) one done by the Vancouver-based North Country Gentlemen.
And I listen a lot to Michael Martin Murphey’s take on the Ballad on his 2011 CD Tall Grass & Cool Water. On the same disc is his “Ballad of Cole Younger” and “Frank James’ Farewell,” with its lament “Tonight I can hear Jesse calling, and tonight we will ride once again.”
Why does Jesse’s legend survive? Why is the ballad sung anew by generation after generation of popular singers? I think the answer is simple. For the explanation we can turn to one true believer, the St. Louis-newspaperman with the unforgettable name Robertus Love.
In 1926, Love published a biography of his hero, “The Rise and Fall of Jesse James.” Love declared outright that he believed the legend, specifically the Robin Hood part of the legend.
Why? Because, wrote Love, “There was pathos in it, there was chivalric sentiment, there was simple human tenderness … [and] there was humor.” In short, Love believed it because it was beautiful, and he wanted to believe about Jesse what was beautiful and poetic.
Today we continue to believe the legend — and sing the Ballad — because they say what we want to believe about America’s favorite bandit. We accept the legend because it helps us overlook Jesse’s bad side and makes it easy to love him.
Steve Goode grew up in Elkins, WV in the 1950s – a fine time and place to be young
– and attended Elkins public schools. He holds a BA from Davidson College, an MA from the University of Virginia, and Ph. D. from Rutgers – all in history – but pursued a career in journalism rather than academia. For 20 years he wrote on politics and culture for Insight Magazine and the Washington Times. He is the author of 17 nonfiction books and numerous articles in various publications. With his partner of 40 years, the botanist and artist Ray Petersen and their dog Pearl, he divides his time between their home in Milton, DE and a condo in Albuquerque, NM.