“She like all the best people came from Kentucky.”
From “Zerelda” by Paulette Jiles, The Jesse James Poems (1988)
“She towers over everything she stands beside. She knocks the world awry.”
— Zerelda described by Susan Dodd in Mamaw: A Novel of an Outlaw Mother” (1988)
Both of Frank and Jesse’s biological parents were exceptional people, in very different ways. Robert was studious and devout, at least most of the time, while Zerelda was volatile and unbendingly opinionated. Combative from her youth, Zerelda grew more hidebound the older she grew. Robert, a far cooler customer, saved his expansive moments for the pulpit.
Robert James took the Clay County farm he and Zerelda bought and quickly turned it into a moneymaking enterprise. He had to. He was an ordained Baptist minister, and his congregation, like many Baptist churches, didn’t pay their preacher; church members expected their pastor to provide his own living.
That meant Robert had a full time job supporting his family, and a second job as head of Clay County’s New Hope Baptist Church. New Hope had been a church in steep decline when he took over. Under his guidance, it grew by leaps and bounds.
Most of his congregation thought him a fine pastor, and he soon came to be recognized in Clay County and beyond as a skilled revival preacher, a “man with the gift.” That was fine praise indeed because camp meetings — religious revivals — were momentous social and spiritual events in rural 19th century America, bringing hundreds together for days of prayer, praise, food, singing, and general festivity.
But there was even more to Robert James. He was an educated man, a rarity in that part of Missouri at that time, with a degree from Georgetown College, a Kentucky Baptist institution. He brought with him to Missouri a library of more than 50 volumes, a big collection at a time when the only books most homes had were the Holy Bible and an almanac.
His library included learned works on math and science, history, languages, as well as religion. Moreover, he seems to have enjoyed reading them, and pouring over journals and newspapers he acquired. Robert James was so well thought of that when William Jewell College (a Baptist school, still thriving) was founded in 1849 in nearby Liberty, Missouri, Robert was made a trustee.
This means the father of America’s best-known bandits was not only a Baptist minister and an educated man, but also a top official at the local college — a rising pillar of his community. His status in Clay County might have played a significant role in his sons’ lives, had not their father had another, darker side. That darker side was a restlessness that nothing seemed able to quell when it manifested itself.
Robert James had pulled up roots in his native Kentucky, leaving for Missouri and taking his new wife with him. Then in April 1850, he packed up and lit out again, this time on his own. His destination: the California gold fields, then much in the news. Robert said he planned to preach the Gospel to miners and pan gold on his own. (There’s always been another story: Some said Robert fled his abrasive wife’s relentless nagging.)
Those were his plans. What happened was different. In short order, Robert arrived in California, took sick, and died, probably of cholera. He was buried in an unmarked grave in a town the miners called “Rough and Ready.” He had just turned 32.
Frank was seven when his dad left home. Like his father, he would be a reader. Jesse, not yet three, had no memory of his father. Both boys inherited Robert’s restlessness, especially Jesse.
From this point in the lives of her sons, Zerelda looms large. How could it have been otherwise? Her powerful personality held sway. The rough years she and her two sons experienced following Robert’s death molded them into a unit that thought and acted as one.
Zerelda was a name new to me. When I Googled and learned its meaning, I thought, wow, is this ever a perfect fit! It is of Germanic origin and means an “armed warrior maiden.” That’s precisely what Zerelda was. Six feet tall, she was an Amazon, a physical presence people took note of, and which, coupled with her take-no-prisoners personality, made her, at times, I suspect, a terror.
What did she teach her boys? One word sums it up: Defiance. Zerelda was the intensely blue-eyed daughter of a Kentucky family who were slaveholders, she despised her whole life long all things northern. That meant she hated all Republicans and most particularly Abraham Lincoln. Everything Zerelda saw as threatening her way of life, she hated and taught her sons to hate. How else can you imagine the mother of such sons as Frank and Jesse?
That spirit of defiance came through in some of the Jesse James comic books I read as a kid. It’s one of the things that attracted me to Jesse and I can still recall that feeling, sixty years later.
I thought of Zerelda instantly when I read in newspapers about Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, the mother of alleged Boston Marathon bombers, Dzokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Russian wiretapping is supposed to have picked up Zubeidat Tsarnaeva admonishing her elder son, Dzokhar, to live firmly according to Islamic principles. Zerelda admonished her sons to remain true to their Southern ways.
Zerelda loved the South she’d grown up in. She saw nothing wrong with slavery. Like most Southerners she thought that civilization superior to anything the North had, a region of gentility compared to the money-grubbing and big-city culture of the North.
Zerelda’s life had never been smooth. Orphaned at two, she was brought up by a grandfather, a tavern keeper. After her marriage, three major crises (and many minor ones) shaped her life, deepening and hardening her convictions. They turned her into the admired icon of bold and stubborn resistance to the powers that be she became to many of Jesse’s fans in later life.
The first crisis was her first husband’s early death. Zerelda was 25 and left with three children. She came very close to losing the farm. A second marriage to a local farmer twice her age didn’t take. He didn’t like her boys, and they didn’t like him.
But husband number two died after a short marriage and in 1855, Zerelda married Dr. Reuben Samuel, who had abandoned medicine for farming. That union lasted until Reuben’s death in 1908.
Nearly three years her junior, Dr. Samuel was by all reports a mild-mannered, even meek man willing to live in his volatile wife’s shadow. Through true grit and marriage, Zerelda managed to keep the farm and the family remained together.
Her grit saw her through a second major calamity as well. In May of 1863, in the middle of the Civil War, a Union patrol raided the farm. They were looking for Confederate guerrillas whose band Frank had joined.
Frank wasn’t at home. Nor were any guerrillas. But the Union soldiers found 15-year-old Jesse, working in the fields, and beat him up when he failed to supply news of the guerrillas or Frank’s whereabouts. The patrol proceeded to the farmhouse, stringing Reuben up in a nearby tree and leaving him to hang. It was Zerelda who took him down and saved his life.
That was the story Zerelda liked to tell visitors to the farm in later years. It supplied confirmation for her belief in the natural meanness of Yankees, thereby justifying her hatreds. The event traumatized her and Jesse (and no doubt made Jesse want to join up with Frank and fight the Yankees), while Reuben, frightened by the Union soldiers, probably told them what he knew about the guerrillas.
Zerelda’s third grim experience happened much later. On the night of January 25, 1875, a team of Pinkerton detectives raided the farm. They were looking for Frank and Jesse, by now America’s most famous bank and train robbers. The detectives lobbed something lit into the small farmhouse.
Some say it was a bomb. The Pinkertons — employees of a private agency hired by banking and railroad interests — have always denied this, saying it was merely something to light up a dark night.
Whatever the case, the device got thrown into the fireplace. It exploded, killing Archie Samuel, Zerelda and Reuben’s nine-year-old son and half brother to Frank and Jesse. The explosion badly damaged Zerelda’s right arm, necessitating a partial amputation.
The raid was a major blunder on the part of the Pinkertons. It aroused sympathy for the James family throughout the nation. The public expressed outrage at an attack on a private home, the maiming of a middle-aged woman, and the killing of her son. Years later, the scars that remained in the kitchen were prime attractions for visitors — actually pilgrims –—who came to the Farm to pay their respects.
That was Zerelda: bold and defiant. But what were the personalities of her sons, Frank and Jesse, like? Though they shared their mother’s convictions (and Jesse shared her intense blue eyes), they were not like her in other ways. The most detailed descriptions of the boys come from the writings of John Newman Edwards, a 19th century journalist who fought for the South during the Civil War.
Edwards openly admired Frank and Jesse — indeed he nearly worshipped Jesse — and his descriptions are written in the flowery language of 19th century journalism of which Edwards was a master.
But the descriptions echo what others said about Frank and Jesse, and have the ring of accuracy. Edwards saw the brothers as a study in contrasts: Jesse with his sense of humor, Frank always serious. “Jesse is light-hearted, reckless, devil-may-care,” Edwards wrote, while Frank was “sober and sedate.”
“Jesse laughs at everything – Frank at nothing at all,” Edwards continued. With Jesse, “There was always a smile on his lips, and a graceful word or compliment for all with whom he comes in contact.” Frank, however, was never comfortable among people and “was a dangerous man always in ambush in the midst of society.”
What Edwards was saying was that Jesse was easy to like and Frank wasn’t. This may not be an entirely fair appraisal. Jesse charmed Edwards, as he charmed many people. Frank was reticent and cautious and, I suspect, made people work hard to gain his approval.
This came across as cold, no doubt, compared to Jesse’s warmth. Does it explain why Jesse came to be regarded as the gang’s leader, despite Frank’s being older? It certainly didn’t hurt. The two brothers worked side by side as outlaws in the early years, but it was Jesse’s name that came to define the gang, no doubt too because of Jesse’s natural leadership abilities. The outlaw band was never known as the Frank James gang.
A side note: Edwards doesn’t mention it, but in his 1954 novel, Jesse James: Death of a Legend, William Henry Allen, writing under the name Will Henry, gives Jesse a pronounced facial tic from childhood on. Allen, who did screenplays for MGM, wrote under pseudonyms to hide his moonlighting from studio bosses.
- Allen was known for the thoroughness and accuracy of his research. Here’s his Jesse: “His pale blue eyes appeared weak and watery and he blinked them with a nervous constancy bordering on affliction.”
We can’t leave Jesse without mention of an occasion in his life that underlines his complexity. Jesse was a member of the Mount Olive Baptist Church in Kearny, Missouri. He also sang in the church choir.
That he was a known outlaw bothered some of Mount Olive’s congregation, but those dissatisfied hesitated to demand his ouster: How would he react? Might he shoot them? Then in September 1869, Jesse, acting on his own, requested that his name be removed from the church’s membership list as unworthy.
His request was accepted. It strikes me as interesting that Jesse, a rebel in so many ways, did not want to disturb life at his church. Did his Baptist faith mean so little to him? I suspect just the opposite. His act was an acknowledgement of his father’s success as minister. It was also Jesse’s way of expressing his concern that he not disrupt or make mockery of something he valued, as he mocked Republicans, Yankees, banks, and railroads.
Jesse, and to a lesser extent Frank, have been the subject of many films. Rarely are they shown with any degree of complexity. But they have fared far better than Zerelda. It’s a though the movies shy away from her. Are they fearful that if she stays in a movie long, she’ll steal the show?
In the first major Jesse James talkie, 1939’s Jesse James, for example, she’s played by the great character actor Jane Darwell, which might have worked out well, but she’s played as weak and sickly – and gets killed off very early in the movie, leaving only a memory of mom for her sons to cherish.
One wishes that Darwell had been allowed to show the spunk in Jesse James that she brought to the role of Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, which appeared the year after Jesse James. In some Jesse movies, like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), Zerelda makes no appearance at all.
In only two films is Zerelda given meat and bones, the kind of presence she no doubt had in real life: The Last Days of Frank and Jesse James (1986) and 2001’s American Outlaws.
Country singer June Carter Cash plays Zerelda in the 1986 movie, and gives her an angry waspish attitude. It’s clear that “Mother James,” as she’s called in the film, is a loyal Southerner who hates Yankees and Republicans.
The great Kathy Bates plays Zerelda in “American Outlaws.” She’s so good that you hardly notice that the 5’ 3” Bates is a great deal shorter than Zerelda’s six feet. Bates asks her sons, “Did you say your prayers? Did you kill some Yankees?” The lines cross over into a caricature of Zerelda, yet Bates delivers them with zest. Unfortunately, like so many of film Zereldas, she’s killed off way too early, and the movie suffers without her.
If the movies deny Zerelda’s reality and significance, literature does not. I don’t think it is by chance that the two writers who give Zerelda her due are women. In her exceptional 1988 book, The Jesse James Poems, Missouri-born Paulette Jiles gives us a powerful Zerelda. So does novelist Susan Dodd in her Mamaw: A Novel of an Outlaw Mother, also published in 1988.
Jiles’ The Jesse James Poems is a series of 33 poems of various lengths about the major events and people in Jesse’s life. “Zerelda,” an eight-stanza poem is one of the longest in the book. Here’s Zerelda as Jiles presents her, forceful and nearly fearless:
“Huge emotions sweep over Zerelda,
Tornadoes and electrical storms,
The Civil War
Was made for people like Zerelda
She does not even resist but sails off
Like a barn roof
They are simple emotions: rage, fear,
A desire to be noticed.”
Then comes the poem’s best line, a description of what Zerelda’s voice sounded like, how it struck those who heard it. It’s a description, too, of how people around her must have experienced her: “In her mouth human speech becomes a skinning knife.” To feel the full force of that metaphor remember that a skinning knife is a blade sharp enough to remove skin and hide from animals with ease and efficiency.
That skinning-knife voice moves center-stage in Susan Dodd’s “Mamaw.” Dodd’s Zerelda is remarkable from childhood, a woman with a growing understanding of her intuitive abilities and special powers, an Earth Mother and goddess who loves her famous sons deeply, a legend herself and a mother of enduring legends.
Does Dodd go too far? I don’t think so. In the context of her novel — and with the license granted literary invention — this Earth Mother Zerelda works magnificently as a character, gives the real Zerelda her due, and turns her life into a myth worthy of her sons.
An example: I see Dodd’s description of Robert James’ feelings for the 16-year-old Zerelda as perfect. Robert saw in her, Dodd writes, “something more fearsome than beauty,” and chose her on the basis of that fearsome quality.
Her sons no doubt recognized that same quality in her as well.
There is very good writing in Dodd’s novel, but there is nothing more powerful than her description of how Zerelda and Frank must have felt in 1882 when they buried Jesse in the backyard of the farmhouse and placed his impressive tombstone so that it could be seen easily from the house.
The world they had moved in and loved and were accustomed to has come to an abrupt end. With Jesse gone, they are left unplugged from their major outlet for expressing defiance and rebellion. Dodd writes:
But it seems to both of them, Buck [Frank’s nickname] and Mamaw, that they inhabit a frozen piece of ground broken off from the rest of the earth, nobody on it but them.”
Much of the 1880’s and 1890’s, Zerelda spent giving tours of the Farm. She charged (I have read) one dollar, with a quarter extra for a tour of the house, where they could see the damage down the kitchen by the explosion during the 1876 Pinkerton raid.
She also played hostess to visitors who were close to her heart and shared her beliefs: men who had fought along side Frank and Jesse as Quantrill’s Raiders or in the other guerrilla groups her sons had fought with. Zerelda died in 1911, an unreconstructed Southerner to the end.
I close this section with mention of the one time I thought a movie got Zerelda just right, at least for one passing moment. In 1972’s The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, there’s a quick glimpse of a wanted poster that has Frank and Jesse’s pictures on it — and Zerelda’s as well.
That never happened in real life, as far as I know. Frank and Jesse’s pictures and names adorned posters alone. Yet in a very genuine sense it is true. The three of them formed a trio, and it makes poetic sense to see them together, linked as enemies of what America was becoming after the Civil War.
Had she seen such a poster, Zerelda would no doubt have burst with pride.
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.