Jesse James: Unpacking the man and the myth (Part 1)
Photo above: Author on front porch of James farmhouse. Photo by Ray Petersen.
Part l: VISITING JESSE JAMES’ FARM
“To travel is to make contact with certain places that evoke our own life . . . .” – French artist Odilon Redon (1840-1916), “To Myself: Notes on Life, Art, and Artists.”
“A tourist is half a pilgrim if a pilgrim is half a tourist.” – Old saying.
“Lord, help any fool who tries to get between me and my farm again!” – Colin Farrell as Jesse James in the 2001 movie, “American Outlaws.”
“Well don’t you wanna be an outlaw
Don’t you wanna ride the range
Don’t you want to be an outlaw children
Just like Jesse, like Jesse James
Just like Jesse boy.”
— Bruce Springsteen, “Don’t You Want To Be An Outlaw?” (1972)
Long before we made the turn off State Route 92 onto the Jesse James Farm Road, it was easy to see what brought 28-year-old Reverend Robert James and his wife Zerelda, 21, to this part of Clay County in western Missouri in 1846.
The young couple, both Kentucky-born, sought good farm land and the rich, gently-rolling, and amply-watered land they saw around them must of struck them as just what they looked for.
Ray Petersen and I were on our twice-annual trek across America from our home in Delaware to our condo in Albuquerque and we’d decided to stop by Jesse James’ home and get a feeling for where America’s best-known bandit first saw the light of day and spent his young years. Here we were, at the James Farm, and it was a gorgeous day.
Neither Ray nor I can recall a time when we didn’t know who Jesse James was, or at least thought we did. Comic books were likely our first introduction, but stories about Jesse and his older brother and partner in crime and life, Frank, were also rife on radio and then TV when we were young, so what we garnered from comic books was no doubt heavily fortified by these other sources.
Frank and Jesse were everyone’s favorite bad-guy heroes back then, especially Jesse, and their names remain potent today. “Jesse James has been front-page news since 1869”, Jesse biographer William A. Settle, Jr. declared more than fifty years ago. Settle chose 1869 because that was the year the James Gang robbed the Daviess County Savings Association, a bank in Gallatin, Missouri. It was their first exploit to make front-page news throughout America immediately after it happened.
That Jesse is still a big name there can be no doub. In 2008 – 126 years after his death — the Evil City String Band began singing their version of Timmy Brown’s “Fighting Man,” a song that includes the refrain “Jesse James everybody knows your name / Everybody loves a fighting man.”
Two years ago – in 2012 – a Frank and Jesse James reward poster sold for $57,475 at Brian Lebel’s Old West Show & Auction in Denver, almost 130 percent over the $25,000 it was expected to sell for. A year earlier, the only known signed Jesse James photo, estimated at $30,000 sold for $51,240.
But it was the late Ted P. Yeatman, an indefatigable researcher of all things involving Frank and Jesse, who uncovered my favorite evidence of Frank and Jesse’s enduring fame.
Yeatman, author of the dual biography, Frank and Jesse (2000) estimated that there are more historical sites connected with Jesse’s name that have been preserved because of continuing public interest than for any other figure out of American history, with the exceptions of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. If that’s true (and I suspect it may be), it says a lot about what interests Americans.
In 1927, when he was starring in Jesse James, an early silent Jesse film that’s now been lost, Fred Thomson, a big Hollywood star at the time, proposed that a monument be built to Jesse’s memory in Kearney, Missouri, where Jesse’s now buried. No one liked the idea: The conclusion was that responsible people shouldn’t be in the business of building memorials to outlaws.
So there will never be, say, a Jesse James Middle School, just as there will never be a William Henry McCarty, Jr. (Billy the Kid’s real name) High School. Yet Jesse’s (and Billy’s) memory survives without that kind of monument. The public has no need for a statue made of bronze or an obelisk of granite to keep their names in mind. The power of their legends alone continues to do that.
On the farm they bought, Robert and Zerelda planned to grow cash crops such as hemp and tobacco just as their relatives had done back in Kentucky. They would plant vegetables and raise livestock and chickens, mostly for family use, and be self-sufficient.
Already, Robert and Zerelda had started a family. Frank, born on January 10, 1843, came to the farm with them. Jesse was born there on September 5, 1847. Susan Lavinia followed two years later. Slaves – as many as seven when the family was most prosperous — made up the rest of the James household.
Our visit to the farm began at the Visitors’ Center, a handsome, western-style building of wood with a long front porch. We signed up for one of the tours that run every half hour. At the gift shop I purchased an emerald green T-shirt (“Jesse James 1847 Birthplace,” it boasts) and a couple books.
We watched a film on Frank and Jesse, both on what they actually did (become guerrilla warriors, rob banks and trains, and murder people) and on the many and often totally untrue legends that quickly grew up around their exploits – that they were, for instance, latter-day Robin Hoods who robbed the rich to give to the poor.
It’s the one part of the Jesse legend I never put much store by. Altruistic thieves working for the poor rather than themselves? Maybe there was a rare small donation strategically given to someone needy to enhance the gang’s reputation. But let’s not talk big time giveaways.
Here’s how the legend ran. Without hesitation, a widow whose farm the gang happens upon agrees to feed the hungry men. She fixes them food, then weeps, telling them the mortgage is due and that very day the banker is on his way to collect.
Jesse turns the cash over to the widow to pay the banker, cautioning her to be sure to get a receipt. The gang leaves. The greedy banker arrives, barely concealing his disappointment when the widow pays up.
On his way back to town, the gang, which has been in wait for him, robs him of the money he has received from the widow. The gang is back in possession of its loot and the whole transaction becomes a joke at the banker’s expense.
Jesse, who had a great sense of humor, would have loved the joke (and may have played a part in its invention). But note that at the story’s end, he’s back in possession of the money he’d “given” away. Moreover, we know that Jesse and Frank loved good horses, horse racing, and fine clothes and their families – all items they very likely spent their dollars on than on the poor.
Yet, watching the documentary film at the Visitors’ Center, I realized I hadn’t recognized the importance of the Robin Hood myth applied to Jesse. It helps make a bad guy’s bad side more palatable by rendering him (at least in part) a man of good qualities as well. His admirers can play down the crimes by painting him as a man whose aim is finally to right wrongs done to others.
There’s no evidence to suggest that the real life Jesse was Robin Hood. But there’s every reason to see the Jesse of legend as Robin Hood. That dawned on me in the days after the visit to the farm. But I was soon to learn that the legend leaves a great deal of space for play, and some of it is very funny indeed.
Take, for instance, poet Paulette Jiles’ spin on the legend in her astute1988 book The Jesse James Poems (1988). Instead of readily compliant, the widow in Jiles’ poem is quite put out by the gang’s demand for food. “Say ma’am, would you cook us some dinner, / we are real hungry.”
“Hell, no,” she replies, “can’t you tell a person is doing a laundry / when you see it?” When the outlaws kill a chicken without her permission, the widow becomes so mad, in Jile’s words, she “lookt / like somebody killing snakes with a switch.” That sounds like what a poor widow might do when suddenly confronted with feeding six or eight hungry men she doesn’t know from Adam.
But back to the farm: The Visitor’s Center’s well-put-together museum with its Frank and Jesse relics – guns, saddles, and the like – is uncluttered and easily absorbed. On a wall is a feature we’d never seen before: markings that allowed you to compare your height with that of Zerelda’s and other family members. Six feet tall, she towered over most women (and many men) of her time..
Clay County bought the 40-acre site that comprises the farm today (the original farm was much larger) from the James family in 1978 and maintains the land and house, with the help of The Friends of Jesse James Farm, a nonprofit group.
The place looks great, like a place where real people live and work. The small, T-shaped log and clapboard house is recognizable from its 19th century photographs. To the right, the same creek ambles by. One thing that isn’t there that was in the old photos: the American zig-zag split log fence, found on farms all over America in those days.
During refurbishing, workmen used 19th century tools and materials. Indoors and out, the farm evokes the past. Old furnishings and wallpaper and old family pictures convey feelings of what it was like to live there. The kitchen, a long room with a cooking fireplace, looks lived in. It’s easy to imagine Jesse and Frank and the rest of the family assembled there for a meal.
In a bedroom, there’s a large handmade wooden box. The tour guide tells us it belonged to Frank, who was an avid reader from the time he was a boy. Shakespeare became a favorite author, and he could and would, as an adult, famously quote Shakespeare at the drop of hat, no doubt to the utter annoyance of those around him: There he goes again!
The guide tells us that Frank took the box, loaded with books, along with him when he traveled. Does that mean when he and Jesse and the gang went off to rob banks and trains? Probably, but I don’t find out. By the time I think to ask the question, the guide’s moved on.
Behind the house, a tall granite monument stands that marks the spot where Jesse was buried after his April, 1882 assassination. On the tombstone, the famous epitaph, chosen by Zerelda, reads, “MURDERED BY A TRAITOR AND A COWARD WHOSE NAME IS NOT WORTHY TO APPEAR HERE.”
Jesse’s body has since been moved to Mount Olivet Cemetery in nearby Kearney, Missouri where he’s now buried next to his wife, who was his first cousin and was also named Zerelda, but usually called Zee.
Zerelda James, the Zerelda who was Jesse’s mother, charged 25 cents to people who came to pay their respects and visit Jesse’s grave, and come they did, right after his death, in great numbers, and still do.
Gifts arrived as well. Dr. Reuben Samuel, Jesse’s stepfather and Zerelda’s third husband, told friends that the whole farm could have been be sown with the flower seeds sent by Jesse’s admirers who asked that they be planted on Jesse’s grave.
As Ray and I walked around the well-kept farm, I thought this is where Frank and Jesse learned to hunt and shoot. This is where they learned to ride horses, ride them very well and to judge the quality of horses.
Their shooting and riding skills served them well when they left home and joined up with bushwhackers, Confederate guerrilla bands during the fierce and brutal Civil War years in Missouri, and then later when they turned outlaws. Friends would sometimes say they never saw Jesse on anything less than a really good horse.
They always felt close to the farm, wherever their later lives took them. It was the place where they could find their mother. It was the place that defined them, the place they returned to as often as possible, until their fame rendered return impossible for fear of being captured.
Just before we left, Ray took my photograph sitting on the farmhouse’s front porch. Out of the blue, I had the overwhelming feeling I’d been there before, on that porch, and that none of what I’d seen of the farm that day was new to me.
Then, in a flash, I realized it wasn’t new. I recognized that this farm was very much like the homes and farms of friends and family I visited regularly growing up more than a half century ago in West Virginia: The well-kept farms and the neat, comfortable, and never pretentious homes, all of them places about which I have nothing but good memories.
It was like my Great Grandfather Sam Sturm’s place in Junior, West Virginia, the site of legendary family gatherings. It was like Chris and May Currence’s farm in Tygart Valley, south of my hometown, two of the sweetest people I’ve ever known.
It was like Mrs. Levier’s farm where I remember gathering chicken eggs and the contentment that came with that mundane task. It was very much like my father’s cousin Marcella’s home on Rich Mountain, where we’d stop for lunch when dad and I had been hunting squirrels on crisp fall mornings, hungry and eager for food, and where we dined on groundhog, which I never liked, and home-grown rutabagas.
It was like the farm where my great uncle Bub Sturm first put me on a horse named Gypsy and taught me to ride, a place I recall vividly though I haven’t seen it for half a century.
Other similarities between Jesse’s background and mine came to mind, all of them in the same rush of remembrance on that porch. Missouri during the Civil War had been engulfed in bitter guerrilla warfare between bushwhackers – Southern sympathizers — and jayhawkers, whose loyalties lay with the North.
There had been guerrilla war, too, in the high Appalachians where I grew up. There, the Yankee guerrillas called themselves Swamp Dragoons. The Confederate guerrillas went by the name Dixie Boys.
Beverly, the town my mother’s parents lived in when I was a kid, was taken and retaken by Confederate and Union forces throughout the war, the last time in January, 1865, by Rebels, only three months before the war’s end and the Rebel defeat.
On a hill overlooking the town, there’s an obelisk monument, marking the site where sixty-eight Confederate soldiers and one civilian were buried in a mass grave following the July 1861 Battle of Rich Mountain. It’s known to history as the only Confederate cemetery completely surrounded by Union trenches, a situation neatly symbolizing the Civil War in Border States like West Virginia and Missouri where quite literally brother fought brother and neighbor fought against neighbor.
Awareness of that war was very much a part of my childhood. I recall meeting an ancestor who’d fought for the North and who was 105 when I met him. I was five.
On Memorial Day, we placed flowers on the graves of Union soldier ancestors and those of Confederate ancestors alike, just as families from Civil War Border States like West Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri often did.
My grandfather, John Jacob Goode, was a Confederate soldier who in 1866, after the Civil War, according to a story told me by my father, shot and killed a Yankee soldier in Front Royal, Virginia and fled to the West Virginia mountains to hide out, and eventually start a new life.
Why he shot the soldier I was never told. But in those chaotic, post-war times, my grandfather’s life was unsettled and violent, like Frank’s and Jesse’s.
As I sat on the front porch of the James home, Jesse and Frank were no longer just comic book characters or figures from America’s past, long ago. They and their lives were getting acutely personal in ways I had not anticipated.
At the Visitors’ Center we asked the name of a good place to eat. A young woman recommended the Rock Café in Kearney. It was perfect: smallish, friendly and homelike with an impressive buffet from soups to desserts. It lived up to the promise of the sign out front, “Serving Food, Fun, and Sarcasm Since 2009.”
Over lunch Ray and I talked about the visit. I decided that I’d watch the Jesse movies I had never seen, and watch again the ones I had, that I’d reread the books on the James brothers I’d already read, and read the ones I hadn’t.
I had no idea at that time what a big project I’d taken on. I would learn soon. By some estimates, there have been well over 1000 books done on the James brothers and their exploits and innumerable articles, with more coming out all the time.
There have been at least 36 movies, more if the many documentaries and even greater number of TV series and specials are considered.
I would learn a lot I didn’t know, and correct errors that I’d acquired over the years. Unpacking Jesse and his myth would prove a big and (mostly) fascinating undertaking. I didn’t know, for example, how mobile Frank and Jesse were. The Gang robbed banks as for north as Minnesota and as far south as Mississippi. From west to east they ranged from Ames, Iowa to Huntington, West Virginia, distances of many hundreds of miles.
On the lam, they did even better, looking for their father’s grave in California, and visiting New York City. According to their biographer Ted Yeatman, they lived, along with their wives, for a few months in the mid-1870’s in Baltimore, probably renting a house in what is now Camden Yards.
One fact that I’d only vaguely realized was that we shouldn’t think of Jesse as a Western desperado like Billy the Kid. Jesse was first and foremost a Southerner, a Johnny Reb, whose outlawry was an expression of defiance against everything Yankee.
How much like Jesse’s was my own background? That was only one question I was asking myself. I also wanted to understand why more than 130 years after his death, Jesse’s name is far more familiar to great numbers of people worldwide than are the names of the US presidents of his time, more familiar than the name any other American who lived then, with the possible exception of another native Missourian, Mark Twain.
Why, after all this time, are new popular songs still written about him, new books published, and new major motion pictures made, often with major Hollywood stars, like Tyrone Power, Robert Wagner, Robert Duvall, and Brad Pitt playing Jesse, and stars the magnitude of Henry Fonda, Johnny Cash, and Sam Shepard play Frank. Why, indeed?
It’s a big story, and it comprises sizeable chunks of American history, because the story doesn’t stop with the James Gang’s bank and train robberies. Jesse’s fame is inconceivable without newspapers, which had begun to play a major role in American life in the years the James Gang was most active.
Jesse read the papers meticulously, wrote letters to editors about the gang’s activities and helped create the image of the gang that came to dominate the press in this country and the rest world.
So it’s a story of the big role the press played in America in the last half of the 19th century. It’s also the story of the Civil War in Missouri, a violent, bloody, relentlessly partisan era that many historians regard as the most violent and partisan in American history, ever: the very period and place where Frank and Jesse grew up.
And Jesse’s story is about America’s never-ending love affair with outlaws and bad boys. We can’t get enough of them. Hollywood knows this. So does the popular culture in general, supplying our needs with a never ending flow of Jesse stories, of stories about Billy the Kid, about every bad boy that comes along that captures America’s imagination, right down to (alas!) our own time’s bad boy, Justin Bieber, surely a sign that times are in serious decline.
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.