“Jesse he has gone down
To the Old Man’s town,
Intending to do as he pleased;
But he will rebel
In the City of Hell,
And maybe put old Satan to his knees.”
— From a ballad sent by Mrs. F. M Warren of Jane, Missouri in 1927 to Vance Randolph for his book Ozark Folk Songs. Mrs. Warren said the ballad had been in her family for forty years and was written right after Jesse’s assassination.
“If you keep company with the James gang, you find out soon enough that legend’s grip is a good bit stronger than history’s. You try to learn to live with it. And perhaps you come to a different kind of knowing …” — Susan Dodd in the “Author’s Afterward” to her book, Mamaw: A Novel of an Outlaw Mother.
“Just because you shot Jesse James, that don’t make you Jesse James.” — Line delivered by actor Jonathan Banks as tough-guy fixer Mike Ehrmantraut to Walter White after White’s killed Mike’s boss, Albuquerque meth king Gus Fring, and expects Mike to become Walter’s underling in the popular AMC series, Breaking Bad.
“What are you plannin’ on doin’,” asks the engineer when Jesse (Tyrone Power) jumps up behind him on the moving train the gang is holding up.
“I’m not planning on doing anything. I’m doing it!” Jesse responds.
— From the 1939 movie Jesse James.
•••• •••• ••••• •••• ••••
Jesse James’ name will not be forgotten anytime soon. There have been too many movies and songs, too many comic books, too many books of all kinds, poems, and video games with him (or at least his name) at their center for his memory to be easily erased, should anyone ever be so foolish as to attempt that formidable task.
As I learned very quickly when I began my research on America’s favorite bandit, he keeps popping up everywhere, long after you think you’ve surely exhausted all that’s been said, written, and produced about him. Time may eventually erode his story and legend, but it hasn’t done so yet, and it’s been almost a century and a half since Bob Ford killed him in cold blood.
One reason Jesse won’t disappear is that every generation he continues to have new offspring. To name only a few, over several decades: 1930’s tough-guys like Tom Powers (Jimmy Cagney) in the gangster film The Public Enemy (1931) owe a great deal to the Jesse legend. So does Humphrey Bogart’s ill-fated bad guy Roy Earle a decade later in High Sierra (1941).
Twelve years after that, Johnny Stabler, the character Marlon Brando played in the 1953 cult motorcycle gang classic The Wild One is another Jesse spinoff. Who can forget that movie’s most famous exchange? A young woman who hangs with the “Black Angels,” the gang’s name, asks, “Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?” Brando replies: “Whadda ya got?” Anything will do, what’s important, Johnny is saying, is to remain perpetually defiant.
Stabler is an easy fit for membership in “the solitary race,” the words “The Ballad of Jesse James” uses to describe Jesse. Stabler matches the lines from another Jesse ballad as well: “he will rebel / In the city of Hell / And maybe put old Satan to his knees.”
James Dean’s roles in East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause and Giant likewise match those words from the Jesse ballads. Dean, like Jesse, has his own potent legend that’s turned him into myth: A man who never compromised his beliefs, lived as he wanted to, and died young.
Jesse’s current manifestation is Jackson “Jax” Teller (Charlie Hunnam) in FX’s hit series, Sons of Anarchy. “Jax” may well be the perfect Jesse-blend to come along for some time: smart, handsome, and as bad at times as bad boys can be.
Jax and his buddies spend much of their time on motorcycles, and so did Brando as Johnny Stabler in The Wild One more than a half-century earlier. In “Rebel Without a Cause,” James Dean as Jim Stark rode a motorcycle and befriended a motorcycle gang leader, Buzz Gunderson, whose character also owes something to Jesse. In the modern world, Jesse rides a motorcycle (a powerful one, of course), and has stabled his horse.
Linking Jesse with fictional gangsters would come as no surprise to Paul I Wellman, whose 1961 book, A Dynasty of Western Outlaws argues that men like guerrilla leader William Clark Quantrill and Frank and Jesse set examples of outlawry that were imitated right down through the 1930’s by real life gangsters like Pretty Boy Floyd.
One of my favorite scenes from Jesse James movies comes from the opening of the decidedly second-tier Days of Jesse James, which came out in 1939. It starred Roy Rogers, but not as Jesse. The now forgotten Donald Barry had that role.
Here’s the scene: We’re inside a railroad car, traveling. The conductor walks the aisle hawking newspapers. “Read all about what President Grant is doing,” he calls out. Nobody pays any attention. He disappears, and then returns. This time he’s more successful: “Read about the latest on Jesse James,” he says, and suddenly everyone wants a newspaper.
When they make their purchase, they find Jesse’s not on the front page. His story is buried inside, and it’s about how the favorite name for boys in America at that moment in history is – you guessed it – Jesse.
What a gently humorous way to make the point about the power of Jesse’s name. The rest of the movie isn’t that memorable — though it was fairly popular at the time. In my research, I came across a report from the manager of the theater in Waldorf, Maryland, who said the theater had standing room only when the film showed there, along with a personal appearance by Roy Rogers himself.
We can sort Jesse’s fame today into categories. First there are the “worldly manifestations” of his fame — festivals, the many historic sites connected with his name, and the like. Second (and to me far more interesting), there is the Jesse James legend, or what people believe about him. It’s what they believe about him, whether it’s true or not, that assures his enduring celebrity.
The worldly manifestations are many. Here are a select few:
- *Each June, The Friends of the Jesse James Farm (FOJF) holds a reunion. The Friends do much to maintain and manage the Farm and to keep people informed about the latest on Jesse. Their newsletter is at www.jessejames.org. The group sponsors an Old West Revolver Shoot. It also makes purchases of Jesse memorabilia, such as letters exchanged by his parents, Robert and Zerelda.
- *The town of Kearney, nearby the Farm, has its own Jesse James Festival each September. This year’s will be the 44th, with events familiar to anyone who’s experienced festivals in small town America: barbecue cooking competitions, mud volleyball, hot rod show, demolition derby, and a rodeo.
- *Likewise in September, but far to the North, the town of Northfield, Minnesota celebrates its own take on Jesse. Here, where the James and Younger brothers were nearly wiped out in 1876, there is “Defeat of Jesse James Days.” Each year, the town puts on “Jesse James –The Original Musical Melodrama” at the Lockwood Theater Company.
Jesse’s fame manifests itself in in other worldly ways as well. Rumors that the gang stashed loot from its robberies in caves or buried it underground and then either forgot about it or never had a chance to get back to it have been around since Jesse was still alive.
Just find the now long-hidden treasure and you’ll be rich! This is the idea behind Ronald J. Pastore’s book, Jesse James’ Secret: Codes, Cover-ups & Hidden Treasure (2010) and his TV documentary Jesse James’ Hidden Treasure. But before you get eager to go on the hunt, check out Eric James, where you will find “Stray Leaves,” The James Preservation Fund website.
The Trust keeps a lookout for spurious claims about James family history and bogus claims of being related to Jesse. There are plenty of such claims. Be sure to look at “Leaves of Gas” where Eric James convincingly demolishes Pastore’s claims.
I’ve always had big doubts about buried Jesse James treasure and it’s good to see them confirmed. Jesse and Frank liked fine horses and horse racing. They gambled. They dressed well. They traveled. All that took money. Besides how could there be any loot left to bury if they were busy turning it over to the poor?
Some of my favorite Jesse websites deal with ghosts that haunt the James Farm. As Legends of America puts it matter-of-factly: “Given the violent temperament of some of its inhabitants, the untimely death of Jesse’s young half-brother [in the January 1876 Pinkerton Raid on the Farm], it would be astonishing to hear that the property had no tales of ghostly activity.”
Astonishing indeed. But who are the ghosts? One site, “Jesse James Birthplace and Farm — Your Ghost Stories”, provides photographs. One of the photos shows a man with a long white beard standing behind a window in the Farm House.
The blogger says the old man wasn’t standing in the window when the picture was taken. He showed up in finished photograph. Who is it? The blogger surmises it might me an aged Civil War veteran. Certainly many Confederate veterans visited to pay Jesse their respects. I like to think it might be Dr. Reuben Samuel, Zerelda’s meek and mild-mannered third husband.
What a fierce tribe he took on a when he married into the ever-so-larger-than-life James family. Reuben lived at the Farm until he died, after years of poor health, in 1908. Zerelda passed on three years later on a train trip to San Francisco. She was 86 and buried next to Reuben and her sons Jesse and Archie in Kearney’s Mt. Olivet Cemetery. Frank died at the Farm in 1915 and his wife, Anna, lived on until 1944.There are many people the ghost or ghosts could be.
But what of the Jesse James legend, without which not one of the worldly manifestations of Jesse’s story would have any meaning? Where did the legend come from and — more importantly — how did it acquire so much strength and authority, and maintain that authority to this day?
I have no doubt that a key reason for the legend is that Jesse died young. Billy the Kid was only 21 when Pat Garrett shot him in Fort Sumner, New Mexico. James Dean, when his Porsche 550 Spyder collided with a 1950 Ford coupe near Cholame, California, was 24.
Both died in the beauty of their youth and both were already on the way to being legends when they died. Jesse was older, 34, when Bob Ford murdered him, but still young enough that the compromises of age hadn’t canceled the deeds of his youth or withered the legend that had already begun to grow up around him.
Consider the alternative. Frank James lived on another thirty-three years after Jesse’s assassination, dying at 72. His last period of immense fame had been in 1883, when his sixteen-day courtroom trial ended in acquittal.
His days in court and his going free made national news. Historians have called it the O.J. Simpson trial of its time. But after that Frank rapidly fades from view. He came to renounce his outlaw past, at one point trying to stop production of a play about his and Jesse’s bandit days. He failed, but it bothered him considerably, he said, that such plays might encourage young people to pursue a life of crime.
Frank pursued various trades, but none for very long. For a period, he was a shoe salesman — hardly the stuff of legend. In 1903, Frank and Cole Younger, recently released from prison after a stint of nearly a quarter century for the Northfield, Minnesota bank robbery attempt, organized The Great Cole Younger and Frank James Historical Wild West Show. It was a failure.
Yet dying young didn’t assure Jesse of immortality. Lots of well-known people die young and leave no enduring fame. I think the unrivalled power of his legend has in part helped maintain its momentum. Above all, it is the legend’s ability to change to fit new times that keeps Jesse’s name alive. That legend seems always able to fill a profound need in the lives of many Americans. To them, it speaks directly.
Of what does that legend consist? At its center is the image of a man bold and rebellious, a defiant outsider, who never ceased being so. We have seen how defiance is what Jesse and Frank learned at their mother’s knee. Defiant is the image newspaper editor John Newman Edwards, with Jesse’s help, fostered in article after article lauding Jesse and his gang, comparing them equal to knights of old in courage and spirit, the highest praise Edwards could bestow.
It is defiance that comes through loudest and clearest in American popular culture’s attitude toward Jesse. “There never was a man with the law in his hand, / That could take Jesse James alive,” “The Ballad of Jesse James” has boasted for well over a century.
A later Jesse ballad from the rural regions of Missouri and Arkansas says it even better. “Jesse he has gone / down to the Old Man’s town, / Intending to do as he pleased; / But he will rebel / In the city of Hell, / And maybe put old Satan to his knees.”
Rebel in the city of Hell? Put old Satan to his knees? Jesse would have loved the spin that song puts on him. Contemporary songwriters take up the theme as well, providing their own take.
They often identify with Jesse’s violent side. “You know everybody loves a fighting man …” sings the Evil City String Band in their version of Tim Brown’s “Fighting Man.” The great blues guitarist John Lee Hooker gets in right in his “I’m Bad Like Jesse James:” “I’m mad, I’m bad, I’m like Jesse James.”
In its 2006 cut “Jesse James,” the LA Indie band Brazzaville puts it equally boldly: “I don’t wanna live your life / I wanna die like Jesse James / And I’m grateful for the bullet / That’s about to take me home.”
I think no one got the defiance in Jesse’s legend better than the very young and defiant Bruce Springsteen when he sang in his 1971 “Don’t You Want To Be An Outlaw?” “Well don’t you wanna be an outlaw / Don’t you wanna ride the range … Just like Jesse, like Jesse James / Just like Jesse boy.”
After such intense and sometimes morbid identification with Jesse, the two last lines from the Scottish hard rock band Nazareth’s 1973 song “Not Faking It” come as a great — even comic — relief: “Jesse James was a born killer / Me I’m just a rock’n’roll singer.”
Defiance and rebellion then are at the center of the Jesse legend. But important too is that Jesse had something he believed in to fight for, and — this is crucial — that he had sufficient grit to carry on the fight through thick and thin.
That he was a die-hard Southern loyalist whose defiance sprang from the defeat of the Confederacy doesn’t matter. This is the part of the legend that is changeable to fit new times and later generations. In the 1939 “Jesse James”, he fights the bank and railroad interests who lord it over the common folk.
The Civil War and the Southern defeat take a back seat. Jesse becomes a fighter for the fundamental rights of man, opposed to all that keeps people from preserving what they have and becoming what they might become. He mocks the powers-that-be, whether capitalist or governmental, in the name of everyman.
American Outlaws (2001) makes this point superbly. Timothy Dalton plays detective Alan Pinkerton whose agency has been hired by arrogant rich men to put a stop to the James Gang. But Pinkerton’s no patsy for his bosses. When they wonder why Pinkerton doesn’t easily wipe out the outlaws with the superior firepower available to him, Pinkerton tells them, “My professional opinion is that you’ve managed to piss off the wrong bunch of farm boys this time.”
He also makes the clever observation, “If I were to design the perfect outlaw band, [the James Gang] is what I would create.” That statement, I would argue, is worthy of being expanded and becoming a four-line stanza in “The Ballad of Jesse James.”
But what of the other question I’d asked myself that morning I sat on the James farmhouse porch and Raymond took my photograph; I’d thought I’d been there before. At that moment, there was a flood of memory about the farms of friends and relatives I’d spent time on when young.
The farms I’d loved in West Virginia a half century ago and more were very much like to the James Farm. That certainly is true. Were there other likenesses between Jesse’s background and my own? The answer is a resounding no.
I readily understood Jesse’s attachment to the Farm. It’s where he grew up and enjoyed happy times before the Civil War. I could imagine him saying as Colin Farrell playing Jesse in “American Outlaws” says, “Lord help anyone who gets between me and my farm.”
I could have said it too. Still could. But Jesse grew to manhood in exceedingly violent times and I did not. His family owned slaves and mine never has. My own Confederate veteran grandfather (never a slaveholder), after he had killed a Yankee soldier in Virginia in 1866, settled down in West Virginia, had a family and farm and became known as the best curer of country ham and distiller of rye whiskey in the county. His farm I never knew, but I know I’d have loved it.
The differences between Jesse’s upbringing and my own were brought home to me when I read Jesse James, Jr.’s biography, Jesse James, My Father: The First and Only True Story of His Adventures Ever Written, first published in 1899.
Jesse, Jr. was only seven when his father was killed; his memories of Jesse were the memories of a child. There are problems with this book: His stepfather, Dr. Reuben Samuel, is throughout referred to as Dr. Reuben Samuels, to name just one error. The story Jesse, Jr. tells in the following quote may or may not be true. Still it sticks in my mind about one of the problems I have with his dad.
It begins on the James Farm in peace and quiet. “The last time my father was at his birthplace was an ideal spring day. The grass and flowers were just coming up green and fresh, and the leaves were budding on the big coffee bean tree in the corner of the yard where he is buried now.
“Father was in a good humor that day and he sat all the afternoon with my grandmother in the shade of the porch and they talked together of old times.” All well and good, right? A happy family situation? Then the tone changes abruptly.
“While they were sitting there a pretty red-headed woodpecker alighted on a tree fifty yards away and clung to the back. My father pulled his revolver and said to my grandmother: ‘Mother, have you heard about my being a good shot; I will show you.’
“He threw the revolver down on the little bird, pulled the trigger, and it fell dead.
“My father was a wonderful marksman.”
Oh my. Did Jesse really need to prove that he was an expert shot to his mother? She had been around when he learned to shoot. She knew his reputation as a guerrilla. But beyond that question, Did he really need to choose to kill a beautiful bird to prove himself? Why not ask Zerelda, “See that big limb on that tree fifty yards away?” and then prove his skill by hitting a spot he’d singled out?
The killing of the woodpecker seems wanton to me, wanton and totally unnecessary. My father, who taught me to hunt and shoot, broke off a long time friendship when that friend shot and killed a loon when he was out hunting with dad one day and had had no luck finding squirrels or other game.
I was deeply impressed by my father’s reaction. He was a West Virginia mountain man born and bred, a crack shot, who taught me to shoot as a kid. He had never gone beyond the eighth grade. There had been no reason to kill the loon. It was a cruel and selfish act. My reaction to Jesse’s killing the woodpecker is precisely the same.
One last thought on Jesse and the world in which he lived. In 1860, when Frank was 17 and Jesse 13 and still just farm boys, Clay County’s population, including slaves, was 13,023. There was plenty of room to live and move around in and not feel crowded.
Today Clay County’s population is 221,939 and it is a place neither Jesse nor Frank would recognize, nor is it a place they would like. I picture them reacting like another boy from Missouri, the fictional Huck Finn reacts at the end of Mark Twain’s great novel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Huck’s been asked to settle down and abandon the independent life he’s enjoyed. He opts to flee the hackles he sees restricting him and for freedom. “But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.”
There was a lot of Huck Finn in Jesse. There’s a lot of Huck Finn in most of us that helps us identify with Jesse. That the Jesse legend plays havoc with the facts we know about Jesse shouldn’t surprise us at all. We can say what’s true about him over and over, but it never takes hold, never undermines the myth.
The legend will always relegate facts to the back burner, while the legend goes on cooking and simmering on the front burner, the contents and taste of the stew ever changing as new generations put new spins on Jesse.
That happened in 1980 with Levon Helm’s album The Legend of Jesse James. I would describe it as a poignant, low-key country music opera where Levon sings Jesse’s part and Frank’s role is sung by Johnny Cash. Other well-known singers complete the cast. Interestingly, the songwriter is Paul Kennerley, an Englishman.
I’ll end with a quote from a now forgotten poet. William Rose Benet (1886-1950) wrote his own Jesse ballad that’s been set to music by men as diverse as classical composer Earl George and folksinger Jimmy Pyke.
Benet’s Jesse is “Strong-arm chief of an outlaw clan” and had “a fire in his heart no hurt could stifle.” “He was a hawse [horse] an’ a man together; / In a cave in a mountain high up in air / He lived with a rattlesnake, a wolf, an’ a bear.” “For guts an’ stren’th he was sooper-human.”
Benet’s Jesse doesn’t die, like we mere humans do:
“They say he was took an’ they say he is dead
But he ain’t – he’s a sunset overhead!
(Missouri down to the sea!)
An’ when you see a sunset burst into flames
(Lightnin’ like the Missouri!)
Or a thunderstorm blaze — that’s Jesse James!
(Hear that Missouri Roll!)
I ask you, with a legend like that, what do facts matter?
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.