One of the enduring myths of American folklore is that Jesse James was a home-grown Robin Hood who “stole from the rich and gave to the poor,” in the words of “The Ballad of Jesse James,” which enjoyed a revived popularity among the romantic left in the 1960s. Supported by Hollywood movies, pulp fiction, and even serious scholarship, this image has dominated our understanding of the post–Civil War James gang and other western outlaws. The British historian Eric J. Hobsbawm placed James squarely in the category of “social bandit.” He was a “primitive rebel,” a “noble robber” who championed “a special type of peasant protest and rebellion.” He was one of the “peasant outlaws…who remain within peasant society, and are considered by their people as heroes, as champions, avengers, fighters for justice.”1
One problem with this interpretation, noted the eminent historian of the American West Richard White, is that “Jesse James could not be a peasant champion because there were no American peasants to champion.” White provides a variation of the primitive rebel theme, however, by endorsing the idea that “the portrait of the outlaw as a strong man righting his own wrongs and taking his own revenge had a deep appeal to a society concerned with the place of masculinity and masculine virtues in a newly industrialized and seemingly effete order.”2 Another historian, David Thelen, elaborated these themes in his study of rural resistance to modernization in postwar Missouri. The instruments and master symbols of efforts “to convert farming from a traditional way of life into a profitable business” were banks and railroads—the very institutions that the James band robbed. “At the center of popular support for the bandits,” writes Thelen, was the belief that by attacking these institutions the robbers “defended traditional values…. Jesse James rose to fame following the classical pattern of the world’s great social bandits.”3
T.J. Stiles disagrees—vigorously, eloquently, persuasively. Easiest to refute is the Robin Hood myth: “There is no evidence that [the James gang] did anything with their loot except spend it on themselves.” Popular stories such as the one that told of Jesse giving a poor widow the mortgage money and then getting it back by robbing the rapacious banker are folklore. The unromantic truth is that Jesse spent much of his ill-gotten gains on fine horseflesh and gambling.
Stiles also disposes easily of the image of social bandits defending the peasantry. The James family owned seven slaves and a substantial farm that grew hemp and tobacco for the market before the Civil War. Most of the other outlaws came from a similar background in Missouri’s “Little Dixie,” the prosperous counties bordering the Missouri River and containing the greatest concentration of slaves in the state. Rather than being “primitive rebels,” the bandits’ “families had owned a larger-than-average number of slaves” and “their families and supporters were among the most market-minded farmers in the state.”
What about the argument that by robbing banks and trains, the James gang was…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.