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 making a statement against modernizing capitalism? Jesse James would have considered this notion a great joke. He would surely have agreed with a famous bandit of a later generation, Willie Sutton. When someone asked Sutton why he robbed banks, he supposedly replied: “Because that’s where the money is.” The same was true in Missouri and its neighboring states after the Civil War. As for railroads, Stiles points out that James’s train robberies were not directed at the railroads as such, but at the express companies that shipped cash and other valuables in the baggage cars. The robbers went after the express company safes because that’s where the money was.
But if James was not Robin Hood, or a social bandit, or a rural enemy of capitalism, was he merely a criminal motivated by greed? Certainly not, according to Stiles. The key to understanding James and what he stood for was the Civil War, especially the vicious guerrilla war within the larger war that plagued Missouri. Forced to a decision between Union and Confederacy in 1861, most Missourians chose the Union. But support for the Confederacy was strong in Little Dixie, especially in the counties flanking the Missouri River just east of the Kansas border. In these counties lived most of the men and boys who went into the brush as Confederate guerrillas, including Frank and Jesse James, who were only seventeen and thirteen years old respectively when the war began.
But they grew up quickly under the tutelage of such psychopathic killers as William Clarke Quantrill, “Bloody Bill” Anderson, and Archie Clement. Frank James rode with Quantrill in the raid of August 1863 across the border to Lawrence, Kansas, hated capital of the Free-State Party in the antebellum Kansas wars between proslavery and antislavery forces. The raiders seized all the unarmed males they could find in Lawrence and murdered them in cold blood—nearly two hundred in all. Both Frank and Jesse were with Bloody Bill Anderson in a band of eighty men who rode into Centralia, Missouri, on September 27, 1864. They burned a train, robbed its passengers, and took twenty-three unarmed Union soldiers traveling home on furlough, some of them wounded convalescents, and ruthlessly murdered all but one of them. Chased out of town by Union militia, the guerrillas picked up 175 allies from other bands, ambushed their pursuers, and killed 124 of the 147 militia, including the wounded whom they shot in the head.
These experiences were Jesse and Frank James’s education in a crusade to defend slavery and disunion. A study of the social origins of Missouri’s Confederate guerrillas, cited frequently by Stiles, shows that they came from families (like the James family) that were three times more likely to own slaves and possessed twice as much wealth as the average Missouri family. The Younger brothers (Cole, Jim, Bob, and John), who formed the core of the postwar James gang along with Jesse and Frank, were the sons of Jackson County’s richest slave owner.4 One of the motifs of Jesse James’s life grew out of this context. “His entire existence,” writes Stiles, “was tightly wrapped around the struggle for—or, rather, against—black freedom.” He fought during the war against emancipation and after the war against the Republican Party that freed and enfranchised the slaves.
Persistent Confederate loyalties were the glue that bound the James gang together after the war and motivated their crimes. Wartime bushwhacking turned into Reconstruction banditry. “Like the Ku Klux Klan and other groups of rebel veterans in the Deep South,” maintains Stiles, “the bushwhackers served as irregular shock troops in the Confederate resurgence after the war.” Many of the banks and express companies struck by the James gang were owned by individuals or groups associated with the “Radicals”—the Republican Party nationally as well as in Missouri. When Confederate soldiers surrendered at Ap- pomattox and elsewhere the Civil War of 1861–1865 ended, only to start up again in the new form of violent resistance by the Klan and other paramilitary organizations to Reconstruction efforts to enforce the civil and political rights of freed slaves. In Missouri the conflict never really ended at all. Wartime hatreds between Unionist and Confederate Missourians continued at almost the same level through the early years of Reconstruction, when Republicans controlled the state and their militia fought the same guerrilla outlaws they had fought during the war. The James brothers and their friends “began to rebel against Missouri’s homegrown Reconstruction with the same methods they had used during the war, ranging from robbery to intimidation to murder.”
Bloody Bill Anderson and Quantrill had been killed during the war; Archie Clement, a cold-blooded killer who was young Jesse’s hero, met the same fate at the hands of Republican militia in 1866. Jesse vowed revenge; from then on he emerged as the most ruthless of the guerrilla outlaws who were sustained by the support and cover of the same pro-Confederate regions of Little Dixie that had sheltered them and served as their base during the war.
Jesse waged this continuing war with his pen as well as with his six-shooters. He revealed a talent for obfuscation and self-promotion in numerous letters he wrote for publication in newspapers identified with the ex-Confederate faction of the Missouri Democratic Party. In this enterprise he was aided by John Newman Edwards, a journalist who had served as adjutant to Confederate General Joseph Shelby during the war. Vowing never to surrender, Shelby and a few hundred followers, including Edwards, had made their way to Mexico in 1865. There they cultivated the favor of Ferdinand Maximilian, whom Louis Napoleon of France had installed as emperor of Mexico in 1864. When republican forces under Benito Juárez overthrew and executed Maximilian in 1867, Shelby and his men returned to Missouri. Edwards soon took up his editorial pen and used it to glorify James and his gang as knights fighting the good fight against Radicalism.
After one of the James and Younger brothers’ most audacious robberies, a heist of the cashbox from the ticket booth at the Kansas City fair, Edwards wrote an editorial titled “The Chivalry of Crime” that foreshadowed the whole Jesse James noble outlaw myth. “There are things done for money and for revenge of which the daring of the act is the picture and the crime is the frame,” wrote Edwards. “A feat of stupendous nerve and fearlessness that makes one’s hair rise to think of it, with a condiment of crime to season it, becomes chivalric; poetic; superb.” These guerrilla bandits, claimed Edwards, “might have sat with ARTHUR at the Round Table, ridden at tourney with Sir LANCELOT or worn the colors of GUINEVERE.”
Heady stuff, but Jesse James went it one better in a letter to the Kansas City Times signed by Jack Shepherd, Dick Turpin, and Claude Duval—famous bandits of European folklore. “Some editors call us thieves,” wrote Jesse. “We are not thieves—we are bold robbers. I am proud of the name, for Alexander the Great was a bold robber, and Julius Caesar, and Na-poleon Bonaparte.” Written during the heated presidential election campaign of 1872, Jesse’s letter promoted his self-image as Confederate martyr and Robin Hood. “Just let a party of men commit a bold robbery, and the cry is hang them,” he wrote, “but Grant and his party can steal millions, and it is all right…. It makes me feel like they were trying to put me on a par with Grant and his party…. They rob the poor and rich, and we rob the rich and give to the poor.”
By the 1870s Democrats had “redeemed” (their word) Missouri from Republican rule and the ex-Confederate wing of the party had regained respectability. So long as the James gang carried out its robberies and murders within or close to Missouri, it was able to defy county sheriffs, state militia, bounty hunters, and even the Pinkerton detective agency. When the outlaws ventured farther afield, however, they courted trouble. And nowhere did they find more trouble than in Northfield, Minnesota, 450 miles north of their usual hunting grounds. Why did they go to Northfield in 1876? The answer reveals much about the persistent Confederate ideology and actions of these outlaws.
To Northfield earlier in 1876 had come Adelbert Ames to join his father and brother in running the local flour mill. Ames was not just an ordinary miller, however. He was a West Point graduate (class of 1861) and a Medal of Honor winner in the Civil War, in which he became one of the best Union division commanders. After the war he was stationed with occupation forces in Mississippi, where he was elected as the first Republican senator from that state in 1870. One of the most idealistic of the “carpetbaggers,” Ames was a strong supporter of equal rights for blacks. In 1873 he was elected governor of Mississippi. During the legislative elections of 1875, however, white Mississippians formed “rifle clubs” and carried out the “Mississippi Plan” to win the state for Democrats by violence, intimidation, and murder. Ames appealed for federal troops, but the Grant administration refused. Democrats won the election; a disillusioned Ames left the state and soon went to Northfield.
Ames was everything Jesse James detested: a leader of the victorious army that had crushed James’s beloved Confederacy; an idealistic radical who had worked for racial equality; and perhaps worst of all, the son-in-law of notorious (in Southern eyes) Radical Republican Congressman Benjamin Butler. When Jesse James learned that Ames had settled in Northfield, he decided to make his biggest political statement yet by robbing the local bank, in which Ames and Butler were rumored to have deposited $75,000. With seven other men including his brother Frank and three of the Younger brothers, Jesse headed north in August 1876.
The robbery attempt on September 7 turned into the worst disaster of James’s career as the self-proclaimed Napoleon of crime. The cashier of the bank (a Union veteran) refused to open the vault (for which James murdered him in cold blood), while the citizens of Northfield fought back, killing two of the bandits and wounding all three Youngers before the robbers could flee the town. The aroused Minnesota countryside swarmed with posses that captured the three Youngers and killed one other bandit. They also wounded Frank and Jesse, who nevertheless escaped and eventually made their way back to Missouri in an epic feat of endurance.
Nevertheless, it was the beginning of the end for Jesse James. Frank temporarily went straight and tried to become a farmer, though he lapsed and joined Jesse in more robberies. Several other members of the old gang were killed or captured. The political climate in Missouri had changed. The ex-Confederate faction made its peace with the Unionist wing of the Democratic Party. Many Democrats now saw James as a liability because he had made Missouri a byword for crime that frightened away investment and immigration. The most famous desperado in America, the sandy-haired Jesse grew a beard, dyed it black, and lived under a false name in Tennessee for a time before returning to Missouri, where there was now a price of $10,000 on his head. He recruited new members for his gang, but none of them had roots in the Civil War guerrilla soil and they felt none of the loyalty that had so strongly bonded the original guerrilla outlaws. Two of these new recruits, Charley and Bob Ford, betrayed Jesse for the $10,000 reward and shot him dead on April 3, 1882.
After reading this biography, no one can doubt that the driving force of Jesse James’s career was persistent Confederate ideology and loyalty. But T.J. Stiles concludes the book with a troubling question that remains unanswered. It is true, he writes, that James was “daring, brave, and capable of astonishing feats of endurance,” but “it is also true that most of his homicide victims after the Civil War were unarmed and helpless, as were many of the men he murdered as a teenage guerrilla. So why do so many still worship him as a hero?” Why indeed? The answer lies in what both contemporaries and later commentators have chosen to see in Jesse James—Robin Hood, social bandit, scourge of capitalism—rather than in what he really stood for.
February 27, 2003
E.J. Hobsbawm, Primitive Rebels: Studies in Archaic Forms of Social Movement in the 19th and 20th Centuries (Norton, 1965), and Bandits, second edition (Penguin, 1985), p. 17; on pp. 41–57 of Bandits, Hobsbawm places the James brothers explicitly in this tradition. ↩
Richard White, “Outlaw Gangs of the Middle Border: American Social Bandits,” The Western Historical Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 4 (October 1981), pp. 394, 406. ↩
David Thelen, Paths of Resistance: Tradition and Dignity in Industrializing Missouri (Oxford University Press, 1986), pp. 35, 75, 58, 71. ↩
Don R. Bowen, “Guerrilla War in Western Missouri, 1862–1865: Historical Extensions of the Relative Deprivation Hypothesis,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 19, No. 1 (January 1977), pp. 30–51. ↩