Jesse James has become so mythologised that popular culture continually embraces and updates the myth. The legend lives on in a new medium: in a play station game entitled “Gun: The Legend of Jesse James” and numerous pop songs make reference to his name. There was even a “concept album” entitled “The Legend of Jesse James” made in 1979 by J Levon Helm & featuring, among others, Johny Cash and Emmylou Harris. Songs included such titles as “Quantrill's Guerillas”, “Riding With Jesse James”, “Wish We Were Back In Missouri”, “Northfield: The Plan” and “Northfield: The Disaster”.
The myth was first created following the Civil War by John Newman Edwards and Jesse himself. Edwards was a newspaper editor who founded the Kansas City Times in 1867 to support Democratic anti-Reconstruction policies. It was in Kansas that the seeds of the Civil War had been sown, when highly politicized and committed individuals poured into the area prior to statehood in an attempt to influence its political direction towards either the industrialized north or the more agricultural economy of the south. Edwards had fought on the confederate side with General Shelby, and, post war, attempted to influence public opinion in Kansas with his publication. Thus he chose to argue that the James brothers and gang were fighting against the Reconstruction policies of Ulysses Grant, laying the foundation for them to be looked upon as heroically upholding the values of the South. When reconstruction ended in 1880 he no longer registered his support for the gang, although he did write an article defending Frank James following his arrest in October 1882.
With John Newman Edward’s support Jesse James also stoked up public sympathy for him and his gang by writing letters to the Kansas City Times to explain and justify his actions. This encouraged the downtrodden poor to identify with Jesse and to further enhance the growing myth. For example Jesse claimed that he had killed a bank clerk in the mistaken belief that he was Samuel Cox, who had killed Jesse’s confederate leader Bloody Bill Anderson when the James brothers had fought with Quantrill's raiders in the Civil War. In one, admittedly anonymous letter, he compared himself to Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Napoleon Bonaparte, objecting to the term “robbers” being used to describe his gang.
“We kill only by self-defence. But if a man is enough stupid to refuse to open a safe or a vault when he has a gun directed on him, he deserves to die.”
One wonders if the letter was “ghosted “ by the editor of the newspaper, for its political invective was highly charged: “The party of Grant does not respect anybody. They steal from the poor and the rich, while we steal from the rich”. The writer added that if Grant lost the presidential election “then, I can earn my living honestly and I am not obliged to fly, because the taxes will be less heavy”. In the book “Jesse James Was His Name”, historian William A. Settle, Jr. (1966) recognized the importance of the James brothers’ wartime experience in preparing them for their violent post war life. As Confederate guerrillas in Missouri during the Civil War, effectively they were training for violence and organized robbery. Settle contended that, being used to the excitement of the experience encouraged members of the gang to turn to violent crime.
While surrendering at the end of the Civil War, Jesse was wounded when one of the Union soldiers shot him in the lung. His cousin Zerelda Mimms nursed him back to health, although Jesse made slow progress. This added fuel to the argument that he was resentful of the Union troops and wanted revenge. The James boys popularity among the “common folk” was enhanced by their choice of targets: first banks and later the railroads, something which Hollywood keyed into when the myth was cemented in the 1939 Fox blockbuster “Jesse James” starring Tyrone Power in the title role, Henry Fonda as Frank, Nancy Kelly as Zerelda, Randolph Scott as Marshall Will Wright and Henry Hull as Major Rufus Cobb. The movie ends with Major Cobb standing at Jesse’s graveside, encapsulating the myth in this eulogy:
“Maybe it’s because he was bold and lawless, like we all of us like to be sometimes. Maybe it’s because we understand a little that he wasn’t altogether to blame for what his times made him….or maybe it’s because he was so good at what he was doing.”
Interestingly the film ignores the “times” completely, presumably because to hark back to the Civil War would be divisive and negative at a time when war was casting its shadow over Europe, although American audiences were more likely to be introspective, hence the subject matter tied in well with the aftermath of the depression. The railroad is the corporate villain of the piece, its employees unscrupulous and untrustworthy, out to misrepresent and dispossess the poor of their land.
The movie revived the traditional folk song “The Ballad of Jesse James” which was revamped by Woody Guthrie and which popularized the myth to a whole new generation. Bruce Springsteen sang it on his album “We shall Overcome. The Pete Seeger Sessions” in 2006. Billy Gashade claimed to have written the original shortly after Jesse’s death. The major national newspapers published its words and the ballad became a standard in the vaudeville shows. Some of the words were as follows:
“Jesse James was a lad that killed a many a man,
He robbed the Glendale train;
But that dirty little coward that shot Mister Howard,
Has laid poor Jesse in his grave.
Poor Jesse had a wife to mourn for his life, Three children, they were brave,
But that dirty little coward that shot Mister Howard,
Has laid poor Jesse in his grave.
He robbed from the rich and was a friend to the poor;
He had a heart and a hand and a brain.
With his brother Frank, he robbed the Northfield bank
And stopped the Glendale train.
It was on a Saturday night, Jesse was at home,
Talking to his family brave,
Robert Ford came along like a thief in the night
And laid poor Jesse in his grave.”
The Ballad of Jesse James (traditional)
At the turn of the century Dime Novels such as “Jesse James's Oath or Tracked to Death” (1898), “Jesse James the Outlaw” (1901) and “Jesse James’ Protector” widened the audience and updated the myth still further:
“They reined up at the bank doors, and, while the rest remained in the saddle, Jesse and Frank James and Cole Younger leaped from their horses, and dashed into the interior.
Cashier Haywood bravely refused to open the vault, even at the mouth of the pistol. He was instantly shot dead by Jesse, while the latter's confederates opened fire upon the remaining clerks, though purposely wounding instead of killing them outright. Then Jesse marched the cashier's assistant up to the safe doors, with his still smoking pistol at his ear, and ordered him to open them.
The poor fellow, with his superior lying dead at his feet, was probably doing the best he could toward obeying the order, when the exchange of shots outside the bank became so violent and frequent as to distract the attention of the outlaws within.”
Jesse James the Outlaw (1901)
When the movies were in their infancy it was only natural for their directors to turn to legends such as Jesse James for their material. “The James Boys in Missouri”was made in 1908 and featured real cowboys who knew how to ride. The eighteen minutes of black and white film was made at Essanay studios, Chicago, named after the partners’ surname initials – George K Spoor and Gilbert B, ‘Broncho Billy’ Anderson who directed the film. Subsequently there were about forty films featuring the James Boys, however loosely based on the “known facts”. Robert Wagner starred in the “True Story of Jesse James” in 1957 and there was even one made in 1966 entitled “Jesse James meets Frankenstein’s Daughter”. “The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid “(Kaufman, 1972) and Walter Hill’s “The Long Riders” (1980), and , more recently “American Outlaws” (2001) have kept the myth alive. The latter was in the fine mythical tradition, as observed by NYT reviewer Elvis Mitchell:
''American Outlaws'' may be simple, but it's also simple-minded; this is, after all, a movie determined to transform its Rebel soldier heroes into men of the people”.
The latest update of the myth will hit the cinemas in 2007: “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford". Based on the highly acclaimed novel written by Ron Hansen in 1983, the film stars Brad Pitt in the title role and Casey Affleck as Ford.
The myth has survived a whole century of embellishment and still provides a fascination in both a literary and a cinematic form. The latest scholarly work, “Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War” by T J Stiles (2002) used new sources to reassess his life, presenting Jesse and his contemporaries as much more politically aware and politically motivated than previous accounts had recognised. Stiles reached the conclusion that the gang was involved in the conflict within Missouri State which was similar to the more widely known strife within nearby Kansas. Their concern was very much within the state rather than in the national debate between the confederacy and the union. Interesting and supportable as this might be, I am tempted to reach for Ron Hansen’s book from the shelf rather than T J Stiles’ s and to fall back on the comment made by a US senator upon Nixon’s resignation in 1973: “ Don’t confuse me with the facts.”