This is the grave of Jesse James.
Before we get into the details of James’ life, I think we should take a step back and ask a couple of questions. Why do we care about this violent treasonous scumbag? Why has he become legend? Why is it that even in the relatively recent past, he’s been the subject of movies that downplay his awfulness? Moreover, why was he seen as a hero at the time and especially after his death? What did this serve in the American psyche? Why is someone like this the outlaw that Americans have needed? These questions are worth contemplating because the answers suggest some not great things about this nation and its values. We’ll think about this again at the conclusion of the post.
Born in 1847 outside of Kearney, Missouri, James grew up in the region called Little Dixie in western Missouri, filled with migrants from Kentucky and Tennessee who supported slavery. He initially grew up in a family with some land and power. His father owned six slaves. He was a also a Baptist minister. During the California gold rush, James’ father went out there to minister to the gold miners and probably make a little money for himself. But he died there in 1850. His mother remarried, twice actually, and they continued being reasonably well enough, buying slaves, and growing tobacco and other crops. So this was not some low-level hardscrabble family. This was the middle class of the South.
This was also the reason of intense political and, increasingly, military battles over the future of slavery. The border region between Kansas and Missouri became violent during the mid and late 1850s in the nasty brutal way of a civil war, not with huge numbers of deaths, but with those deaths being deeply personal. The James family were hardcore Confederates, happy to commit treason to defense slavery and kill those opposed to the evil institution. James himself was only 13 at the outset of the war. But his older brother Frank fought on the side of treason. He fought at Wilson’s Creek, got sick (the most common way to die in the war by far was disease, especially on the Confederate side), and came home to recover. He recovered to join some of the guerilla gangs raising havoc through the region later in the war. That included Quantrill’s forces massacring Kansans. So this is what Jesse grew up around–violence, slavery, hacking some Kansans to death, guerilla warfare, hatred of abolitionists. Therefore, it’s hardly surprising that in 1864, when he was 16, Jesse joined his brother in raising hell and killing unionists.
That summer, James was nearly killed when he took a gunshot to the chest; it absolutely would have been better for the world had he died. He was part of the Centralia Massacre (not the 1919 labor version; towns named Centralia all have horrible histories for whatever reason) when Confederate gangsters under Bloody Bill Anderson massacred 24 unarmed Union soldiers, scalping many of them. In revenge, the American military basically took away the family land and sent them South, but they eluded that and ended up in Nebraska Territory instead. Jesse was shot in the chest again in 1865, by which time he had returned from a stint in Texas to cause more problems in Missouri. Again, he survived.
So Jesse James was basically an awful, murderous, violent scumbag upon the end of the Civil War in 1865. And…nothing changed after the war. Already basically a gangster, he and his brother Frank continued their ways after the war. By 1866, James was involved in breaking men in Quantrill’s gang out of prison and conducting bank robberies, which really weren’t a thing before the Civil War. Easier to just counterfeit money before the war, honestly.
James was just an unknown criminal thug until late 1869, when he and his brother robbed a bank in Gallatin, Missouri. Jesse James shot the clerk there, evidently thinking it was the guy who killed Anderson. It was not. This got them notoriety and fame. Soon after, the brothers joined up with fellow thugs the Younger family and the James-Younger Gang was born. This was just bank robberies in the guise of some sort of political revenge. From West Virginia to Texas, they roamed, robbed, and killed. They started robbing trains in 1873. They enjoyed the notoriety and would even show off in front of their victims, letting everyone know who it was. By this time, they were also sometimes wearing Ku Klux Klan gear, after Grant had crushed the KKK.
By the mid-1870s, the James-Younger Gang was entirely politicized. Republicans hated them. For Democrats, the were continuing the rebellion. Even though they were raising hell all through the Missouri, the state legislature nearly passed that praised them and offered them amnesty. The disastrous Northfield, Minnesota bank robbery pretty much ended the gang. Intended, on mostly faulty information, to target this bank because hated Republicans Adelbert Ames and Benjamin Butler supposedly owned it, the robbery completely failed because the workers refused to open the safe, even with a knife to their throat and a gun to their heads. Pretty quickly, the locals figured out what was going on and attacked the gangsters. Two of the gang were killed, several more went to prison, and only the James brothers remained free.
Jesse James continued on the life of crime alone, then started a new and inexperienced gang in 1879 that robbed and killed. By 1882, Jesse James was mostly back in Missouri. Robert Ford, the brother of one of his gang members, shot James in the head, finally ending the life of this awful monster. He was 34 years old.
That James was a hero immediately after that and Ford considered a coward–to the point that he was assassinated in 1892 in Colorado by someone who thought he was a traitor to a great man–says so much about post-Civil War America. The war basically continued long after 1865, especially through the Old West violent years that were often Republican versus Democrats, or lawmen versus outlaws as it was told in the depoliticized myths that began to develop around this violence even as it was happening. But what was possibly appealing about Jesse James? The fact that he robbed banks and the railroads helped give support to the lie that the Confederacy was anti-capitalist, when of course the James boys were just robbing banks because that’s where the money was. This was hardly some principled attack against capitalism. It was nothing more than white supremacist thugs killing people for fun since they couldn’t do so in war anymore.
That James then became a legend in the movies, all the way to being portrayed in relatively recent film, also says a lot about how these depoliticized myths of the American West became so central to the conservative and white supremacist culture of twentieth century America, one in which the actions of complete thugs became mythical and heroic. Ugh. Among the actors to play Jesse James in the movies over the years includes Jesse James Jr. in the silents, Henry Fonda, Roy Rogers, Audie Murphy (twice), Robert Wagner, Robert Duvall, Kris Kristofferson, Rob Lowe, Colin Farrell, and Brad Pitt. Why? This loser should be forgotten and consigned to the dustbin of history.
Jesse James is buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery, Kearney, Missouri.
If you would like this series to visit other of the awful violent people of the Old West gunfights and the like, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Seth Bullock is in Deadwood, South Dakota and Wyatt Earp is in Colma, California. Previous posts in this series are archived here.