Myths of Jesse James, the Outlaw

Jesse JamesThe Myth of Jesse James

Society craves the outlaw image. This is portrayed through different outlets in media: western movies, novels, children’s books, etc. For some reason, it is prevalent in this culture to have a positive view of violence in an adventurous sort of way. It becomes glorified, and the stereotype is reinforced through stories told to generations. Even if the intentions of the criminal are dishonorable, they as a person are still celebrated in society because of a desire for thrill and excitement that comes from “gunslingers of the west”. An example of such a figure is Jesse James. So many myths and stories about Jesse James and his brother have been spread throughout generations: in novels, newspapers, and through legends shared through families. For example, in the Little House on the Prairie, Jesse James is portrayed as a ruthless villain coming to rob helpless children. He still is represented in media today as an infamous legend, but is rarely communicated about in a non-biased way. While some of the stories and situations that are spoken of Jesse James may be true, this article will discuss more of the historically accurate facts and how the myths and legend of Jesse James may have come about.

Jesse James was born in Clay County, Missouri in 1847. He had an older brother named Frank, which is a widely known fact; when they are referred to as the “James Brothers”. When Frank James joined the Confederate forces in the Civil War, many historians would agree that this is when the James’ family was exposed to the violence and aggression that was going on in the South.[1] As a sixteen year old boy, Jesse was interrogated for information by the Union militia and members of his family were also tortured. After this, Jesse is said to have joined a guerilla group with his brother, Frank, run by the infamous “Bloody Bill Anderson. “ Through his interaction with the group, he committed multiple violent, aggressive acts of rebellion to Union forces that would influence his later career and the reputation that he would come to acquire throughout his life. Among these violent acts, one he is said to have participated in is the Centralia Massacre, in which Union soldiers were in a sense butchered in a hate crime.[2]

After the Civil War, Frank and Jesse were so affected by the war and its implications on their lives that they are said to have felt a need for revenge or violence. Because of the humiliation of the Confederate loss and the persecution of the Southern communities by the Union forces that remained, they may have felt that the war wasn’t really over. Now obviously, one cannot know the true mental and individual implications that the war and their experiences had on Jesse James, but certain assumptions can be made based on the live  he chose to live after his days with the rebel guerilla group. Many historians also believe that a lot off  his rage and violence that sparked his individual life of crime was brought upon by the murder of Bloody Bill Anderson. He may have felt responsible or felt the need to have revenge. This eventually led to the first publicized crime in which Jesse and Frank robbed a bank, shot an unarmed bank teller, and made off with some money. The magnitude of the crime wasn’t really the factor of fame in this instance; the fact that no posse could capture the James brothers afterwards ignited their reputation and fame in the aspect of crime.[3] After this instance, it is said that James incorporated a public aspect into many of his robberies afterwards because he might’ve enjoyed the fame.

As Jesse’s fame grew, he built his reputation as a sort of “Robin Hood” figure in legend. He apparently worked with a reporter to form the myth of him as a romanticized outlaw who faced injustice from the Rebel forces with courage and bravery.[4] He believed that he had been dealt with unfairly and deserved some compensation for himself and for his people. However, there is little evidence that he ever gave his proceeds to the poor, as he claimed in his legend. As his life of crime continued, it is said that he became less careful, and made more mistakes in showing his identity. Jesse grew restless when he attempted to stop his habit of crime. After running from the law for so long, he was eventually gunned down with his fellow gang members in a robbery. [5]

Now part of  the myths concerning Jesse James and his band of outlaws are fabricated based on the legend he made for himself while he was involved in crime. Even though his acts of violence and aggression were expected in the time, he used other tactics to grow his persona as an outlaw. He identified himself as a “good bad guy”, and that’s really how the legend began. Through the years, individuals have craved stories from the Wild West in a romanticized light. These stories have been passed down through many generations and in media. Regardless of the true facts that relate to Jesse James’ actual life, individuals and society will enjoy his story because it didn’t affect them personally.

While there are many myths and romanticized ideals surrounding Jesse James, he was in fact an ordinary outlaw in that he participated and initiated types of crime that were not uncommon in Western civilization. He was just a man that  felt he needed revenge and had a right to go after it. James’ beginning was not special; he just delighted in the public attention that resulted from fame in the illegal form.  Even so, his legend and legacy will be remembered as he created it to be: a famous gun-slinging, justice craving outlaw from the West that will be continued in story telling probably forever.

References

Albert Hilliard Hughes, Outlaw with a Halo. (Montana: The Magazine of Western History 1967), 60-75.

“American Experience: TV’s Most-watched History Series.” Jesse James. PBS. Accessed October 29, 2015.

Jesse James was a Fundamental Baptist.” 1926. New York Times (1923- Current File), Jun 06, 2.

Horace Bryan, Tales about Jesse James, (University of Nebraska Press 1942), 60-65.

“Evening Bulletin. (Maysville [Ky.]) 1882-1883, April 14, 1882, Image 1.” Chronicling America. Accessed October 16, 2015.

[1] Jesse James was a Fundamental Baptist.” 1926. New York Times (1923- Current File), Jun 06, 2.

[2]  “American Experience: TV’s Most-watched History Series.” Jesse James. PBS. Accessed October 29, 2015.

[3] “Evening Bulletin. (Maysville [Ky.]) 1882-1883, April 14, 1882, Image 1.” Chronicling America. Accessed October 16, 2015.

[4] Albert Hilliard Hughes, Outlaw with a Halo. (Montana: The Magazine of Western History 1967), 60-75.

[5]

“American Experience: TV’s Most-watched History Series.” Jesse James. PBS. Accessed October 29, 2015.

By: Haley Hoffman

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