Marvel has ruined the image of heroes– depicting them with red capes and eyes that can burn through steel; heroes have become Halloween costumes and cosplay idols. No one really wants to be a hero, because real heroes don’t hide behind capes, or have superpowers. Real heroes are individuals who make sacrifices for a greater cause. They are often individuals who become the public’s champion by somehow representing their views against an all-powerful oppressor. During the 19th century post-civil war era, infamous outlaw Jesse James became the hero, the myth, and the legend of the south.
Fueled by newspaper clippings various and contradicting myths of Jesse James spread across the country- showing him as the champion for the resentful southern populace against the federal government and as a ruthless outlaw. The south labeled him their champion because of myths representing Jesse James as a kind and giving man- a western Robin Hood. The south also viewed Jesse’s time with the Guerrilla Army as a sign of his allegiance to the south, however; after the Civil War guerrilla fighters were not allowed the same rights as ex-confederate soldiers. Jesse made the decision that if he was going to be an outlaw; he was going to be an outlaw for something- something more “illegal” than being a guerrilla fighter-catapulting him into his 15 year career as an outlaw. These myths developed because not only did Jesse James fight for the south, but he was able to fight back in ways most people of the time couldn’t or wouldn’t do; labeling him as a hero. The myth of Jesse James as a benevolent outlaw persists today but is challenged by the violent and dangerous culture of the Civil War era that forged a young Jesse James into a thief, and a thoughtless murderer that stole from the rich, but did not give to the poor. Jesse James was not a western Robin Hood.
Although the majority of Jesse James’ infamy developed during his adulthood, the importance of Jesse’s youth cannot be overstated. Jesse James spent his teenage years immersed in violence. His older brother Frank was captured while serving in the confederacy, and forced to promise not to fight again. However, when the “Union General in Missouri ordered all young men to join the state militia Frank refused,” eventually joining a rebel army known as William Quantrill’s raiders. In retaliation union soldiers visited the home of the James’ brothers. Finding Jesse in a field, they asked him a few questions that Jesse refused to answer. In response the men beat him with a rope- the blows so harsh they cut into Jesse’s back, leaving his shirt stained red with blood, beginning Jesse’s involvement with the guerrilla fighters- he was just sixteen years old.
Unfortunately there wasn’t room for youthful innocence in the Guerrilla Army. Jesse was placed in the hands of “Bloody Bill” Anderson, a man notorious for his brutality. Bloody Bill’s last major battle, The Battle of Centralia, on September 24th, 1864, became the headline story for newspapers everywhere. It has been described as one of the most gruesome battles of the civil war. Under Bloody Bill’s command raiders, Jesse included, murdered 22 unarmed union soldiers on their way home on leave. The raiders also rounded up 150 federal agents, and slaughtered them. Reports described bodies mutilated, one case involving the removal of another man’s genitals, and the placement of them in another man’s mouth. There were also numerous reports of scalps taken, and disembowelment. The overall brutality of The Battle of Centralia has led many Historians to believe that an individual partaking in this battle would have walked away a changed man; violent, and dangerous. The battle of Centralia is important not just for its brutality but also because it was during this battle, that Jesse made his first kill and the irrevocable first step into his life as an outlaw.
Life as an outlaw suited Jesse James, and his narcissistic personality. While robbing a train Jesse is believed to have given the conductor a note, headlining, “The Most Daring Robbery On Record”- to ensure that the newspapers would get their facts right. It was during these train robberies that the myth of Jesse targeting the rich but not the poor began. It was said that if Jesse James saw that a man had dirt under his nails, or had calloused palms that he wouldn’t rob him because those were signs of a working man. However, there is a lack of evidence to support this myth and it’s more likely that Jesse James robbed everyone on the train.
Another myth supporting the image of Jesse being a western Robin Hood is the American populace belief, that Jesse robbed southern banks exclusively because he knew that the money would be insured by the federal government. This was not the case. Jesse’s ability to continuously rob from southern banks is attributed not only to the public’s’ admiration of Jesse James but also because of the public’s’ fear. Anyone who thought to imply the James’ Gang’s involvement was found dead soon after. Jesse James also robbed southern banks because he knew many in southern populace would not interfere or mention his involvement because of their resentment towards the federal government. This opinion is supported by the James’ Gang attempted robbery of the Northfield Bank in Minnesota on September 7th 1876. It was the first time the Gang had ventured out of the south to commit a robbery. It was also the first time a town had ever turned against them and fought back by arming themselves and shooting at the various members of the Gang, Jesse included. The failed Northfield Robbery is considered the downfall of the James Gang’ because it forced the members to split up due to injures from gun shots sustained from the public’s attack.
Although the Gang never truly recovered from the attempted Northfield robbery, myths still circulated about Jesse James, and his compassion towards the southern people. One myth, Jesse and the Widow, depicts Jesse as sympathetic towards southern families who experienced loss during the civil war. The myth describes a woman who lost her husband in the Civil War fighting for the confederacy. She explains how the loss of her husband has made her unable to keep making payments on her house. She explains to Jesse that a banker will be arriving the next morning, and if she doesn’t pay him he’ll take her house. Jesse gives the woman the money she needs to keep her house from being foreclosed upon, and tells her to ask for a receipt. The next day the banker comes and collects the money, giving the woman a receipt, and on his way back to the bank Jesse shoots the man and takes the money back for himself. The actuality of this being a true story is very slim, however, the moral is not that Jesse James was a kind man; the moral is that the money Jesse James stole, is the money Jesse James kept for himself.
There has been much dispute over the years about the character of Jesse James, and whether or not he was indeed a western Robin Hood. Much of the dispute comes from southern mythology carrying over into the present. Factual evidence points to Jesse James being a criminal, however, during the post-Civil War era the southern populace needed their own champion after suffering a great cultural loss. They took an image of an outlaw and turned him into a hero because he was doing what most couldn’t, but wanted to do- upsetting the federal government. Present day Americans still view him as that hero depicted in southern myths because many individuals feel helpless in the shadow of the ever expanding federal government, much like the southern citizens of the 19th Century.
Carl Green, William Kolchin, Outlaws and Lawmen of the Wild West: Jesse James (Enslow Publishers, INC, 1992), 5-8
Harold Dellinger, Jesse James (Morris Book Publishing, 2007), 4-7
Gunfighters of the West, Film, Craig Coffman, (1998; Nonfiction Films, 1998. Fox Lorber Associates Incorporated, 1998,)Videocassette
Mark Zwoniter, “Jesse James- Notes about the Wild West” PBS, 11/25/2015, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/trailer/james-ch-1/