Jesse James: Outlaw or Hero?

When the name Jesse James comes into mind, we think of a bank robbing murderer from the wild American West. Although this common conception holds many different stories, I will be analyzing who Jesse James was to people of the time period. James was undoubtedly an outlaw, but was he a man of brutality, recklessness, and evil? Or a “Robin Hood,” glorified by the people, while being misrepresented by the media?

Jesse James became famous during the mid-1800s for robbery and murder. A product of the media and tall tales of his tyrannical yet legendary life. Sources stating James was everything but a saint are more existent than those that say otherwise. The great grandson of Jesse James, James R. Ross, published an article in the Los Angeles Times on his family history and the rumors about Jesse’s life. He writes, “Myth No. 3: Jesse was a hard drinker. In reality, Jesse was a God-fearing man and carried a Bible with him at all times (he quoted from the Book often as well) and never once drank.”[1] Most other law breakers from the Wild West are called, “men of god.”

PBS writes, “In post-Civil War Missouri, Jesse James built his reputation as a ruthless outlaw. Yet many sympathized with the notorious bandit, because they shared his pro-Confederate sentiments.”[2] To combat the other side, James Ross says, “Myth No. 8: Jesse James was anti-African American. Actually, he financed the first school for blacks in Missouri.”[3] One source says he is pro-Confederate, (supporting slavery) and the other says he was actually supportive to African-Americans. This shows just how diverse James popularity was. Some viewed him as malicious villain and others as kind soul being miss portrayed.

The Wild West is based on every movie and tale we have seen as kids and Jesse James has a life story to prove this. We all want a hero, and the Wild West was lacking in them. The headlines in newspapers made Jesse famous and a “little white lie” made him a hero whether he was a killer or not. Although his life story is too old and complex to understand who he really was, and who he was to others. Jesse did however have a unique story that was impossible to recreate. He was forever ingrained into the West for breaking the law, but in such a way that his bravery was admired. No one could be the hero themselves, so Jesse was theirs.

In the classic tale: Robin Hood, a man is a wanted criminal who steals from the rich and gives to the poor. Although this can attribute to some people adoring James’s, others did not agree. With the research I have done and the extraordinary amount of information on Jesse James, I believe to a certain degree, this myth is busted. James had many followers who would give him a warm bed and food if they crossed paths. A large percentage of people also believed he needed to be buried under hell for his crimes. Too many secondary sources exist to determine an exact answer. Bias, blood lines, and media have skewed the true stories of the man we know as “Jesse James the Outlaw.”

Jesse Holt


Dellinger, Harold. Jesse James: The Best Writings on the Notorious Outlaw and His Gang. Guilford, Conn.: TwoDot, 2007.

Kooistra, Paul. “American National Biography Online: James, Jesse.” American National Biography Online: James, Jesse.

PBS. “American Experience: TV’s Most-watched History Series.” PBS.

Three different subjects in the same source:

  1. Bibliography of Jesse James
  2. Primary Source Newspaper
  3. Historian Interviews

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Directed by Brad Pitt. Warner Bros. Home Entertainment;, 2007. Film.

Ross, James. “Jesse James: The Myths.” Los Angeles Times. August 25, 2001.


Weiser-Alexander, Kathy. “Jesse James – Folklore Hero or Cold Blooded Killer?” Jesse James – Folklore Hero or Cold Blooded Killer?

[1] Ross, James. “Jesse James: The Myths.” Los Angeles Times. August 25, 2001.

[2] PBS. “American Experience: TV’s Most-watched History Series.” PBS.

[3] Ross, James. “Jesse James: The Myths.” Los Angeles Times. August 25, 2001.

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