"Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War" by T.J. Stiles

The latest and best-ever biography of Jesse James tears down the myth to reveal not a latter-day Robin Hood, but a greedy, press-savvy bandit.

Published October 15, 2002 9:24PM (EDT)

First-time biographer T. J. Stiles' "Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War" is perhaps the finest book ever written about this American legend. It is also a book that should have been unnecessary. With the possible exception of Billy the Kid, Jesse Woodson James is America's most famous outlaw. As Stiles points out, when James was killed on April 3, 1882, he was probably as famous as the president of the United States.

He is no less famous today. Jesse James has been the focus of countless movies, including everything from last year's execrable "American Outlaws" to three fine films: Walter Hill's "The Long Riders" (1980), Philip Kaufman's "The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid" (1972) and Henry King's "Jesse James" (1939). He has inspired art both high -- three superb novels, "The Chivalry of Crime" by Welsh writer Desmond Barry (2000); Susan M. Dodd's "Mamaw" (1988), based on the life of Jesse's mother; and Ron Hansen's "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" (1983) -- and low, from dime novels in his lifetime to Pokémon characters in our own.

Why did someone whose legend is so much with us have to wait 120 years for a definitive biography?

The answer, as one soon discovers, is that the decades have added layer upon layer of iconography to the original Jesse James story. So many outlaws after Jesse, from Butch Cassidy to John Dillinger, have been seen as following in his footsteps that the path that leads us back to the original has been obscured (just as the path that would have led us from Jesse back to the bandit many compared him to, Robin Hood, has been all but erased). "Jesse James" eschews the usual trappings of the outlaw-buff variety; there are no tedious and irrelevant genealogical trees, no reliance on "Uncle Ned"-style history (as in "My Uncle Ned knew the real story ..."), and no irritating insistence on reinterpreting the entire saga in the light of new information that's unavailable to the public.

Which is not to say that Stiles hasn't discovered new sources -- or at least rediscovered old, forgotten sources. Stiles' interpretation of James' life and legend isn't revisionist; in many ways it's an old-fashioned biography that treats its subject with more reverence than the countless tomes written by Jesse's apologists. One might say that it's more reconstruction than deconstruction, as Stiles' major revelation, contrary to most recent accountings, is that the James story has more to do with the Civil War and its aftermath than with the conditions that produced frontier outlaws such as Billy the Kid.

Or, as Stiles writes, "Jesse James himself looked South, not West; he, his brother, and his bandit colleagues were proud products of the Confederate war effort." (Stiles perhaps errs in not differentiating the term "West" from "frontier." While it is true that Missouri, where James was born, was a slave state with an established market economy, it was nonetheless west of the Mississippi River and shared a number of characteristics with an overwhelmingly pro-Confederate state, Texas. Texas, while itself not entirely a frontier state, was undeniably part of the West. But Stiles' points survive his exaggerations.)

James was born in 1847, in what Stiles correctly calls "the most hotly ideological era in American history" and in the border state destined to be the site of the most vicious internecine fighting of the Civil War period. One does not have to sympathize with him to agree that the boy was fated at birth to be a killer.

His mother, Zerelda, was an overpowering figure and an ardent supporter of slavery and secession. (Jesse's father, a preacher, died in California trying to evangelize gold miners.) His older brother, Frank, rode with the infamous, bloodthirsty guerrilla leader William Clarke Quantrill. Throughout his early teenage years, young Jesse watched in horror as Unionist sympathizers, often his former neighbors, burned and looted the houses and farms of pro-Confederates, many of whom were murdered in cold blood. Atrocities committed by secessionists were equally, if not more, mind-numbing.

At 16, infuriated when his mother was arrested and forced to take a Union loyalty oath, Jesse joined the worst of all guerrilla leaders, Bloody Bill Anderson, and perhaps even took part in the most shocking mass murder of that time and place: the gunning down of a platoon of unarmed Union prisoners at Centralia. By the time he was 18, Jesse James was battle-hardened and fueled by an ideological rage, schooled in the ways of the bushwhacker by older, more jaded colleagues like Arch Clement and Cole Younger (whose fame for many years would rival Jesse's) to fight "not as a victim, but as a warrior in a cause." By the end of the war, he was living proof of Philip Caputo's statement from "A Rumor of War" (quoted by Stiles) that "One of the most brutal things in the world is your average 19-year-old American boy."

After the war, the James and Younger brothers found themselves unable to lay down the sword -- or rather, the new cartridge-loading, rapid-fire revolvers that turned an experienced guerrilla band into a small marauding army -- and they embarked on a series of still-legendary bank and train holdups as far east as Huntington, W. Va., as far south as Muscle Shoals, Ala., and, finally, as far north as Northfield, Minn. Northfield was the end of the line for the James-Younger gang. After years of dodging professional law officers and Pinkerton detectives, they met disaster in the town full of stubborn Minnesota pioneers, some of them Union veterans, who reached for their rifles at the first sign of trouble. (One of the gang's members may have been a relative of the author.)

The Youngers were captured and sent to prison. After the largest manhunt in American history, the James brothers crawled back to Missouri where the introspective Frank "sought Shakespeare and solitude" in an honest attempt at reform while Jesse kept going for six years until 1882, when he was killed for blood money by two of his gang members, the Ford brothers. Frank James never spent a day in jail, and on Cole Younger's release from prison the two former guerrillas wrote biographies and hosted, briefly, a Wild West show. (Frank died in 1915, Cole Younger a year later.)

Stiles soundly rejects the neo-Marxist concept of Jesse James as a "social bandit" or his gang as "Bandits [who]," in the words of British historian Eric Hobsbawm, "belong to the peasantry." Stiles finds "no evidence that they did anything with their loot except spend it on themselves" and that most of the banks they robbed were, contrary to popular tradition, "not the target of popular financial discontent but [small institutions] dependent on [local capital]."

Also contrary to 12 decades of dime novels and Hollywood films, Missourians had no hatred of the railroads, and the railroads, for their part, scarcely took notice of the Jameses and the Youngers. (It was the express companies that felt victimized and hired the Pinkerton detectives.) Only once, near the end of his life, did Jesse condemn the railroads -- not, says Stiles, "as the enemies of the small farmers or as economic oppressors but as his personal foes."

Peeling back myth after myth, Stiles finally arrives at the reason why Jesse James, and not his more experienced brother Frank or associate Cole Younger, was singled out by history to symbolize an era. And the reason, interestingly enough, turns out to be Jesse himself. "The reality of rural Missouri," writes Stiles, "was far different from the simple, apolitical society imagined by Hobsbawm. (Let alone Marx.) And the real outlaw was far from an inarticulate symbol created by others. When the unspoken assumptions are cleared away, a truly substantial Jesse James emerges, strikingly more significant -- and purposeful -- than historians have imagined."

The real Missouri bushwhackers both before and after the Civil War combined political violence with ordinary crime, targeting banks with ties to rival political groups, intimidating free blacks, terrorizing voters with reconstructive sympathies and, in general, trying to push the calendar back before the Emancipation Proclamation.

It has long been know that what singled out Jesse from his bushwhacker colleagues was his relationship with former Confederate officer and later Missouri journalist John Newman Edwards. Edwards, who saw James as a symbol of the Southern ideals that he still hoped to impose on post-Civil War Missouri, gave Jesse, in essence, a platform from which to justify his robberies as an extension of Confederate policies. Prior to Stiles, no historian has devoted such care and energy to analyzing Jesse James' famous letters to Missouri newspapers, missives that were picked up and quoted throughout the country.

While Edwards edited and almost certainly embellished Jesse's words, a painstakingly detailed study proves conclusively that the author was indeed Jesse James. James was the first American criminal to be obsessed with his own public image, the first "who sought to push himself into the news ... more than one of his confederates would observe that he planned robberies with an eye on the public reaction."

With the passing of time and the distance from the Civil War, it became harder for Jesse to sustain the illusion that his crimes had a political significance. During one train robbery after Northfield, James ranted in front of the passengers about how the railroad and the governor were out to get him. "He had never been more defiant," says Stiles, "never more famous, and never more hollow."

In the final analysis, Jesse James remains with us today not because he was brave, ruthless, romantic, loyal and occasionally bloodthirsty -- though he was in fact all of these things, at least to many of the people who knew him best. He survives because "In his political consciousness and close alliance with the propagandist and power broker, in his efforts to win media attention with his crimes, and his denunciations of his enemies, he resembles a character well known to our own times. In many aspects, Jesse James was a forerunner of the modern terrorist."

By Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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