Jesse James in His Own Defense Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Of all the outsized outlaws to stir the public imagination, none has ever equaled the stature of Jesse James. A one-time Confederate guerilla who never gave up the fight, Jesse, with the help of his brother Frank and an ever evolving gang of likeminded bandits and killers, became a sort of living myth throughout the American South and West during the 1870s. Portrayed as an American Robin Hood, stealing from the rich to give to the poor, he was made the symbol for Southern resentment against the victorious North, and later, after his own violent end, the nation's most enduring folk hero—a bulwark against the forces of modernity, which only a few decades later swelled to unmake the agrarian nation that was. But Jesse was none of these things. Underneath the layers of lies, myths, and tall tales, he was just a murderer and a thief. He was an outlaw who found brief success in the chaos of the postwar frontier.

Summary Overview

Of all the outsized outlaws to stir the public imagination, none has ever equaled the stature of Jesse James. A one-time Confederate guerilla who never gave up the fight, Jesse, with the help of his brother Frank and an ever evolving gang of likeminded bandits and killers, became a sort of living myth throughout the American South and West during the 1870s. Portrayed as an American Robin Hood, stealing from the rich to give to the poor, he was made the symbol for Southern resentment against the victorious North, and later, after his own violent end, the nation's most enduring folk hero—a bulwark against the forces of modernity, which only a few decades later swelled to unmake the agrarian nation that was. But Jesse was none of these things. Underneath the layers of lies, myths, and tall tales, he was just a murderer and a thief. He was an outlaw who found brief success in the chaos of the postwar frontier.

Defining Moment

In the aftermath of the Civil War, tensions ran high throughout the old Confederacy. Anger over the South's defeat, the emancipation of the slaves, and the imposition of Northern Republican rule on state governments, swirled to create a storm of resentment. Violence flared against carpetbaggers, Union sympathizers, and recently freed blacks. As the old Southern Democratic establishment fought to regain power, millions of men who had served in the Rebel armies found little work and little opportunity in the towns and cities they called home. Some turned to vigilante groups, like the Ku Klux Klan, as a means to exact revenge for their perceived wrongs, while others decided to leverage the experience they gained in the war to seek a more lucrative form of vengeance.

Jesse James was no stranger to violence. Having been too young to enlist in the regular army when the Civil War broke out, and taught by his mother to despise the Union, he instead became a bushwhacker—a Confederate guerilla fighter—in a Missouri band led by the infamous William “Bloody Bill” Anderson. Free from the rules and conventions of war, Bloody Bill's bushwhackers instigated chaos across the state, butchering Northerners by the hundreds and spreading terror wherever they went. James, who had lost his father at an early age, admired the psychotic Bloody Bill and was deeply affected when Union forces finally gunned him down in 1864.

After the surrender of Robert E. Lee, James and his brother Frank, possessing little in the way of non-lethal skill, decided to keep fighting. Reinventing themselves as outlaws, they started robbing banks and stagecoaches. Jesse James might have been no one of consequence, just another criminal operating on the edge of the frontier, but in 1870, upon learning that Bloody Bill's killer now operated a bank in the town of Gallatin, Missouri, James murdered a bank teller in hopes of exacting revenge. Despite having botched the assassination by killing the wrong man and stealing nothing of consequence, Jesse James was suddenly thrust into the national spotlight. Hungry for a sympathetic former Rebel to frame as a freedom fighter, Southern newspapers, following the lead of the respected editor John Newman, painted James as a victim of Northern exploitation. While the James brothers robbed the banks and the railroads, murdering dozens of innocent people, Newman crafted an image of Jesse as a sort of American Robin Hood and personally edited letters written by Jesse for publication across the South. In the eyes of many, Jesse James had taken on the mantle of the Confederate cause, a “bold robber,” as he wrote himself.

For over ten years, the James gang, pursued by lawmen and even the famed Pinkerton Detective Agency, evaded capture while wreaking havoc across the American South and West. It wasn't until the 1880s that the popularity of the mythic outlaw finally began to wane. As Southern Democrats regained control of the old Confederacy, Jesse James became their problem to deal with. Out of favor, and grown increasingly paranoid and violent, James was finally gunned down in April 1882 by one of his own men on the promise of a pardon.

Author Biography

Jesse Woodson James was born in Clay County, Missouri in 1847. The son of a rabidly pro-slavery Baptist preacher, Jesse and his brother, Frank, were brought up to despise what their mother, Zerelda, considered a hostile and intrusive North. After the death of their father, and the start of the Civil War, the James boys joined the violent Confederate guerilla factions operating within the state. Jesse came under the mentorship of William “Bloody Bill” Anderson, an infamous bushwhacker, known for scalping his Union victims. After the loss of the Confederacy, Jesse and Frank became outlaws, specifically robbing stagecoaches, banks, and trains. In 1870, Jesse James gained notoriety for the murder of a bank clerk in the town of Gallatin. With help from Confederate loyalists and a sympathetic Southern press, Jesse James quickly rose to become the most famous outlaw in America. Ultimately, he was killed by Robert Ford, a member of his own gang in 1882.

Historical Document

The Liberty Tribune, June 24, 1870

June, 1870

Governor McClurg:

DEAR SIR: I and my brother Frank are charged with the crime of killing the cashier and robbing the bank at Gallatin, Mo., Dec. 7th, 1869. I can prove, by some of the best men in Missouri, where I was the day of the robbery and the day previous to it, but I well know if I was to submit to an arrest, that I would be mobbed and hanged without a trial. The past is sufficient to show that bushwhackers have been arrested in Missouri since the war, charged with bank robbery, and they most all have been mobbed without trials. I will cite you the case of Thomas Little, of Lafayette county, Mo. A few days after the bank was robbed at Richmond, in 1867, Mr. Little was charged with being one of the party who perpetrated the deed. He was sent from St. Louis to Warrensburg under a heavy guard. As soon as the parties arrived there, they found out that he (Mr. Little) could prove, by the citizens of Dover, that he was innocent of the charge—as soon as these scoundrels found out that he was innocent—a mob was raised, broke in the jail, took him out and hanged him.

Governor, when I think I can get a fair trial, I will surrender myself to the civil authorities of Missouri. But I never will surrender to be mobbed by a set of bloodthirsty poltroons. It is true that during the war I was a Confederate soldier, and fought under the black flag, but since then I have lived a peaceable citizen, and obeyed the laws of the United States to the best of my knowledge. The authorities of Gallatin say the reason that led them to suspect me was that the mare left at Gallatin, by the robbers, was identified as belonging to me. That is false. I can prove that I sold the mare previous to the robbery. It is true that I fought Deputy Sheriff Thomason, of Clay county, but was not my brother with me when we had the fight. I do not think that I violated the law when I fought Thomason as his posse refused to tell me who they were.

Three different statements have been published in reference to the fight that I had with Thomason, but they are all a pack of falsehoods. Deputy Sheriff Thomason has never yet given any report of the fight, that I have seen. I am personally acquainted with Oscar Thomason, the Deputy's son, but when the shooting began, his face was so muffled up with furs that I did not recognize him. But if I did violate the law when I fought Thomason I am perfectly willing to abide by it.

But as to them mobbing me for a crime that I am innocent of, that is played out. As soon as I think I can get a just trial I will surrender myself to the civil authorities of Missouri, and prove to the world that I am innocent of the crime charged against me.

Respectfully,

Jesse W. James

The Kansas City Times, October 15, 1872

[This letter was not signed “Jesse James,” but historians believe he wrote it.]

As a great deal has been said in regard to the robbery which occurred at the Kansas City Exposition grounds, I will give a few lines to the public, as I am one of the party who perpetrated the deed. A great many say that we, the robbers, deserve hanging. What have we done to be hung for? It is true that I shot a little girl, though it was not intentional, and I am very sorry that the child was shot; and if the parents will give me their address through the columns of the Kansas City Weekly Times, I will send them money to pay her doctor's bill. And as to Mr. Wallace, I never tried to kill him. I only shot to make him let go my friend. If I had been so disposed, I could have shot him dead. Just let a party of men commit a bold robbery, and the cry is hang them, but [President Ulysses] Grant and his party can steal millions, and it is all right. It is true, we are robbers, but we always rob in the glare of the day and in the teeth of the multitude; and we never kill only in self defense, without men refuse to open their vaults and safes to us, and when they refuse to unlock to us we kill. But a man who is [expletive] enough fool to refuse to open a safe or a vault when he is covered with a pistol ought to die. There is no use for a man to try to do anything when an experienced robber gets the go on him. If he gives the alarm, or resists, or refuses to unlock, he gets killed, and if he obeys, he is not hurt in the flesh but he is in the purse.

Some editors call us thieves. We are not thieves—we are bold robbers. It hurts me very much to be called a thief. It makes me feel like they were trying to put me on a par with Grant and his party. We are bold robbers, and I am proud of the name, for Alexander the Great was a bold robber, and Julius Caesar, and Napoleon Bonaparte, and Sir William Wallace—not old Ben Wallace—and Robert Emmet. Please rank me with these, and not with the Grantites. Grant's party has no respect for anyone. They rob the poor and rich, and we rob the rich and give to the poor. As to the author of the letter, the public will never know. I will close by hoping that Horace Greeley will defeat Grant, and then I can make an honest living, and then I will not have to rob, as taxes will not be so heavy.

Glossary

bushwhacker: a guerilla fighter from the American Civil War

poltroon: an utter coward

posse: a body of men, typically armed, summoned by a sheriff to enforce the law

Document Analysis

The first document, written by Jesse James in 1870 and edited by John Newman, is a complete denial of charges in the robbery of the bank in Gallatin, Missouri some time earlier, which resulted in the death of the bank's clerk. Although James had indeed committed the crimes of which he was accused, even boasting of it as he escaped, the letter, addressed to the Governor of the state, claims that James can produce evidence of his innocence, while also asserting that if he were to try and surrender to authorities, as he'd like to do, he'd be mobbed and lynched. In fact, the letter was a carefully crafted narrative, masterminded by Newman, to paint Jesse James as the victim of Northern persecution. A Southern man, the letter claimed, could no longer find justice in the South. James wasn't a saint by any stretch, but under a cloud of danger, he'd have to take action. The second letter, also written by Jesse James and edited by John Newman, was a more direct attack on the Republican-dominated federal government. Yes, the letter stated, James had robbed the Kansas City Exposition and had killed people in the process, but his crimes were nothing compared to those of President Ulysses S. Grant and his government. James was a “bold robber,” a man of conviction fighting for the common man, while Grant and his Northern cronies were nothing more than simple thieves. In terms that any person with common sense can understand, James had committed murder only when he had to. He was a bold robber, in the company of other bold robbers, such as Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte, and William Wallace. All at once, he was a conqueror, a liberator, and a freedom fighter. A great man destined to remake the world, but also the embodiment of all Southerners.

Together these letters represent the split duality of the former Confederacy. Victim on the one hand, exploited and mistreated by a criminal government, and champion on the other, still fighting the War of Northern Aggression. Put together, they are the story of Robin Hood: victim and savior both. Forced by injustice into a life of crime, to steal from the rich to give to the poor, Jesse James would ultimately liberate those enslaved by villainy. In fact, James himself makes the connection when he writes: “Grant's party has no respect for anyone. They rob the poor and rich, and we rob the rich and give to the poor.”

Essential Themes

Jesse James was a cold-blooded killer. Shaped by the hands of a ruthless pro-slavery guerilla fighter amidst the bloodiest conflict in American history, he murdered innocent people, most often without provocation, while stealing from banks, stagecoaches, and trains. No evidence exists that any of his ill-gotten gains made their way into the hands of the needy or the poor. And yet, thanks to a concerted effort on the part of Confederate loyalists and the winds of political opportunity, Jesse James was made into an American folk hero, the young nation's very own Robin Hood—a brave, moral man forced to fight against the juggernaut of tyranny. In life, Jesse James was a common criminal, who, for a brief time, managed to capture the imagination of millions and become the instrument for their frustrated salvation. In death, he became even bigger. Immediately following his assassination in 1882, thousands of people flocked to see his final resting place, to buy pieces of his house, even to buy pebbles from his grave. His wife, his mother, and his brother all cashed in. They sold their stories, and they told their tales. Frank James even became a regular player in Buffalo Bill's Wild West show. The acts of brutality, Jesse's violence, his instability, his crimes even, were all washed away and eventually forgotten. The outlaw became a legend. The legend became myth. As North and South reconciled and became one, as industry increasingly became the enemy, the story of the Missouri outlaw increasingly resonated with people. In the end, Jesse James became what he always wanted himself to be, a savior, a hero, a martyr for the cause.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Jackson, Cathy M. “The Making of an American Outlaw Hero: Jesse James, Folklore and Late Nineteenth-Century Print Media.” PhD dissertation, University of Missouri-Columbia, 2004. Print.
  • “Jesse James.” American Experience. Dir. Mark Zwonitzer. PBS, 2006. Film.
  • Stiles, T. J. Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War. New York: Random House, 2002. Print.
  • Yeatman, Ted P. Frank and Jesse James: The Story Behind the Legend. Nashville, TN: Cumberland House Publishing, 2000. Print.
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