The Legend of Jesse James


As a Missourian, I have always wondered why Missourians seem enamored on the legend of the Outlaw Jesse James.  If you ask a Missourian about Jesse James you will learn that he was a Missourian and that begins and ends the factual information.  Because for some reasons Missourians appear to be taught that Jesse James was a man of the people.

Even I was given this sanitized heroic portrait of the outlaw when I went to junior high.  I remember thinking that if he was such a good guy, then why did everyone think they were better off with him dead… And the answer is; because the world was better off with him dead.

Oh the blasphemy!  However, Jesse James is more legend than reality in this state and he was definitely not heroic or a man of the people, unless the people were willing to hand over their hard earned cash to him.

To be fair, part of Jesse James’ legacy comes from our being a border state during the Civil War.  We didn’t officially succeed with the rest of the Confederacy, but we were mostly sympathetic state to the Confederate cause.  James fought for the Confederacy which earned him leeway with the general public of Missouri.

Both Jesse and his brother Frank joined a guerrilla force known as Bushwhackers.  The Bushwackers raided Union depots and plundered houses of Union Sympathizers.  And they killed a lot of Union troops and Union Sympathizers.  I live in Columbia, Missouri and about 15 miles north of me is a small town (maybe 3,000 people) called Centralia.  There is a notable Civil Monument in Centralia commemorating a massacre that happened there.

Twenty-Four unarmed Union soldiers were captured executed there which lead to a battle and things just got bloodier as it went.  The Bushwackers were involved in both the massacre and the ensuing battle, which the Union army lost… However, more importantly for this post, Jesse and Frank James were among the Bushwackers there for both the massacre and the battle.

As a Missourian with a history degree one of the things we are taught is that the Bushwackers weren’t picky about who they killed.  They were just as likely to kill a Union Sympathizer as a Union Soldier.  A harsh and cruel stance considering we remained part of the Union and Mid-Missouri where I live is and has been predominately a liberal area for most of its life.

After the Civil War, Jesse James would begin his life as an outlaw, robbing banks, stage coaches, and occasionally rich houses.  He went where the money was.  He originally joined another group of thieves and murderers.  After a failed bank robbery in the northern plains (possibly one of the Dakotas – I don’t remember right off the top of my head), most of the gang was rounded up and hanged.  After the deaths of most of the gang Jesse and Frank James were part of, they formed their own band of outlaws to continue the pillaging…

And they could be incredibly brutal when they wanted to be.  Both Jesse and Frank were wanted men by the 1960s for murder as well as robbery.  It was this that resulted in his death.  He was talking to a member of  his gang when he was shot and killed because the bounty for him was hefty and the law basically wanted Jesse James dead more than alive.

Morbidly, after hearing that Jesse had been killed, a group of townspeople muscled their way into the family home to gawk at the dead outlaw.  The men responsible for the death of Jesse James actually did re-enactments of the murder and death of Jesse James all across the country in theaters.

I have always wondered how an outlaw managed to become a heroic figure in a state where he shed so much blood.  The world works in strange ways…

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