The Wild West of Yester-Year

From Killer to Folk Hero: Frank and Jesse James
By Rachel Kovaciny

One of my first babysitters was an elderly woman who, when she was a small child, met Jesse James.  He and some of his gang stopped at her family’s farm and asked her mother for food.  So maybe it’s not surprising the James brothers has fascinated me for most of my life.

Jesse James and his older brother Frank were murderous thieves, about as bad as “bad guys” get.  And yet, popular opinion turned them into antiheroes.  In fact, the public styled them modern-day Robin Hoods while they were still out there robbing and killing, even though they never “robbed the rich to feed the poor”! They robbed trains and banks, stealing money from rich and poor alike and killing those who got in their way.  And there is no evidence they shared their ill-gotten gains with anyone outside their own gang and relatives. People liked them anyway, though when you look at the truth about their behavior, it’s hard to see how they could be viewed as heroic in any way.

During the Civil War, when Jesse was still in his teens and Frank was barely out of them, the brothers rode with groups of pro-Confederate guerrillas all over their native Missouri.  Led by William Quantrill and “Bloody” Bill Anderson, they waged war against Union troops and Abolitionist civilians alike.  Reportedly, they took part in the so-called “Centralia Massacre,” where the victors shot unarmed Union troops point-blank after they surrendered.

How do you go from being murderers and thieves to folk heroes?

In Jesse James’ case, it helps to get yourself killed under mysterious circumstances.  While he was alive, a few people thought fondly of him as a hero who fought against bankers and the government by robbing them.  But then one of his own gang members shot him in the back while unarmed, at home with his wife and children. That was all a lot of folks needed to make them forget about the innocent people he’d murdered, the soldiers and lawmen he’d killed, and the money he’d stolen. He was a martyr.  The man who killed him, Robert Ford, earned a reward for the deed, but also earned the moniker “that dirty little coward.”  

Jesse James became so popular after his death that people even circulated the rumor he hadn’t actually died, he’d faked his death so he’d be able to live out the rest of his days in peace.  This rumor persists to this day, to where they exhumed his body in the 1990s and ran DNA tests to see if the body in his grave was his or not.  Though the tests came back matching Jesse James’ family DNA, there are still some people today who believe Robert Ford did not kill Jesse James, but that Ford conspired with James to fake his death. 

Frank James lived to the ripe old age of 72, not dying until 1915.  He gave up robbing banks and turned himself in to the authorities after his brother died. Frank James stood trial for only two of the many crimes he committed, and the jury acquitted him for both. After that, he lived the rest of his life as a peaceful man, working as a telegraph operator and a shoe salesman, among other jobs. 

Movies and TV shows have immortalized the James brothers, and perhaps it’s these portrayals that have shaped our current ideas about them more than anything else.  Movies like The Long Riders and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford portray both brothers sympathetically, adding to their mystique while glossing over the hard facts about their actual behavior. Still, even knowing so much about the reality of Jesse and Frank James, I can’t help thinking it’s cool I was born where I was and babysat by someone who’d met them.  Perhaps it’s a form of wishful thinking: I know they weren’t Robin Hoods of the Wild West... but wouldn’t it have been awesome if they were?