If you’re a current subscriber, log in below. If you would like to subscribe, please click the subscribe tab above.
Username and Password Help
By MARK EVANS
STE. GENEVIEVE HERALD
Jesse James and the James-Younger Gang have been romanticized as Robin Hood-like figures, on the side of the little man, yet have also been portrayed as brutal thugs who terrorized neighbors and strangers alike.
Confederate guerilla fighters under General “Bloody Bill” Anderson during the Civil War, Frank and Jesse James transitioned fairly smoothly from wartime bushwhackers to bandits.
To understand Jesse and Frank James, they have to be considered within the time and place they lived.
With the Union winning the Civil War, but Abraham Lincoln and his presumably gentle but firm Reconstruction policies dead, the late 1860s and 1870s were a time of upheaval in the former slave-holding states.
When Ulysses S. Grant took the oath of office as president in 1869, the federal government became serious for several years about making sure freed slaves got their constitutional rights as citizens. Most former Confederates and other ex-slave owners naturally opposed this, leading to a tumultuous time.
This led to the James Brothers galloping onto center stage in American folklore.
Jesse and Frank James began their criminal careers by enlisting former Rebel mates in their mayhem. By 1870, the gang was making a name for itself in Missouri and surrounding states. They came to the attention of former Confederate General Joseph Shelby and journalist John N. Edwards, who wrote a fawning book on Shelby and his legendary Iron Brigade, which fought at Carthage, Wilson’s Creek and other western battles, Shelby and his Men: The War in the West.
Frank James, shot in the lung during a robbery, convalesced at Shelby’s home for two to three months in 1870.
It wasn’t long before Edwards, who founded the Kansas City Times, was singing the brothers’ praises in print.
By 1872, as the gang’s resume of robberies lengthened, even more turmoil was brewing.
Congress created the Justice Department and passed the Ku Klux Klan Act with the strong support of the Grant administration. However, Democrats routed a divided Republican party in 1872, putting the North’s Reconstruction policies in peril in Missouri.
“The Missouri populace now created a worldview in which race, region, and above all wartime allegiance defied their sense of identity,” historian Christopher Phillips wrote in Missouri’s Confederate: Claiborne Fox Jackson and the Creation of Southern Identity in the Border West. “Out of the anger and betrayal of the wartime experience a Confederate memory was emerging.”
The James brothers tied into that Confederate memory.
T.J. Stiles, in Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War, noted that Edwards “trumpeted James’ daring-do as heroic” in an 1872 Times editorial, with the title, “The Chivalry of Crime.”
That fall, Edwards received a letter to the editor from one of the gang members – believed to have been Jesse James himself – in which he said, “We are not thieves – we are bold robbers,” similar to Alexander the Great and Napoleon. He even added a Robin Hood twist, claiming they “rob the rich and give to the poor,” although evidence of that actually happening is sketchy at best.
Others were not so kind to James.
The St. Joseph Gazette in December 1869 called him “a desperate and dangerous character,” and Stiles related that many of James’ neighbors lived in fear of arousing his anger.
In the letter to the Kansas City newspaper, James claimed the gang only killed in self-defense, but argued that “a man who is damned fool enough to refuse to open a safe or a vault when he is covered with a pistol ought to die.”
In that case, Oliver Harris was no fool during the May 26, 1873 Ste. Genevieve robbery, and lived through the ordeal, going on to serve as county sheriff a decade later, eventually dying in 1900.