The story of Jesse James is one of America's most familiar myths -- and one of its most wrong-headed. James, so the legend goes, was a Western outlaw, but in reality, he never went west. He has been called America's own Robin Hood, yet he robbed both rich and poor, and was never seen to share his ill-gotten gains. He was known as a gunfighter -- but his victims were almost always unarmed. Less heroic than brutal, James was a member of a vicious band of Missouri guerrillas during the Civil War, and sought vengeance for the Confederate defeat afterwards. In a life steeped in prolific violence and bloodshed, he met what was perhaps the most fitting end.
AMERICAN EXPERIENCE presents Jesse James, the true story of an outlaw who has captured the imagination of generations of Americans. "There's something about this legend that Americans have a hard time letting go of," says film producer Mark Zwonitzer. "Perhaps it's the much-needed idea of a hero or the allure of an outlaw. Either way, I hope this film will set the record straight."
At age 16, Jesse James was a kid in appearance but a warrior in spirit. Raised in a household where half the family income came from slave labor, Jesse and his brother Frank were destined to fight for the southern cause. Missouri was a divided state -- Union troops occupied much of the territory. Federal forces commonly lynched Southern sympathizers, burned down their houses, or seized their livestock. An eye for an eye was standard practice, and some citizens sought vengeance through guerrilla warfare, joining one of the dozens of "bushwhacker" groups in the state.
In the spring of 1864, when Jesse rode to war, there were no papers to sign, no brass-button uniforms, no government-issue firearms -- Confederate forces had left the area. Jesse simply followed creeks and hog-trails into the darkness of the Missouri woods, where guerrilla fighters made camp. Over the next year, he would be schooled in violence and terror.
"Jesse and his companions, they're not satisfied just to kill the enemy. They will go in, they'll wade in, they'll break skulls, they'll slash throats. They took trophies," explains writer Fred Chiaventone in the film. "What they set out to do was to terrorize all of their enemies and potential enemies and to dissuade people from supporting the federal cause." They would spread word of their deeds and also of their threats that provided sensational front-page stories for local newspapers.
On September 27, 1864, they brought their terrorism to Centralia, Missouri. They murdered nearly two dozen unarmed Union soldiers heading home on leave and, when over a hundred federals came after them for revenge, the guerrillas slaughtered them too. "Men were mutilated in the most horrific fashion," says author T.J. Stiles. "Jesse James was immersed in the most savage kind of bloodshed conceivable."
The Confederacy surrendered the following spring but Jesse continued to fight. The James brothers, along with about a half a dozen ex-bushwhackers, robbed banks, stagecoaches, and railroads, leaving a trail of dead bodies in their wake.
But the hideous crimes of the James gang read as something quite different in some papers. Journalists sympathetic to the Confederate cause, like John Newman Edwards, painted Jesse as defending southern ideals and fighting against the establishment -- the corrupt railroad corporations and banks controlled by Northern interests. The legend of the victimized farm boy from Missouri who fought against Northern oppressors spread far and wide, reaching New York, California, Chicago and New Mexico. Jesse himself came to believe the image he created. "All of a sudden, he's in newspapers across the country," author Deb Goodrich comments in the film. "It's a lot easier to buy into that legend than it is to take a long, hard look at yourself."
For nearly two decades, Jesse James, heartless thief and cold-blooded murderer, pushed ahead with his outlaw career. His gang would be reconfigured multiple times, replacing members who were killed or lost interest in the criminal life. By 1878, even Jesse's own brother, Frank, would choose to settle down.
But Jesse never gave up the fight, and never abandoned his desire for fame. "If we are going to be wicked, we might as well make a good job of it," he said. And while his image as a benevolent thief won him many fans, the true story of his vicious career put a price on his head. Threats came from all sides. Tired of having their safes emptied, the railroad companies hired a detective agency to hunt down the James boys. Finally, in 1882, the governor of Missouri offered a $10,000 bounty. One of Jesse James' associates murdered the legendary bandit in a fitting manner -- James was unarmed and shot from behind.
My American Experience
Since 1921, dozens of movies have featured a character based on Jesse James, depicting him in very different lights. Which portrayal do you think is the most historically accurate? Do you have a favorite?