America’s Social Bandits in Fact and Fiction
By E.M. Sanchez-Saavedra
After the classic dime novel format became established during the 1860s, American publishers noticed that reprints of English bandit and highwaymen tales sold more copies than tales in other genres. Stories about the American Revolution and adventures set on the Alleghany frontiers during the endless conflicts between European settlers and Native Americans remained popular well into the next century, but the public fascination with crime and punishment provided a fertile market. Long English serials in penny-part editions lent themselves well to various ten cent and twenty-five cent reincarnations, but their number was finite and American publishers had pretty well saturated the market. What was needed was an American equivalent of Claude Duval or Dick Turpin. In the early 1870s one appeared in the violent border state of Missouri. As if tailor made for the dime novel industry, he had an alliterative name, a fascinating history and he managed to elude the forces of law and order during a fifteen-year crime spree.
PART I: THE REAL JAMES BOYS
The U.S. Civil War of 1861-1865 had thoroughly upset American life in many ways. Aside from the over half a million combat deaths and untold numbers of physical and psychological wounds, entire populations were physically displaced, disenfranchised and demoralized. The former “Confederate” states, their lands and economy ruined, fell under the heavy burden of a vengeful “Reconstruction” and military occupation. The midwestern border states of Arkansas and Missouri were particularly hard hit. The “dress rehearsal” for the war occurred in Kansas, as pro-slavery men and “free-soilers” carried on guerrilla warfare during the late 1850s. The abolitionist nexus was Lawrence, which was burned by Missourians in 1856 and again by Quantrill’s raiders in 1863. Unlike the horrific carnage wreaked by “civilized” regular armies on the East Coast, the warfare in the Midwest was equally terrible, but more personal and tribal in nature, waged by “irregulars” such as the Kansas “Jayhawkers” and “Red Legs” for the Union, and bands of “bushwhackers” under such stalwarts as William Quantrill and “Bloody Bill” Anderson, on the Southern side. Conditions in Missouri during the war resembled the current situation along the Afghan/Pakistani border, where settling old scores trumps military strategy.
From this toxic environment came the teenaged boys who would become America’s real and fictional Wild West outlaws. Large interconnected families like the Jameses, the Youngers, the Daltons, the Millers and the Fords, all swept up in the uncompromising guerrilla war, contributed their men folk to be killed or psychologically warped for the rest of their lives. The survivors were the most ruthless, reckless and skillful pistol shots and horsemen, fully the equals of Comanche warriors. After the Southern Confederacy fell in 1865, a majority of Southern veterans signed an oath of allegiance to the U.S. and went home to rebuild their lives. A general amnesty did not extend to the Missouri guerrillas, however, who were considered war criminals and outlaws. Unable to find jobs at home, many of them drifted west and attempted to start afresh, with varying success.
Men such as Thomas Coleman Younger, Alexander Franklin James (1843-1915) and his kid brother Jesse Woodson James (1847-1882), and their cousins the Millers, tried to settle down with their families, but they found it almost impossible. Today, these men would be diagnosed as “adrenaline junkies,” suffering from “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.” Undoubtedly, some were sociopathic to begin with and honed their techniques in an orgy of ambushes, raids and individual murders. Their seething rage, alcohol abuse, mood swings, paranoia and violent tempers, coupled with incredible survival skills and weapons proficiency, would form the basis of their legendary reputations.
In 1866, the James brothers robbed a bank in Liberty, Missouri, and soon graduated to train and stagecoach robberies and even the Kansas City Fair. Their accomplices were mostly fellow veterans of Quantrill’s raiders. Once embarked on a career of crime, they planned their forays as guerrilla raids against the hated “Yankee” capitalists who were oppressing their neighbors. The fact that they rarely shared the proceeds of their robberies with those oppressed neighbors made little difference; they were “social bandits,” striking blows against the Establishment. At least that is how Kansas journalist John Newman Edwards saw and reported it. Thanks to Edwards, all America came to know of the “border Robin Hoods” as they continued to operate with impunity on their home turf. The only widely circulated authentic photograph of Jesse during his lifetime depicted him as a scrawny teenager. Lawmen were severely hampered by not knowing what he looked like at thirty. As long as the brothers stayed in and around Clay County, there were always kinfolk and safe houses to shield them from posses and Pinkerton detectives hired by the express companies. When Pinkerton agents killed their younger brother and seriously wounded their mother in a botched raid on Mrs. James’ home, the detectives destroyed any chance of cooperation from the locals. (Not that there had been much of a chance to begin with.)
Favorable publicity became a double-barreled proposition, with Jesse supplying his own press releases after certain daring train robberies! (The amount of money stolen would be left blank – to be filled in by authorities later.) He was a darling of Richard Kyle Fox’ National Police Gazette, to which he subscribed and occasionally sent communications. In addition to tabloid coverage of Missouri train robberies, Fox published “factual” pamphlets about the James brothers, relying heavily on John Newman Edwards’ articles. Other serious attempts at biography emanated from publishers in St. Louis, during Jesse’s lifetime and immediately following his death.
Once the James/Younger gang left their comfort zone, all the rules changed. In 1876, the outlaws arrogantly decided to strike north into Minnesota, where one of their members had worked briefly. Their plans soon fell into disarray as they were forced to improvise in unfamiliar territory. Their superb horses and equipment, coupled with their rough manners, attracted unwelcome attention. Urban banks in St. Paul were too exposed or too well guarded. By default they settled on the First National Bank in the little college town of Northfield. During the robbery everything went suddenly and disastrously wrong: the heroic assistant cashier Joseph Lee Heywood refused to cooperate and was killed; another employee raised the alarm, despite a serious gunshot wound; armed townspeople defended their property furiously; two gang members were killed outright, and the wounded survivors barely escaped with a handful of loose change. Worst of all, their guide, Bill Chadwell, lay dead in the street and the gang became hopelessly lost in the swamps, pursued by hundreds of angry citizens in large posses. Leaving the three grievously injured Younger brothers and Charley Pitts to their fates, Frank and Jesse James lit out for home by a roundabout route.
Although they soon raised a new gang of second-stringers and petty criminals like Jim Cummins and Dick Liddell, and boys like Charley and Robert Ford, too young to have served in the war, the James brothers lost their well-trained guerrilla coherence at Northfield. The gang’s days were further numbered by political and financial factors. Still shaky from the Panic of 1873, the U.S. economy took another nosedive in 1877, following crippling railroad strikes and Wall Street failures. Pressured by the loss of potential outside investment in Missouri through fear of lawlessness, Governor Thomas T. Crittenden offered a hefty reward, dead or alive, for each member of the gang. The reward money came from the exasperated express companies. Frank James, sick of the outlaw life, moved east and Jesse lived quietly with his wife and two children under the alias of “Thomas Howard,” frequently changing his address. He met his fate in 1882, in St. Joseph, Missouri, at the hands of Robert Ford, dazzled by reward money and the chance of fame. Jesse’s post-mortem photo adorned the front page of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper several weeks later.
The assassination was the last straw for his elder brother. Tired of looking over his shoulder for a Bob Ford copycat “wannabe,” Frank James, with the help of John Newman Edwards, surrendered publicly to Governor Crittenden, stood trial and was acquitted by a sympathetic jury. He returned home to farm and care for his mother.