The Wild, Wild West

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After attending a Roman Catholic convent school in Lexington, Kentucky, she married a Baptist seminarian, Robert James. He left her to seek gold in California, where he died. Her second husband, Simms, having died as she was about to divorce him, she married a third, “a meek man.” “She was, all her life, a religious woman,” says one of Jesse’s admiring biographers. “Love became her religion,” says another. “She was a woman thoroughly good and noble,” the first biographer insists. Most certainly, the second agrees; and then informs us that, after her notorious son had been killed, she “boldly” showed tourists around Jesse’s old farm, “extracting every dime she could from them.” “This woman who had always been so upright,” he adds, sold the tourists stones allegedly from Jesse’s grave but actually from the creek. She also sold tourists enough shoes from the horses her two bandit sons had ridden “to fill a wagonbed.”

But hear her cry out at Jesse’s funeral, while two ministers lead the mourners in singing “We Will Wait Till Jesus Comes.”∗“Oh, my generous, noblehearted Jesse,” she moans, clearly enough to be heard by the reporters attending. “Oh, why did they kill my poor boy who never wronged anybody, but helped them and fed them with the bread that should go to his orphans?”

∗Or, as it may have been, ”What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” As seems always to be the case in these histories of Wild West personages, the authorities cannot agree on anything, no matter how grave of import.

Her poor, generous, noble-hearted boy, who never wronged anybody, was the leader of a gang of comparably generous, noble-hearted thugs who, in fifteen years, held up eleven banks, seven trains, three stages, one county fair, and one payroll messenger, in the process looting some $200,000 and killing at least sixteen men. What the mothers of these sixteen said at their graves has unfortunately not been recorded.

Jesse’s deification proceeded along the routine lines laid down by the “Police Gazette”—his prankish charm, his courteous behavior to women involved in his stick-ups, his protection of fictitious’ widows from villainous bankers seeking to foreclose fictitious mortgages, and all the rest—but in his case a unique attribute was added, one guaranteed to inflame the partisan passions bred of the Civil War. For Jesse symbolized the gallant Rebel, ground down beneath the boot of the victorious Yankee oppressor, and such was the potency of this bogus magic that his death kept the sovereign state of Missouri in an uproar for an entire decade.

Jesse grew up in an atmosphere of hate. Missouri men rode across the line into Kansas to cast fraudulent votes they hoped would make Kansas a slave state; Kansas men resisted; Missouri men rode again to raid and kill ; Kansas men rode back in vengeance. When the Civil War erupted, there was a whole generation of teen-age toughs living in the tier of Missouri counties that border on Kansas, all of them handy with guns and knives, all of them committed on the political issues of the day, all of them itching to start a rumble. To name just a handful of these hellions: there were Frank James, eighteen, and his brother Jesse, fourteen; Cole Younger, seventeen, Jim Younger, thirteen, and two other brothers, Bob and John, who were still just children; Jim Reed, sixteen; Ed Shirley, about eighteen, and his sister Myra Belle, thirteen.

All these youngters (except Myra Belle) became bushwhackers—i.e., Confederate irregulars—most of them serving under the infamous William C. Quantrill, the psychopathic turncoat and killer who is justifiably remembered as “the bloodiest man known to the annals of America.” Frank James and Cole Younger were with Quantrill when, in August, 1863, the town of Lawrence, Kansas, was sacked and 182 of its citizens murdered. Jesse James and Jim Younger were with Quantrill’s lieutenant, Bloody Bill Anderson, at the Centralia massacre a year later, when more than two hundred Federal soldiers were shot down, many of them being prisoners. Jesse is credited with killing the commander, Major H. J. Johnson. Jesse was then seventeen.

 
 
 

With the end of the war, most of the bushwhackers laid down their guns and went to work as decent citizens. Not, however, this handful.

The James and Younger brothers (and probably Jim Reed) hitched together a gang of like-minded hooligans that went right on robbing and killing. Their first score, at Liberty, Missouri, on February 14, 1866, was against the Clay County Savings Association Bank, an institution where, it may be presumed, many of their friends and neighbors kept their money. Frank and Jesse missed this caper, but their henchmen stole a sum estimated at from $62,000 to $75,000; they killed one man. Why should they turn back after such a success?