Jesse James: Legend or Myth?

On September 5, 1847, Jesse James was born in Clay County, Missouri. His name and life would go on to be memorialized in dime novels, western movies, and stage productions. But how accurate are these depictions? Was Jesse James really the Robin Hood type that he built himself up to be? Or was he a disenfranchised young man bitter about the Confederate loss of the Civil War intent on taking as many lives as he could for revenge?

At the time of the Civil War, Jesse James and his family were slaveowners who lived on a hemp farm in Western Missouri. Jesse watched his older brother, Frank, go off to fight for the Confederates and soon left home himself, joining a guerilla group of Confederates at the age of 16. This group, led by “Bloody Bill” Anderson, committed many atrocities, including the massacre of unarmed Union sympathizers.

After the war ended, Jesse and his brother Frank weren’t ready to give up fighting. The brothers were angry at the Confederate loss and felt at odds with the efforts of Reconstruction. They began robbing banks, stores, and stagecoaches all over the state. Jesse loved the notoriety of committing these crimes and began leaving press releases behind at the locations of his robberies. He wanted to paint himself as a Robin Hood character who was stealing from the rich Union government to give back to poor Missourians who had been left with nothing after the war. In truth, there is no evidence that Jesse ever gave away any of his ill-gotten gains.

Interestingly enough, despite the dearth of evidence that Jesse James actually was any kind of hero during his life, he has become a western legend. American history has romanticized the life of the Reconstruction-era outlaw, dedicating ballads and films to their adventures. This is true of Jesse James, whose story has been told by musicians like Van Morrison and Bruce Springsteen and portrayed by Rob Lowe and Brad Pitt. So, the question is, how did Jesse James earn himself the hero trope?

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Book Review: The Lincoln Conspiracy

Abraham Lincoln was marked for death from the minute he was elected.  Apparently, even he understood his grave fate.

But what I didn’t know was that there were several assassination attempts on his life before his death on April 14,1865 at the hands of John Wilkes Booth.  I recently read The Lincoln Conspiracy by bestselling authors, Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch which details the very first, purported attempt on his life prior to his inauguration on March 4,1861.

To buy the book on Amazon, click here.

Meltzer and Mensch did an excellent job researching this book and included many wonderful details about Lincoln and his life including information about his temperament, inner circle and habits, which helped me gain a better understanding of who he was as a person. 

They also did an excellent job of detailing the mood in the United States at the time of Lincoln’s election.  They read newspaper articles from the time as well as the journals and letters of the people who surrounded Lincoln and his rivals. And for me, the balance of detail and cultural context in relation to the broader story they are telling was spot on.

I particularly loved the quote they included from the famous Black abolitionist, reformer and writer, Frederick Douglass, when he said, “The hour and the man of our redemption had somehow met in the person of Abraham Lincoln.” 

Now about the conspiracy part of The Lincoln Conspiracy. According to the book summary: “The conspirators were part of a white supremacist secret society that didn’t want an abolitionist [Lincoln] in the White House. They planned an elaborate scheme to assassinate the President-elect in Baltimore as Lincoln’s inauguration train passed through, en route to the nation’s capital.”

The retelling of Lincoln’s inaugural train ride into Washington, which included many stops and appearances along the way, was an incredibly well told part of the story.  I felt like I was almost experiencing the journey alongside Lincoln. The writers also provide the underlying story to Lincoln’s long-term dealings with famous American detective, Allen Pinkerton, who investigated the conspiracy, and for the women’s history lovers, the book shares interesting information about the first American female detective, Kate Warne.

The book moves quickly and is told in such a way that it is easily digestible to modern readers.  I highly recommend it for all history lovers out there. Happy Reading!

To buy the book on Amazon, click here.