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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On This Day: Douglass Speaks

On August 11, 1841, Frederick Douglass stood at a meeting of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society and told his story. It was this speech that would launch his career as a prominent abolitionist. After this appearance, the Anti-Slavery Society invited him to work with them and planned for him to travel and tell his story to as many people as would listen. Within a few years, Douglass became an internationally famous orator, writer, and advocate for social justice.  

Douglass was born a slave around the year 1818 in the state of Maryland. As a child, he was given some lessons in reading despite the fact that it was illegal to teach a slave to read. He continued his lessons in secret. Like all slaves, Douglass was abused physically and emotionally until he escaped to New York City in 1838. As he lived, married, worked, and attempted to avoid slave catchers, Douglass continued to read. He was inspired by the writings of abolitionists. This, combined with the urging of a Quaker friend, was what inspired him to attend the Anti-Slavery Society’s meeting.  

Though Douglass had not anticipated speaking that night and had not prepared remarks, it was reported that “. . .  cold [hearts] melted by his eloquence.” He was immediately invited to be an agent for the society. They sent him all over the country to tell his story and urge nonviolent resistance of slavery. In 1845, Douglass published Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself. The book was a success in the US as well as Europe. This success put him in the public eye and made it dangerous for him to remain in the US. He traveled to the UK, speaking and promoting the ideals of abolition, until his English supporters raised enough money to buy his freedom.  

Upon returning to the US, he spent the rest of his life as an advocate. He was an advisor to President Lincoln, a strong proponent of the Fourteenth Amendment, a supporter of women’s rights, a US Marshal, and a newspaper owner. As long as Frederick Douglass drew breath, he never stopped pushing for the enfranchisement of every American under the US Constitution.

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On This Day: John Brown

Today, May 9, marks the birthday of a famous figure in American history: John Brown. John Brown’s rebellion, also known as the Harper’s Ferry raid, took place on October 16-18, 1859 when John Brown, an abolitionist, sought to end slavery by force.

Brown was born in Connecticut to an abolitionist family and was heavily influenced by his father, who thought slavery was a sin. In 1837, Brown moved to Kansas to join the fight against pro-slavery forces. He and his sons participated in several violent confrontations, including the Pottawatomie massacre.

Brown became convinced that a violent uprising was necessary to end slavery, and in 1859, he began planning an attack on the federal armory at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. Brown believed that by seizing the armory, he could arm slaves and start a rebellion that would spread across the South.

On October 16, 1859, Brown and a group of 21 men arrived in Harper’s Ferry. They quickly took control of the armory, but their plan soon began to unravel. Brown had hoped that slaves would flock to his side, but few did. The local militia arrived, and after a two-day standoff, U.S. Marines, led by Robert E. Lee, stormed the armory. Ten of Brown’s men were killed, including two of his sons, and Brown himself was captured.

John Brown was tried for treason, murder, and inciting a slave insurrection. He was found guilty on all counts and sentenced to death. Brown’s trial and execution became a cause célèbre in the North, where he was hailed as a martyr for the cause of abolition.

The raid also intensified the debate over slavery in the United States. Many Northerners saw Brown’s actions as heroic, and his execution only increased their determination to end slavery. Southerners, on the other hand, saw the raid as evidence of a Northern conspiracy to incite a slave rebellion, which only heightened their fears of abolition.

John Brown’s Rebellion brought the issue of slavery to the forefront of national consciousness and helped push the country closer to the brink of civil war. John Brown is remembered as a controversial figure, but one whose actions helped set in motion the events that led to the abolition of slavery in the U.S..

On This Day: April 14

On April 14, 1865, as the nation celebrated the end of the Civil War, its President, Abraham Lincoln, attended a play at Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C. Often considered one of the darkest moments in American history, this night at the theater ended with John Wilkes Booth, a Confederate sympathizer, sneaking into the President’s box and shooting him in the back of the head.

Most Americans know the story of the assassination, including that as John Wilkes Booth jumped down from President Lincoln’s box onto the stage, he yelled “Sic semper tyrannis” (thus always to tyrants). You might not know that the phrase appears in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, after Brutus assassinates Caesar.

Source: Library of Congress

As an actor himself, Booth would have been familiar with the phrase as well as its interpretation, meaning that tyrants will always be overthrown. The phrase was also adopted as the motto of the state of Virginia at the dawn of the American Revolution, no doubt a dig at the sovereign King George. Intending to overthrow what he saw as an autocratic government, Booth was the mastermind behind a conspiracy that intended to take out the President as well as Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward. He and his co-conspirators hoped they could decapitate the Union government and revive the Confederacy.

Thankfully, Booth’s efforts to upend the government did not succeed, however; after being shot, President Lincoln was carried across the street to a boarding house, where he succumbed to his injuries the following morning.

To read more about this event, start here:

Washington Post: Abraham Lincoln’s assassination: Great joy, then a gunshot

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.