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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