The 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December will “live in infamy,” but another seventh day from 1869 has its own renown – with far fewer casualties – the first confirmed bank robbery of Frank and Jesse James. They may have helped rob another bank in nearby Liberty in 1866, but the James boys claimed their first one in Gallatin, Missouri. The duo with the Welsh family name from Pembrokeshire went on to legendary fame, or infamy depending on the point of view, and stardom in music, books, and movies.
Born in 1847, Jesse grew up in “Little Dixie” Missouri, an area around what is now Kansas City. His father Robert, a Baptist minister from Kentucky, moved the family to where many settlers, including slaveholders, were Southerners. And during the Civil War, the James family sided with the Confederacy, with the teenage Jesse in 1864 joining his big brother Frank in the guerrilla cavalry troop known as Quantrill’s Raiders, notorious for murdering Unionist civilians and surrendering Yankee soldiers.
In September 1864, Confederate Major General Sterling Price, a former governor of Missouri, invaded his own still officially Union state. William Quantrill’s riders joined him. By October, Price, a Welsh-American with ancestors from Brecknock, Wales, had failed. He retreated to Texas as one of “The Undefeated,” the rebels who refused to surrender. Guerrilla warfare continued in the state with bands of Quantrill’s Raiders still fighting. Frank and Jesse, though, finally returned to the family home in Kearney.
Unluckily for Jesse, he was almost killed surrendering to vengeful Union troops in May 1865. Luckily his recovery from that chest wound prevented him from only co-starring in the Liberty robbery with Little Archie Clement’s gang of bushwhackers, confederates of the James boys during the war. In December 1869 Jesse starred in his own robbery at the Daviess County bank in Gallatin, murdering the cashier John Sheets, who he believed, wrongly, had killed his friend from the Quantrill days, Bloody Bill Anderson.
That crime made Jesse James famous in his own home state. John Newman Edwards, founder of the Kansas City Times and former Confederate cavalryman, signed his own editorials admiring Jesse as a symbol of southern defiance of Reconstruction and highlighted letters from James protesting his own innocence. Jesse and Frank joined with the Younger brothers to form the James-Younger Gang and the legend grew. But Jesse “Robin Hood” James robbed from the rich, giving only to himself – not the poor.
The James Boys attacked banks and railroads from Iowa to Texas and Kansas to West Virginia. The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid of 1876 (now a 1972 movie with Robert Duvall as Jesse) marked the turning point. The Youngers were killed or captured; Frank escaped to Tennessee; and Jesse fled back to Missouri. To gain the government reward, a new gang member, Bob Ford, shot Jesse in the back in 1882. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, starring Brad Pitt, was released in 2007.
Jesse James appears in, according to one list, thirty-eight film and television depictions and nine documentaries. They range from two 1921 silent films starring Jesse James Jr. to Colin Farrell’s 2001 movie American Outlaws, with Roy Rogers, later the “King of the Cowboys,” in 1941’s Jesse James at Bay, and Clayton Moore, later the “Lone Ranger,” in the 1947 Jesse James Rides Again, before co-star Bob Hope’s comedy Alias Jesse James in 1959 and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter in 1966.
While touring America in 1882, the year of Jesse’s death, playwright Oscar Wilde learned that James had been assassinated by one of his own gang. The author s response to the “Wilde West” – “Americans are certainly great hero-worshippers, and always take heroes from the criminal classes.”
Bob Dylan, in “Outlaw Blues” on 1965’s Bringing It All Back Home, explored leaving the pieties of folk music with: “Well, I might look like Robert Ford / But I feel just like a Jesse James.” And with that, the outlaw Jesse James is now a footnote in the work of the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Bang!