Jesse James — America’s mythic bank robber, my lost cousin

The James farm in Kearney, Mo., as it appeared in 1877. (Photo courtesy of Jesse James Farm & Museum.)
The James farm in Kearney, Mo., as it appeared in 1877. (Photo courtesy of Jesse James Farm & Museum.)

Jesse James was shot in the back by a friend 132 years ago Thursday. At the time, it was big news. James had a national reputation when he was alive, but his death propelled him to mythic status.

Pulitzer Prize winner T.J. Stiles has thought a lot about the persistence of that myth. In 2002, he published a biography called “Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War.” I asked him to describe the image of this outlaw in the national consciousness.

“Americans remember him as the most individualistic individual, fighting the organizational society that trapped the average person like an insect in amber,” Stiles says. “He was a wisecracking daredevil who defied capture for a dozen years, striking back against faceless, impersonal institutions — the banks, railroads, federal government, and law enforcement that increasingly intruded on average Americans. The idealized Jesse James stood for an earlier time when a citizen could live off a little plot of land, when the government left him alone.”

The reality, of course, was a lot less heroic. James was a loyal Confederate from a slave-owning family. He stole people’s money.

I discovered my own real-life Jesse James link while visiting my Great Aunt Marge. Related by marriage to the famous outlaw, she lived in a trailer on the James farm about 30 miles outside of Kansas City, Mo. She gave tours to curious visitors, a business started by James’s own mother back in the 1880s.

The weathered house held only a few pieces of haunted furniture. The cheesiness of those highway billboards — “See Jesse James Hideout!” — was largely absent. My brother and I stepped through the rooms with the understanding that the robbers had just recently hightailed out on their horses. In the course of her well-worn patter, my aunt pointed to the burn marks left when Pinkerton agents tossed a bomb through the window. Outside, she showed us the tree from which Union soldiers hanged James’s stepfather (he was cut down in time to save him).

For a boy raised on “Bonanza,” Aunt Marge’s stories reeked of fresh gun smoke. Although to be honest, for a boy raised in suburban St. Louis, living in a trailer seemed pretty exotic, too.

Aunt Marge didn’t own the farm. She was just its caretaker, though everyone understood that when crazy Great Aunt Mae finally died, the property would belong to Marge and my grandmother.

Alas, it was not to be. Unbeknownst to us, Great Aunt Mae had drawn up another will and left the farm to some cousins we’d never heard of. My grandmother took them to court, but she lost, and the farm passed out of our family.

In the late 1970s, the county bought the property, and a nonprofit called the Friends of the James Farm was formed to help preserve the site for tourists and scholars. Whether James was a hero or a killer, a crook or a rebel, the Friends won’t say: “We leave moral and ethical judgments up to you.”

For me, he’s the kinsman who got away.

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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