Does the world really need another book about Frank and Jesse James? The story of the great sibling outlaws of the Old West, after all, has been told, retold, analyzed, romanticized, demythologized and (almost always) commercialized in scores of books and movies over the past 135 years, beginning practically before the gunsmoke cleared from their earliest bank heists in the 1860s and ’70s. In terms of sheer bibliographic presence, Abraham Lincoln may have the James boys beat, but not too many other figures in American history even come close.
And yet Mark Lee Gardner, in his new book, “Shot All to Hell,” makes a pretty good case for adding one more volume to this surfeit of Jamesiana. First of all, judging by his extensive list of sources, he seems to have read virtually everything ever written or otherwise recorded about the subject. For an end-matter enthusiast, the book is a trove of archival and secondary source materials, and its 38 dense pages of notes are as rewarding to poke around in as its main text is to read straight through. Gardner’s account, moreover, is blessedly free of any transparent agenda. His Frank and Jesse come off as neither the charismatic rogues of traditional Western lore nor the amoral thugs of latter-day revisionist history (though, admittedly, they may be a little closer to the former than the latter).
Gardner also gives his book a satisfying narrative arc by focusing on one major episode in the James story: the 1876 Northfield Raid, an ill-fated bank robbery in a sleepy Minnesota town that turned out to be not quite as sleepy as the James boys had hoped. Undertaken with their frequent collaborators, the Younger brothers — Cole, Bob and Jim — along with a few other associates, the incident quickly deteriorated into a fiasco of epic proportions. I haven’t read enough of the literature to assess Gardner’s claim that his is “the most accurate account” of the Northfield affair, but it would be hard to imagine a more thorough one.
Something often neglected in popular accounts of the Wild West is the extent to which its dramas were colored by the politics and personal resentments left by the Civil War. Gardner, however, puts emphasis on the war-era attitudes behind the James brothers’ criminality. As Confederate-leaning Missourians, the members of the James-Younger gang fought with Quantrill’s Raiders and other “bushwhacker” groups all over their bitterly divided home state, battling Union troops and acquiring some pronounced anti-federal prejudices in the process. As Frank James remarked, “We were outlaws the moment the South lost.”
Even so, it was the harsh postwar retaliation against the bushwhackers that strengthened the boys’ conviction to rebel against authority. In their eyes, corporate-owned banks and trains — rightly or wrongly — represented the Northern aggressors who were wreaking physical and political revenge on former rebels. Treated like criminals, they naturally became criminals — or so they sometimes liked to claim. “If we had been granted full amnesty” after the war, Jesse contended in a letter to the Kansas City Tribune, “I’m sure we would of been at work, trying to be good, law-abiding citizens.” Then again, maybe they just liked the free money.
The First National Bank in Northfield, Minn., was just the kind of symbol of Union hegemony that the outlaws liked to target. But their attempt to rob the bank on Sept. 7, 1876, turned out to be one of their rare failures. Thanks to a recalcitrant bookkeeper named Joseph Lee Heywood, the James-Younger gang got away with just $26.60 of the bank’s money; thanks to a surprisingly defiant local citizenry, they barely got away at all. Battered and bloodied in a fierce shootout that followed the abortive heist, the gang spent the next several weeks trying to elude a series of posses more notable for their persistence than for their competence. In the end, all except Frank and Jesse were either captured or killed. Frank essentially retired from the outlaw life after the raid, renting a farm under an assumed name and finding honest work as a mule driver for a lumber company. But Jesse moved on to further criminal exploits — until famously being killed by “the coward Robert Ford,” a traitor in his own gang, on April 3, 1882.
Gardner’s re-creation of the Northfield Raid, which he calls “the nineteenth century’s most famous robbery and manhunt,” orchestrates the often-unwieldy particulars of the event with considerable virtuosity. Though the narrative does bog down in minutiae at times, Gardner seems determined to emphasize what you might call the fog-of-war messiness of this or any other incident involving human beings under stress — the confusion, mixed signals and inexplicable moments of irrationality or poor judgment that are often smoothed away in slicker reconstructions of historical events. In real life — if not always in the stories told by chroniclers of the Old West — guns misfire, horses prove temperamental, witnesses misinterpret what they see, and robbers and lawmen sometimes just get lost.
“Shot All to Hell” makes clear that before the Northfield Raid became one of the iconic myths of Wild West history, it was just a bungled robbery by a bunch of fallible and morally confused young men.
SHOT ALL TO HELL
Jesse James, the Northfield Raid, and the Wild West’s Greatest Escape
By Mark Lee Gardner
Morrow. 309 pp. $27.99