American Experience | Jesse James
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The myth of Jesse James is one of the nation’s most familiar — and most fictitious. James has been called America’s Robin Hood, yet he robbed rich and poor with equal fervor. He was known as a gunfighter — but his victims were almost always unarmed. Less heroic than brutal, James was a member of a vicious band of Missouri guerrillas during the Civil War. In a life steeped in prolific violence and bloodshed, he met what was perhaps the most fitting end.

AMERICAN EXPERIENCE“Jesse James, the true story of an outlaw who has captured the imagination of generations of Americans, airs on WMHT TV. “There’s something about this legend that Americans have a hard time letting go of,” says film producer Mark Zwonitzer. “Perhaps it’s the much-needed idea of a hero or the allure of an outlaw. Either way, I hope this film will set the record straight on Jesse James.”

At age 16, Jesse James was a kid in appearance, but a warrior in spirit. Raised in a household where half the family income came from slave labor, Jesse and his brother Frank were destined to fight for the southern cause. But Missouri was a divided state and Union troops occupied much of the territory. It was common for Southern sympathizers to be lynched, have their houses burned or livestock confiscated. An eye for an eye was standard practice, and vengeance was best gotten riding with one of the dozens of groups of guerrilla fighters — better known as bushwhackers.

In the spring of 1864, when Jesse rode to war, there were no papers to sign, no brass-button uniforms, no government-issue firearms — Confederate forces had left the area. Jesse simply followed creeks and hog-trails into the darkness of the Missouri woods, where the bushwhackers made camp. Over the next year, he would be schooled in violence and terror. “Jesse and his companions, they’re not satisfied just to kill the enemy. They will go in, they’ll wade in, they’ll break skulls, they’ll slash throats. They took trophies,” explains author Fred Chiaventone in “Jesse James. “What they set out to do was to terrorize all of their enemies and potential enemies and to dissuade people from supporting the federal cause.” They would spread word of their deeds and also of their threats, providing sensational front-page stories for local newspapers. 

On September 27, 1864, James’ gang gave the Centralia, Missouri, papers something to write about. They murdered 22 unarmed Union soldiers heading home on leave and, as part of the larger guerrilla army, ambushed and butchered 150 federal soldiers.

The Confederacy surrendered the following spring, but Jesse continued to fight. The James brothers, along with about a half a dozen ex-bushwhackers, robbed banks, stagecoaches and railroads, leaving a trail of dead bodies in their wake.

But the hideous crimes of the James Gang read as something quite different in the papers. James and his cohorts penned a series of published letters and press releases, and had a strong ally in Kansas City Times writer John Newman, referred to by some as the minister of propaganda for southern rebels. James created his own fame, painting himself as a defender of southern manhood and a fighter of the establishment — the corrupt railroad corporations and banks. The legend of the victimized farm boy from Missouri who fought against northern oppressors spread far and wide, reaching New York, California, Chicago and New Mexico. Jesse himself came to believe the image he created. “All of the sudden, he’s in newspapers across the country,” historian Deb Goodrich comments in “Jesse James. “It’s a lot easier to buy into that legend than it is to take a long, hard look at yourself.” 

For nearly two decades, Jesse James, heartless thief and cold-blooded murderer, pushed ahead with his outlaw career. His gang would be reconfigured multiple times, compensating for members who were lost to death or simply to lack of interest in the outlaw lifestyle. 

But Jesse never gave up the fight and never abandoned his desire for fame. And while his image as a benevolent thief won him many fans, the true story of his vicious career put a price on his head. Threats came from all sides. Tired of having their safes emptied, the railroad companies hired a detective agency to hunt down the James boys. Finally, in 1882, a $10,000 bounty was too much for fellow gang member Bob Ford to resist. He assassinated James in a fitting manner — Jesse was unarmed, and shot from behind.

“There are many legends in our history that are just that — a legend,” says AMERICAN EXPERIENCE executive producer Mark Samels. “It’s important to look at what Jesse James actually stood for before we hold him up as a hero of the American frontier.”