by T J Stiles
(ISBN: 0-224-06925-X Jonathan Cape 2003 £20)
Review by: Eileen Church
This first serious biography of Jesse James in 40yrs is a superb reassessment that portrays James as an early terrorist; "the last rebel of the Civil War". At the time of his death, in St Joseph Missouri in 1882, he was literally a legend - shaped from rumours and stories - and a figure as publicised as the president.
Jesse was born on September 5th 1847 on his father's farm in Clay county, Missouri. His father Robert, a slave owning Baptist circuit preacher, left the family home in 1850 to preach in the mining camps of California. He died of camp fever a few months later leaving his wife Zerelda with three small children and many debts. It would be Zerelda's staunch pro-southern views, her iron will, fortitude and resolution, and the political turmoil of Clay county that would mould the growing Jesse's character and thoughts. In his early years he was surrounded by news of skirmishes and killings between free-state jayhawkers, pro-slavery settlers and bushwackers that dominated life in Clay county. The Missouri River valley (known as 'Little Dixie') was the home of the state's most militant pro-slavery partisans.
Jesse was 13yrs old when the Civil War began and he watched enviously as his sombre, bookish, 18yr old brother Frank marched off to join General Price's Missouri State Militia. In early 1862, when Price's army abandoned Missouri, Frank was left behind at Springfield with a severe case of measles. He was captured by Union troops, immediately paroled and went home, no doubt to regale young Jesse with tales of his military adventures. Frank was soon off to war again, (would Zerelda have let him do otherwise?) but this time as a guerrilla fighter under Quantrill with whom he took part in the infamous raid on Lawrence, Kansas. The woods around the James' home became a haven for the men who had won the lasting admiration of young Jesse. In the Spring of 1864, at the age of 16yrs, Jesse joined them in their war to inflict pain, to punish, to kill and to destroy their enemies whoever they might be.
In early 1865, as the Civil War was in its last throes, the guerrillas were returning from their winter camps in Texas; Frank and Jesse amongst them. Though many of these men refused to take the oath at the end of hostilities Frank and Jesse did so and returned home to Zerelda and the farm. The spirit of rebellion, however, survived along the banks of the Missouri River where retribution hung in the air like a menacing cloud and Jesse "rode armed, watchful, vigilant, haunted".
In February 1866 the Clay County Savings Bank in Liberty was held up by a 'band of bushwackers' and a 19yr old onlooker shot dead; Jesse's postbellum career as bank robber, train robber and bandit had begun. He would ultimately become leader and planner of many such 'expeditions' and the most notorious outlaw in the country. Many of his "victims" were chosen because of their northern Civil War connections. He targeted the First National Bank, Northfield, Minnesota in 1876 because of its connection to Union General Adelbert Ames. With the aid of friends such as Confederate General Jo Shelby and the influential newspaper editor John Newton Edwards Jesse James publicised and justified his criminal actions as those of a political partisan.
Stiles writes superbly and intelligently in this persuasive reassessment of the brutal and violent Jesse James, poles apart from the picture painted in most peoples consciousness by those Hollywood "cowboy films". The comprehensive notes, bibliography and index enhance its accessibility for scholars and researchers. On another level this book is also a wonderfully dramatic and enjoyable narrative of ambushes, daring raids, (the account of the bank raid at Northfield is an absolute page turner, as is the Pinkerton raid on the James' farm - where Zerelda's arm is blown off by a bomb) gun battles, narrow escapes, betrayal and revenge. This book is a "jolly good read" and I recommend it to anyone interested in the American Civil War era.