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The Mythology of Jesse James:

A Cultural History of America’s Most Notorious Outlaw


Martin Dempsey

A Thesis Submitted to the School of Graduate Studies

In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of

Master of Arts

Southern Connecticut State University

New Haven, Connecticut

December 2014

UMI Number: 1584960

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To Finn,

For inspiring me to finish what I started


Acknowledgements ………………………………………………………………………………………


Abstract ……………………………………………………………………………………………………iii

Introduction ………………………………………………………………………………………………


Chapter 1……………………………………………………………………………………………………6

Chapter 2 ………………………………………………………………………………………………….31

Chapter 3………………………………………………………………………………………………… 69

Chapter 4 ………………………………………………………………………………………………….87

Conclusion ………………………………………………………………………………………………102

Bibliography …………………………………………………………………………………………… 108



My interest in Jesse James first began while I was taking a graduate course in the spring of 2010 with

Professor Troy Rondinone. After discussing Richard White’s “Outlaw Gangs of the Middle Border:

American Social Bandits,” Professor Rondinone played a YouTube clip of Bruce Springsteen’s version of

The Ballad of Jesse James. I immediately knew that Jesse James would be the subject of my thesis

project. The process was truly a rollercoaster experience as I tried to balance the research and writing

with a new job, the deaths of some very close family members and the birth of my first child. I am truly

grateful to everyone who helped me, even in the smallest ways, through this process for the past three

years. First and foremost, I am especially grateful to professor Troy Rondinone of the SCSU History

Department for his guidance, encouragement and patience in completing this project. From first

introducing me to “Jesse,” Professor Rondinone has been there every step of the way. I would also like to

thank Professor Christine Petto, the Graduate Coordinator for the SCSU History Department, for her

patience and assistance during this process. Special thanks also to my second reader, Professor Stephen

Amerman, who provided valuable insight and commentary during this process. Special thanks to Erika

Vanvranken and Laurie Leeman of the State Historical Society of Missouri for their assistance in tracking

down many of my primary sources in their archives. Also, a special thanks to Charlotte Rowell of the

Seymour Public Library for coordinating my ILL requests from the State Historical Society of Missouri.

Thank you to my colleagues at St. Joseph High School, especially Principal Ken Mayo and Assistant

Principal Nancy DiBuono for their understanding and support in allowing me to take time off to complete

this project and to Fr. Mike Novajowsky for his “pep” talks. Also, a special thanks to Mr. Jim Patch and

family for providing both information and photos of the Franklin Bogg’s mural discussed in Chapter 4.

Finally, I must thank my family for their encouragement and support, without whom I would never have

been able to finish this paper. Thank you especially to my wife Keri and my son Finn, who have been

extremely patient during the many nights I spent away from them to complete this project.




The historiography of Jesse James has always focused on separating the fact from fiction regarding

the deeds of the famous outlaw. This thesis does not make such distinctions and instead focuses on the

cultural history of Jesse James. Using Joseph Campbell's Monomyth as a framework for my discussion, I

examine both the universal archetypes and the uniquely American qualities of the Jesse James myth that

have resulted in its continued popularity. Having established the Monomyth as a viable structural

framework in which to conduct historical analysis, I then examine two distinct time periods in American

history by using the Jesse James myth as a cultural artifact. The Great Depression era of the 1930s and the

Cold War era of the 1950s provide the perfect contrast for my thesis because they both draw from the

universal qualities of the myth as seen in the Monomyth structure, but they also illustrate the adaptability

of the James myth in the distinct ways that each culture chose to interpret it. I will conclude by discussing

what the popularity of the outlaw-hero figure at the center of the Jesse James mythology says about

American cultural values.



In a personal note to author John A. Lomax in the front pages of his classic Cowboy Songs and Other

Frontier Ballads 1 former President Theodore Roosevelt complimented Lomax for chronicling such an

important piece of American history. Roosevelt specifically comments on the “sympathy for the outlaw

Jesse James” and how he has “taken the place of Robin Hood” in American culture. Roosevelt made

these comments twenty eight years after the death of America’s most famous outlaw, but they could have

been written during Jesse James’s own lifetime. Jesse James has risen to a mythological status that puts

him in a category of American outlaws all by himself. The fact that his legend was being created while

he was still alive leads one to question what separated Jesse James from the names of so many other

outlaws / bandits that have disappeared into the annals of history. The answer to this question is complex

to say the least and requires an understanding of the process in which myths are created and passed on

from one generation to the next.

In this thesis, I will try to explain how the James mythology began during the bandit’s own time and

how Jesse actually took an active part in the process himself. To frame my discussion of this myth-

making process, I have chosen Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth theory from his book The Hero with a

Thousand Faces to provide a narrative structure through which we can examine the James legend. At this

point, I must be clear that unlike most works on the notorious outlaw I have no intention of trying to

separate the fact and fiction between the historical figure and the mythological figure. As I will

demonstrate in Chapter 1, such a task is futile given the lack of credible primary sources from the era as

well as the media hype that Jesse aroused due to his name’s ability to sell newspapers. While many

historians have attempted to discern historical truths about the outlaw, this thesis is a cultural history

piece and will therefore treat its subject as such. Therefore, I will not discriminate between verified

historical accounts and seemingly exaggerated accounts of the outlaw’s famous deeds. For my purpose, if

any anecdote or story has been attributed to Jesse James, I will accept it as part of the cultural history of

America’s Robin Hood.

1 John A. Lomax, Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads (NY: The MacMillan Company, 1929).


In writing a thesis on cultural history, I have based my understanding of the term on the definition

described by historian Richard Slotkin as: “a historical account of the activities and processes through

which human societies produce the systems of value and meaning by which they live and through which

they explain and interpret the world and themselves.” 2 The study of myth and the process by which it is

created certainly falls into the field of cultural history. Myths were traditionally stories that attempted to

explain the natural phenomena of the world in which people lived. While that role has been replaced by

science, the importance of myths has shifted to the realm of cultural history where they remain an

important means by which a society passes down it cultural legacy. The historical relevance of a myth

depends on what Slotkin describes as “the applicability of its particular terms and metaphors to the

peculiar conditions of history and environment that dominate the life of a particular people.” 3


choosing Campbell’s Monomyth theory as the context for my analysis of Jesse James, my goal is to

demonstrate how a universal structure like Campbell’s theory can be absorbed by a particular society and

modified to reflect its cultural values. 4 I disagree with Slotkin’s notion of the universal giving way to the

local in the creation of a national myth, like the “Frontier Myth,” because while the particulars of the

various sub-categories of the Monomyth may change with the time and place, the universal pattern

remains and provides the continuity needed to transmit the mythology to the next generation, who will

then reinterpret the details to suit their particular needs. 5

2 Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (Norman:

University of Oklahoma Press, 1998), 5. This book is the third volume in Slotkin’s trilogy on what he calls the “Frontier Myth.” 3 Richard Slotkin, Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier 1600-1860 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1973), 14. 4 Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation, 10 explains that the original purpose of the “Frontier Myth” was to justify America’s westward expansion and its violent treatment of the Native Americans as the “means to our achievement of a national identity.” While Slotkin, Regeneration Through Violence, 15 credits the archetypal mythical structure as having a role in creating the Frontier Myth, he eventually argues that such “cultures move away from the universal vision of the archetype toward some particular interpretation of the archetypal narrative that will reflect their characteristic approach to life.” In other words, America’s “Frontier Myth” may have found some of its roots in the universal pattern, but eventually all cultural myths abandon that structure in favor of one that is specific to its own time and place. 5 Chapters 3 and 4 will demonstrate this as we see the universal framework of the James mythology remain consistent from the 1930s to the 1950s, while the cultural interpretation of it details is significantly different.


A work on cultural history requires some research and discussion on the historical conditions and

circumstances that shaped its subject matter. Therefore, Chapter 1 of this thesis provides a brief overview

of what I consider to be the most important events surrounding the life of Jesse James. I chose a specific

mixture of scholarly and “testimonial” secondary sources on which to base my discussion. 6


scholarly works are Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War by T.J. Stiles, Frank and Jesse James: The

Story Behind the Legend by Ted P. Yeatman and Jesse James Was His Name by William A. Settle. The

“testimonial” works are Jesse James: The Man and the Myth by Marley Brant and The Rise and Fall of

Jesse James by Robertus Love. As I try to use a combination of these sources to illustrate the timeline of

important events, it becomes clear very quickly that such an attempt is almost pointless considering how

often these sources disagree with one another over both major and minor details.

Chapter 2 presents what I consider to be my most original contribution to the research concerning

Jesse James. In this chapter, I introduce Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth theory as the narrative framework

through which I intend to examine the cultural history of Jesse James. I begin with a brief introduction to

Campbell’s theory and I do mean brief considering the many areas that his work has influenced. I then

explain the three overarching stages of the Monomyth theory and the seventeen sub-categories that make

up the three. My methodology throughout the chapter is to explain each sub-category with both quotes

from Campbell’s book and a couple of supplementary sources in which Campbell further expounded his

ideas. Once I have explained each sub-category, I then apply an episode or anecdote from the James’

mythology that I believe reflects the sub-category described by Campbell. I spend the bulk of the chapter

working through all seventeen sub-categories, explaining them and providing examples from the Jesse

James canon. My hope is that the reader will begin to see the universal “structure” and “archetypes”

described by the Monomyth theory in the mythology of Jesse James. Once these similarities become

apparent, one can begin to see how the James mythology, particularly his image as America’s Robin

Hood, has appealed to such a wide audience and why it has been perpetuated and reinvented by every

6 “Testimonial” meaning that they rely heavily on eyewitness testimony for their narratives. I chose this mixture because as a work on cultural history, the popular accounts of the outlaw are just as informative and important to my work as the scholarly resources because they illustrate how the public perceived the cultural icon.


subsequent generation. Critics of this approach will claim that universal theories like Campbell’s ignore

the specific characteristics of a culture and time period making them ultimately problematic in discussing

a period’s contemporary conditions, but I use Campbell’s own words to dispute such charges and

demonstrate how the theory, while universal in structure, is also flexible in allowing the cultural

uniqueness of a time and place to still play a major role in the myth. 7

Having explained how the Jesse James myth took root in American culture, I will now turn my

attention to the other task in this thesis which is to explain how the mythological representations of Jesse

James can be used as cultural artifacts to examine specific periods of American history. 8

I have chosen

two very different time periods in the Great Depression of the 1930s and the Cold War era of the 1950s

because I want to demonstrate the versatility of the James mythology as tool for historical analysis. The

1930s focused on the most popular version of the Jesse James mythology in which he is portrayed as

America’s Robin Hood. The image of Jesse stealing from the “evil” banks and railroads of his time

resonated with most Americans who equated those institutions with the modern day corporations (and

banks) that they held responsible for their economic hardships. I will examine how this desire for a Robin

Hood figure who could strike back against social injustices coincided with one of the most prolific crime

waves in American history led by colorful characters such as John Dillinger, who was often compared to

Jesse James. Although Jesse James is most commonly associated with this image, I will illustrate the

complexity of the mythology as it evolved by the end of the 1930s when FDR and the New Deal had

7 Richard Slotkin, The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, 1800-1890 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press), 26-28. This is where I disagree with Slotkin’s theory. In Chapter 2 of The Fatal Environment, he rejects universal frameworks on the grounds that they “must scant the historical particular in the search for the universal structure.” He also says that the “archetypal approach cannot tell us why a given version the archetype has such varying success over time.” Slotkin cites Custer’s “Last Stand” as an example of a historical event that has achieved mythological status in American culture with no understanding as to what separated it from many other historical battles that “fit the terms of the archetype.” This is exactly what I intend to demonstrate in my thesis. Historical figures, like Jesse James, or events like Cluster’s “Last Stand,” represent key elements of the universal framework of the Monomyth, which is why the myth is so persistent and keeps being reinvented by subsequent generations. By looking at how different time periods interpret the same myth, I hope to discover the underlying qualities that make it so important to American culture. 8 It is worth noting here that while I have chosen to limit my discussion to American history, the mythology of Jesse James is not limited to just the American experience as the outlaw has become a global figure in the century since his death.


finally restored a degree of confidence in the American government and economy turning people’s

attention began toward troubles abroad.

Recognizing that most people are familiar with this depiction of the James legend, I chose the 1950s

as the second period to examine the cultural interpretation of the famous outlaw because it provides a

very different perspective. In this chapter, I will explain how Jesse James represented the contrasting

cultural values of the 1950s in which the dominance of conformity and consumerism created a subculture

characterized by a pervasive sense of anxiety over the loss of individuality. I will explain how the Jesse

James comic series of the 1950s presented the outlaw as a role model for American middle-class values

and how that portrayal was drastically different from the psychologically conflicted portrait painted in

The True Story of Jesse James. The fact that the James mythology is prevalent in both time periods, yet

applied very differently in both, proves the effectiveness of the Monomyth theory in providing a reliable

framework for historical discussions and ultimately the usefulness of Jesse James as a historical artifact.


Chapter 1

The story usually begins with a daring and successful robbery of a train or bank that has Jesse and his

gang on the run. After evading capture, Jesse and his crew come upon a small farmhouse occupied by a

widow and her children. Always the gentleman, Jesse offers to pay the widow to prepare a meal for his

gang. As the widow is preparing the meal, Jesse notices that she is crying, and as legend says he couldn’t

stand to see a woman cry, he asks her why she is crying. She informs him that she owes $1400.00 on the

mortgage and that today is the last day of the grace period. The man who owns the mortgage, described

as a cold-hearted and greedy old man, is coming later that day to collect the amount. She tells him that

she and her children will be kicked out of their home since she does not have the money. Jesse then takes

$1400.00 from his recent heist and gives it to the widow, insisting that it is a gift and not a loan. He then

asks the widow to give him as much detail about this landlord as possible, including what he looks like,

what kind of carriage he drives and which road he will take to the farm. Jesse has the widow write up a

receipt for the landlord to sign once the payment is made and then he and his gang disappear. Later in the

day, the landlord arrives at the farm and is surprised, although delighted, to receive his $1400.00. On the

way back to town, Jesse and his gang stop the man’s carriage and take back the $1400.00. The incident is

considered a robbery and no one ever suspects it was related to the widow, thereby ensuring that she is

able to live peacefully on her farm with her children. And so concludes one of the most popular stories

surrounding mythical figure of Jesse James. 9

The author of this particular version of the story in the preface of his book states that he “believes this

book is about ninety-nine percent accurate; and no less than one hundred percent honest.” 10 And so here

lies the problem at the heart of any attempt to objectively discuss the life of Jesse James: separating the

man from the myth. Dating back to the earliest accounts Jesse James, contemporary historians and pulp

fiction writers have always been drawn to the fantastical elements of his legend, often seamlessly

9 Robertus Love, The Rise and Fall of Jesse James (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990), 282-292. Love’s version of this story is only one of many accounts of the popular legend. Love claims that he heard many versions of the story but was never able to confirm it until it was recounted to him by Detective Samuel E. Allender of St. Louis. Allender claims to have been told the story by Frank James himself after he had turned himself in. 10 Ibid., xx.


blending those accounts with what little factual evidence of the historical figure is known. The history of

Jesse James was written, re-written, exaggerated and passed off as historical fact even before the outlaw

was fatally shot in 1882. Historians have faced the daunting challenge of separating fact from fiction in

trying to reconstruct a historically accurate portrayal of the notorious outlaw. While many historians

claim to have authored the most authentic re-telling of the James legend, it seems clear that any such

claim must be met with a certain degree of reservation due to the lack of credible sources. Although I

have already stated that I do not intend to pursue the popular track of separating fact from fiction, an

endeavor I see as futile, I do believe a chapter that discusses the historical basis for the mythical figure is

necessary in any discussion of Jesse James. By the end of the chapter, we will begin to see how Jesse’s

own contemporaries began to shape the notion of him as “America’s Robin Hood.”

Jesse James was born on September 5 th , 1847 in Kearney, Missouri. His father, Robert James, was a

well-educated Baptist minister from Kentucky who had moved to Missouri with his wife, Zerelda, in

1842. Although Robert had moved to Clay County shortly after exchanging wedding vows to live with

his wife’s mother and stepfather, it was not long before Robert found success of his own at the New Hope

Baptist Church. 11 At the time of James’s arrival, the congregation was struggling with membership. Most

accounts report that only fifteen people attended Robert’s first service. However, Robert soon changed

all of that with his insightful yet accessible manner of preaching that made him very popular with the

“simple” uneducated members of his congregation. Membership in the congregation sky-rocketed as

news travelled of the young, dynamic preacher from Kearney to the point where a new church was needed

to accommodate the growing number of converts. James oversaw the fundraising efforts and construction

of a new church that was completed in 1845. 12 He was also instrumental in the establishment of William

Jewel College in nearby Liberty, serving as one of the original members of the board of trustees. By

1850, Robert James had accomplished much in a very short span. Besides his work in strengthening the

New Hope congregation, building a new church, and bringing a college to the area, Robert had also

11 J. Dennis Robinson, Jesse James: Legendary Rebel and Outlaw (Minneapolis: Compass Point Books, 2007),


12 T.J. Stiles, Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War (New York: Vintage Books, 2002), 18-19.


amassed enough personal wealth to outright own 275 acres of land, home, livestock, horses and seven

slaves. In addition to this material wealth, Robert was also the father of two boys, Frank and Jesse (a

third son died in infancy), and a daughter, Susan. 13 By all accounts, Robert James found a degree of

success at the age of thirty-two that most never accomplish in a lifetime. Looking back at these early

years, it is hard to imagine that the young preacher’s sons would eventually become two of America’s

most famous outlaws.

The seemingly idealistic life of the young James family was forever changed in 1850 when Robert

James decided to venture to California during the Gold Rush to preach to the thousands of prospectors

who had come seeking fortune. Within a few weeks after arriving in California, Robert James became ill

and died. While the reasons for Robert’s rather abrupt decision to leave his family have been debated, 14

perhaps the more important question to consider is the effect this event had on young Jesse. One account

of this event describes young Jesse holding on tightly to his father’s legs, begging and crying for him to

not leave them. 15 Although it would be purely speculation, even William Settle says it would be

interesting to consider how Robert James might have changed the course of Jesse and Frank’s lives if he

had not died at such a young age. 16 While such speculation can never produce certain answers, one can

examine the legal and financial consequences of Robert James’ death. Having left no will, Robert James

put his family in a very difficult situation because under the common law of the time, a widow could not

inherit her husband’s property without a will. 17 In addition to being unable to inherit property, as a

widow, Zerelda could not even be legal guardian of her children, a duty that was given to family friend

13 William A. Settle Jr., Jesse James Was His Name (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1966), 7.

14 Settle, Was His Name, 7-9 offers three possible reasons. The first explanation he offers is his desire to seek greater fortune for his family. The second, and most scandalous, account suggests that Zerelda was unfaithful. However, Settle concludes there is no proof of this accusation and he supports that conclusion by citing two letters that Robert James wrote to Zerelda on his journey, neither of which reflect a tone of contempt or animosity. The third reason Settle cites also involves Zerelda but this time he claims that her domineering personality was always at odds with Robert’s missionary spirit so he planned to leave for an extended period of time hoping she would cool off while he was gone. T.J. Stiles also comments on this important event suggesting that even some of Robert’s own parishioners secretly thought he was leaving to find fortune in the gold rush. Settle also cites Zerelda’s controlling disposition as another possible reason for the preacher’s departure.

15 Jesse Edwards James, Jesse James, My Father (OH: Buckeye Publishing Company, 1899), 21-23, https://archive.org/details/jessejamesmyfath00jame (accessed November 15, 2013).

16 Settle, Was His Name, 8.

17 Robinson, Legendary Rebel and Outlaw, 23.


Tilman West. The court also appointed someone to oversee the family farm and make sure that Robert’s

debts were paid off. In order to do this, Zerelda and her children had to twice endure the humiliation of

an estate auction at which many of their possessions were sold, with Zerelda often bidding herself trying

to buy some of the items back. After most of the farm equipment was sold at the second auction, Zerelda

was left with no means of income, forcing her into the one means of possibly regaining her property and

guardianship of her children: marriage. 18

Zerelda married Benjamin Simms, a wealthy landowner who was also much older than her, on

September 30, 1852. Having no interest in raising Zerelda’s three children, Simms insisted that they live

with their legal guardian, Tilman West, when Zerelda moved in after their wedding. The marriage was

very brief with Zerelda leaving and moving in with the West family in June of 1853; Benjamin Simms

died shortly after in January of 1854. 19 Zerelda married a third and final time in September 1855 when

she wed Dr. Reuben Samuel, with whom she had four more children. By all accounts, this was a very

calculated move on Zerelda’s part as Samuel was a very meek and pliant man over whom Zerelda held

complete autonomy. Although Samuel was the legal guardian of both the children and the estate, Zerelda

was really the head of the family at this point, as demonstrated by her having Samuel sign a prenuptial

agreement that gave her ownership of the farm if he died. 20 For the first time since Robert James’ death,

it appeared that his family finally found a sense of security and optimism about their future. While one

can only speculate on the effects of these early turbulent years on young Jesse, it has not stopped popular

fiction writers from creating sensational stories about the “disturbed” childhood of Frank and Jesse James.

Settle refers to one of these accounts that claims “they hated with the hatred of the most remorseless

cruelty” and that they tortured animals because they enjoyed the sound of their suffering. 21 While such

18 Stiles, Last Rebel, 28-30.

19 Stiles and Robinson both claim that Simms had no interest in the children, but according to an interview Settle conducted with Frank James son, Robert F. James, in March 1945, the James family insisted that Simms was cruel to Zerelda’s boys and that is why she left him.

20 Stiles, Last Rebel, 31-32.

21 The Wild Bandits of the Border (Chicago: Chicago, Laird and Lee, 1892), https://archive.org/stream/ wildbanditsbord00unkngoog#page/n4/mode/2up (accessed November 20, 2013), 28-29 as cited in Settle, Was His Name, 9.


accounts are of a purely fictional origin, they only further serve to demonstrate the lack of credible

sources that are available on the early years of Jesse’s childhood.

Since the purpose of this chapter is not to separate historical fiction from historical fact, it is only

natural that the discussion should move to examine the national and local political climate of the time,

both of which had a direct impact on the entire James family, especially Jesse. While Zerelda may have

thought in 1855 that her family had finally secured a sense of peace, that dream was shattered by the

national political drama of the 1850s. The young nation was still sharply divided on the issue of slavery

and territorial expansion. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 served as a temporary band-aid to the

problem by prohibiting slavery north of the parallel 36°30’ with the exception of Missouri. The

Compromise also admitted Maine as a free state and thus maintained the balance between free and slave

states. Of course this solution was only temporary and the Missouri Compromise was eventually replaced

by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which abolished the north / south boundary in favor of popular

sovereignty. The result was a wave of southern pro-slavery and northern abolitionist immigration to these

new territories to try to tip the scales in their favor. The dispute became a proxy war for both sides as

violence eventually erupted and “Bleeding Kansas” took the national spotlight for the next few years. 22

The James family homestead in Kearney, Missouri was located in Clay County, one of the state’s

western counties that formed the border of western Missouri and the territory of Kansas. Although

Missouri was a slave state, its slave population had declined between 1850 and 1860. In 1850, 12.8% of

Missouri’s total population of 682,044 was slave compared to 9.8% of the total population of 1,182,012

in 1860. 23 Most of the slaves resided in the western part of the state along the Kansas-Missouri border

where slave owners feared the potential of Kansas becoming a free state and thereby providing a safe

22 I have admittedly simplified the “Border War” that took place between 1854 and 1861. My goal was only to provide a brief summary before getting into the local conditions that affected Jesse James and his family. To further delve into the complexities of this issue, I recommend the following sources: The Impending Crisis: 1848-1861 by David M. Potter (1977), Race and Politics: “Bleeding Kansas” and the Coming of the Civil War by James Rawley (1969), War to the Knife: Bleeding Kansas, 1854-1861 by Thomas Goodrich (2004), and Bleeding Kansas:

Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era by Nicole Etcheson (2006). 23 The United States Census Bureau, “U.S. Census 1850 & U.S. Census 1860,”U.S. Department of Commerce, www.census.gov (accessed November 20, 2013) as cited in Stiles, Last Rebel, 37.


haven for runaway slaves. As a result, the proslavery faction of western Missouri became fully engrossed

in the Border War, including the proslavery James family. The so-called “Border Ruffians” from

Missouri began making raids across the border against abolitionist northerners and the larger result was a

sense of distrust and division among native Missourians, who were now divided by the escalating conflict

in Kansas. Stiles describes this effect on the slave-owning population, like the James family, when he

writes, “The proslavery mobilization divided Missourians against each other. It created a hard core of

militants who championed the state’s Southern identity, battling a prevailing sense that Missouri was

more West than South.” 24

The situation in Missouri only worsened at the outbreak of the Civil War with the election of Abraham

Lincoln and the attack on Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. After the attack on Fort Sumter,

Lincoln called for 75,000 soldiers to put down the “rebellion.” Being one of the border states that could

have joined either side, Missouri formally remained in the Union, despite the fact that most of its citizens

supported the Confederacy, including the James family. The Governor of Missouri at the time, Claiborne

Jackson, refused Lincoln’s call for troops saying it was an “unholy crusade” and instead tried to form his

own “State Guard” to keep Union forces out. While Jackson had called for 50,000 men for the State

Guard, he only received about 5,000, one of whom was Frank James. Union forces quickly disbanded the

State Guard and soon took control of the state capital, forcing Governor Jackson and other southern

loyalists into exile. Jackson and his secessionist government voted to join the Confederacy, but it was

only symbolic at best since the Union forces controlled the state of Missouri. A provisional government

was set up that would last until the end of the war and Missouri saw few major military engagements for

the next couple of years until the Confederacy tried to recapture the state in 1864. 25

24 Stiles, Last Rebel, 52. Stiles feels that previous authors on this subject like Michael Fellman and Christopher Phillips have underestimated how important the internal struggle among Missourians was in this conflict. The sides that were drawn during the Kansas conflict carried over into the Civil War, creating a proxy of the Civil War in Missouri as its citizens divided among northern and southern loyalties. This of course is extremely important to understand in any study of Jesse James because his beginnings as an outlaw arise during the guerilla conflict that plagued Missouri both during and immediately after the Civil War. 25 Robinson, Legendary Rebel and Outlaw, 29-31; Settle, Was His Name, 12-15.


Although Missouri was securely in the hands of the Union, the fighting in Missouri did not end.

Instead, Missouri became the battleground for a guerilla war that saw pro-southern bandits attacking

Union forces and sympathizers. One of the most famous guerilla bands of the time was led by William

Clarke Quantrill, whose notoriety for violence and daring raids in Kansas made him a legend in his own

right. Many former members of the State Guard, who had been captured and made to swear an oath of

loyalty to the Union, joined these outlaw gangs because it gave them a chance to still fight in the war

while at the same time making easy money through robbery and plundering. Having already been

captured and released once, Frank James found himself jailed once again for behavior that was considered

to be in violation of his release. Sharing his family’s strong convictions for the southern cause, Frank

James joined William Quantrill’s guerilla band in 1863. 26

After participating in several successful raids,

Frank James found himself back in Clay County in May of 1863. On May 19 th Frank took part in an

ambush that killed five Union soldiers and brought a large number of Federal troops to the area to find the

attackers. On May 24 th , Frank stopped his fellow bandits from robbing a former neighbor and friend,

James H. Griffith, who then went and reported the incident to the authorities. 27 This seemingly minor

encounter proved to be a crucial incident in the Jesse James legacy.

After the attempted robbery of Griffith, Frank and his gang hid in the woods near the James family

farm where they were provided food and intelligence from Frank’s family. Although only fifteen at the

time, Jesse was probably involved with aiding the bandits with these staples since he was still too young

to join them. 28 The following day, May 25 th 1863, has become one of the most famous dates of the entire

Jesse James legend. Having learned from Griffith that Frank James and his gang were somewhere in the

area, the local militia decided to pay a visit to the James family farm. The events that transpired have

26 The specific month and year that Frank James joined Quantrill’s gang is highly disputed. Settle, Was His Name, 20 cites an account from the History of Clay and Platte Counties (1885) and the writings of John Newman Edwards as possible proof that he joined in December of 1862. However, he does question the validity of both sources.

27 Ted P. Yeatman, Frank and Jesse James: The Story Behind the Legend (Naperville, IL: Cumberland House Publishing, 2000), 36-37.

28 Settle, Stiles and Yeatman all cite John Newman Edwards’ Noted Guerillas as the source of this information. While probably exaggerated to some degree, all three authors believe there is probably some truth to it.


been retold and exaggerated by so many writers of the James legend that it is difficult to determine

exactly how true the account is and what effect it had on young Jesse. According to most accounts, as the

militia approached the farm, they grabbed and beat young Jesse who was working the fields. They tied a

noose around the neck of Dr. Samuel and hung him from a tree three times trying to get him to divulge

the whereabouts of Frank and his posse. After finally finding Frank and his gang in the nearby woods,

they arrested Dr. Samuel and eventually came back to arrest Zerelda as well. Zerelda was released after a

week, but her husband was not so fortunate, remaining in jail for another two weeks. While these are just

the “bare bones” of the story, the details of the event change drastically depending on the side telling the

story. According to Zerelda and the rest of the James family, despite being tortured and hung from a tree,

Reuben Samuel never gave up the whereabouts of his stepson. This was the version told by Zerelda

herself years later, adding that she had to cut her husband down after the soldiers left. This version of the

story was also retold by John Samuel, one of Jesse’s step brothers, who was only two years old at the time

of the event. Having only been two years old, his account of the story was likely based on the family

interpretation that he no doubt heard told time and time again. 29 The other version of the story has Dr.

Samuel breaking almost immediately upon being hung from the tree and giving up the whereabouts of

Frank James. A newspaper interview with a Lieutenant Rogers a few days later recalled the details of the


The old gentleman protested that he knew of no armed men in the vicinity, but the Militia judged him

to be speaking falsely, and at once procured a rope, placed it about his neck, gave him one good swing,

and by that time his memory brightened up, and he concluded to reveal the hiding place of the rebels.

He led the boys into the woods a short distance, and there, squatted upon the ground in a dense thicket,

was discovered the whole band – eighteen in number. They were gathered around blankets, engaged

in an exciting little game called “poker.” – The boys “went for them,” killed two; captured the “stakes”

on the blankets, amounting to near seven dollars; five excellent horses; three guns and quite a quantity

29 See Yeatman, The Story, 39, for the full transcript of John Samuel’s account. See also Love, Rise and Fall, 37- 47 for an account that is surely based upon the James family version of the story.


of clothing… Our forces are still after them, and we hope they will not be able to effect an escape.

Utter annihilation should be the fate of the whole crew. 30

While the details of the event are still debatable, it most certainly had a lasting effect on young Jesse

James as the realities of war had now found their way directly onto his front doorstep. Stiles describes the

incident as “the moment when Jesse James set out on his quest for revenge.” 31 Jesse finally got his

chance for revenge a year later when he joined his brother in the guerilla war of Missouri. Most

historians agree that Jesse joined Charles Fletcher Taylor’s group of bushwhackers sometime in the spring

of 1864. In Jesse’s first months as a guerilla fighter, he would take part in a number of skirmishes with

Union soldiers and state militia, while at the same time waging the very personal war against fellow

Missourians who sympathized with the Union. 32 By early August, Frank and Jesse James had joined the

most brutal and feared band of guerillas in all of Missouri under the command of William T. Anderson,

also known as “Bloody Bill.” Also riding with Anderson was Archie Clements, another bushwhacker

known for scalping his enemies, who Jesse had first encountered when he joined Taylor. 33 In early

August, Jesse suffered a gunshot wound to the chest that kept him away from the band of guerillas until

late September. 34

However, Jesse returned just in time to take part in what would become the most

infamous and savage guerilla attack in the Missouri conflict: the massacre at Centralia.

On the morning of September 27 th , 1864 Bloody Bill Anderson led a group of about eighty

bushwhackers into the small town of Centralia, Missouri whose only significance was its railroad depot.

30 “Guerillas Routed,” Saint Joseph Morning Herald, May 29 1863, www.statehisotricalsocietyofmissouri.org as cited in Yeatman, The Story, 40.

31 Stiles, Last Rebel, 90. Stiles does expand on this statement by arguing this event was the culmination in a long series of events that led Jesse to this point. However, the importance of the event is unquestionable.

32 Jesse was believed to have taken part in the murder of Brantley Bond, one of the men who had hung Rueben Samuel from a tree the year before. He is also believed to have been present at the infamous siege of the Bigelow brothers’ home where the two brothers fought off the bushwhackers until they ran out of ammunition and then used pieces of furniture as clubs before finally being shot and killed. Jesse was also part of the raid on Platte City on July 10, 1864. See Yeatman, The Story, 50-51; Stiles, Last Rebel, 102-108; History of Clay 251-252.

33 Stiles, Last Rebel, 100 says, “These were the men who brought sixteen-year-old Jesse James to manhood.” Stiles takes his argument a step further by suggesting that since Jesse had never known his father and since Rueben Samuel surrendered his masculinity when he married Zerelda, these savage bushwhackers became father figures to a degree. Although pure speculation, the argument can certainly be made that these men in fact did have a very profound effect on the young outlaw. Stiles writes, “As his long career would show, he admired the way they inspired fear in their victims. He sought to emulate them and win their respect” (112).

34 Yeatman, The Story, 53-54.


The men spent the morning looting and terrorizing the small town and its residents, they robbed a

stagecoach as it passed through town and then started getting drunk off a barrel of whiskey they found. It

was not until the 11:30 train approached that events took a turn for the worse and the incident became

known as a massacre. Anderson’s men stopped the train and began robbing the passengers when they

came across twenty four unarmed Union soldiers on their way home from capturing Atlanta under the

command of General Sherman. The soldiers were stripped down to their underwear and marched outside

in a single file line where they were executed by Archie Clements and others. The details of the manner

of the execution and subsequent treatment of the bodies as well as the words of both Bloody Bill and

Archie Clements have added to the legendary savagery and disgust associated with the event. The

bushwhackers then set fire to the train and sent it steaming down the railway unmanned where it

eventually ran out of steam without harming anyone although it was destroyed by the fire. Anderson and

his men left Centralia shortly before about one hundred and fifty soldiers of the 39 th Missouri Infantry

Volunteers under the command of Major A.V.E. Johnson arrived. After surveying the brutal attack on

Centralia and the Union soldiers, Johnson moved to engage the guerillas when he learned that their camp

was only a couple of miles away. Johnson did not realize that he walking into a trap that had been

carefully set by Anderson and his band of followers. After dismounting their horses, Johnson and his

men were overrun by the bushwhackers in no time and all were slaughtered. Those few that escaped were

hunted down quickly and finished. After the ambush was over, the bodies of the dead were once again

desecrated, with some of them being scalped and mutilated. 35 Although the single greatest victory for the

35 I have based my summary of the Centralia Massacre on the account described in the History of Boone County, Missouri (St. Louis: Western Historical Company, 1882), https://archive.org/details/historyofbooneco01stlo (accessed November 16, 2013). This seems to be the most comprehensive account compiled from the testimony of

eyewitnesses. The central question of the Centralia Massacre for my purposes is what, if any, role did Jesse James play that day? Interestingly enough, there is a footnote in the History of Boone County, Missouri that claims Jesse James could not have been involved with the incident because he was still recovering from the gunshot wound he suffered in early August. However, evidence might suggest otherwise. The account of Jesse’s injury was taken from Edwards’ Noted Guerillas which Yeatman, The Story, 53 claims was highly exaggerated like most of his

accounts of Jesse James.

backed up by Frank James in an interview with the Columbia Herald on September 24 th , 1897. In the interview, Frank claims that he did not go with Anderson and the others into the town of Centralia but remained at the camp

where he eventually did take part in the battle with Major Johnson’s regiment. Frank does not mention whether or

Jesse was credited with firing the fatal shot that killed Major Johnson. This claim was


guerillas in terms of the number of Union soldiers killed, the brutal savagery displayed that day was

perhaps the worse of the entire war and it was the beginning of the end for the guerilla fighters of


The events at Centralia made the guerillas feel as if this might be the victory needed to convince the

southern states to attempt another military campaign to bring Missouri under the Confederate flag.

However, this dream was short-lived as the tide turned against the guerillas in the months following the

massacre at Centralia. Bloody Bill Anderson was killed himself only a few weeks after Centralia and

Quantrill joined him in 1865. Confederate forces under the command of General Sterling Price entered

Missouri only to be soundly defeated at the Battle of Westport, officially ending all hopes that Missouri

would ever be part of the Confederacy. As the war came to an end in 1865, Jesse James was still carrying

on the fight with Archie Clements when he was shot again in May. 36 The wound brought an end to Jesse’s

bushwhacking days as the war was over and the guerilla bands disbanded by the time Jesse recovered.

Jesse himself officially surrendered and took an oath of loyalty while being treated for the gunshot. It

was during his recovery at the home of his aunt and uncle where he first met his cousin Zerelda (Zee)

Mimms, who nursed him back to health. The two became secretly engaged before Jesse was well enough

to return home to the family farm in Clay County in October of 1865. The home that Jesse returned to

was very different now that the war was over and the Union was victorious. Although the south had been

defeated, Jesse would soon take what he learned from his experience as a guerilla fighter and wage his

own war of rebellion. Stiles describes this impact when he writes, “Guerilla warfare was deeply personal,

yet also purposeful. It was small-scale and vicious, with none of the standard trophies of conventional

victories. Rather, its successes could be measured from farm to farm, in the sentiment of the people, in

the flight of frightened foes.” 37 It is certainly safe to say that Jesse James was a product of the historical

circumstances of his time, particularly the brutal “civil” war waged in Missouri both before and during

not Jesse rode into town with the others. Yeatman does not say whether or not Frank and Jesse were present that day, but Settle, Stiles, Robinson all agree that they most likely were.

36 There is debate over this incident

37 Stiles, Last Rebel, 110.


the larger Civil War, but his story would be nothing more than a footnote in the annals of history if based

solely on these early years. The legendary tales of Jesse James that most people associate with him are

based his on his post-war career as a thief where he became the epitome of the western outlaw.

As we turn our attention to the period of time in which the mythology surrounding Jesse James was

first created, we begin to see how the line between history and fiction becomes less apparent with every

incident and story added to the Jesse James canon. On February 13 th , 1866 the Clay County Savings

Association Bank in Liberty, Missouri became the sight of America’s first daytime bank robbery as a

dozen men dressed as Union soldiers rode into town, surrounded the bank and eventually got away with

$60,000 in bonds, gold and silver. Although no one was ever arrested or directly implicated in the

robbery at Liberty, it has not stopped writers and storytellers from suggesting that this was in fact Jesse’s

first robbery. 38 Over the course of the next couple of years there were a number of bank robberies in

western Missouri and the surrounding states that have been subsequently attributed to the James’ gang. 39

38 Jesse and Frank’s involvement with the robbery in Liberty is highly debatable. Settle, Was His Name, 33-36 admits there was no evidence to connect them with the robbery but in the end he seems to accept the later accusations that Frank and Jesse were not only involved, but were actually the masterminds behind the robbery. Yeatman, The Story, 85-87 believes that it is reasonable to suspect Frank James was involved, but he claims that Jesse was still recovering from his gunshot wound from May 1865 and therefore would not have been well enough to participate. Yeatman bases this conclusion on the story passed down by both Jesse and his family in later years that it took him almost three years to recover from the wound he received in 1865. Marley Brant, Jesse James: The Man and the Myth (NY: Berkley Books, 1998), 46-54 concludes that if Jesse did not take part in the robbery that he was at least the architect behind the plan. She based this conclusion on an interview she conducted with Jesse’s great grandson, who claims that the James family credits him with planning the robbery. Love, Rise and Fall, 63-71 seems to agree with the story that Jesse was still injured at the time of the robbery, but he does mention one aspect of the robbery account that could suggest Jesse was actually present. Love describes Jesse James as being known for his “lifelong propensity for cracking a joke” and that one of the robbers tried to lock the two cashiers in the vault saying “All birds should be caged.” This was a pun since the last name of the two cashiers, a father and son, was Bird. Love speculates that this could be proof that Jesse James was that robber. Finally, Stiles, Last Rebel, 171-174 argues that Jesse James most likely was present at the robbery in Liberty. However, he does not base his belief on Love’s comment about the joke, but rather on scientific evidence that gunshot wounds to the lung in Jesse’s day were not as serious as the story claims. Stiles cites a study conducted at the Rama War Hospital in Croatia and the specifications of the gun used to shoot Jesse to suggest that the recovery time for his gunshot wound would have been considerably less than what Jesse and his family claimed. Stiles believes the story was used to cover up Jesse’s actions during this time period.

39 Some examples include the Alexander Mitchell and Company in Lexington Missouri on October 30 th , 1866, a private bank in Savannah, Missouri on March 2, 1867, the Hughes and Wasson Bank in Richmond Virginia on May 23 rd , 1867 and the Nimrod & Co. Bank in Russellville, Kentucky on March 20 th , 1868. At this point it is worth mentioning that the “James’ gang” included the Younger brothers as well. Bob, Cole, Jim and John Younger were also Confederate sympathizers after their father was killed by Union soldiers. Cole and Jim joined the bushwhackers led by Quantrill where they met Frank and Jesse James. The group formed a bond that would last well beyond the Civil War and would result in one crime sprees in American history. I don’t mention the Younger


Although there was some suspicion of Frank James’ involvement, Jesse remained relatively unknown

until December 7 th , 1869. On this day, two men entered the Daviess County Savings Association in

Gallatin, Missouri. One of the men asked the cashier, John Sheets, to change a $100 bill and then the

other man offered to buy the bill himself. After conferring silently with each other, the two men turned to

John Sheets and one of them accused him of being Samuel P. Cox, the man who had killed Bloody Bill

Anderson. Two shots were fired, one pierced Sheets’ heart and the other hit him in the forehead. William

A. McDowell, an attorney who used a corner of the bank as an office, witnessed the murder and

immediately ran for the door when he was hit in the arm with a bullet. McDowell still made it through

the door and alerted the townspeople to the robbery. The two bandits were mounting their horses when

shots from the townspeople startled one of the horses causing it to throw its rider from the saddle. The

robber’s foot was still caught in the saddle and the horse dragged its owner for some thirty yards before

he was able to free himself. The other robber pulled him up onto his horse and the pair escaped from

town as a group formed to pursue them. While the bandits’ trail eventually went cold, the horse was later

recognized and identified as belonging to Jesse James. This would be the first piece of evidence directly

linking Jesse to a bank robbery, and so began his rise to fame as America’s most notorious outlaw. 40

A week after the robbery, when the horse had finally been traced back to Jesse, Deputy John S.

Thomason, his son Oscar, and two citizens of Gallatin rode out to the Samuel farm to arrest Jesse and

Frank. Events like what followed are the stories that helped create the Jesse James legacy. Upon arriving

at the farm, Deputy Thomason and his son dismounted their horses and were caught off guard when Frank

and Jesse came bursting through the stable doors. A newspaper account of the events that day said “…the

door opened suddenly and out dashed the two brothers on splendid horses, with pistols drawn, and took

the lot fence at a swinging gallop…Thomason mounted his horse and dashed after the James brothers,

gained upon them, fired at them, but saw his aim was off and dismounted to get a better shot. The

frightened horse broke away and ran toward the James boys, and got even with the other horses when one

of the brothers shot the horse dead with his revolver. From there the pair escaped free.” 41 The cold-

blooded murder of John Sheets set the incident at Gallatin apart from previous robberies. Public outrage

prompted the Governor of Missouri, John McClurg, to get involved by offering a five hundred dollar

reward for the capture of the James boys, in addition to the rewards already being offered by the county,

town and Sheet’s wife. 42 The Gallatin robbery made Jesse James a wanted man for the murder of a well-

respected citizen and public opinion was certainly not on his side. Viewed as nothing more than savage

remnant of the bushwhacking days of the Civil War, Jesse James may have never become “America’s

Robin Hood” had he not caught the eye of a newspaper editor who would eventually become the most

influential figure in creating the mythology of Jesse James.

John Newman Edwards was born in Virginia in 1839 and eventually found his way to Missouri before

the Civil War to work in the newspaper industry. Once war broke out, Edwards sided with the

Confederacy and was appointed brigade adjutant under General Joseph Shelby. Edwards remained at

Shelby’s side throughout the war, participating in every one of Shelby’s campaigns and raids. During this

time, Edwards formed an idealized and romantic image of Shelby, one that he would later publish in his

newspapers and probably use as the basis for his image of Jesse James. When the war ended, Shelby and

approximately one thousand of his most loyal soldiers from the Iron Brigade, Edwards included, crossed

into Mexico because they refused to surrender to Union forces. 43 This act of defiance earned them the

nickname “the undefeated,” which would certainly have pleased Edwards since the whole affair was what

Stiles characterizes as “the kind of desperate, quixotic adventure that best suited his [Edwards]

sensibility.” 44 Edwards’ Mexican adventure only last a couple of years as he and other exiled

Confederates were forced to return home after the Juaristas were successful in overthrowing the puppet

government set up by Napoleon III. Upon returning home, Edwards worked for a short while as a

reporter before venturing off with some fellow Confederate sympathizers and starting the Kansas City

41 Kansas City Times, December 16, 1869.

42 Stiles, Last Rebel, 206.

43 “John Newman Edwards,” American Experience, www.pbs.org (accessed December 2, 2013).

44 Stiles, Last Rebel, 207.


Times. As editor of his own newspaper, Edwards now had the platform he needed to continue the

political and ideological fight against the Radical Republicans, who now dominated Missouri politics.

Edwards had published a book in 1867 entitled Shelby and His Men which recounted his time with Shelby

both during the Civil War and during their Mexican expedition. The book portrayed Shelby and his loyal

followers as the last defenders of the Confederate cause and now that they had returned home and their

mission officially ended, Edwards no longer had a champion to continue the battle. 45 It was at this

moment that Edwards learned of the Gallatin bank robbery in which one of the robbers murdered John

Sheets because he believed Sheets had been responsible for killing Bloody Bill Anderson. Edwards was

no doubt impressed by the audacity and daringness of the robbery, it was the kind of adventure story that

appealed to Edwards, but more important was the devotion and loyalty to the Confederate cause by these

robbers that really caught Edwards’ attention. 46 It is not clear how they were introduced, but sometime in

early 1870, Edwards and James forged a relationship that would soon bring them both a lasting fame and

be instrumental in creating the popular image of Jesse James as a hero.

Seven months after the robbery in Gallatin, a letter to Governor McClurg appeared in the Kansas City

Times and it was signed by Jesse James. In the letter, Jesse claims that he and his brother Frank had

nothing to do with the Gallatin robbery and that he could provide proof of his innocence. However, he

states, “…but I well know that if I was to submit to an arrest that I would be mobbed and hanged without

a trial.” Jesse cites the case of Thomas Little, an ex-bushwhacker who was arrested for robbery but taken

from jail and hung by a mob before his trial, as evidence that he does not believe he will get a chance to

tell his side of the story. He also writes, “It is true that during the war I was a Confederate soldier, but

since that I have lived a peaceable citizen, and obeyed the laws of the United States to the best of my

knowledge.” It is interesting that Jesse tries to portray himself as a soldier rather than a guerilla; perhaps

45 John Newman Edwards, Shelby and His Men (Cincinnati: Miami Printing and Publishing, 1867). 46 Brant, Man and Myth, 78-79; Stiles, Last Rebel, 207-211; Yeatman, The Story, 104-105; Settle, Was His Name,

41. For more information on John Newman Edwards see citation above for John Newman Edwards, American

Experience, www.pbs.org; Lawrence O. Christensen, et al., eds., Dictionary of Missouri Biography (Columbia:

University of Missouri Press, 1999); Dan Saults, “Let Us Discuss a Man: A Study of John Newman Edwards,”

Bulletin of the Missouri Historical Society 19, no. 2 (January 1963).


Edwards had some role in suggesting that he do so. Jesse then goes on to explain that the horse used to

identify him he had in fact actually sold before the robbery. He concludes by saying, “As soon as I think

I can get a just trial I will surrender myself to the civil authorities of Missouri, and prove to the world that

I am innocent of the crime charged against me.” 47 A couple of weeks later another letter from Jesse

James appeared promising to provide witnesses who could confirm his alibi on the day of the robbery as

well as his story about having sold the horse before the robbery. 48 The promise was kept and shortly after

the Kansas City Times published the sworn affidavits of three citizens – John S. Groom, James M. Gow

and A.R. McGinnis – all of whom claimed to have seen Jesse near his home on the eve of the Gallatin

robbery and thereby indicating that he could not have been in Gallastin the following morning. There

also appeared the affidavits of Reuben Samuel, Zerelda Samuel and Susie James – all of whom verified

Jesse’s story about selling the horse in addition to claiming he was home the day of the robbery. 49

Whether Jesse James was solely responsible for these letters or whether they were written under the

guidance of John Newman Edwards, is not important. What is important is that these letters established

an important pattern in the Jesse James’ mythology as letters allegedly written by him would appear

throughout his career always claiming his innocence and offering to surrender himself if he believed he

could get a fair trial. The importance of Jesse’s “perceived” role in helping create his own myth will be

further discussed in Chapter 2. 50

Whether true or not, Jesse James became the perceived leader of the James-Younger gang after the

attention he received from Gallatin and his subsequent letters to the governor claiming his innocence.

This leadership role underwent a transformation the following year after Jesse and his gang were

“accused” of robbing the Ocobock Brothers’ Bank in Corydon, Iowa. Jesse responded to the accusations

47 Article from the Kansas City Times published in the Liberty Tribune, June 20 th , 1870, Missouri Digital Heritage, www.sos.mo.gov/mdh (accessed December 7, 2013).

48 Article from the Kansas City Times published in the Liberty Tribune, July 15 th , 1870, Missouri Digital Heritage, www.sos.mo.gov/mdh (accessed December 7, 2013).

49 Article from the Kansas City Times published in the Liberty Tribune, July 22 nd , 1870, Missouri Digital Heritage, www.sos.mo.gov/mdh (accessed December 7, 2013).

50 I use “perceived” because not everyone believes that Jesse James was responsible for these letters. Whether or not they are genuine is really insignificant since they were genuine in the eyes of the public and therefore helped shape the public perception that would establish his legacy as a noble outlaw.


with another letter to the Kansas City Times in which he once again claimed to be innocent, but this time

made it a point to blame the false allegations on Radical Republicans. In the letter, Jesse refers to the

evidence he provided for the Gallatin robbery when he says, “One year ago I proved an alibi by some of

the best citizens of the State… but the degraded Radical party criticized my alibi and insinuated that I had

bribed my witnesses… But I don’t care what the Radical party thinks about me, I would just as soon they

would think that I was a robber as not; but they don’t think so, they know it is false when they say so.” 51

The specific mentioning of the Radical Republicans is believed to be the work of John Newman Edwards

since he had carried the fight against them from the battlefields to the ballot boxes. As the Radicals began

to lose political power in Missouri, Edwards saw it as the perfect opportunity to re-establish Confederate

ideology by electing former sympathizers to political office. In order win broad Democratic support for

this, including those Democrats who had sided with the Union, Edwards had to demonize the Radicals.

Edwards victimized Jesse James by painting the portrait of a young Confederate who had fought bravely

during the war and was now being punished for his actions. Stiles sums up this transformation in the

public’s perception of Jesse James:

It was the beginning of Jesse’s rise from common criminal to symbolic hero, of a legend that resonated

with the lives of Missouri’s secessionists. He and Edwards began to project a glorified version of what

all the rebels felt they had endured in war and Reconstruction. The mythical Jesse James they created

refused to apologize for fighting for a just cause; he refused to lay down his arms and self-respect, and

was being persecuted as a result. 52

In a very short period of time Edwards began to craft the legacy for which Jesse James would be

remembered, but he would also get help from Jesse himself, whose daring exploits gave Edwards the

material he needed to further sensationalize the accounts. Jesse would give Edwards perhaps his greatest

story, one that would forever immortalize him, the following year.

51 Letter from Jesse James to the editor of the Kansas City Times, June, 1871 as reprinted in Brant, Man and Myth, 86. 52 Stiles, Last Rebel, 215-217.


The Kansas City Industrial Exposition of 1872 was only in its second year of operation but it attracted

some sixty thousand guests each day. Since each guest paid the price of admission, the exposition had the

potential to be a lucrative pay day for any thief daring enough to attempt such a feat. There was even a

separate police unit assigned to the fair to ensure that security was omnipresent, thereby reducing the

potential for any incidents that would hurt the image of the exposition and the city hosting it. On

September 26 th , four days into the fair, three men on horseback approached one of the gates as the fair

was ending for the day. They robbed the ticket booth at gunpoint in front of about ten thousand people

who were exiting the gate at the time, accidentally shot a young girl in the leg and then escaped without

any resistance from the police. In financial terms, the robbery turned out to be a failure because the

treasurer had emptied the cash box of $12,000 about a half hour earlier so the robbers only got away with

a little under $1000. 53 While the robbers gained little in monetary assets, the legacy they created would

never be forgotten. This was due mostly in part of John Newman Edwards’ portrayal of the robbery on

the front page of the Kansas City Times the following day and then in an editorial a few days later. The

day after the robbery, Edwards wrote in his front page account of the event that “It was one of those rare

instances when it seems as though Death stood in the panoply of the flesh and exhaled a Petrifying Terror

from his garments. It was a deed so high-handed, so diabolically daring and so utterly in contempt of fear

that we are bound to admire it and revere its perpetrators for the very enormity of their outlawry.” 54

Although there was no evidence to link Jesse James or any of his gang members to the robbery, they were

nonetheless implicated as the outlaws behind this most recent and daring robbery. Three days later, John

Newman Edwards published an editorial called “The Chivalry of Crime” in which he likened the bandits

to King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table, romanticizing their latest crime by praising their boldness

53 Jason Roe, “A Myth is Born,” The Kansas City Public Library, This Week in Kansas City History, http://www.kclibrary.org/blog/week-kansas-city-history/myth-born (accessed July, 2014). 54 Kansas City Times, Sept. 27, 1872 (The State Historical Society of Missouri)


and courage but condemning the act itself. If there is any moment in which it can be said that the myth of

Jesse James was created, it would be September 29 th , 1872, the day this editorial was printed. 55

The creation of the James mythology was only further fueled two weeks later when a letter appeared

in the Kansas City Times from the supposed “robbers” of the fair defending their actions. Referring to

themselves as “bold robbers” rather than thieves, they compared themselves to other “bold robbers” in

history such as “Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Napoleon Bonaparte.” They offered to pay the

medical bill for the young girl who was accidently shot in the leg before shifting gears to contemporary

politics by stating “Just let a party of men commit a bold robbery, and the cry is hang them, but grant and

his party can steal millions, and it is alright.” The letter was signed by Jack Shepherd, Dick Turpin and

Claude Duval, three famous English highwaymen who have come to share a similar legacy with Jesse

James. 56 On October 20 th , 1872 another letter appeared in the Kansas City Times, this time claiming to be

from Jesse James himself. In typical fashion, the letter declared his innocence, offered proof of his

whereabouts and claimed that he would gladly turn himself in if he thought he would receive a fair trial.

Whether or not Jesse and his gang robbed the Kansas City Exposition Fair that day can never be known;

however, the editorial written by Edwards, the letter from the purported “robbers” and Jesse’s response

solidified the robbery as the most daring exploit yet in the ever-growing Jesse James mythology. 57

As the mythological status of Jesse James continued to grow in his own lifetime, it was almost as if

his exploits had to grow as well in order to keep up with the reputation he had established. Stiles supports

55 John Newman Edwards, “The Chivalry of Crime,” Kansas City Times, September 29, 1872, (The State Historical Society of Missouri). Also see Appendix B of Yeatman for a copy of the editorial. Chapter 2 will discuss in greater detail the importance that this editorial played in shaping the legend of Jesse James.

56 The letter appeared in the Kansas City Times on October 15, 1872. I have already mentioned that letters from Jesse James often appeared in newspapers after a robbery he was associated with defending himself and promising proof of his innocence. Whether or not Jesse James actually wrote these letters is another matter but most historians (Stiles, Yeatman and Brant) seem to agree that this letter was written by John Newman Edwards himself. For one, the letter was very political in the month leading up to the presidential election of 1872, referring to the Credit Mobilier scandal and the corruption of the Grant administration. Edwards had been dedicating much of his writings to attacking the Republican Party and advocating for Horace Greely. Second, the letter was signed by three historical figures who Edwards had mentioned in some of his previous writings. Finally, the letter that appeared five days after this one was actually signed by Jesse James, a practice consistent with most of his letters.

57 See Brant, Man and Myth, 93 for a copy of the letter. Settle, Was His Name, 46 points out that two of the most famous arguments of the Jesse James defenders came out of this incident. In the letter from the “robbers” they claimed that they only kill in self-defense and that they rob the rich and give to the poor. These two popular perceptions of Jesse James would help build his reputation as America’s Robin Hood.


this notion when he writes, “Symbolism increasingly infused Jesse James’s thinking in the months after

‘The Chivalry of Crime.’ He never put appearances above plunder, of course, but he and his fellows

thought more and more about ways to use their raids to shake up the country.” 58 Jesse and his gang did

just that on July 21 st , 1873 when they robbed the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad in Adair

County, Iowa, signifying a new direction for the notorious outlaw and his gang as they turned their

attention to the nation’s railroads. 59 Besides being the epitome of the technological innovation of their

day, the railroads were also the primary means by which capital was moved between the rural banks of

the west and the large banks of the east. Striking at the railroads was not only profitable, but it was

symbolically important to the further development of the Jesse James myth. 60 Although Jesse and his

gang were not the first to rob trains, their already established national reputation and the “style” in which

they carried out their robberies made them the most famous train robbers of the their time. The robbery in

Iowa saw the bandits quote from the letter written to the Kansas City Times by the robbers of the Kansas

City Exposition while wearing Ku Klux Klan outfits as disguises. Not content to just ride off with their

booty from the robbery, the bandits wanted to send a message in which they embraced the image of being

modern day Robin Hoods, as Edwards had branded them, who were still fighting the Confederate cause,

hence the Klan disguises. 61 Train robberies would follow in Gad’s Hill, Missouri in February 1874,

Munice, Kansas in December 1874, and Otterville, Missouri in July 1876. 62 Jesse James grew bolder

with each successful robbery and his public image, shaped by John Newman Edwards (and to a certain

extent Jesse himself), only seemed to mirror his success as a criminal. However, as with most legendary

criminals, Jesse’s luck would eventually run out as he set his eyes north toward Minnesota.

58 Stiles, Last Rebel, 229.

59 Jesse and his gang were not the first to rob trains, most historians credit the Reno brothers of Indiana with this distinction.

60 Chapter 2 will discuss the significance of the train robberies to the James legend.

61 Stiles, Last Rebel, 235-239. Stiles also describes how the train robberies of Jesse and his gang differed from previous examples. While other train robbers were content to derail a train and then rob what they could in the subsequent confusion, the James gang boarded the trains and took control of its occupants during the heist. Stiles concludes that this had a much greater psychological effect on the country as it elevated the crime beyond just a mere robbery.

62 There were of course other train robberies during this time period; however, as with most of the crimes committed by the James gang, there is little direct proof of their involvement. The robberies listed here seemed to be agreed upon by the majority of historians including Settle, Stiles, Brant and Yeatman.


The First National Bank in Northfield, Minnesota seemed an unlikely target for Jesse James and his

crew because it was so far away from the familiar territory and support network that they had relied upon

in evading capture. 63 Nonetheless, on September 7 th , 1876 three men entered the First National Bank

while two stood guard outside and the other three waited on the outskirts of the town. The robbers hit

their first obstacle when an obstinate bank teller by the name of J.L. Heywood refused to open the bank

vault. Surprised by Heywood’s stubbornness, the robbers fired a warning shot meant to intimidate the

teller and then fired another shot at a teller who used the situation as an opportunity to escape. By this

time, the citizens of Northfield knew that the bank was being robbed and what they did next solidified

their own place in history. Rather than letting the bandits flee the scene of their attempted robbery, the

people of Northfield immediately took up arms and fought back. The three bandits waiting right outside

town rode to the aid of their comrades and the whole town was now engulfed in a firefight. During the

gunfight, two of the bandits were killed, while three others were wounded but managed to escape with the

other two who remained unscathed. 64 The largest manhunt in the history of Minnesota (until that time)

63 The earliest explanation for why the James’ gang chose this bank was that gang member Bill Stiles was from Minnesota and knew the country well enough to serve as their guide during the escape. Both Love, Rise and Fall, 189-195 and Settle, Was His Name, 95 seem to accept this explanation; however, Settle does mention an explanation that Cole Younger gave in his autobiography: Cole Younger, The Story of Cole Younger (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2000). In Younger’s book, he says that they chose that bank because they heard that General Benjamin Butler and his son-in-law, former Mississippi governor Adelbert Ames had large sums of money in the bank. These two carpetbaggers were despised by the James gang for their role in Reconstruction and so robbing them would be a symbolic victory for the ex-Confederates. Settle dismissed the claim as Younger trying to gain sympathy by making this a South vs. North conflict. However, later historians, including both Stiles and Yeatman have determined that this was in fact the reason that the James gang chose the Northfield Bank. In note 52, Stiles, Last Rebel, 460 explains that Settle was unaware of two earlier accounts that Cole and Bob Younger had given in which they mentioned Butler and Ames as being the reason they chose the Northfield Bank.

64 I have given a very basic account of the Northfield robbery from the most widely known facts. Both Yeatman, The Story, 163-192 and Stiles, Last Rebel, 307-351 give very detailed accounts of the robbery as well as the events that led up to it and of the manhunt that followed. Stiles gives a very in-depth backstory of Aldebert Ames and his tenure as Governor of Mississippi where he was eventually forced from office before ending up in Minnesota. In the chapter preceding the account of the Northfield raid, Brant, Man and Myth gives some very interesting backstory about the relationships between the various gang members, in particular among the Younger brothers and how it led them to Northfield. Settle, Was His Name, 92-97 gives a very short presentation of the Northfield robbery focusing more on why the gang had chosen Northfield as their target and why the small town had been so successful in defeating America’s most notorious band of outlaws. An entertaining narrative of the failed robbery and subsequent manhunt is Shot all to Hell by Mark Lee Gardner. Opting for a narrative that resembles more of an action-packed movie script than a scholarly investigation, Gardner does present a lot of credible sources in the notes at the end of the book, but they are only numbered by the page which leaves the reader to discern what information on the page came from where. Mark Lee Gardner, Shot All To Hell: Jesse James, the Northfield Raid, and the Wild West’s Greatest Escape (New York: Harper Collins, 2013). For further research, the Minnesota Historical Society has an


ensued when Northfield telegraphed every town within 100 miles of the attempted robbery and the

governor offered a $1500.00 reward for the capture of the outlaws. Groups of civilians scoured the

countryside in search of the outlaws and two weeks later a posse of seven men surrounded four of the

bandits and engaged them in a gunfight that left one of the bandits dead and the other three even more

wounded than they already were. The remaining two bandits were pursued but managed to evade capture

and were never found. When the three outlaws who surrendered were identified as Jim, Bob and Cole

Younger and the three dead bandits as Clell Miller, Bill Chadwell and Charlie Pitts, there was little doubt

in most people’s minds that the two who had managed to escape were Frank and Jesse James.

After the debacle of Northfield and the subsequent chase in which the James brothers narrowly

escaped capture, Jesse and Frank decided to take a break from the outlaw life. By 1877 they moved their

families to Nashville, Tennessee where they attempted to live ordinary lives under the names John Davis

Howard and B.J. Woodson. Tired of the criminal lifestyle he had lived for the past decade, Frank James

adapted to his new environment almost seamlessly, working as a farmhand and welcoming the birth of his

first child in 1878. 65 While Frank was certainly content with ordinariness, the same cannot be said of his

younger brother. Although Frank was the older of the two, Jesse was the one who had earned the

reputation of being America’s most famous outlaw. It was Jesse’s boldness and taste for flair that

gathered the attention of the media and it was on this attention that Jesse seemed to thrive. Living a quiet,

unassuming life under a false identity was not enough for Jesse James because enjoyed the mythical status

he had achieved as an outlaw.

By 1879, Jesse James had enough of living as an ordinary citizen and began planning his return to the

national spotlight as America’s greatest bandit. With most of his former gang either dead or in jail, Jesse

had to recruit new members before he could resume his former lifestyle. The next generation of James’

excellent manuscript collection, Northfield (Minnesota) Bank Robbery of 1876 Selected Manuscript Collection. The collection contains a number of primary sources, mostly from residents of Minnesota, that recount the robbery and subsequent manhunt. The collection is available on microfilm and much if it is also digitized and available for viewing on the Minnesota Historical Society’s website. 65 For a detailed account of the time period the James brothers spent in hiding under their aliases, see Yeatman, The Story, 193-206; Brant, Man and Myth, 195-208 and Stiles, Last Rebel, 339-356.


Gang members was young and inexperienced, none of them having fought with Jesse during his

bushwhacking days in the Civil War. Stiles writes, “They lacked that intense bond of loyalty, forged out

of ideology and wartime experience.” 66 The new gang included Dick Liddil, Bill Ryan, Tucker Bassham,

Wood Hite and Ed Miller. 67 With his new yet inexperienced gang behind him, Jesse conducted his first

robbery in over two years by holding up a train in Glendale, Missouri. This was the beginning of Jesse’s

last crime spree as he and his new gang struck target after target with little time in between. While the

mythical status of Jesse James was further solidified by every successful robbery, it only strengthened the

resolution of Jesse’s enemies to finally bring down the notorious outlaw. While Jesse James was a

hardened and experienced criminal, it has already been noted that the same could not be said of the new

gang he had recruited. The gang was rapidly disappearing as members were getting arrested, testifying

against one another and in some cases killing each other. By March of 1882, the only member left in

Jesse’s gang was Charley Ford and so Jesse invited him and his younger brother, Bob Ford, a new recruit

to come live with him in St. Joseph, Missouri. Little did Jesse realize that the Ford brothers had actually

made a secret arrangement with Missouri Governor Thomas T. Crittenden to assassinate him in return for

a pardon and a reward. 68 On April 2, 1882 Jesse James was in his living room with the Ford brothers

when he removed his pistols, turned his back to them and stood on a chair to adjust a crooked painting.

Before he could turn his head at the sound of a cocking pistol, a bullet shattered the back of his skull and

America’s greatest outlaw lay dead on the floor.

When examining the life and deeds of the historical figure of Jesse James, one can certainly make the

argument that he was shaped by the conditions in which he lived. Growing up in western Missouri

(where the majority of the state’s slaves resided), in a slave-owning household, in such close proximity to

the disputed territory of Kansas, Jesse witnessed first-hand the series of struggles that eventually led to

the break-up of the Union. Being too young to fight in the Civil War, Jesse eventually took part in the

66 Stiles, Last Rebel, 366.

67 Yeatman, The Story, 212.

68 In Chapter 2, I will discuss the conspiracy to assassinate Jesse James in detail and how the role of Governor Crittenden only enhanced the sympathetic view of Jesse James.


guerilla war that the Confederate sympathizers waged against the Union forces. Being on the losing side

of the war, Jesse was exposed to the realities of life as a Confederate supporter under the Radical

Republicans and carpetbaggers during Reconstruction. The fact that Jesse James refused to accept this

outcome and instead chose to continue the fight as an outlaw is not surprising in and of itself; Jesse was

hardly the first to do so. The more interesting question is what distinguished Jesse James from the other

countless criminals who have faded from the annals of American history? How did Jesse James rise

above the distinction of a common criminal to become an American legend?

To answer these questions we could examine the details of his criminal life, dissecting each robbery

by removing the romanticized aspects of each story and trying to discern his motives and strategies.

However, one would soon realize the impossibility of this task since the fact and fiction have become so

interwoven that it is impossible to decipher between them. While historians can certainly make

reasonable assumptions regarding some of Jesse’s exploits based on the limited sources and accounts that

exist, most of the crimes attributed to Jesse James lack the kind of credible sources that could definitively

tie him to the events. James did not leave behind any personal documents and the only possible first-hand

accounts from the outlaw, the letters to the newspapers, have never been proven to have been from Jesse

himself. Most of the “eye witness” accounts were written by friends, family members and other James

supporters so their authenticity is also very skeptical. Even the best historians who have tried to debunk

the Jesse James myth like Brant, Stiles, Yeatman and Settle cannot agree on many of the details

surrounding Jesse’s life. However, as I said in the beginning it is not my intention to try to separate fact

from fiction in this work. If we were to view his life in the most objective lens possible, we would see

him grow up during one of the most turbulent times in American history to eventually become an outlaw

who committed an unknown number of crimes (many of which were not even really financially

successful) and who was eventually betrayed and killed by some of his own gang members. The facts

would seem to portray a career criminal and opportunist who murdered on occasion to fulfill his greedy

ambitions. And yet this is not how American history remembers America’s most famous outlaw.


mythology surrounding Jesse James has portrayed him as America’s Robin Hood who stole from the rich


to help the poor, although no evidence exists that he ever parted with any of the money he stole. So

where does this image come from? How did Jesse James transcend the image of a common criminal to

become an American pop culture icon, usually portrayed in a sympathetic and often heroic light? These

are the questions we will look to answer in the next chapter as we re-focus our study of the Jesse James

mythology by examining it through the framework of Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth theory.


Chapter 2

While the life of Jesse James ended on April 2, 1882, the myth of Jesse James has not only survived

for the past century but it has in fact thrived. In Chapter 1 I attempted to examine the historical figure of

Jesse James without the dramatization and romanticism that has come to define his legend. In the end, I

arrived at two conclusions. One is that such a study is not only very difficult but rather futile given the

quality of the sources that we do have about the historical figure. The second conclusion is that such a

study fails to teach us anything about the process of myth-making that creates legends like Jesse James.

This process has been replicated by subsequent generations and has become part of our American cultural

history. While the historical figure behind the legend may remain a mystery to historians, the popular

folk hero image of Jesse James and the process by which it was created are themselves cultural artifacts

that when examined provide an interesting lens into American history.

To frame the discussion about this myth-making process, I have chosen Joseph Campbell’s

Monomyth theory as the centerpiece for my study. First published in 1949, Campbell’s theory has greatly

influenced subsequent generations of artists, writers and filmmakers. 69 While the “science” behind

Campbell’s theory has been disputed 70 , his theory has still retained its popularity and influence in the 21 st

century. 71 I will use Campbell’s argument as the basic framework for our discussion of Jesse James as a

mythical hero and I will supplement those characteristics with a couple of other uniquely American traits.

The end result will hopefully be a new portrait of Jesse James, not a biased or reconstructionist account

but simply a new understanding of how the historical figure has become an American legend. I have

69 See Christopher Volger, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers (CA: Michael Wiese Productions, 1998. Volger originally took Campbell’s Monomyth theory and turned it into a seven-page memo that served as a manual for screenwriters entitled “A Practical Guide to the Hero with a Thousand Faces.” He later expanded on that memo and turned it into The Writer’s Journey. Volger condenses Campbell’s theory into twelve stages and identifies eight archetypes that appear throughout. Volger explains how to incorporate these elements into a screenplay and provides numerous examples of films that have done so successfully. The presence of Campbell’s theory in so many successful movies demonstrates its universal appeal and partly explains why the Jesse James legend has translated so well and so often on the Hollywood screen.

70 Campbell incorporates the work of Carl Jung into his Monomyth theory, particularly his theory of the collective unconscious, archetypes and individuation. These theories, particularly the collective unconscious, have created much debate among both writers and psychologists.

71 For a biography of Joseph Campbell, I would recommend: Stephen and Robin Larsen, A Fire in the Mind: The Life of Joseph Campbell (NY: Doubleday, 1991). Both authors were students and friends of Campbell and therefore had access to many of his notes and other unpublished materials.


selected Campbell’s Monomyth theory for two reasons: one, I have never seen any work on Jesse James

relate his story to the hero’s quest in Campbell’s theory and two because the fluidity and flexibility of

Campbell’s theory has allowed it to stand the test of time while at the same time creating a wealth of

discussion on topics like art, literary criticism, psychoanalysis and mythology. I hope to make a

meaningful contribution to this discussion by bringing the Jesse James legend into the mix.

In 1949, Joseph Campbell compiled all of the similarities he had discovered in various myths from

around the world into a mythical cycle he called the Monomyth (one myth), which he described in detail

in his most famous and influential book entitled The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In this book,

Campbell outlines the Monomyth theory, also known as the hero’s quest or journey, and cites numerous

examples from both eastern and western mythology to support his theory. 72 While Campbell’s breadth of

knowledge on the subject of mythology is obvious from the numerous examples he provides, it is his

ability to synthesize this information into a cohesive explanation of how they reflect a deeper

understanding of the human experience that makes the book so special. Campbell’s primary lens for

studying these myths is the field of psychology, particularly the work of early psychoanalysts Sigmund

Freud and Carl Gustav Jung. 73 The foundation of Campbell’s theory is that all myths are really just

variations of one story that has been retold by all of mankind throughout history. Campbell describes this

one myth when he writes, “…it will be always the one, shape-shifting yet marvelously constant story that

we find, together with a challenging persistent suggestion of more remaining to be experienced than will

ever be known or told.” 74 It is this last phrase “more remaining to be experienced than will ever be

72 For more information about these various myths, see Joseph Campbell, Joseph Campbell: Transformations of Myth Through Time (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1990). This book of thirteen different lectures, published posthumously, is a companion piece to the PBS television series of the same name that was produced by Dr. Stuart Brown and William Free.

73 Campbell particularly favored Jung for his theories of archetypes, individuation and the collective unconscious. Jung is cited extensively throughout The Hero with a Thousand Faces and his theories are interwoven in the Monomyth theory. While one could read the book solely from the psychoanalytical perspective, that is not the goal of my project so I will only mention these theories when necessary.

74 Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, 2 nd ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973), 3. While Campbell spends the entirety of this book explaining how these myths relate to one another, anyone who wants to study the individual myths and the time period and culture that produced them should see his four volume masterpiece The Masks of God. Published between 1962 and 1968, these four volumes examine these myths and many more in painstaking detail, explaining the historical period and cultural traditions that led to their creation.


known or told” that I believe has made Campbell’s theory so appealing to various artists and the primary

reason why it has remained so influential. In those words Campbell is suggesting that the one story, or

Monomyth, is never complete but is in fact constantly being added to by every subsequent generation. So

the Monomyth is not something stagnant but rather it is organic, changing with the time, place and culture

that are perpetuating it. This is the primary reason why I chose Campbell’s theory to guide our

discussion. Its flexibility and fluidity make it highly adaptable to new interpretations, such as examining

the Jesse James legend through the lens of the hero’s quest, which of course is my current endeavor.

Campbell argues that while the time period, location and details of various myths may be different,

they all share common characteristics that reflect an underlying desire in the human psyche to explain the

human condition. 75 Critics of the Monomyth theory argue that it is too simplistic in its approach,

diminishes the role of women, and does not take into account the fact that every myth does not follow

Campbell’s cyclical structure, evidence that they say proves it limitations and ultimately its inaccuracy. 76

However, Campbell addresses these criticisms in his book when he writes, “There are of course

differences between the numerous mythologies and religions of mankind, but this is a book about the

similarities; and once these are understood the differences will be found to be much less great than is

75 Betty Sue Flowers, ed., Joseph Campbell: The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers (New York: Doubleday, 1988),

5. This book expands on the PBS television series of the same name that was filmed between 1985 and 1986 at both

George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch and the Museum of Natural History in New York. The documentary aired in 1988, a year after Campbell died, in six one hour episodes. While the final series was only six hours long, there was over twenty hours of discussion filmed, which as the editor noted, offered a “rich abundance of material” that television audiences were unable to see. The editor used discretion in selecting the material to include in this book, hoping to enhance the famous conversation by expanding on areas that she believed were most pertinent. Both Campbell and Moyers read a draft of the book and offered some suggestions, but the editor thanked them for not trying to “rewrite their words into book talk” but instead to “let the conversation itself live on the page” (Editor’s Note). I will cite this book on occasion to provide supplemental material if one wishes to explore a topic in more detail, but I will not get into too much detail because my primary focus is The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

76 It is not my intent in this paper to argue the philosophical differences between the supporters and critics of the Monomyth theory. In the lines that follow this footnote, I have presented what I believe to be an adequate response to the most common critique of Campbell’s theory. I should clarify that this is really not a response since it is based on the words written by Campbell in the book prior to any criticisms, which leads me to question on how critics have overlooked these comments. The one area of criticism that I do want to mention because I believe it has unfairly cast a false notion of Campbell is the idea that he is anti-feminist and his theory is entirely male-centered. Campbell refutes this idea in detail during his conversation with Bill Moyers and it is presented in Flower, ed., Power of Myth,124-126.


popularly (and politically) supposed.” 77 Rather than rejecting the notion that the patterns outlined in the

Monomyth theory do not account for every myth, Campbell embraces the idea that many myths diverge

from the pattern he describes, which he considered “an operative metaphor, not only for the individual,

but for a culture as well.” Campbell leaves the door open for the individual or the society creating the

myth to place their unique stamp on the theory, which of course reflects the values and concerns of the

time and society in which it was created. 78 After demonstrating the correlations between Campbell’s

Monomyth theory and the Jesse James legend, I will examine two additional characteristics that are

unique to the “American” version of the hero’s quest, demonstrating how American society has adopted

the Monomyth theory but with some changes to make it distinctly “American.” By examining how Jesse

James has become a part of this American mythological tradition, we will gain a better insight into the

mindset and values of the American society that has perpetuated his image as America’s Robin Hood.

The Monomyth cycle described by Campbell has the hero of the quest pass through three general

stages that are further broken down into seventeen distinct subcategories or characteristics. As I have

already mentioned, Campbell did not claim that every story would necessarily have all seventeen stages

or that the order in which they take place would be the same. While Campbell acknowledged that these

details are often modified by the culture and times in which the story is being told, for my purpose I will

examine them in the order as they appear in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. At this point, I should also

clarify that while this mythical journey is often referred to as the hero’s quest, the term “hero,” which will

be used in reference to the subject of our study, should not be mistaken as trying to convey a sympathetic

view of the crimes committed by Jesse James. This study is focusing on the mythological figure of Jesse

James not the historical bandit, who I have already determined was responsible for numerous crimes,

including murder. The Jesse James of myth and legend has to be “heroic” to an extent because that is the

legacy that is still perpetuated today. The Monomyth theory will help determine the universal

characteristics of the James’ legend that have created this notion of the “heroic” outlaw.

77 Campbell, Hero, viii. 78 See Flowers, ed., Power of Myth, 11-12 for a more detailed explanation of how these various myths have more commonalities than differences.


The first general category of the hero’s quest is referred to as “Departure,” and it describes the

circumstances that led the hero to leave his familiar and comfortable home and embark on a quest into the

dangerous and unpredictable world. The “Departure” is further divided into five subcategories that

describe this process in greater detail. The first subcategory is the “Call to Adventure” where “The

familiar life horizon has been outgrown; the old concepts, ideals, and emotional patterns no longer; the

time for the passing of a threshold is at hand.” 79 Campbell relates a story of King Arthur from Sir

Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur in which Arthur has an epiphany after coming across a strange

beast quenching its seemingly endless thirst by drinking from a pool of water. This in turn inspires

Arthur to set out upon the quest for the Holy Grail (the metaphor for spiritual fulfillment), which occupies

much of the Arthurian legends. 80 Campbell says that the “call” can come from the hero’s “own volition”

or it can be forced upon him by some “benign or malignant agent.” Regardless of how the hero is called

upon to set out on the quest, Campbell says that this stage “…signifies that destiny has summoned the

hero and transferred his spiritual center of gravity from within the pale of his society to a zone unknown.

This fateful region of both treasure and danger may be variously represented… but it is always a place of

strangely fluid and polymorphous beings, unimaginable torments, superhuman deeds, and impossible

delight.” 81 The “Call to Adventure” in the Jesse James story would most certainly be the attack on the

Samuel farm by the Union soldiers on May 25, 1863. Robertus Love best describes the effect of the

beating that Jesse took that day: “The boy was hurt both physically and spiritually. That rope-lashing had

been an insult as well as an injury. The proud old Kentucky pioneer blood of the Jameses and Coles was

outraged. Jesse James was crying both from physical pain and from humiliation.” 82 Jesse James certainly

did not have a childhood insulated from all of the violence and chaos of the time and place in which he

grew up, but this was the first time that these momentous events had a direct impact on Jesse and his

79 Campbell, Hero, 51.

80 Ibid., 53. For a detailed discussion of the Arthurian legends, see the final three lectures in Joseph Campbell:

Transformations of Myth Through Time – “Where There was no Path: Arthurian Legends and the Western Way,” “A Noble Heart: The Courtly Love of Tristan and Isolde,” and “In Search of the Holy Grail: The Parzival Legend.”

81 Ibid., 58.

82 Love, Rise and Fall, 44.



No longer protected by the innocence of childhood, this event signified the passing of the

threshold described by Campbell in which Jesse’s “spiritual center of gravity” shifted and he set out on

his “quest for revenge.” 83 In Jesse’s case, the manner of his “call” was not voluntary but instead came

from the outside, “malignant agent” described by Campbell. This is necessary for the Jesse James myth

because most of the adventures that make up his quest are criminal acts. For Jesse to voluntarily go on

this crime spree would suggest that he is nothing more than a common criminal; however, Jesse being

forced into the adventure by circumstances that were beyond his control certainly helps our understanding

of how he instead became known as America’s Robin Hood, a hero forced into a life of crime to combat

the injustices of the time in which he lived. In Bandits, author Eric Hobsbawn concurs with this point

when he writes, “Social bandits do… begin their career with some non-criminal dispute, affair of honour

or as victims of what they and their neighbors feel to be injustice.” 84 While the “Call to Adventure”

forces the individual to embark upon a personal quest, the end result of that quest must also have some

benefit for the rest of society in order for the myth and its meaning to be perpetuated from one generation

to the next. If we go back to King Arthur and the legend of the Holy Grail, the quest undertaken by

Arthur and his knights was meant to provide spiritual and moral replenishment for all of society, not just

Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. With the attack on his family’s farm, Jesse’s “Call to

Adventure” now becomes similar to that of King Arthur’s quest for the Holy Grail in that he is not on a

quest for just individual revenge, but rather to replenish the pride and dignity of all those Confederate

sympathizers who suffered similar injustices. Already, it is becoming apparent how the Jesse James myth

evolved from one man’s story of greed and revenge to a much larger and symbolic quest for an entire

generation of Americans.

The second subcategory in the “Departure” stage of the Monomyth cycle is the ‘Refusal of the Call”

in which the hero fails to answer the “Call to Adventure.” Campbell compares this stage to the child who

83 Campbell, Hero, 58 and Stiles, Last Rebel, 90. 84 Eric Hobsbawn, Bandits (New York: The New Press, 2000), 47-48. Hobsbawn reasons that such outlaws rely so heavily on the support of their community to aid and protect them that they cannot be a “real criminal” because that would go against the accepted values of their community. He writes, “To begin as the victim of injustice is to be imbued with the need to right at least one wrong: the bandit’s own” (48).


refuses to make the necessary transition to adulthood: “One is bound in by the walls of childhood; the

father and mother stand as threshold guardians, and the timorous soul, fearful of some punishment, fails

to make the passage through the door and come to birth in the world without.” 85 While this stage does not

really apply to the Jesse James myth, it is interesting to consider the following hypothetical situation.

After Jesse James received his “Call to Adventure” with the attack on his family’s farm, the natural way

to answer the call would have been to join the Confederate army; however, Jesse was too young and by

the time he was old enough, the war was over. Jesse’s “inability” to answer the “Call to Adventure” only

strengthened his resolve and forced him to seek another path which of course was the life of the outlaw.

It is interesting to consider what would have happened if Jesse James had been old enough to join the

Confederate army – would he have eventually turned to the criminal life? While not refusing the call,

Jesse’s “delay” in answering his “Call to Adventure” closed the traditional path to heroism and opened a

door to the outlaw lifestyle that has since become synonymous with his name.

Once the hero has finally accepted the “Call” and set out on his adventure, he moves immediately into

the third subcategory of “Departure” known as “Supernatural Aid.” This stage provides the hero with a

mentor who will help prepare him for his imminent adventure by offering wisdom and magical items that

the hero will need “against the dragon forces he is about to pass.” 86 Classical myths tend to portray this

mentor figure as a supernatural being, such as a goddess or fairy; however, the gender is not specific and

the mentor does not need to possess any supernatural qualities. Although not “supernatural aides” in the

traditional sense, the guidance that Jesse James received from guerilla leaders such as Fletch Taylor,

Bloody Bill Anderson and Archie Clements certainly classify them as mentor figures. Stiles described

them as “the men who brought sixteen-year-old Jesse James to manhood.” 87 The mentor figure is the first

component of the “Supernatural Aid” category, but Campbell also describes another kind of “aid” in this

category when he writes, “Having responded to his own call, and continuing to follow courageously as

the consequences unfold, the hero finds all the forces of the unconscious at his side. Mother Nature

85 Campbell, Hero, 62.

86 Ibid., 69.

87 Stiles, Last Rebel, 100.


herself supports the mighty task. And in so far as the hero’s act coincides with that for which his society

itself is ready, he seems to ride on the great rhythm of the historical process.” 88 Lacking the human form

of the mentor figures already discussed, this other kind of “aid” refers to a collective support that the hero

enjoys when his quest is deemed worthy by the society in which he lives. The support that Jesse James

received in his day, both the sympathetic kind as seen in the newspaper and dime novel portrayals and the

physical kind that many Missourians provided James and his gang during their days of crime, are central

to the Jesse James myth. Here again we see part of the American myth-making process come to life. The

hero’s “acts” are not condemned, even though they are crimes, by the society in which he lives because

his cause is considered just. In fact, those that provided Jesse and his gang with food, shelter and supplies

were indirectly complicit in not only the crimes, but also in the creation of the Jesse James mythology.

The saying “the end justifies the means” seems to be affirmed by the James legend as most Americans

have focused on the results of Jesse’s legacy, not the means by which he carried them out.

Having answered the “Call to Adventure” and received the advice of his mentor, the hero is now

ready for the “Crossing of the First Threshold,” the fourth subcategory of “Departure.” The “First

Threshold” represents that first moment when the hero actually steps beyond his world into the

unknown. 89 Until this point the hero has committed to the quest in both mind and spirit by making the

decision and having it reinforced by a mentor figure, but now the hero physically commits to the quest by

undertaking an action that thrusts him into a dark and unfamiliar land. This is a necessary step for the

hero to distinguish himself from the common person who, according to Campbell, is “more than content,

he is even proud to remain within the indicated bounds, and popular belief gives him every reason to fear

so much as the first step into the unexplored.” 90 Jesse James crossed a threshold when he joined his

brother Frank in April of 1864 as one of Charles Fletcher Taylor’s bushwhackers. Jesse was immediately

thrust into the very local and personal guerilla war against Clay County’s Union sympathizers. Over the

88 Campbell, Hero, 72.

89 Aleks Krotoski, “Monomyth: Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey,” The Online Reporter's Notebook for The Untangling the Web column in The Observer newspaper, August 1, 2011 (accessed July, 2014),


90 Ibid., 78.


next few months, Jesse would take part in many skirmishes against the Missouri State Militia as well as

the murder of a number a Union civilians. Stiles describes this period in Jesse’s life when he writes, “Of

all the departures in Jesse James’s dramatic life, none would ever be so momentous – or portentous- as

this one.” 91 It was here that Jesse James both learned and engaged in the brutal tactics of guerilla warfare

and yet despite its savagery, this portion of Jesse’s quest did not tarnish his reputation in the eyes of the

public. 92 As I mentioned in the previous paragraph, Jesse and the other guerillas enjoyed the support of

other loyalists who admired their dedication to the Confederate cause, even if they did not necessarily

approve of their methods. When crossing the threshold, Campbell states, “The adventure is always and

everywhere a passage beyond the veil of the known into the unknown; the powers that watch at the

boundary are dangerous; to deal with them is risky; yet for anyone with competence and courage the

danger fades.” 93 Jesse certainly demonstrated his “competence and courage” as he adapted to this new

lifestyle with ease; there was no hesitation or second thoughts that might indicate he would abandon his

quest. Fully comfortable and confident in his decision to cross that first threshold, Jesse James was now

ready to enter the “Belly of the Whale.”

The fifth and final subcategory of “Departure” is known as “The Belly of the Whale” and it represents

the point of no return in which the hero has fully immersed himself in the adventure. At this point, the

hero undergoes a symbolic death and rebirth described by Campbell as, “The hero, instead of conquering

or conciliating the power of the threshold, is swallowed into the unknown, and would have appeared to

die… But here, instead of passing outward, beyond the confines of the visible world, the hero goes

inward, to be born again.” 94 “Crossing the First Threshold” represented the hero’s physical commitment

to the quest, entering the “Belly of the Whale” represents profound introspection on the part of the hero

91 Stiles, Last Rebel, 103.

92 Any contemporaries of this time period, especially those living in former Confederate states, could certainly affirm the sheer brutality of this guerilla war. However, this part of the story is often glossed over by Jesse’s sympathizers, both in his day and ever since.

93 Campbell, Hero, 82.

94 Ibid., 90-91.


that results in the understanding of the goal of the quest. 95 Campbell compares this inward movement to

“the passing of a worshiper into a temple – where he is to be quickened by the recollection of who and

what he is, namely dust and ashes unless immortal.” 96

The last phrase “dust and ashes unless immortal”

is key because it reveals the ultimate goal of every hero’s quest – immortality. Campbell says that “the

devotee at the moment of entry into a temple undergoes a metamorphosis. His secular character remains

without; he sheds it, as a snake it slough.” 97 This metamorphosis represents the character fully

abandoning his former life and identity in order to achieve the goal of the quest. The immortality is not in

the literal sense, but rather in the figurative sense – the hero achieves immortality by establishing a legacy

that will live on once he is dead. The moment this occurred in the story of Jesse James was his decision

to participate in the massacre at Centralia. Until this point, James’s involvement with the bushwhackers

of Missouri had been somewhat insignificant; however, that would change with Centralia. Jesse’s

participation in the cold-blooded massacre revealed that he was, as Stiles put it, “in perhaps the most

hotly ideological era in American history, Jesse was a true believer. He fought not as a victim, but as a

warrior in a cause.” 98 At Centralia Jesse James demonstrated his level of commitment to the Confederate

cause and that dedication certainly explains why he continued the fight even when the war was lost.

While the hero’s goal is immortality, the society in which the hero lives must benefit from the process

(quest) of achieving it in order for the hero to be rewarded with such a legacy. Jesse James began a

metamorphosis at Centralia that saw him attempt to become a permanent and everlasting symbol for the

Southern cause, something that would have been largely approved by not only many Missourians, but by

many other Confederate sympathizers as well. However, this metamorphosis was not complete just yet;

while Jesse may have demonstrated his commitment at Centralia, he would have to become something

95 See Flowers, ed., Power of Myth,146-147 for more details on the “Belly of the Whale” stage, including comparisons to the Biblical story of Jonah and a scene from Star Wars.

96 Campbell, Hero, 91.

97 Ibid., 92.

98 Stiles, Last Rebel, 104.


more than just a participant at Centralia to achieve the popular and legendary status necessary for

immortality. 99

Having moved through the five subcategories of “Departure,” the hero now enters into the second

stage of the Monomyth cycle known as “Initiation.” In the “Departure” stage we saw the hero answer the

“Call to Adventure” after which he was guided by a mentor figure and received the approval and aid of

the society in which he lived. Ready to set out on his quest, the hero had to pass the first threshold, which

required him to leave the safety of his known world and face the uncertainties that will characterize his

life of adventure. In the “Belly of the Whale” we saw the hero begin a transformation or

“metamorphosis” in which he comes to understand the meaning of his quest, demonstrates his full

commitment to it and then decides on a path to achieve its ultimate goal. The “Initiation” stage will

witness the hero undergo a series of adventures, each greater than the previous one, while resisting

outside temptations to abandon the quest. This second cycle of the Monomyth will result in the hero

achieving the goal of his quest.

The first subcategory of “Initiation” is “The Road of Trials” and this begins the series of events that

will prepare the hero to fulfill the goal of the quest. Campbell refers to this phase as “a favorite phase of

the myth-adventure. It has produced a world literature of miraculous tests and ordeals.” 100 This is the

stage where most of the exciting events and heroic deeds that make up the most popular part of myths

take place. The series of adventures that the hero undergoes at this point are meant to guide him toward

his goal, with each challenge becoming more difficult and heroic than the previous one. Campbell

illustrates the difference between the adventures of this stage and those from the “Departure” stage when

he writes, “The original departure into the land of trials represented only the beginning of the long and

really perilous path of initiatory conquests and moments of illumination. Dragons have now to be slain

and surprising barriers passed – again, again and again. Meanwhile there will be a multitude of

99 Jesse’s immortality grew well beyond just the former Confederate population. His exploits made him a national hero even among former Unionists. While Jesse may have started out on his quest in order to defend the Lost Cause, he eventually came to symbolize something much larger than just the losing side of the Civil War. 100 Campbell, Hero, 97.


preliminary victories, unretainable ecstasies, and momentary glimpses of the wonderful land.” 101 So

while the adventures undertaken in the “Crossing of the First Threshold” and “Belly of the Whale”

introduced the hero to the dangers of the quest, the “Road of Trials” will now refine those adventures to

experiences that will help the hero on his path toward the goal of self-discovery. Campbell describes this

as “…the process of dissolving, transcending or transmuting the infantile images of our personal past”

where “In our dreams the ageless perils, gargoyles, trials, secret helpers, and instructive figures are

nightly still encountered; and in their forms we may see reflected not only the whole picture of our

present case, but also the clue to what we must do to be saved.” 102 While the adventures of the

“Departure” stage of the Jesse James myth are mostly limited to his days as a bushwhacker, the “Road of

Trials” and all of the subsequent adventures of the “Initiation” stage correspond to the most popular and

romantic legends of Jesse James as America’s “Robin Hood.” Once again, the validity of the events

themselves at this point is not important, only that they have become part of the Jesse James mythology.

When one examines the list of crimes attributed to Jesse James and his gang, a pattern certainly emerges.

From the first daytime bank robbery at Liberty, to the murder of John Sheets during the robbery at

Gallatine, to the heist at the ticket booth of the Kansas City Exposition Fair to the Rock Island train

robbery – it seems that every crime committed by (or better yet attributed to) Jesse James was more bold

and daring than the previous one. This of course reflects the same pattern described by Campbell in the

“Road of Trials” as the hero undergoes increasingly difficult tasks, each one preparing him further to

achieve the goal of the quest.

As Jesse’s reputation grew with each daring robbery he committed, it is

almost as if he felt that he needed to constantly out-do his previous crimes. Whether James was

consciously thinking about his legacy at this point is impossible to determine; however, we do know that

he liked to read newspaper accounts of himself. 103 This seems to suggest that Jesse enjoyed the press he

received and, at the least, took it into account when planning future robberies. 104

101 Ibid., 109.

102 Ibid., 101.

103 The Missouri Republican, April 6, 1882 (State Historical Society of Missouri) In this interview with T.M. Mimms, the brother of Jesse’s wife, he responded to questions about Jesse being illiterate. He stated, “Jesse was not


The next two subcategories of the Initiation stage are only indirectly reflected in the Jesse James story

but I will briefly describe them anyway. The second subcategory of Initiation is the Meeting with the

Goddess. Campbell describes this as a “mystical marriage of the triumphant hero-soul with the Queen

Goddess of the World” that takes place after “all barriers and ogres have been overcome.” 105 Although

Jesse married his first cousin, Zerelda Mimms, in 1874 after a nine year engagement, Campbell is not

referring to the traditional notion of marriage in this subcategory. Campbell further explains the role of

this goddess when he writes, “Woman, in the picture language of mythology, represents the totality of

what can be known. The hero is the one who comes to know. As he progresses in the slow initiation

which is life, the form of the goddess undergoes for him a series of transfigurations: she can never be

greater than himself, though she can always promise more than he is yet capable of comprehending. She

lures, she guides, she bids him burst his fetters.” 106 While little is known about the private life of Jesse

and Zee’s marriage, most accounts portray them as genuinely in love and loyal to each other. However,

the role of Zee in Jesse’s mythology is never more than just that – a loving wife. She does not play any

direct role in the stories of the “Road of Trials” stage that created the James legacy. The third

subcategory under Initiation is “Woman as the Temptress” and here the hero is tempted to abandon his

quest by some material or earthly desire. While this is often a temptation of the flesh involving a

beautiful woman, it can refer to any earthly desire that might lead the hero away from his quest. 107 Other

a good scholar, and his spelling was imperfect, but he read the newspapers constantly and frequently wrote letters. He would dash off a letter without pausing once, and would never read it over. Frank was quieter and more reserved, and had a better education, but Jesse was by no means illiterate.”

104 If one were to follow this logic through the rest of the James story, it would certainly explain the decision to go to Northfield, Minnesota.

105 Campbell, Hero, 109.

106 Ibid., 116.

107 These two subcategories, while not strongly linked to any of the specific episodes of the James legacy, do represent a very interesting characteristic of Jesse James. In all of the stories about the notorious outlaw, there is next to nothing said about him drinking and no accounts of him committing acts of adultery. The same cannot necessarily be said about him gambling; he particularly liked betting on horses. But the absence of these other vices and how that affected the public perception that helped create the mythology surrounding him has rarely been discussed. In a Kansas City Times article from 1973 discussing the town of Kearney’s annual James brothers festival, festival organizer Fanny Shanks commented on how Jesse’s lack of interest in these things helped win him the sympathy and support of ordinary people who admired these character traits. According to the reporter, she claimed that, “He was reportedly a loving husband and reliable provider to his wife, the former Zee Mimms.” She was quoted as saying, “You’ve got to admire a man who stays faithful to his wife and doesn’t drink even though


than his brief exile in Tennessee after the failed Northfield bank robbery, Jesse was committed to his

criminal life. Even in Nashville, there was no indication that he was tempted to abandon his outlaw

lifestyle, returning to it with a new gang a little over a year later. 108

The next subcategory of Initiation is “Atonement with the Father” and as in all stories of the hero’s

quest, this represents a very important moment in the Jesse James legend. The subsection of Chapter II in

The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which describes this part of the quest, is one of the longest in the book.

Campbell offers numerous examples in this section to illustrate what is one of the more complex and

confusing aspects of his Monomyth theory. In the most basic sense, “Atonement with the Father”

represents a transformation. The metamorphosis mentioned in the earlier parts of the Departure stage has

come full circle as the hero has now proven himself worthy to take on the role of the father.


describes the hero at this point when he writes, “He is twice-born: he has become himself the father. And

he is competent, consequently, now to enact himself the role of the initiator, the guide, the sun door,

through whom one may pass from the infantile illusions of “good” and “evil” to an experience of the

majesty of cosmic law…” 109 Having proven himself ready to accept this new responsibility, the hero dies

a symbolic death (adolescence) and is reborn into this new role (adulthood). 110 Campbell offers two

contrasting examples to demonstrate the importance of the quest in preparing the hero for this crucial

moment. In the first example, Campbell relates the myth of the Twin Warriors of the Navaho who seek

out their father, the Sun bearer. After overcoming numerous obstacles to reach the palace of their father,

the twins are then forced to outsmart him as he tries to kill them. Finally, the Sun bearer is impressed

with the intelligence and courage of the twins and recognizes them as his sons. 111 In the other example,

he’s out there shooting people and robbing banks.” The reporter concluded her assessment by saying, “She [Shanks] said that was why the people of Kearney were reluctant – in those days – to give out information on the hounded outlaw.” This is a very interesting perspective to consider when looking at the development of the Robin Hood image that characterizes most of the James mythology. Craig Ladwig, “Kearney Welcomes James Celebration,” Kansas City Times, February 24, 1973 (State Historical Society of Missouri).

108 The question of Jesse’s commitment to the outlaw lifestyle will be raised again when discussing the final subcategory of “Freedom to Live.”

109 Campbell, Hero, 137.

110 Krotoski, “Monomyth,” http://untanglingtheweb.tumblr.com/post/8336354697/monomyth-joseph-campbells- heros-journey.

111 Ibid., 131-133.


Campbell retells the Greek myth of Phaethon, who sick of being harassed by his peers, sets out on a quest

to find his father, Phoebus the sun god. After he finds his father and gets him to agree to help him prove

to his peers that he is in fact the son of Phoebus, Phaethon demands to drive the sun chariot across the

sky. Although Phoebus knows Phaethon is incapable of doing this, he agrees and eventually Phaethon is

shot down by a thunderbolt from Zeus when he loses control of the chariot. 112 Campbell describes the

two myths to demonstrate that “when the roles of life are assumed by the improperly initiated, chaos

supervenes.” 113 Campbell uses these myths to emphasize the importance of the preparation for this

transformative moment in which the hero’s symbolic death and resurrection bring him to the threshold of

achieving the goal of the quest: “The hero transcends life with its peculiar blind spot and for a moment

rises to a glimpse of the source. He beholds the face of the father, understands – and the two are

atoned.” 114 While Campbell describes this transformative process in terms of an encounter with a father

figure, the presence of a male or any person for that matter, is not necessary for the transformation to

occur. 115

The moment in the Jesse James mythology that represents the transformative nature of the

“Atonement with the Father” is the bank robbery at Gallatin. Although not the first the robbery attributed

to James, this was in fact the first robbery in which he was the chief suspect. More importantly, this was

the first time that the name ‘Jesse James’ appeared in the newspapers in connection with a crime. 116 The

earlier bank robberies attributed to James were only done so after his reputation as an outlaw had already

been established. The robbery at Gallatin was significant to the James legend for three reasons. First, the

cold-blooded murder of Captain John W. Sheets, who Jesse mistakenly identified as Major S.P. Cox (the

man who killed Bloody Bill Anderson), sent a political message in post-war Reconstructionist Missouri.

112 Ibid., 133-136.

113 Ibid., 136.

114 Ibid., 147.

115 See Flowers, ed., Power of Myth, 37-42; 51-52 for an in-depth conversation regarding this transformation in which Campbell discusses the influence of Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious and archetypes.

116 Kansas City Times, December 16, 1869 (State Historical Society of Missouri) The article identifies the horse of one of the robbers as belonging to “a young man named James, whose mother and stepfather live about four miles from Centreville, Clay County.” The article also says that “both he and his brother are desperate men, having had much experience in horse and revolver work.”


Jesse had fought as a bushwhacker during the Civil War, but the reputation and influence of the

bushwhackers had faded since the end of the war. With the murder of Sheets as revenge for the killing of

Bloody Bill Anderson, Jesse immediately established himself as a dedicated and loyal champion of the

Confederate cause, and one who was willing to continue the fight even though the war was over. While

his days as a bushwhacker prepared him for this transformative moment, Jesse James was no longer the

student under the “fatherly” leadership of his mentors Fletch Taylor, Archie Clements and Bloody Bill

Anderson; he was now a man taking the fight in a new direction. Second, the subsequent pursuit of Jesse

and Frank by citizens from Gallatin, who with Deputy Sheriff John S. Thompson of Liberty, attempted to

arrest them at the family farm had all of the characteristics of a classic Jesse James story: the brothers

bursting through the barn doors on horseback, leaping over a fence with guns blazing and of course

escaping their pursuers. 117 Stories like these helped elevate the reputation of Jesse James from a common

thief to the romanticized outlaw that he is best known as today. Third, this robbery started the typical

practice of newspapers publishing letters supposedly from Jesse James, claiming that he was innocent,

could prove it and would turn himself in if he thought he would receive a fair trial. 118 While the

authenticity of these letters is debatable, they nonetheless added a very important element to the James

legend in which he took his case to the public, proclaiming his innocence, and over time, helped shaped

the popular image of himself that has survived over a century after his death. These three elements at

Gallatin represent the transformative process discussed by Campbell in the “Atonement with Father” in

which Jesse James, cold-blooded murderer and common thief, “died” in order to give way to newly

reborn Jesse James, ardent defender of the Confederate cause. Jesse’s transformation carries over to the

next stage in which he will eventually establish himself as America’s Robin Hood.

117 The Kansas City Times article from December 16, 1869 gives a detailed account of the incident, the account is also reproduced in Yeatman, The Story, 97. 118 For a detailed account of Jesse’s correspondence in the newspapers over the Gallatin robbery, see pages 20-22 of Chapter 1. Reprints of these letters are available on the Missouri Digital Heritage website; Brant, Man and Myth, 77-79; Wybrow, Pen of Noble Robber, 2-3.


The fifth subcategory of Initiation is “Apotheosis” and it represents the final stage of the

metamorphosis that began during the Departure stage: the hero’s deification. 119 Campbell describes this

important event when he writes, “Once we have broken free of the prejudices of our own provincially

limited ecclesiastical, tribal, or national rendition of the world archetypes, it becomes possible to

understand that the supreme initiation is not that of the local motherly fathers… but then, miraculously

reborn, we are more than we were.” 120 This final moment of transformation in the Jesse James

mythology, when he became more than just a champion of the Lost Cause, occurred on September 29,

1872, the day that the “Chivalry of Crime” was published in the Kansas City Times in response to the

robbery at the Kansas City Industrial Exposition. Appearing two days after what the Kansas City Times

called the “Most Desperate and Daring Robbery of the Age,” John Newman Edwards published his most

famous editorial that would forever link him to Jesse James and help establish the notion of James as

“America’s Robin Hood.” Edwards’ editorial likened the robbers of the Kansas City Industrial

Exposition to the knights of King Arthur’s Round Table: “These men are bad citizens but they are bad

because they live out of their time. The nineteenth century…is not the social soil for men who might

have sat with Arthur at the Round Table, ridden at tourney with Sir Launcelot or won the colors of

Guinevere.” He is very careful to distinguish these outlaws from common criminals that steal while most

people are sleeping, commit murder on those who are unsuspecting and use cowardly means like poison

to kill. While Edwards considers such acts to be not only criminal but cowardly, he contrasts that with

crimes like the exposition robbery which he sees differently: “But a feat of stupendous nerve and

fearlessness that makes one’s hair rise to think of it, with a condiment of crime to season it, become

chivalric; poetic; superb.” Edwards eludes to the fact that these men are former bushwhackers but claims

that they are of a more noble class of criminals because they commit crimes in “the glare of the day and in

the teeth of the multitude.” Recognizing that not everyone will be as forgiving, especially since a young

girl was shot, Edwards concludes by condemning their act but praising their style: “What they did we

119 Krotoski, “Monomyth,” http://untanglingtheweb.tumblr.com/post/8336354697/monomyth-joseph-campbells- heros-journey. 120 Campbell, Hero, 157-162.


condemn. But the way they did it we cannot help admiring. It was as though three bandits had come to

us from the storied Odenwald, with the halo of medieval chivalry upon their garments and shown us how

the things were done that the poets sing of.” 121 This editorial represents the moment in which the

metamorphosis of Jesse James from contemporary outlaw trying to right the wrongs of the Civil War to

America’s Robin Hood, champion of the common man and exacter of revenge for social injustices, was

complete. This ties back into the transformative moment in the Monomyth that Campbell further

explains in his conversation with Bill Moyers as: “…what all the myths have to deal with is

transformations of consciousness of one kind or another. You have been thinking one way, you now have

to think a different way.” 122 After this publication, Jesse James had to expand his self-image because he

could no longer view himself solely as the defender of the Lost Cause. The mythological figure of Jesse

James had evolved into something much more by this time and the historical figure seemed to respond to

this newfound fame by turning his sights toward a new enemy, one that drew universal criticism as a

force of corporate oppression and industrial exploitation: the railroads.

The sixth and final sub-category of the “Initiation” stage is “The Ultimate Boon.” The Ultimate

Boon put simply is the achievement of the goal of the quest. In literal terms, this would be represented by

the hero obtaining a material object (the Golden Fleece, Holy Grail), vanquishing a monster (the

Minotaur), reaching a desired location (Odysseus) or proving one’s courage (Sir Gawain and the Green

Knight). While this boon is often characterized in terms of a physical achievement, Campbell emphasizes

that it is symbolic of a much deeper and profound accomplishment. For Campbell, the ultimate boon

represents the hero’s moment in which he or she discovers their true self and the role they play in the

larger world:

The agony of breaking through personal limitations is the agony of spiritual growth. Art,

literature, myth and cult, philosophy, and ascetic disciplines are instruments to help the individual

past his limiting horizons into spheres of ever-expanding realization. As he crosses threshold after

121 John Newman Edwards, “The Chivalry of Crime,” Kansas City Times, September 29, 1872, (The State Historical Society of Missouri). 122 Flowers, ed., Power of Myth, 126.


threshold, conquering dragon after dragon, the stature of the divinity that he summons to his

highest wish increases, until it subsumes the cosmos. Finally, the mind breaks the bounding

sphere of the cosmos to a realization transcending all experiences of form – all symbolizations, all

divinities: a realization of the ineluctable void. 123

The hero who reaches this state of self-awareness and understanding has accomplished something that

few people ever do: he has achieved immortality. While the symbolic goal of the quest may have been

self-discovery the achievement of that goal results in the hero’s name and story taking on a life their own

long after the hero’s physical death – guaranteeing their immortality and place in the annals of other

mythological heroes. John Newman Edwards may have “deified” Jesse James in his editorials, but in

order for Jesse to move beyond the “Apotheosis” stage to obtain “the Ultimate Boon” he had to fully

embrace the image that Edwards created for him. Aware that public perception and sympathy were

powerful tools to have on his side, Jesse James understood the role he needed to play and so he went out

of his way to exemplify the nobility and virtues of the Robin Hood image. Jesse easily won public

sympathy for the simple fact that his two main targets, banks and railroads, were despised and vilified by

most Americans because they saw them as representative of the oppressive nature of American industry

and business. However, the bravura and political acuteness that Jesse James demonstrated in carrying out

his many crimes helped him win the battle of public perception because he was viewed in his own

lifetime, and to this day for that matter, as an outlaw hero. The panache that won Jesse this reputation is

seen in many of his crimes that took place after the publication of Edwards’ editorials.

In the first train robbery credited to Jesse and his gang near Council Bluffs, Iowa in July of 1873 the

robbers began to recite excerpts from the letter published in the Kansas City Times after the Industrial

Exposition robbery in which they referred to themselves as “bold robbers,” not “petty thieves,” whose

intent was “… robbing the rich for the poor.” 124 While the language certainly supports that Jesse James

felt very comfortable in adopting the Robin Hood persona, his cunningness in infusing the deed with a

123 Campbell, Hero, 190. 124 See pages 23-24 for a detailed account of the Industrial Exposition robbery and the subsequent letter that followed, which was quoted by the bandits during this robbery.


political message is illustrated in his choice of disguises for the gang members – they were dressed as Ku

Klux Klan members. 125 Jesse continued to demonstrate his southern loyalty, while cultivating his more

universal appeal with the Robin Hood image, in Hot Springs, Arkansas on January 15, 1874 when he and

his gang robbed a stage coach on its way to Malvern. This became one of the famous stories of the Jesse

James mythology when the outlaws asked if any of the passengers had served in the Confederate army.

When one passenger, G.R. Crump of Tennessee, claimed that he had served and then provided

information to the bandits to verify his claim, they gave him back the watch and money they had taken

from him. One of the robbers announced “…we are forced to follow this irregular business because we

have been persecuted in our own homes, our families outraged, some of our loved ones foully murdered,

because of our wartime sympathies and activities. No bentlemen – and ladies [removing his hat and

bowing low] we never molest –ex-Confederates…” 126 A passenger from New England tried to fool the

outlaws about where he was from and they accused him of being a reporter from the Saint Louis

Democrat, a Republican newspaper that they referred to as “…the vilest paper in the West.” The leader

of the outlaw gang told this man, “Go to Hot Springs and send the Democrat a telegram about this affair,

and give them my compliments.” 127 After returning some private papers to another passenger, the

outlaws left with their spoils and were described by an article in the Arkansas Daily Gazette as: “All of

them appeared to be jolly fellows and enjoyed the fun very much.” 128 The refusal to rob ex-Confederates

reinforced Jesse’s image as the champion of the Lost Cause and the playful banter with the passengers,

particularly the reference to the Saint Louis Democrat, helped foster the Robin Hood image that Jesse had

come to represent.

125 For the first hand accounts of this robbery, including the language used by the bandits, see articles from the Des Moines Republican in the Sioux City Journal, July 24, 1873 as cited in Stiles, Last Rebel, 236 and the Kansas City Times, July 23, 1873, Missouri State Historical Society.

126 Love, Rise and Fall, 131.

127 Given his “enthusiasm” for communicating through the press, it is reasonable to assume that the outlaw who made this comment was Jesse James.

128 This story, including the quotes (other than the one attributed to Love), are from the Arkansas Daily Gazette, January 18, 1874 as cited in Yeatman, The Story, 109-110.


The best example of Jesse’s achievement of the Ultimate Boon was the Gads Hill train robbery that

occurred on January 31, 1874. 129 This was the first train robbery in the state of Missouri and only the

second one carried out by the James gang. Rather than derailing the train, as he had done in his first

robbery, Jesse used a signal flag to bring the train to a halt as he and his men boarded. After pillaging the

express car, one of the bandits (probably Jesse) took the express messenger’s registration book and wrote

inside, “Robbed at Gads Hill.” As the outlaws moved through the passenger cars, they asked to see the

hands of all the male passengers so they could inspect them and determine if they were a “workingman”

because they said that they “did not want to rob a workingman or ladies, but the money and valuables of

the plug-hat gentlemen were what they sought.” 130 Stiles describes some of the rather whimsical manners

of two of the outlaws in the following passage: “The two bandits became positively buoyant as they

strolled down the aisle, collecting hundreds of dollars in cash and jewelry. One of them playfully

exchanged hats with a passenger, while the other recited Shakespeare. When one man introduced himself

as a minister, they returned his money and asked him to pray for them.” 131 As they departed, the outlaws

returned a gold watch to the conductor when they were told it was a gift, shook hands with the engineer,

gave one of the passengers a piece of paper that turned out to be the most famous element of the entire

episode. The paper was in fact a press release, meant for the St. Louis Dispatch, that the outlaws had

written before the robbery, describing the details of the crime with incredible accuracy. 132 There was a

blank line in the note for the railroad company to fill in the amount that was stolen during the heist, a

detail that the public probably found rather entertaining. In the telegram, the outlaws referred to the

incident as “The most daring train robbery on record” and concluded by saying “There is a hell of

129 I have based my account of the Gads Hill robbery on the accounts in Settle, Was His Name, 49-50; Stiles, Last Rebel, 244-246; and Yeatman, The Story, 19-24. Yeatman offers the most detailed account of this event and interestingly enough, made it Chapter 1 of his book. Chapter 2 goes back to the beginning of the story and the rest of the book is in chronological order. I believe Yeatman viewed this event as the epitome of a typical Jesse James crime and so put it first to frame the rest of his book. While Settle, Stiles and Yeatman cite a number of newspapers for firsthand accounts including the Liberty Tribune, Booneville Weekly Advertiser and Saint Louis Daily Globe, the one source that they all seemed to refer to the most was the account from the St. Louis Republican, February 2, 1874, (State Historical Society of Missouri), which is the source I tracked down and used for the details in my account.

130 St. Louis Republican, February 2, 1874 as cited in Settle, Was His Name, 49.

131 Stiles, Last Rebel, 245.

132 This demonstrates that everything went according to plan.


excitement in this part of the country.” 133 The details of this robbery, especially the press release,

demonstrate that Jesse James was not only waging a war against banks and railroads, but he was also

fighting for the moral high-ground in the battle of public perception. These three examples illustrate that

Jesse James was making a conscious effort to foster the Robin Hood image that John Newman Edwards

had created. Jesse could have simply committed all of these robberies in a simple, direct and cold-hearted

manner, but instead he chose to “go the extra mile” to nurture this new role that made him more than just

a champion of the south – he had become a national hero. The Ultimate Boon of Jesse’s quest, to become

something more than just a common criminal, had been fulfilled.

With the goal of the quest now achieved, the hero’s journey moves to the third and final stage of the

Monomyth theory – Return. As explained earlier, the quest is an individual endeavor that one undertakes

voluntarily, although oftentimes with help from supernatural entities or the collective support of his

society. The achievement of the goal of the quest elevates the individual into the ranks of other

mythological heroes whose legacies have been perpetuated by subsequent generations. However, for this

to continue there must be some benefit that the larger community also receives from the hero’s fulfillment

of the quest. Campbell explains this conditional element of the Monomyth in the following sentence,

“The full round, the norm of the monomyth, requires that the hero shall now begin the labor of bringing

the runes of wisdom, the Golden Fleece, or his sleeping princess, back into the kingdom of humanity,

where the boon may redound to the renewing of the community, the nation, the planet, or the ten thousand

worlds.” 134 This attempt to share the boon of his quest with society at large is the main goal of the final

stage of the Monomyth theory – The Return.

In the first sub-category of the “Return” stage, “Refusal of the Return,” the hero, having been exalted

to a state of existence few humans ever experience, does not want to return to the common world:

“Numerous indeed are the heroes the heroes fabled to have taken up residence forever in the blessed isle

133 These lines are taken from a copy of the transcript in Yeatman, The Story, 22. Yeatman cites the source of his copy as M.C. Eden, “Missouri’s First Train Robbery: Gads Hill, Wayne County, MO 31 st January 1874,” English Westerners’ Society Brand Book 16, no.2 (January, 1974):13 – 24. Yeatman says Eden cites the original source of the transcript from the Liberty Tribune, February 8, 1874. 134 Campbell, Hero, 193.


of the unaging Goddess of Immortal Being.” 135 Having successfully overcome all of the quest’s obstacles

to earn his place in the pantheon of mythological figures, the hero does not want to return to the ordinary

world from which they came because such an act is almost considered a regression. By the time Jesse

James and his gang entered the Northfield bank on September 7, 1876, Jesse had already become a

national celebrity. With his status as America’s Robin Hood well established, Jesse James did not have to

surpass the boldness and daring of his previous crimes any further to maintain his legacy. However, Jesse

could not resist the temptation to commit what would be his most daring and symbolic robbery yet.

While we have already discussed the historical debate over why the James’ gang chose the Northfield

Bank, 136 we must now examine it in terms of how it fits into the James mythology and the Monomyth

cycle. Jesse could have selected easy targets in his own backyard where his knowledge of the landscape

and network of locals who sympathized with him would have kept him protected from the forces

constantly hunting him. However, if a pattern emerges from all of stories that comprise the Jesse James

cannon, it is that he was never one to shy away from a challenge that would only enhance his legendary

status or to consider the political message that any of his actions would send. The First National Bank of

Northfield, Minnesota fit both of these criteria. The location of the bank in Minnesota would have

certainly been symbolic of Jesse taking the fight to the Union government and Radical Republicans as he

would have now struck in the heart of Northern territory. It would also have sent a political message

because the bank held the money of two very prominent Radical Republicans and former Union

commanders who Jesse no doubt despised for their role in the Civil War and Reconstruction. General

Benjamin Butler, also known as the “Beast” for the manner in which he presided over New Orleans

during Reconstruction, and his son-in-law Adelbert Ames, former governor of Mississippi, had $75,000

in the bank. Robbing the bank in which they held their money and were involved in the leadership would

135 Ibid., 193. 136 Please see note 63 on page 26 for a detailed account of the debate among historians over why Northfield, Minnesota was the selected target. At this point, I have sided with the historians who argue that the symbolism of robbing renowned Radical Republicans like General Benjamin Butler and Adelbert Ames was a temptation Jesse could not resist.


have been a symbolic political victory for the former Confederates. 137 At this point, I am going to

combine this sub-category with the third sub-category of the Return stage, the “Rescue from Without.”

Although not a part of the Jesse James story the way Campbell describes it, the Northfield incident

reflects the spirit of this sub-category. Having refused to regress into the common world to share his

boon after completing his quest, the hero may need the assistance of some outside force in order to return.

Campbell writes, “For the bliss of the deep abode is not lightly abandoned in favor of the self-scaterring

of the wakened state.” 138 For Campbell, this stage usually sees the return of the supernatural aid that has

been helping the hero along in his quest. While we have already compared Jesse’s early “mentors” to

these supernatural guides, they certainly did not provide any aid at this point because they were all dead.

The failure of the Northfield robbery symbolically reflected this “Rescue from Without” because it forced

Jesse James to abandon his ever-increasing ambitious agenda, even if only for a while. Unsatisfied with

the legendary status he had already achieved, Jesse James decision to strike the Northfield Bank reflected

hid “Refusal to Return” which in turn lead to his having had to be “Rescued from Without.” The botched

robbery was certainly a blow to Jesse’s ego and is best described by Stiles in the following statement:

“…the Northfield robbery would be forever remembered not as a bold blow against a leading Radical, but

as the day Jesse James reached beyond his grasp.” 139

The epic disaster that was the Northfield raid certainly tarnished what had been an unprecedented

record of success to that point by Jesse and his gang. However, his reputation would not suffer too

greatly thanks to the second sub-category of the “Return” stage – “The Magic Flight.” Campbell

describes the “Magic Flight” as a ‘Favorite episode of the folk tale, where it is developed under many

lively forms.” 140 Put simply, the “Magic Flight” is another series of adventures in which the hero is now

trying to return to the ordinary world with the boon he has received from the fulfillment of his quest. This

becomes a pursuit when “…the trophy has been attained against the opposition of its guardian, or if the

137 See pages 26-27 for this back story and footnote 64 for information on sources.

138 Campbell, Hero, 207.

139 Stiles, Last Rebel, 335.

140 Campbell, Hero, 199.


hero’s wish to return to the world has been resented by the gods or demons…” 141 While the debacle at

the First National Bank in Northfield demonstrated that Jesse James was not invincible, the subsequent

pursuit across three states would recoup his stature and add one of the most memorable sagas in the James

mythology. When the dust cleared in the streets of Northfield, two outlaws lay dead in the street – Bill

Chadwell and Clell Miller. Jesse and Frank James, Charlie Pitts, and Cole, Jim and Bob Younger had

barely managed to escape; however, all three of the Younger brothers had been wounded during the

shootout. Exhausted, wounded, low on supplies and in a land completely unknown to them, the odds of

the group evading capture were slim. Bill Chadwell was a Minnesota native and the group was probably

relying his knowledge of the land in planning their escape, but with him dead, the remaining six were on

their own in this hostile territory. It soon became clear that the injuries sustained by the Youngers would

hinder their escape and so the group broke into two – with Jesse and Frank going off on their own, hoping

to lead the pursuing posse away from the other group. While the plan failed to protect Pitts and the

Youngers, who were killed and captured respectively shortly after, the James boys spent the next three

weeks dodging the forces hunting them. Moving on both foot and horse, Jesse and Frank moved carefully

through farms and along roads unknown to them, often stealing (and eventually abandoning) horses to put

more distance between them and their pursuers. There were quick exchanges of gunfire when the

brothers were spotted but they would vanish into the woods without a trace to the amazement of their

would-be captors. Their adeptness and coolness in this cat and mouse game was captured by one

newspaper article: “In every way, they were masters of the situation. Their bravery at Mankato, Lake

Crystal, and at Seymour’s farm, and their endurance on horseback for days and nights, wounded and

almost starving, and without sleep, are without parallel in the history of crime.” 142 For over two weeks,

Jesse and Frank made their way across the state of Minnesota before entering the Dakota territory and

turning south, heading through Iowa and Nebraska before eventually reaching their home territory of

141 Ibid., 197. 142 St. Louis Globe Democrat, December 5, 1876 as cited in Stiles, Last Rebel, 345.


Missouri. 143 In the “Magic Flight” of the Monomyth, the hero is trying to escape with his boon and such

was the case with Jesse James during the pursuit after Northfield. Having received his boon, the

distinction of being America’s Robin Hood and greatest outlaw, his being captured would have

completely diminished the mythological stature that he had attained. Instead, Jesse’s “Magic Flight” to

his home territory once again added to his legendary status, ensuring that his reputation stay intact. 144

Any doubt to this fact is allayed by the following description of the pursuit in the Sedalia Bazoo : “They

ran the gauntlet of Minnesota and Dakota for a distance of 490 miles, and the wildest exploits in the

romance of Dick Turpin [an eighteenth century English highwayman] will not compare with this bold ride

for life.” 145

When the hero is finally ready to leave the world of adventure and return to the ordinary world, either

voluntarily or by force, he or she must pass through the fourth sub-category of the “Return” stage known

as “The Crossing of the Return Threshold.” In this stage, the hero must reacquaint himself or herself with

the world from which they originally came and figure out a way to share the boon of their quest with the

rest of society. 146 Campbell describes the difficulty of this task when he writes, “The first problem of the

returning hero is to accept as real, after an experience of the soul-satisfying vision of fulfillment, the

passing joys and sorrows, banalities and noisy obscenities of life. Why re-enter such a world?” 147 Jesse

James did not willingly resort to living a normal life when he moved his family to Humphrey’s County, a

rural cattle community about seventy five west of Nashville, Tennessee in 1877. After narrowly escaping

from the Northfield disaster, Jesse and Frank James recognized that they needed to remove themselves

from the national spotlight for a while. 148

Under the alias John Davis Howard, Jesse James attempted to

live the simple life of a farmer. However, this proved to be futile as life on the farm was boring and

143 See Gardner, Shot all to Hell for a detailed account of the pursuit.

144 I am not insinuating that Jesse James was consciously thinking of his reputation in this epic pursuit. His first priority was likely saving his own life and avoiding jail. However, the episode has become an important part of the James cannon and certainly aligns with the “Magic Flight” sub-category of the “Return” stage.

145 Sedalia Bazoo as cited in Yeatman, The Story, 184.

146 Krotoski, “Monomyth,” http://untanglingtheweb.tumblr.com/post/8336354697/monomyth-joseph-campbells- heros-journey.

147 Campbell, Hero, 218.

148 Yeatman, The Story, 198 mentions that both of the brothers’ wives were probably fed up with living on the run at this point at well.


monotonous compared to the unpredictable and dangerous life of the outlaw that Jesse had become

accustomed to since his days as a bushwhacker. As John Davis Howard, Jesse did not fit the profile of a

normal farmer – he visited the race tracks often, kept a fine horse saddled at all times, gambled frequently

and on some occasions demonstrated his skill with a revolver. 149 By 1878, America’s most notorious

outlaw was in so much financial trouble (and facing a lawsuit over one of his outstanding debts) that he

was forced to relocate his family to Nashville, where his brother Frank had been living for the past two

years under the alias B.J. Woodson. While Frank had grown very comfortable during his days as an

ordinary farmer, Jesse was never able to assimilate. By 1879, he began recruiting a new gang and

planning his return to the national spotlight. Jesse’s inability to adapt to a common life and translate the

boon of his quest into something that common, everyday people can benefit from is in line with the

pattern that all heroes of the monomyth face at this point in their journey. Campbell describes this


How to teach again, however, what has been taught correctly and incorrectly learned a thousand

times, throughout the millenniums of mankind’s prudent folly? That is the hero’s ultimate

difficult task. How to render back into light-world language the speech-defying pronouncements

of the dark? How represent on a two-dimensional surface a three-dimensional form, or in a three-

dimensional image a mutli-dimensional meaning? 150

This explains why each society needs to create its own mythological heroes. Every time the goal of the

quest is achieved and the boon is rewarded, the hero struggles with translating the gift into something

from which everyone can learn. Even when this is achieved, times change and the need for a new quest

149 Yeatman, The Story, 199 recounts a story in which Jesse demonstrated his marksmanship during a contest at a county fair by putting out the flame of a candle with one shot and then doing it once again using his left hand. Yeatman provides a number of anecdotes from Jesse ‘s “exile” in Tennessee. He describes the suspicious and often paranoid manner in which Jesse conducted himself such as always sitting with his back to a wall, keeping loaded pistols on him at all times and always keeping his “racehorse” close by. He also describes a number of “conflicts” in which Jesse would calmly intimidate his would-be enemy into submission by brandishing his gun (ex: Jim Ward incident & poker game incident in Nashville), 198-209. Most of Yeatman’s account is based on an article written in 1923 for the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch that described Jesse ‘s time in Humphrey’s county by interviewing people who had known him at the time and were still alive. This source should be met with some skepticism since it was based on the forty year old memories of people who only found out after his death that John Davis Howard was in fact Jesse James. 150 Campbell, Hero, 218.