Historian challenges Jesse James' image as a folk hero

  • Article by: JEFF STRICKLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 5, 2013 - 9:38 AM

Long romanticized for his daring exploits, the real Jesse James was a coldhearted killer, a historian argues.

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A bank robbery re-enactment is part of the Defeat of Jesse James Days.

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The public image of Jesse James was forever changed when his gang rode up to the Northfield bank shortly before 2 p.m. on Sept. 7, 1876.

Now Old West historian Mark Lee Gardner argues that it’s time to reassess the legendary outlaw yet again.

The notion that the gang was infallible — an impression held not only by the general public but also by some law enforcers — was shattered that afternoon. The gang’s attempt to rob the First National Bank was thwarted by townspeople, who attacked the outlaws with every gun they could get their hands on — and those who couldn’t find guns threw rocks.

The news quickly spread nationwide that the gang had been bested by ordinary citizens, a turn of events considered unfathomable until then.

They were the “quintessential horseback outlaw gang,” Gardner said. “There’s never been another gang like that, and they were so thoroughly defeated that it is a stunning event.”

The failed robbery is the subject of Gardner’s new book, “Shot All to Hell.” It’s also the focal point of the Defeat of Jesse James Days, a festival that runs through Sunday in Northfield and includes everything from an art fair to a square dance. The centerpoint of the annual event is the weekend re-enactments of the robbery attempt, which Gardner said are without parallel.

“If it’s not the most accurate, it’s one of the most accurate re-enactments of an Old West event in the country,” he said.

Although the Jesse James story has been told many times before, Gardner, who wrote his fast-paced book with the tenor of an adventure, wanted to revisit it from a post-9/11 perspective. He’s not suggesting that the gunslingers were terrorists, but he is convinced that the romanticized attitude that used to surround legendary renegades has dissipated.

“I grew up in Jesse James country in Missouri, just 12 miles from where he robbed his first bank,” he said. “I had grown up with the myth, and in the myth, Jesse could do no wrong. I wanted to examine the real Jesse James, the Jesse James that was a killer, a coldblooded killer at times.

“As a youth, I think I did idolize these outlaws, but as a historian, I also realize that they were killers and they deserved what they got.”

The organizers of the Northfield festival second that opinion. The event’s website includes an emphatic statement that the intent is not to pay homage to Jesse James. “The celebration is held to honor the townspeople who defeated the James-Younger gang,” it says.

That point is stressed in the local schools, said Wayne Eddy, chairman of the organizaton that oversees the festival.

“We started this 25 years ago,” he said. “The raiders — the re-enactors — visit all the schools. Each one tells what role he had in the raid and then what happened to him: I was shot, I ended up in prison, and so on. At the end, we ask the kids: What’s the festival called? And they yell, ‘The Defeat of Jesse James.’ ”

The gang was led by two sets of brothers, Jesse and Frank James and Cole, Bob and Jim Younger. When they went to Northfield, they already had passed on trying to rob banks in St. Peter and Mankato. The small bank looked vulnerable. It turned out that the people of Northfield were anything but.

“We keep coming back to it: How did these normal townspeople beat hardened, gun-toting criminals who had defeated other superior forces?” Gardner said. “How did this happen to this gang that most people considered invincible?”

It was such a blow to the outlaws’ egos that Cole Younger was still stewing about it 20 years later. In a letter he wrote from Stillwater prison, he said the outlaws had failed because they were drunk. Gardner rejects the claim as a desperate attempt to avoid crediting the people with beating them.

“No eyewitness accounts describe any of the robbers as being drunk,” he writes.

Younger also said that they targeted the Northfield bank because they thought it held $75,000 that belonged to two rich men, and they figured that neither the bank employees nor the citizens would risk their lives to protect that money. In fact, the bank held about $15,000, most of it belonging to the townspeople, which is the reason Gardner believes they fought so furiously to save it.

“In 1876, you can’t call 911,” he said. “In the 19th century, most people realized that you’re on your own. If the bank is being robbed or somebody is being hurt, you’ve got to step up. And these men were very willing to do that and did not hesitate to do that.”

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