Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Jesse James: Riding Hell-Bent for Leather into Legend

Jesse Woodson James

"Out of the frontier West the American character was formed..."

Dee Brown

Every century brings its heroes and its villains. Every now and then, however, a character lurches forth with a combination of the two; maybe because the world doesn't know whether to love or hate him or her, he or she becomes a milestone in the study of complex mankind. Nitty, gritty, but with the spirit of a conquering warrior. In short, a legend is born.

Such a landmark is Jesse Woodson James.

Of James, crime historian Jay Robert Nash asserts, "Millions of words would be written about this handsome, dashing and utterly ruthless bank and train robber. To many of his peers, he would appear a folklore hero who took vengeance in their name upon an industrial society that was grinding the old agrarian lifestyle to ashes. To others, Jesse James and his band represented the last vestiges of the Old South and its lost cause of secession...He was at large for sixteen years. He committed dozens of daring robberies and killed at least a half-dozen or more men. He died at the age of thirty-four."

Jesse James at the height of his career, 1876
Jesse James at the height of his career, 1876

In that short span of life Jesse James moved unprincipled yet talented, unschooled yet successful in a changing world. While he rode at his peak, the nation tumbled over its centennial celebration, happy and fat and beating its patriotic breast till black and blue. Changes were a-comin' some frightening in prospect, others promising. In no other fold of life was American colloquialism turning an about-face more severely than in the West. The Pony Express couldn't keep up with the stage lines, and the stage lines couldn't keep up with the railroads. Agriculture went mechanical. A teacher of the deaf, Alexander Graham Bell, had the crust to dream up something called a telephone. And a wizard named Tom Edison pondered the possibility of lighting cities incandescently. But, Jesse James outrode the changes taking place around him, thumbing his nose at others who said this was a modernized world, and continued to be the Templar knight of things that were; tradition his saddle mate.


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