Jesse James:Last Rebel of the Civil War
By T.J. StilesKnopf. 512 pp. $27.50
Reviewed by Max McCoy
One hundred and twenty years after "that dirty little coward" Robert Ford shot Jesse James in the back of the head while the latter stood on a chair to dust a picture in his Missouri home, scholars continue to debate the outlaw’s importance in American social history. Now, in a deeply researched work that may become the authoritative biography, independent historian and frequent Smithsonian contributor Stiles calls James (1847—82) a "forerunner of the modern terrorist."
The assertion strikes a sour note in an otherwise well-written and well-reasoned work, the first significant examination of the outlaw’s life since William A. Settle’s Jesse James Was His Name (1966). That life was brief but eventful. James’s 21 daylight robberies left more than a dozen dead, and by some estimates netted a quarter-million dollars in loot–a staggering sum at the time.
Unlike previous biographers, Stiles doesn’t flinch from the fact that until the end of his life, James was driven by the racist and violent lessons of his childhood. For years before the Civil War officially began, western Missouri was the setting for a bitter guerrilla conflict over the expansion of slavery into the Kansas Territory. The family that Frank and Jesse James were born into in the 1840s was culturally aligned with the Southern aristocracy, and it owned a few slaves. The father, Robert, denounced abolitionists from his Baptist pulpit; the mother, domineering six-footer Zerelda, applauded as patriotic the atrocities committed by Confederate guerrillas, among them William "Bloody Bill" Anderson, a dashing scalp-taking lunatic.
Stiles is at his best when he uses his research into the period to depict the everyday lives of Jesse James and his contemporaries. When he cites unrelated modern scholarship to support his conclusions, however, he is less successful. In downplaying the seriousness of a chest wound suffered by James in 1865, for instance, he notes that a war hospital in 1990s Croatia found similar injuries "particularly survivable"–glossing over medical advances of the intervening century. By contrast, Stiles devotes only a parenthetical note to a singularly pertinent study: the 1995 exhumation and the DNA testing that determined, once and for all, that Jesse James did not escape assassin Ford’s bullet. Although few scholars believed that James had survived, the possibility had captured the popular imagination.
The myth of James as noble outlaw began during his lifetime. Previous scholars have maintained that James himself had little role in fashioning it, but Stiles disagrees. "[James] was far from an inarticulate symbol created by others," he writes. "When the unspoken assumptions are cleared away, a truly substantial Jesse James emerges."
Stiles likens James to a terrorist because of the outlaw’s pro-Confederate political consciousness and his close relationship with "propagandist and power broker" John Newman Edwards, a newspaper editor who wrote about the James Gang. Although the argument is trendy, the support is thin for comparing Jesse James–even a murderous, thieving, and racist Jesse James–with the sort of modern-day terrorists who flew airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Despite his scholarship, Stiles falls victim to the most seductive trap in historical research: interpreting the past through a contemporary lens.