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Posts Tagged ‘Jesse James’


I wish I had more time to read books on history and historical events. There are so many topics I want to learn about. But when the title of your book is Shot All to Hell, you go to the top of the queue. Mark Lee Gardner likes to use “hell” (or h-e-double hockey sticks as Radar used to say) in his book titles. I’ll have to get his To Hell on a Fast Horse which is about Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett. Here Gardner tackles the attempted robbery that ended the James-Younger gang.

I saw this book last winter while wandering SkyHarbor airport while CavWife and kids ate breakfast before they went east for a vacation. It intrigued me, so it ended up putting it on my wish list and got it Christmas (thanks, CavWife!). As a result I read it while on my Christmas vacation. I’ve been a bit busy so I’m finally getting to this.

“They excelled at deception- they had to.”

Gardner notes that it presents a peculiar difficulty in writing about outlaws since lying is a way of life for them. Their own testimony in books, newspaper articles and to friends tends to be unreliable. He looked at other eyewitness testimony as well. This may be as close to the truth as we’ll get to the Northfield Raid.

He begins with the Rocky Cut train robbery which has been attributed to the James-Younger gang to introduce us to them. His point? They knew what they were doing, which makes the failed robbery in Northfield all the more interesting.

“Before September 7, 1876, the James-Younger gang had never been challenged, denied, or defeated.”

If they had high school yearbooks then, they would not have been voted “Most Likely to be Famous Criminals” or infamous criminals. They appear to have come for generally good homes. The Younger family was wealthy enough to have slaves prior to the Civil War, and they were “well-schooled, church-going Missourians.” The James brothers grew up as the sons of “a cultured, college-educated Baptist minister.” They too owned slaves.

That is important because both families supported the Confederate States in the conflict. This is what changed everything for both families. Both families suffered at the hands of Kansas jayhawkers. The sons would meet as part of the Quantrill Raiders where they became familiar with  bloodshed and utilizing guerrilla tactics. The war hardened them, and the South’s defeat set the stage for their life of crime which they seemed to view as vigilante justice.

“Circumstances sometimes make people what they are,” Bob once said. “If it had not been for the war, I might have been something, but as it is, I am what I am.”

The book is quite entertaining. I often pondered what it would be like to put together as a movie. As with the real story there are explosive bursts of excitement including the failed robbery and shootout, and then the gunfight that resulted in the capture of the Younger portion of the gang.

Woven into the story is the story of the man Jesse hoped to kill in Minnesota- attorney Sam Hardwicke. Hardwicke was instrumental in a Pinkerton raid that intended to apprehend the James’ boys but resulted in the death of young Archie. This is part of what drove the gang to MN in the first place.

The story brings in the advances in safes that made life difficult for the erstwhile robbers. Gardner also delves into the conflicts and arrogance of the men leading the search for the gang. He also notes the conflicts within the gang, particularly Jesse and Cole Younger’s struggle for power.

It is a story of violence, near misses, second chances and imprisonment. It is a fascinating story, and Gardner tells it, usually, in a very interesting manner. The details of their escape makes you wonder if they wished they’d just been captured in the first place. It was, at times, that unpleasant.

If you like history, and tales of the old west, this is the book for you. Circumstances shape and mold us, opening us up to particular temptations. Sometimes they help us make excuses for ourselves. You will see in them your own tendency to justify your own indiscretions. Lastly you see that sin has a bitter price, and you will pay it eventually.

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I watched The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Bob Ford yesterday.  It is based on a novel, so I have no clue how much truth might be mixed in with the fiction.  So, I’ll treat it all as fiction.

This movie is about the relationship between Jesse James and a younger man who idealized and idolized him, Bob Ford.  Bob’s brother Charlie is in the James Gang.  Bob has built a library and museum to Jesse, tucked under his bunk.  Looking like a rag-tag waif in a ridiculous top hat, he seeks to meet the brothers James on a job and become something of a sidekick.  He gives Frank James the creeps.  And he seems creepy (played well by Casey Affleck who is finally making a name for himself, emerging from his brother’s shadow).  Jesse, being the more impetuous brother takes advantage of the young man’s interest after what turns out to be the James’ Gang’s final job.  Frank heads east leaving Jesse to make sure none of their associates betrays them.

The portrait that emerges is one of James (a fine performance by Brad Pitt) as both charismatic and crazy.  He is a paranoid psychopath who begins to kill members of the gang he suspects are going to turn him in.  Rejection begins to turn Bob’s heart and a series of incidents continue the turning.  After he has killed Jesse’s cousin, he knows that eventually Jesse will come for him.  But during this time Bob has grown more confident, self-assured.  He has also turned state’s evidence in an attempt to hedge his bets.  The Governor is played by James Carvel (yes, the Democrat attack dog- both sides have them) and Ted Levine (Monk, Silence of the Lambs) has a role as the Marshall.  The movie runs along these 2 lines, Jesse and Bob Ford.

The day comes when Jesse discovers Dick Liddle has turned state’s evidence, 3 weeks previously (after Bob arranged his capture).  Bob knows that soon he will be discovered.  The movie is a bit ambiguous- did Jesse want Bob to kill him?

You do see something of James, the family man.  But what struck me was the incredible price his family played for his unlawful choices.  The children do not know their real last name.  They don’t know what their father does.  They move often, usually in the middle of the night.  Their father is missing for long stretches of time, leaving his wife to hold down the fort.

The last 20 minutes of the movie focus on Bob Ford’s life after the killing.  He became a villain for killing an American folkhero the same way that folkhero killed so many others.  James was a hero, he was a coward.  In a rare vulnerable moment he tells a woman “I thought they would applaud.”  He set everyone free from terror at the hand of James, and he was the bad guy.  He is the one person who stood up to him, and he was the coward.  The cruel ironies of life.

The oddities of popular culture, to idolize evil men and despise those who try to do what is right (Ford clearly had mixed motives here, so he’s no hero).  We have an undiscerning tendency to admire those who “stick it to the man”, overlooking their own greed, vainglory, hubris and selfish motives.  This movie says alot about us, implicitly, by who we think is the hero and the villain.

The movie is an interesting one, but a very long one (2:40) and slow of pace.  The soundtrack builds a very sad and desperate mood.  Though this is a good movie with some very good performances, it is not a movie for everyone.  There is, obviously, some bloodshed, and some sexual banter between the thieves.  So, this movie is not appropriate for everyone.  But you receive a more realistic glimpse into the lives of western outlaws- the loneliness, fear and disconnection.

Sidenote:  One scene makes extensive use of the word “misremembered”.  Makes you wonder if Clemens watched this just prior to the Congressional hearings.

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