Saturday, September 5, 2009

Murdered by a Traitor and Coward Whose Name is not Worthy to Appear Here. – the Birthday of Jesse James (September 5, 1847-April 3, 1882)

Today would have been the 162nd birthday of Jesse James. James is known in American history and culture for his celebrity outlaw status, having robbed many banks and trains. He has also been celebrated in popular culture for his dramatic death at the hands of fellow bank robber, Robert Ford.
The life of Jesse James is indicative of the prickly nature of living in a border state during and after the American Civil War. He was born and raised in Missouri and sided with the Confederacy during the war. Throughout the conflict, James fought with Confederate sympathizers in the guerrilla warfare that gripped the state. After the war, James and others started to rob banks and trains, claiming that they were targeting Unionists who attacked the confederacy during the war. After killing a man in cold bold during a bank robbery, James even took to publishing letters in a local newspaper edited by a fellow confederate sympathizer in the hopes of winning public support for his actions. Although the government and security companies hired by banks and railroads chased him unceasingly, James met his end at the hands of his supposed bank-robbing partner, Robert Ford. Ford was a new recruit to James’ gang, who was helping James and others prepare for a bank robbery on the day of James’ death. Unbeknownst to James, Robert Ford had been negotiating with the Governor of Missouri to capture James. When James removed his weapons while preparing for the day’s robbery, Robert Ford shot James in the back of his head. Ford and his brother, also a member of James’ gang, were arrested for his murder and sentenced to death, only to be quickly pardoned by the governor. Jesse James was buried under a marker bearing an epitaph written by his mother: “In Memory of my Beloved Son, Murdered by a Traitor and Coward Whose Name is not Worthy to Appear Here.”
Since his death, James’ legacy has been shaped by different events in American history and depicted in different formats, from dime store novels to films to popular songs. People close to Jesse James even profited from his death soon after the fact. His mother Zereida was offered $10,000 for the body, which she refused. She did, however, charge a fee for those who wanted to take a pebble from her son’s grave. James’ children also appeared in a film about his life entitled Jesse James Under the Black Flag. A song bearing his name has also been recorded by such artists as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Bruce Springsteen on his 2006 album We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. The most recent cultural homage to James would be 2007’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. No matter if he is viewed as a tragic hero, victim of circumstance, or villain, it seems as if Jesse James will continue to hold a place in the American cultural imagination for many years to come.

For more about Jesse James including a timeline, photos, teachers guides, online polls and games visit PBS here.

[Image via Wikimedia]

1 comment:

  1. I love the Lincoln quote at the bottom of the page. I can think of a lot of thistles that need plucking . . .