This column ran in the August 30 edition of the Northfield News.
There is a somewhat perverse attraction to the “outlaw” in our society, whether it’s the bad boy biker, the femme fatale, or the $75 million wide receiver who plays when he wants to play. The Legend of Jesse James owes much of its glow to this attraction.
But Jesse did more than merely flaunt the rules. In his repeated use of violence in the pursuit of stated political ends, T. J. Stiles argues in his book “Jesse James: The Last Rebel of the Civil War,” that Jesse James was a terrorist.
Once Stiles establishes this thesis in his James biography, he relates Jesse’s life experiences in the context of his development as a terrorist. One hundred and fifty years later, many of these experiences and their impact on a young man seem surprisingly familiar a half a world away.
The story begins in Kansas. The U.S. Congress decided that the citizens of Kansas could vote on whether their state entered the union as a slave or free state. The two sides responded to this opportunity or challenge by financing the relocation of people as settlers to Kansas and arming them. The Battle for Kansas essentially became the start of the Civil War.
Many of the pro-slavery warriors came from neighboring Missouri. One Missourian was a young man from a slave-owning family: Frank James.
At first, Frank’s younger brother, Jesse, was forced to stay home and plow the family tobacco fields. Then one day some Missouri militiamen came looking for Frank. They beat Jesse, tortured his stepfather, and threw his mother in jail. Jesse could no longer be kept out of the spreading war.
As the youngest member of the guerilla forces, Jesse sought to prove himself quickly. In a band widely recognized for their callous treatment of their fellow human beings, Jesse was soon to be known as the most vicious killer. Jesse excelled at picking off his Unionist neighbors, one by one.
When Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House, Jesse and his comrades were not ready or willing to give up their fight. Self-supplied and financed by plundering their enemies during the war, at its end Jesse and his comrades turned their attention to the economic infrastructure. Jesse is widely credited with inventing the robbery of banks and trains.
Jesse justified his crimes as striking out against the carpet-bagging oppressors. He wrote a steady stream of articulate letters to the editor while living a lifestyle of fast horses, fine clothes and high-stakes gambling. As ex-Confederates were elected to offices, blacks were violently driven from political participation and Reconstruction collapsed, Jesse had to search farther and farther for tangible and newsworthy targets. It was the nationally recognized advocate for civil rights, northern war hero and small business success story, Adelbert Ames that lured Jesse to Northfield.
When the James-Younger Gang rode into Northfield that September day in 1876, they had managed to elude the Missouri State Militia, the Pinkerton Security Service and the federal army. They were confident that they would make quick work of the Ames’ First National Bank of Northfield. They had underestimated the people of downtown Northfield.
Building and business owners quickly moved from suspicion to action. When the call, “Robbers at the bank” went out, many of the townspeople already were armed. Within minutes, two of the robbers were badly wounded and one was dead. Cole Younger realized that they were caught in a cross-fire and said, “The game is up; we are beaten.” The robbery attempt was over, now they were trying to escape with their lives.
Unlike some of the historians who suggest Northfield’s annual event be renamed “The Defeat of the Younger Gang,” author Stiles not only clearly places Jesse James as a participant in the raid, but names him the killer of Joseph Lee Heywood. “In all likelihood, the man who glared at the dazed banker, who extended a pistol toward his head, was the same outlaw who had shot John Sheets at Gallatin and R. A. D. Martin at Columbia Jesse James.”
But Heywood was to be the James Gang’s last victim. Downtown merchants had succeeded where state militia, contract security and federal troops had failed.
Perhaps there is a lesson here. Perhaps the battle against terrorists, wherever its is fought, will not be won by the National Guard, hired guns, and the U. S. Marines. Perhaps the battle for basic freedoms, the right to vote, express your opinions, practice your religion and pursue your economic opportunities, will be won by local people, bankers, merchants and hardware store owners who say “We’ve had enough of this: We’re not going to tolerate it any more and it ends right here, right now.”