Readers, Mark Gardner wrote this book about Jesse James and his gang, and it’s so fascinating I read it twice.
Gardner is a wonderful researcher and writer, and so far has also written about Billy the Kid and Teddy Roosevelt. He’s also a talented musician.
So, without further ado..
ROBB: In the book, you made it plain that the James-Younger gang, particularly Jesse, was popular with the public.
You wrote, “No gang of criminals were more feared, more wanted, more hated and more celebrated.” You also said a newspaper editorialized the gang who robbed the train near the Lamine River as “Cool and courageous” and “dashing knights of the road.”
Why this admiration? Although it’s true the gang were all Confederate ex-partisans, and they knew their enemies in Missouri were going to constantly harass them after the war, didn’t you also say banks were not insured in the 19th century?
Weren’t the gang stealing from the people who deposited their money in the banks they robbed?
GARDNER: Wayman Hogue, who grew up in the Arkansas Ozarks in the 1870s and 80s, wrote in his autobiography, Back Yonder, that the mountain people not only considered Jesse James a hero, but they “held him up before their sons as an example of the ideal man.”
Hogue didn’t find this surprising: “It is one of the characteristics of human nature to worship at the shrine of anyone who excels in any line, let it be for good or for evil.”
The success of the James-Younger gang, combined with the audaciousness of their robberies, struck awe in many people, including journalists.
And the fact that the gang pulled off the Rocky Cut robbery (near Otterville, Missouri, July 7, 1876), for example, without anyone being shot or killed, made it seem okay to admire what the outlaws had accomplished.
As one newspaper wrote, “No one was hurt, and no one loses anything save the express company.”
That last line is important. As long as it was someone else losing their money, it was pretty easy to idolize the “bold outlaws.”
As for the banks in post-war Missouri, I think you would find that few of those who admired or tolerated the James-Younger gang – ex-Confederates and Southern sympathizers – had money in the banks.
A lot of Radical Republicans did, though.
ROBB: Did bitterness about the war, and having enemies, really motivate the James-Younger gang? After all, they could have left Missouri, moved to California and started new lives.
GARDNER: I think the chance to line their pockets with lots of cash was a pretty strong motivator. But at the same time, there was bitterness and a feeling amongst the gang that they were being persecuted, especially after their run-ins with Allan Pinkerton’s detectives.
Jesse and Frank’s eight-year-old half brother was mortally wounded when the Pinkertons conducted a disastrous midnight raid on the family farm in January, 1875; their mother was maimed for life. The Youngers lost a brother in a shootout with Pinkertons in south Missouri a year earlier.
I don’t know that we’ll ever know with one hundred percent certainty what motivated these men to live the life of outlaws, but I think it’s safe to say that most of them did it with chips on their shoulders.
ROBB: Do you have any estimate of how many banks and trains they robbed in 11 years, from 1866 to 1876, and number of men they killed?
GARDNER: Hard to say, because the gang personnel changed over time, and there are some robberies where we suspect it was the handiwork of the James-Younger gang but can’t confirm.
For example, the first robbery that, because of the evidence, there is no question that Jesse was a participant was the robbery of the Daviess County Savings Association in Gallatin, Missouri, on December 7, 1869 (and that may have been a planned murder disguised as a robbery).
A good website that attempts to tackle the question of who possibly took part in the several robberies associated with the different permutations of the gang is found here:
ROBB: Jesse seems like an interesting person. You described him as always laughing, light hearted and reckless and brave, but egotistical.
But why did he constantly write newspapers denying he committed such and such a robbery if he enjoyed being the most wanted man in the U.S.? Was that really his way of bragging the gang did it and taunting the law?
GARDNER: Certainly Jesse liked the attention, but his published letters were also propaganda. By strongly professing his innocence and ranting against Missouri officials (Republicans) and especially the Pinkertons (based in Chicago), he maintained the sympathies of pro-Southern Missourians.
Jesse was also angling for full amnesty, and he came close. An amnesty bill was brought before the Missouri legislature in March of 1874, but was defeated by a small margin.
ROBB: Jesse seemed to glory in his notoriety, but what did he think would happen. That he would never be caught?
GARDNER: I’m guessing most Wild West outlaws believed they wouldn’t get caught.
ROBB: How did they get away with the crimes for 11 years. They seemed to stand out in a crowd. You wrote they had “striking physiques,” they dressed differently than others, pushing their pants inside knee-high boots, wore big spurs, wide-brimmed hats and all of them wore dusters, plus they had strong Missouri twangs.
GARDNER: The outlaws did stand out in Minnesota, but the gang always had a plausible explanation for the curious: they were miners on their way to the Black Hills, or cattle drovers. The idea that these unusual-looking men were the notorious James-Younger gang was the farthest from people’s minds.
And it’s important to remember that there were no good photographs of the outlaws available at the time (the gang members’ families made it a point to keep any photos secret). Unless you went to school with Jesse or Frank, you would have no clue as to their real identity.
In fact, so unconcerned was the gang about someone identifying them that they rode in a train to Minnesota and freely went about in public once they got there.
ROBB: Why was Cole Younger sent to prison for years for his part in the Northfield bank robbery, while Frank James got a pardon; particularly when it was Frank who murdered the heroic Joseph Heywood, the bank accountant who refused to open the vault.
GARDNER: Actually, Frank was never pardoned. He was subjected to two criminal trials after his surrender to the Missouri governor in 1882 and was acquitted at both. Now, had Frank been extradited to Minnesota and been tried for the murder of Joseph Lee Heywood, he very likely would have been convicted and sentenced to death.
However, a key part of the deal for his surrender was a promise from Governor Thomas Crittenden that Frank would not be sent to Minnesota. And, indeed, Minnesota’s governor did send a requisition for Frank in January, 1883, but Crittenden declined to honor it.
Cole, of course, was captured in Minnesota red handed, so to speak, along with his brothers, Jim and Bob. He and his brothers probably would not have spent so many years in Stillwater, however, if they had identified the two robbers who got away after the Northfield debacle: Frank and Jesse James.
The Youngers refused to name names – and they were asked countless times.
Cole, the last surviving Younger brother, was released from parole by the Minnesota pardon board in 1903 and allowed to return to Missouri, where he reunited with his old friend Frank James. The two toured together for a few short months as part of The Great Cole Younger and Frank James Historical Wild West.
ROBB: Your chapter on the Northfield bank raid was fascinating. It seemed to shock the gang that the Northfield citizens fought back. Now remind me, why did Jesse escape? Everyone else was killed in Northfield or captured after that long chase through the Big Woods, correct?
GARDNER: During their flight across Minnesota, the surviving six members of the gang decided to split up southwest of Mankato.
Most of the men had serious wounds to contend with, but Bob’s shattered elbow was extremely painful, and he required frequent rest, which slowed everyone down (they were on foot at this time).
So, Frank and Jesse separated from the Youngers and Charlie Pitts. The James boys stole a pair of horses almost immediately afterward and were able keep in horse flesh for the remainder of their escape, thus allowing them to stay ahead of the posses.
Had the Youngers and Pitts also been able to acquire some mounts, they might have made it out of Minnesota as well. That didn’t happen. In a shootout with a posse on the Watonwan River near Madelia, Charlie Pitts was killed and the Youngers captured.
ROBB: In the movie about Jesse James, starring Brad Pitt, Jesse gets on a ladder to hang a picture, or something like that, and sees, in the glass, Robert Ford take his gun out, preparing to shoot him in the back. And he lets Ford do it.
Although that was just a movie, I wonder if something like that could have happened in real life? Wasn’t Jesse suspicious of Ford? Was Ford Jesse’s way out?
GARDNER: The Ford brothers later said that they believed Jesse had become suspicious of them. It would be pure speculation as to what was going through Jesse’s mind before Bob Ford pulled the trigger on his revolver.
But we do know that Jesse James had a wife and two children whom he loved. He also appeared to be planning for the future. Just a month before his assassination he had inquired about a 160-acre farm that was for sale in Nebraska.
That doesn’t sound suicidal to me.