Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Jesse James: Riding Hell-Bent for Leather into Legend

Like Robin Hood

A Missourian caught up in the split emotions of his state at the advent of the Civil War, his family chose the states' rights doctrine of the South. Jesse detested what represented the Industrial North and what it did to the glory of the Old Dominion; not one to forgive and forget, he continued to fight the fathers of the Union decades after the conflict ended to the point that he raided a bank in far off Minnesota because of a Union Army connection. There the North won, again, but he remained a rebel, lessons unlearned and convictions unaltered.

"Jesse James (partly) turned to crime as a means of exacting revenge on all things Yankee," says Time-Life Books' The Wild West.

But, was the Civil War the only motivating factor that turned Jesse, the son of a Baptist minister, into a Colt-packing, six-chambered desperado? Some researchers say his die was cast at an earlier age, before the first gun of the rebellion sounded. On a Miltonesque note, they speak of pre-destiny, he being a child of the wild mountain country from whence he came. Whatever caused him to lay the plow for the highwayman's tools, Jesse James relished being an outlaw.

America loved him being an outlaw, too, for in him there was adventure in an otherwise dull, slowly-turning-scientific age. And there lieth that often-too-unbelievable twist of fate that makes legends in rampaging a society he didn't like, a society of America's second century, he became its folk hero. Probably, say the social scholars, because much of that society needed an old-fashioned hero to represent its own pioneer yearning kept harnessed by a supposedly more docile, less-demanding democracy.

What makes Jesse a totally fascinating character is the human trait he brought to outlawry, akin only to Robin Hood. "Like his famous predecessor in folklore (although in fact James was a real person), Jesse James robbed from the rich and was kind to the poor," explains Encyclopaedia Britannica's Annals of America series. "(He) was always willing to help some cowpoke who was 'down on his luck'."

Like anyone who has made an incredible dent in his/her own texture of time, Jesse rose above the realm of mortal fame by playing his own life on a human level. He preferred to be known as one of earth's seedlings who fought back against the sequoia of (what he saw) oppression. And by driving his pursuers crazy with anxiety and anger on their own level, that made his victories and, yes, the pursuit, too that much more thrilling.

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