Creating the James Legend

Newspaperman John Newman Edwards played a significant role in molding public opinion in favor of Frank and Jesse James despite their crimes.

Newspaper publisher John Edwards, ardent defender of the James Boys who largely embellished their lore and legend

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The following is taken, in part, from a 2-part series written by Edward A. Higgins on the James boys published in May, 1973, by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

Not long afterwards (after the Gallatin bank robbery), a letter appeared in the Kansas City Times, edited by John Newman Edwards, who had ridden with Confederate General Jo Shelby in the War Between the States while the James brothers were riding with Quantrill’s raiders, who conducted guerrilla warfare in Kansas and western Missouri. In the letter, Jesse, who would be classified a functional illiterate today, denied killing the bank owner or holding up the bank, but said he could not surrender because he was convinced he would be lynched as had some of the men arrested as suspects in the five earlier bank holdups.

“I will never surrender to be mobbed by a set of bloodthirsty poltroons,” the letter said. “It is true that during the war I was a Confederate soldier, and fought under the black flag, but since then I have lived as a peaceable citizen, and obeyed the laws of the United States to the best of my knowledge.”

With that letter, Jesse James began his evolution as the first media creation.

Almost ever bank, train or state holdup thereafter was charged to the James brothers or to members of their gang — all former Quantrill men — and almost every one produced a letter of denial from Jesse James. Frank, who was well-read and lied to recite Shakespeare, was not given to letter-writing, at least in his own name. The letters of denial, all of which attributed Jesse’s unwillingness to surrender to his fear that Union sympathizers would not give him a fair trial, produced in turn a gush of sympathetic stories from the Times and other Missouri newspapers that had been in the Confederate camp.

The Jameses, the Youngers, and other former Quantrill bushwhackers were characterized as law-abiding citizens whose families had been persecuted during the Civil War — which was true to some extent — and who, upon returning from war, had been harassed and intimidated by Jayhawkers and the Radical Republicans who controlled the state. They were noble chaps, driven to a life of crime, said the Times and other papers. As the months and years passed, the newspapers embellished the legend by asserting that the criminals never robbed former Confederates, nor did they rob the poor. They were compared to Robin Hood and King Arthur’s knights. The paradox of it all was that the newspapers portrayed the robbers as knights errant, praised their daring, and romanticized their motives, yet denied their guilt.

In short, Jesse James and his kind ere praised for crimes someone else allegedly committed.

There was a good deal of Confederate sympathy in Missouri at the time and this, combined with the press depiction of the robbers as wronged men and citizen fear of being killed for turning them in, permitted the Jameses to live fairly open lives for the 13 years they remained at large after the Gallatin bank job.

The extent of the sympathy the press inspired toward the Jameses and other Quantrill men is reflected in this casual mention of the James brothers in a dispatch from the Liberty Tribune’s correspondent in Kearney in the summer of 1870: “We have no news. We are very dry and suffering from want or rain. The James brothers were in our town this week. They were heavily armed and well mounted.”

Another indication of the public sympathy for the outlaws can be seen in two resolutions introduced in the Missouri House, both in 1875. The first expressed outrage over the fire bombing of the James farm, which took the life of the James brothers’ 9-year-old stepbrother, Archie, and blew off their mother’s right hand. The Richmond Conservator declared, “The James boys never fired a dwelling at might.” The hated Pinkerton detectives were blamed for the act, but the resolution calling for the capture of the culprits never produced results.

The second resolution, vigorously supported by the St. Louis Dispatch, called for amnesty for all former bushwhackers. It described the Jameses and the Youngers as men who were forced from their homes and were seeking only to keep themselves alive, concluding: “Whereas, believing these men too brave to be mean, too generous to be revengeful, and too gallant and honorable to betray a friend of break a promise; and believing further that most, if not all, the offenses with which they are charged have been committed by others …that the return of these men to their homes and friends would have the effect of greatly lessening crime in our state by turning public attention to the real criminals, sound policy and true statesmanship alike demand that general amnesty should be extended …for attacks done or charged to have been done during the war… ”

It is true that the Missouri Constitution of 1865 did not extend amnesty to Confederates, but it is also true that it did not outlaw them. Furthermore, there is no evidence that the Jameses and the Youngers were molested after the war; in any case, the war had been over almost a year before the first bank robbery took place.

The vote on that resolution to grant amnesty, which of course would not have cleared them of any criminal charges arising from the bank, train and stage holdups, was 58-yes and 39-no. It failed for want of a two-thirds majority.

If things had gone well for the James gang up to that point, it was about to come apart. The beginning of the end occurred in September 1876 when eight armed men rode into Northfield, MN. Only two rode out.

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The following is taken, in part, from the second portion of a 2-part series written by Edward A. Higgins on the James boys published in May, 1973, by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

The gang did not fail to exploit the sympathy generate for them by the newspapers. After almost every robbery a letter would appear in a newspaper over Jesse’s name, though he was nearly illiterate. The theme was nearly always the same: Guilt was denied but surrender was impossible because former Confederate allegiance would make a fair trial impossible.

Apparently sensing what every public relations man knows today, the James gang quickly learned the best way to get full media exposure. On at least one occasion they issued a press release on their exploits:

On Jan. 31, 1874, five men walked into the depot at Gads Hill, a small village and flag station on the Iron Mountain Railroad, 100 miles south of St. Louis. Revolvers drawn, they ordered the station agent to signal the oncoming train to stop. It did, and when the conductor alighted he was looking down the muzzle of a revolver instead of a boarding passenger. The other robbers climbed onto the train and relieved the passengers of their money and jewelry, and also took the contents of the express safe. Estimates of the lot ranged from $200 to $22,000.

As the robbers departed, one of them paused to hand a crewman a neatly written account of the robbery, accurate, as it turned out, in all its details. The account contained a blank in which the amount of money taken could be filled in.

Before long, the Jameses’ mother joined in the media campaign. She visited newspapers and submitted to interviews in which she described her sons as loyal, devoted, peace-loving boys who helped little old ladies across streets, rescued cats from trees, and killed Yankees during the Civil War (the James family owned seven slaves when the war broke out).

…With three of the original gang in custody and three killed — William Stiles, Clell Miller and Samuel Wells — the Jameses moved to Tennessee under assumed names. Train and bank robberies in Missouri continued, however, and after Jesse’s death his former neighbors in Tennessee recalled that he left home for periods of thee and four weeks at a time. Many of these periods corresponded with robberies in Missouri. Trains were held up in 1879 in Glendale in Jackson County, in 1881 at Winston in Daviess County, and at Blue Cut the same year in Jackson County. Some of the jobs were poorly carried out, indicating either that the Jameses were not involved or that the newly recruited members of the gang were not nearly as professional as the six casualties of the Northfield sitckup.

After Northfield, press and public sympathy for the Jameses continued, but press hostility also developed. Missouri’s reputation as the birthplace of the bank holdup and the state in which the train robbery was perfected was thought by civic boosters to have hurt its economic growth. Newspapers in Chicago and the East were scornful of Missouri. Political leaders were increasingly being called to task for their inability to bring the Jameses to justice.

…today towns all over Missouri like to maintain that Jesse James robbed their bank. He probably robbed many banks, stages and trains and if he did, he also killed many innocent, unresisting persons. On the other hand, no one has ever proved that he committed a crime. But if one wants to believe that he was some kind of knight errant of the back woods, a dashing figure of great courage, resourcefulness and daring, one then also must conceded that he was a ruthless murderer.