Press Agent for Outlaws

The following, in part, is written by Martin McGrane for the February 1980 edition of Rural Missouri:

Not many people become international celebrities without a little promotional help along the way — and Missouri’s famous bandit brothers, Frank and Jesse James, were no exceptions. And while it might be too generous to give John Edwards all the credit for history’s image of the James boys, he certainly deserves a healthy dose.

Edwards was a pioneer Missouri newspaperman, one of the most respected of his generation. But more than that, he was a public relations man operating during an era that hadn’t even coined the term. Using a hero-building formula that had been around for centuries, in tandem with PR techniques so innovative they wouldn’t have labels for another 70 years, he gave the James brothers an image so appealing that it prompted one of Missouri’s most famous skeptics, Harry Truman, to remark: “Jesse was a modern-day Robin Hood. He stole from the rich and gave to the poor, which, in general, is not a bad policy.”

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

Edwards was born in Front Royal, VA, in 1839. He came to Missouri in the mid-1850s, first working as a printer for the Lexington Expositor. When the Civil War began he joined the Confederate Army and won a major’s commission while serving as an adjutant to his friend, General Jo Shelby. Between the war’s end and the time of his death in 1889, Edwards wrote for at least six different Missouri newspapers, authored two books — and became a moody, introverted alcoholic.

Edwards probably met Frank and Jesse James when they were teenaged Confederate guerrillas riding with William Clarke Quantrill and “Bloody Bill” Anderson. The James boys went back to their mother’s farm near Kearney, MO, after the war and although they’ve often been accused of launching their careers with a hit on the Clay County Savings Bank in Liberty, MO, on Feb. 13, 1866, it wasn’t until two men robbed the Daviess County Savings Association at Gallatin on Dec. 7, 1869, that Frank and Jesse came under public suspicion.

By 1872, Edwards was actively involved in glamorizing local crimes charged against unknown ex-guerrillas in general and the James brothers in particular. Perhaps fantasizing that some remnant of the Confederacy still rode whenever the old bushwhackers went outside the law, Edwards began to glorify them, not for the crimes they committed but for the way they did things. Two days after three armed men rode up to the cashier’s window at the Kansas City fairgrounds and came away with $978, while a crowd estimated at 10,000 gaped in astonishment, Edwards published an editorial in the Kansas City Times (which he helped organize in 1868) that showed his admiration for the flashy lawlessness of the ex-guerrillas:

“There are men …who learned to dare when there was no such word as quarter in the dictionary of the Border. Men who have carried their lives in their hands so long they do not know how to commit them over into the keeping of the laws an regulations that exist now, and these men sometimes rob. But it is always in the glare of the day and in the teeth of the multitude. With them booty is but the second thought; the wild drama of the adventure first …These men are bad citizens but they are bad because they live out of their time. The nineteenth century …is not the social soil for men who might have sat with Arthur at the Round Table, ridden at tourney with Sur Launcelot…

“What they did we condemn. But the way they did it we cannot help admiring… It was as though three bandits had come to us from the storied Odenwald, with the halo of medieval chivalry upon their garments…”

Other local editorial writers saw the fairgrounds robbery in a different light. Commenting that a young girl had been accidentally shot and seriously wounded during the fracas, the Kansas City Daily Journal of Commerce stated: “More audacious villains than the perpetrators of this robbery, or those more deserving of hanging on a limb do not exist at this moment.”

Whether he consciously realized it or not, Edwards’ defense of the James brothers and other ex-guerrillas had, by then, already begun to follow a formula for hero-making that had been used for centuries. In immortalizing England’s Robin Hod, Germany’s Schinderhannes, Italy’s Fra Diavalo and Australia’s Ned Kelly, writers have used a consistent, proven scenario. The young hero is forced into a life of crime; his crimes are noble and justifiable (he steals from the rich and gives to the poor); he is kind to defenseless women and children, but a scourge to evil men — and he is eventually killed by a wretched, honor-starved traitor.

Edwards’ editorial that followed the Kansas City fairgrounds robbery hinted at this approach. And in 1877, when Frank and Jesse were already famous as bank and train robbers, Edwards published a 488-page book of real and imaged Civil War exploits called “Noted Guerrillas or the Warfare of the Border,” that plugged the James brothers into all but the last step of that historically proven formula. For openers, the book established the claim that Jesse was not allowed to return to peaceful postwar life by saying that he had been shot and seriously wounded while riding toward Lexington, MO, to surrender to federal troops after the war’s end. Then, in Chapter 18, Edwards eloquently described the kind of harassment he claimed drove Jesse to become a postwar outlaw:

“The hunt for this maimed and emaciated Guerrilla culminated on the night of Feb. 18, 1867. On this night an effort was made to kill him. Five militiamen, well armed and mounted, came to his mother’s house and demanded admittance. The weather was bitterly cold, and Jesse James, parched with a fever, was tossing wearily in bed. His pistols were under his head. His step-father, Dr. Samuel, heard the militiamen as they walked upon the front porch, and demanded to know what they wanted. They told him to open the door. He came up to Jess’s room and asked him what he should do. ‘Help me to the window,’ was the low, calm reply, ‘that I may look out.’ He did so. There was snow on the ground and the moon was shining. He saw that all the horses hitched to the fence had on cavalry saddles, and then he knew that the men were soldiers. He had be one of two things to do — drive them away or die…

He went down stairs softly, having first dressed himself, crept up close to the front door and listened until from the talk of the men he thought he was able to get a fatally accurate pistol range. Then he put a heavy dragoon revolver to within three inches of the upper panel of the door and fired. A man cried out and fell. Before the surprise was off he threw the door wide open, and with a pistol in each hand began a rapid fusillade. A second man was killed as he ran, two men were wounded severely, and surrendered, while the fifth marauder, terrified yet unhurt, rushed swiftly to his horse and escaped in the darkness.

“What else could Jesse James have done? He had been a desperate Guerrilla; he had fought under a black flag; he had made a name for terrible prowess along the border …hence the wanton war waged upon Jesse and Frank James, and hence the reason why today they are outlaws.”

But modern scholars haven’t found much to support Edwards’ claim that the James boys’ only postwar option was a life of crime. Dr. William A. Settle, Jr., author of a book called, “Jesse James Was His Name,” is one skeptic.

“How hostile was the environment in Missouri to which the wartime guerrillas, or even Confederate soldiers, returned in 1865 and later? In most communities, it was as hostile as the men themselves made it… ”

“For over four years after the end of the war the James boys lived at their mother’s home and came and went as they pleased. They apparently cultivated the farm when they were there and got along with their neighbors without serious difficulty in spite of their participation in the most immediate violence of the war in Missouri. During this time Jesse joined the Baptist Church in Kearney and was baptized. Had he and Frank never become involved in postwar banditry, they could, without any question, have lived peaceably at home. Examples are numerous of former Quantrill men who lived in peace and prospered quietly after the war.”


But Edwards did much more than just plug the James brothers’ exploits into a proven image-building formula. Over a span of years, letters attributed to Jesse kept popping up in whatever newspaper Edwards happened to be working for. That might have been coincidence, but the writing style shown in most of the letters was a stylistic dead-ringer for Edwards’ own flowery rhetoric. One of the earliest of them, printed in the Kansas City Times after a Gallatin, MO, robbery and shoot-out that left townspeople dead, was typical:

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

The rival Kansas City Journal observed this flow of correspondence and said that the letters were becoming “suspiciously — almost nauseatingly — monotonous.” One letter that may actually have been Jesse’s work appeared in the Nashville, TN, Banner shortly after Pinkerton Agency detectives tossed either a bomb or a flare into his mother’s home in 1875, killing Jesse’s half brother Archie Peyton Samuel and mangling his mother’s arm so badly it had to be amputated later that same day. The tone of the letter printed in the Tennessee paper was chilling: “Justice is slow but sure, and they (sic) is a just God that will bring all to justice. Pinkerton, I hope and pray that our Heavenly Father may deliver you into my hands… ”

It seems likely that Edwards may have encouraged Jesse and Frank’s mother, Zerelda Samuel, to make herself available to the press to further her sons’ defenses. During one of those early-day press conferences, which followed a stagecoach robbery near Lexington that had been blamed on her sons, she insisted they were innocent and that all their troubles were due, just as Edwards had been saying, to the fact that they hadn’t been allowed to return to a peaceful postwar life. She made another public denial of the boys’ guilt after a Missouri Pacific train was robbed near Otterville in the summer of 1876, and again after a Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific train was hit near Winston, MO, in 1881. She said Frank and Jesse couldn’t have been involved in the Winston holdup, which took the lives of the train’s conductor and one passenger, because her sons were dead.

It was a nice try, but it wasn’t true.

After Bob Ford added the last element of the hero-building formula by killing Jesse on April 3, 1882, Edwards was quick to editorially point out that the men responsible were “self confessed robbers, highwaymen and prostitutes.” As with any true hero, Jesse had been killed by a wretch unworthy to stand in his presence.

With Jesse gone, Edwards turned his public relations strategies toward Frank’s defense. Though many people thought Frank would try to avenge his brother’s killing, Edwards knew better. Frank was ready to retire. On Aug. 1, 1882, Edwards wrote to him and the letter showed the kind of behind-the-scenes maneuvering he was involved in:

“I am now returned home from the Indian Territory (a term Settle says Edwards sued to indicate he was sober again, following a spree) to find your letters. Do not make a move until you hear from me again. I have been to the Governor (Thomas T. Crittenden) myself, and things are working. Lie quiet and make no stir… ”

Edwards went along when Frank surrendered to Crittenden on Oct. 4, 1882. The two of them turned the surrender into something of a media event, which wasn’t very surprising. Edwards, on entering the governor’s office, said, “Governor, I want to introduce you to my old friend Frank James.” Sensing the drama of the moment, Frank removed his pistol belt and told Crittenden, “I want to hand over to you that which no living man except myself has been permitted to touch since 1861, and to say that I am your prisoner.”

But even before Frank’s well-publicized surrender, Edwards had been pulling strings. He’d arranged for Charles P. Johnson, a former Missouri lieutenant governor, to head Frank’s large and capable defense team. Newspapers from around the country were jammed with coverage of Frank’s trial. He was charged with murdering one man during the 1869 Gallatin bank robbery and two more during the 1881 Winston train job. After an eloquent defense, Frank was acquitted and there’s no doubt that Edwards’ efforts at building a climate of public sympathy and support helped enormously. But there were more charges in the works and he wrote to Frank that he was still on the job:

“My Dear Frank:
I need not tell you how great a joy was the verdict… I am now quietly watching the expressions of public opinion and building up some breastworks. Never mind what the newspapers say, the masses are for you. The backbone of the prosecution has been broken. I have been through hell myself since I saw you, but I have driven out the pirates, and got the vessel again. Write to me. You friend, as ever,

J.N. Edwards”

Edwards kept on with his lobbying after John S. Marmaduke became Missouri governor in 1884. In a letter to Frank written in March, 1885, Edwards assured him that the new governor would never surrender him to Minnesota authorities to face charges stemming from the bungled Northfield raid that had sent Cole, Bob and Jim Younger to prison almost 10 years earlier.

“I have just five minutes ago left Governor Marmaduke,” Edwards wrote, “after a long, full, and perfect interview… I tell you that you are a free man, and can never be touched while Marmaduke is governor.”

That visit with the governor was Edwards’ last public relations gesture on behalf of Frank James. But even at the time of his death four years later, Edwards was still working for the men who had fought for the Confederacy — he was preparing a petition asking the release of the Youngers from their Minnesota prison.


General Jo Shelby with Major John Newman Edwards, his longtime adjutant during the war and lifetime friend

Although Edwards was only one among hundreds of writers who published books, pamphlets and stories about the James brothers both during and after their lifetimes, he was different from the rest of the herd. For one thing, his was the original work. Much of what Edwards wrote about Frank, Jesse and the rest of the guerrillas was fiction, but it made fine reading and it was copied by hordes of his followers. Then too, Edward never wrote a word in defense of the James boys because he was after money or fame. A letter to Frank shortly after he was cleared of the Gallatin charges made that clear: “Whatever I do at ay time or upon any occasion is done with an eye simple to your interests. As for myself, I do not care one tinkers damn what is said, I shall stay to the end.”

In a review of Missouri’s first hundred years of journalism, written in 1920, Edwards won warm, understanding praise. He was, it said, “better known and better loved by his generation than any other newspaperman in any generation of the century… Out of the maze of romance his genius substituted for realities, his eloquence expressed itself in dreams… And what he could not otherwise endure, he idealized.”

Edward never waivered in his loyalty to Missouri’s Confederates and he waged a long, self-consuming war to win acceptance for Frank and Jesse James. From time to time, Jesse showed some measure of gratitude. He named his son Jesse Edwards James. Frank, too, must have felt grateful for all the work Edwards did for him.

In a curious way, Edwards was using the James brothers. Through them the Union-flaunting Confederacy still lived and through daring, chivalrous raids — which had most of their reality in Edwards’ mind — dashing rebel guerrillas still outrode, outshot and outwitted their clumsy Union enemies. But if Edwards used the James brothers, they took advantage of his attention, too. Jesse liked the celebrity status that Edwards’ publicity gave him and a reported chance encounter with the famous author made that clear:

“Some time ago I was making a purchase in a small town store in Missouri. A man walked in and seeing me, came over with outstretched hand and said, ‘You’re Mark Twain, ain’t you!’ I nodded. ‘Guess yo and I are about the greatest in our lines’ to which I couldn’t help but nod but wonder as to what his throne of greatness he held. So I asked, ‘What’s your name?’ He replied, ‘Jesse James’ as he gathered up his packages.

So it seems that in the final measure, Edwards and the James brothers did rather well by one another. Edwards found the characters to flesh out a drama he’d probably been planning since the fall of the Confederacy. And the James boys, in turn, discovered a publicist with the skill to turn the bloody reality of their postwar livelihoods into something far more appealing. So appealing, in fact, that it’s become one of the best-loved legends in American history.


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


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.


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.