WYSO

What Drove Wild West's Jesse James To Become An Outlaw?

Originally published on August 17, 2013 5:57 pm

Tales of Jesse James's exploits have grown to almost mythological proportions since the actual man and his gang galloped over the plains stealing horses, holding up trains, and robbing banks in the years after the Civil War. Shot All To Hell: Jesse James, The Northfield Raid, and the Wild West's Greatest Escape is a new book about the legendary man.

Most people know that Jesse James, and his brother Frank were outlaws, but not why. As author Mark Lee Gardner tells weekends on All Things Considered guest host Don Gonyea, it was the violence and hatred of the Civil War that led Jesse and his gang to crime.

"It changed them permanently," he says. "Jesse was whipped by militia soldiers who were trying to get information on Frank's whereabouts. And then after that Jesse had to witness his step-father being strung up and tortured and suffocated, trying to get information from the family."

As Gardner noted, those experiences can certainly warp a person. Jesse started fighting in Missouri as a bushwhacker, or guerrilla warrior, at the age of 16. Other members in the gang, the Younger brothers, also had terrible experiences during the Civil war.

"Their father is murdered by federal militia." Gardner says. "He was a very prominent business man in Jackson County, Missouri. "

After Cole, one of the Younger brothers, joined the Missouri bushwhackers the militia focused on the family. When they learned that his mother was helping feed the bushwhackers, they forced her to burn her own house down. When the Civil War was over, Gardner explains, the former Missouri bushwhackers became disenfranchised because of what was called an 'iron-clad oath.'

"You couldn't vote if you had supported the South or even if your leanings were southern."

Many former Confederates supported outlaws like the Jesse and Frank James because they all became outcasts after the war. Gardner says the brothers saw taking money from those who had control as a way to fight back.

"They became numb to violence and they looked on bank tellers and cashiers as the enemy, just like they looked on soldiers wearing blue jackets as the enemy."

The book opens with the train robbery that lead to the notorious Northfield Raid. It was after this robbery was committed and they got away with $15,000 that things got difficult for the gang in Missouri. One of their new recruits, a man named Hobbs Kerry, was careless spending his money. When he got caught, he revealed everything he knew about the robbers were and their haunts. The gang needed a place they could go where they were not expected so they went to Minnesota.

In September 1876 Jesse, his brother Frank, and six other members of the James-Younger gang hit the First National Bank of Northfield, Minn. That's where everything fell apart. One of the keys to this bungled robbery was the resistance and bravery on the part of James Lee Haywood, a bank employee who was killed in the raid. Haywood was also the treasurer of Carleton College and all the school's funds were deposited at the bank. He knew it would have been a disaster for the college if he had opened the safe. The robbery attempt ended in a shootout that left two gang members dead, and the others wounded, and on the run.

It was two weeks before the first member was caught. At one point there were more than 1,000 men looking for the James-Younger gang.

"It was not only the largest manhunt in U.S. history at that time," Gardner says, "but it was also the largest gathering of inept man hunters up to that time."

Since then, Gardner says, no other outlaw gang has been as successful or long-lived.

"The myth has evolved into 'He was a Robin Hood,' he stole from the rich and gave to the poor, which wasn't true. They gave to themselves. They spent the money as fast as they got it."

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DON GONYEA, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Don Gonyea. Coming up, the powerful voice of a new singer on the alternative Latin music scene, Irene Diaz. But first, to the days of the Wild West and its most famous outlaw folk hero, Jesse James.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JESSE JAMES")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Jesse James was a lad. He killed many a man. He robbed the Glendale train. He took from the rich and he gave to the poor, need a hand and a heart and a brain...

GONYEA: Tales of his exploits have grown to almost mythological proportions since the actual man and his gang galloped over the Plains stealing horses, holding up trains and robbing banks in the years after the Civil War. In September of 1876, Jesse; his brother, Frank; and six other members of the James-Younger Gang hit the First National Bank of Northfield, Minn. That raid and the resulting manhunt are the subject of Mark Lee Gardner's new book, "Shot All To Hell: Jesse James, The Northfield Raid, and the Wild West's Greatest Escape." Mark Lee Gardner, welcome to the program.

MARK LEE GARDNER: Thank you, Don.

GONYEA: So Jesse James and his brother, Frank, most people know that they were outlaws. But in the book, you detail the back story of a life which led them to crime.

GARDNER: Yeah. I think what makes Jesse and Frank James is the Civil War. It changed them permanently. And I'm referring largely to the violence and the hatred. Jesse starts fighting as a guerilla warrior at the age of 16.

GONYEA: And we're talking about the Civil War, but we're talking about Missouri...

GARDNER: Yes.

GONYEA: ...in the Civil War, which is a very, very unique case, right?

GARDNER: It is very unique. And to tell you how awful it was for them, you know, Jesse was whipped by militia soldiers who were trying to get information on Frank's whereabouts. And then after that, Jesse had to witness his stepfather being strung up and tortured, suffocated trying to get information from the family. And those experiences can warp a person, and it certainly did with the James brothers.

GONYEA: So the other brothers in the gang with Frank and Jesse James are the Youngers, three of them. There's Cole, Jim and Bob. Tell us about them.

GARDNER: Yeah. They have also some horrible experiences that propelled them into this bitter life of crime after the war. Their father is murdered by federal militia. He was a very prominent businessman in Jackson County, Mo. Cole joins the bushwhackers and once he joins the bushwhackers, the federal militia hone in on his family. When they learn that his mother is helping to feed some of the bushwhackers, the federal militia make a visit, and they force his mother to set fire to the house by her own hand. She has to burn her own house down.

GONYEA: And just briefly, there are three other members of the original gang, members who aren't brothers?

GARDNER: Yes. There's Charlie Pitts, whose real name was Samuel Wells, and he had grown up family friends with the Youngers; Clell Miller, who was a friend of Jesse and Frank's; and then a fairly new recruit named Bill Chadwell, who was from Illinois but had relocated to eastern Kansas and western Missouri.

GONYEA: So the Civil War ends, they're in Missouri. How does that lead to a life of crime?

GARDNER: They were disenfranchised because of what was called this ironclad oath, which meant basically, you couldn't vote if you had supported the South. Or even if your leanings were Southern, that would prevent you from voting or taking political office. So in a way, they were outcast right after the war. And some young men found a way to fight back. And their way of fighting back was taking money from these Republicans who had control, and they became numb to violence. And they looked on bank tellers and cashiers as the enemy, just like they looked on soldiers wearing blue jackets as the enemy.

GONYEA: OK. So the book focuses on the Northfield Raid, the bank in Northfield, Minn. But you start on a dark Missouri night near a place called Rocky Cut, where the James-Younger gang has stopped the train. I'd like you to read a passage.

GARDNER: (Reading) Two robbers clambered up into the locomotives cab and pointed their revolvers at the engineer and fireman. Better keep quiet, you know, they said. At the back of the train, the other men threw ties and anything else handy on the rails to stop the engineer from trying to back away. At the sound of the first gunshots, John B. Bushnell, the 27-year-old express messenger who had the key to one of the safes, headed to the rear of the train.

As Bushnell rushed down the aisle, a passenger asked him what was the matter. Without stopping, a visibly distressed Bushnell blurted out, "The train is being robbed! That's what's the matter."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JESSE JAMES")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) It was on a Saturday night and the moon was shining bright, they robbed the Glendale train. With the agent on his knees, he delivered up the keys to those outlaws, Frank and Jesse James.

GONYEA: So why start the book with this particular train robbery?

GARDNER: Well, this particular robbery leads to their adventure to Minnesota in that after this robbery is committed and they get away with $15,000 - it's a very successful haul - one of their new recruits, a man named Hobbs Kerry, he's spending his money loose and free. And when he gets caught, he spills everything he knows about who the robbers were, where their haunts are; and it gets pretty hot in Missouri for a while. And so they need to pick a place they can go where they're not expected.

GONYEA: So they scout a bunch of banks in a bunch of cities. They settle on Northfield, and everything falls apart there. This section of the book reads like it's one of those like, "Oceans Eleven"-style heist thrillers, the way they case the joint and all that. I'd like you to read another excerpt.

GARDNER: Now do you want me to use the foul language of the robbers or...

GONYEA: Yeah. We'll bleep it. Have you ever been bleeped on the radio?

GARDNER: OK. No, I haven't. I love it, yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

GONYEA: OK. Go ahead.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GARDNER: (Reading) Alonzo Bunker, the First National Bank's teller, was at work at his desk when he heard the door open and footsteps on the wood floor of the small lobby. The sound was nothing new and only meant a customer had arrived. So Bunker turned from his desk and like always, moved to the open space at the counter. But this time, three large revolvers pointed at his face. Throw up your hands for we intend to rob this bank, Frank James shouted. And if you holler, we will blow your (bleep) brains out.

GONYEA: So we're in the bank with these guys as the gang comes in. How do you get a detail like that last part there?

GARDNER: You know, this was the most famous bank robbery of the 19th century, and there was a lot of interest to hear these stories over and over again. So I was fortunate in that there are many eyewitness accounts, including men who were right inside the bank with the outlaws.

GONYEA: The one bank employee to be killed in the raid was Joseph Lee Heywood. He was also the treasurer of one of the town's colleges, Carleton College. In fact, the college's funds were in the bank?

GARDNER: Yes, they were. And that's one of the keys to this bungled failure on the part of the James-Younger Gang was this resistance and bravery on the part of Heywood, who knew that all the funds of Carleton College were in that safe. It could've been a disaster. It would've been a disaster.

GONYEA: After all of this goes down in Northfield, the men are on the run. The authorities have launched what is the largest manhunt in U.S. history at the time?

GARDNER: Yes. In fact, at one point, there are over 1,000 men looking for remnants of the James-Younger Gang. I often say it was not only the largest manhunt in U.S. history at that time, but it was also the largest gathering of inept man hunters up to that time. The feeling was it would be very easy to capture them. I mean, everybody thought it would just be a matter of a time before these men are corralled or caught or killed. But that wasn't the case. It actually stretched out to two weeks before any portion of the gang was captured.

GONYEA: Why do we still care about these guys? I mean, it's a great tale of a long-gone America. But beyond that, what's the ongoing attraction, in your view?

GARDNER: Well, I think part of it is that myth. And Jesse the myth has evolved into he was a Robin Hood. You know, he stole from the rich and gave to the poor, which wasn't true. I mean, they gave to themselves, and they spent the money as fast they got it. There was no other outlaw gang as successful or long lived as the James-Younger Gang. I mean, they were the quintessential horseback outlaws.

GONYEA: That's Mark Lee Gardner. His book is "Shot All to Hell: Jesse James, the Northfield Raid, and the Wild West's Greatest Escape." Mark, thanks.

GARDNER: Thank you, Don.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.