Jesse James: Legendary Rebel and Outlaw
J. Dennis Robinson
Ages 9 to 12
Compass Books, 2007, 0-7565-1871-7
Who was Jesse James? Was he really the Robin Hood type character who stole from the rich and gave to the poor? Was he really the gentleman who treated his victims with kindness and respect? Was he really a good man gone bad? There were many who believed that Jesse was all of these things and who wrote about his exploits with admiration and sympathy. Alas, it would seem that the real Jesse James was none of these things.
Instead Jesse was a rebel who loved a life of high adventure and risk, a man who loved to gamble and who could not settle down to making an honest living. He was also a man with a grudge who fought for the Confederate cause both during and long after the Civil War was over.
In 1864, When he was only seventeen Jesse joined his brother Frank as a member of a violent “bushwhacker” guerrilla group. Not part of the regular army, these fringe groups roamed the countryside raiding, killing and burning as they went. When the war was over Jesse and Frank lived quietly for a short while but soon got back together with their bushwhacker friends and this time they took to a life of crime, becoming bank robbers who had no difficulty shooting people who got in their way. Indeed during the very first bank robbery that Jesse and James are believed to have been involved in a young man was shot and killed.
Jesse and Frank and their group went on the rob trains as well as banks and often their attacks were violent and bloody. Jesse’s exploits were turned into sensational, and largely fictional, tales which appeared in the newspapers and in dime novels. Many local people supported Jesse either because they admired him or feared him and when Pinkerton agents began to pursue him his popularity increased.
There came a time when Jesse did wish he could retire but it is hard for a criminal to leave his past behind and in the end Jesse’s past caught up with him.
In this well written account the author captures the spirit of the times, showing his readers how hard life was in the civil war years and how angry many people were over the slavery and states rights issues. He helps us see how Jesse ended up on the road to becoming an outlaw and why he was never really able to leave that life behind him even when he wanted to. With great care the author helps us see how and why the Jesse James myths came into being and though we are made to see that Jesse was a dangerous, willful and coldhearted man, we are also able to recognize that he was very much molded by his environment and by circumstances beyond his control.
This is one of the excellent titles in the “Signature Lives” series.
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