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Jesse James: A Cultural Fighter for Confederacy
[Finding Blue America 14] The Great Train Robbery site in Adair, Iowa
Hong Euntaek (ehpk3)     Email Article  Print Article 
Published 2005-09-13 17:09 (KST)   
©2005 OMN
Why is Jesse James so popular in a country getting tougher on crime?

That is the question I repeated to myself, traveling across the Midwest. He was one of the most notorious outlaws in the latter part of the 19th century. He killed people as though swatting flies and robbed banks and trains as frequently as we go shopping.

Jesse James
Once he stripped a bank of $60,000, which is the equivalent of $1.3 million now. I ran into numerous signposts indicating Jesse James's Birthplace, Jesse James Farm, Jesse James Home, etc.

James popped in and out here and there like an electronic mole. I saw several signboards for a Jesse James Museum in different places. One of them, the Jesse James Bank Museum in Liberty, Missouri, does not feature his thriftiness but, rather, his robbery.

While Americans put current outlaws in jail en masse, they're in competition with each other in the worship of the cruelest murderer.

When I visited Adair, Iowa, I found that it held the 49th annual Jesse James Chuck Wagon Days Celebration on July 23 and 24, 2004, sponsored by the Adair Chamber of Commerce. Groups of all ages and backgrounds in Adair participated in the events.

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The Little Miss Jesse James and the Jesse James Junior Olympics were particularly intriguing. Who is eligible to be Little Miss Jesse James? A girl who has robbed the most? Who is the gold medallist in the Olympics? A boy who has robbed the most quickly? Do they really want their kids to be the second, or the third Jesse James? General John Adair, who lent his name to the town, may turn over in his grave, deploring the commemoration of the robber instead of himself. I interviewed William Litter III, publisher of the Adair News, the only newspaper in Adair.

"Was James a Robin Hood?" I asked.

"No, he was a bad guy who killed people."

"Then why do you hold a celebration named after him?"

"I don't know, but I think we are just celebrating a part of history."

The theme of the event was "Embracing Our Heritage." I was amazed by their magnanimity in accepting and celebrating the robber's history. The real reason Adair was proud of James is that he left a glorious record as a legacy to this town. The train which appeared on the parade hinted as much.

Site of the first ever train robbery
©2005 Hong E.T.
Adair is the first site in the world where a moving train was robbed. It was an accomplishment to stop and rob a train in motion, when there was no vehicle that could run faster than a train. It was a creative and audacious crime. The following is the summary of that incident.

Jesse James and his gang of outlaws gathered the crucial intelligence that a train carrying gold worth $75,000 would leave Omaha, Nebraska, on July 21, 1873, for Des Moines, Iowa. He was so cautious that he sent his elder brother, Frank James, and another gang member, Cole Younger, to Omaha to confirm the intelligence. They chose Adair as the venue because there were few residents and the specific spot was on a sharp curve, so that trains had to reduce speed.

Their preparation was elaborate: they unspiked as much as 17 feet of rail on both sides of the track, using a stolen spike-lifter and hammer and tied a rope on the west end of the unspiked north rail. The rope was passed under the south rail and led to a hole they'd dug in the bank. The gangsters were waiting in the hole, holding the end of the rope. It was at 8 o'clock, just before sunset, when the train came along.

The engineer of the train, John Rafferty, could not discern that the rail had been disconnected, because the cut rails appeared to be still in place. As the gangsters pulled the rope, the rail flew out of place, and the engine plunged into the ditch and toppled over on its side. Rafferty was killed, the fireman Dennis Foley died of his injuries, and several passengers were injured. While seven robbers, masked like the Ku Klux Klan started firing guns, two of them entered the baggage car and compelled the clerk to unlock the safe, holding revolvers at his head.

As the Daily Iowa State Register reported on July 22, 1873, "The spot was well chosen the plot well laid and well executed, the only mistake made, seemingly, being the failure to cut the telegraph wire."

The fundamental flaw, however, was not that. When the safe was open, splendidly beaming gold bars were not found, only dollars of $1,700. It turned out that the train with the gold had already passed. It showed poor intelligence on the part of the robbers.

I can understand the robber's frustration. How many days and nights did they work for it? It can't have been easy to cut the rails. What about the risk they had to take when entering the train? But the gold they had dreamt about was not there. Suddenly, they turned into mere burglars, disgracing themselves. They robbed passengers of a couple of dollars each. Even so, the total added up to just $3,000, which had to be divided by seven. After 15 minutes of this commando-like operation, they rode off on horseback to the south. I could imagine them complaining to each other that it was not worth their labor.

The Chinese are many. Wherever I go, I come across them. Here, again, their ubiquity is confirmed. According to the Daily Iowa State Register, among the passengers there were 30 Chinese students bound for their college in New England. They had come all the way from China, sailing across the Pacific Ocean and taking a trans-continental train to be robbed. The Register wrote, "During the melee the Chinese lay flat on the floor of their car." It was at 1 o'clock in the morning when they were taken back to Anita, a nearby town. They made a brief statement of the incident, saying "Hell country," the Register reported.

Jesse James' home, turned museum
©2005 Hong E.T.
As already indicated, not just Adair commemorates James. Kearney, Missouri restores and maintains the James Home on a 40-acre farm, while the Prairie Trail Museum in Corydon, Iowa, displays the safe James robbed on June 3, 1871, and reenacts the robbery on that day every year. Actually, the re-enactment was started in 1954 by the Rock Island Railroad, whose engine No. 9 was the one robbed by the James gang in Adair. St. Joseph, Missouri, preserves the house where James was shot, along with its own the James museum.

"Why are they commemorating James?"

"Well, I don't know. I heard that he was giving out money to poor people."

Mr. Binning, on the staff of the Visitor Center in Lamoni, Iowa, did not provide sufficient information. Later, further research showed that it is baseless to see James as a Robin Hood. Interestingly, people I met didn't know much about James, but it didn't stop them from participating in the reenactments.

I guess the culture of James worship might be related to the short history of a country founded in modern times. Americans haven't shared a fund of cultural and religious legends and myths, excluding American Indians. Thus, they needed to create their own legend, and, since James was well known to everybody, he must have been very eligible to become a hero and help bind people to a common culture.

One of the Jesse James films, from 1939
Even if my guess is right, I still can't understand why they chose a robber and murderer. Furthermore, he has become a cultural icon. One movie after another has been made featuring him. From "Jesse James as the Outlaw," the first movie about him in 1921, to "American Outlaws" in 2001, I counted 38 movies related to him.

The movie titles are diverse: T"he Adventure of Frank and Jesse James" (1948), "The Great Missouri Raid" (1951), "The True Story of Jesse James" (1957), "Bronco: The Shadow of Jesse James" (1984), "The Last Days of Frank and Jesse James" (1986). All seems to glorify his life. A new movie titled "The Assassination of Jesse James" is being made, with Brad Pitt as James. This is not just happening in Hollywood. Sony is marketing "Gunfighter: The Legend of Jesse James," a PlayStation game.

James should not be viewed as just someone to fill a cultural blank. Who, in fact, was he? James was born in 1847 as the son of Robert James, a Baptist minister, who went to California during the gold rush and died there. As his mother married Rueben Samuel, a doctor, he lived with his stepfather, who took good care of him.

The Civil War was the watershed for James. The state of Missouri belonged to the Confederates, whereas the state of Kansas was held by the Union. The two states fought each other fiercely, burning houses, massacring civilians, and carrying scalped heads on horseback.

There are several theories about the incident James experienced. One of theories was that Union soldiers captured and hanged his stepfather on a tree and beat James with a knobbed whip to investigate the whereabouts of William C. Quantrill or Frank James, who had joined a Confederate guerilla troop. That theory has it that his stepfather was killed, while another theory says that his stepfather and mother were imprisoned together. What is certain is that James joined the Confederates and Quantrill's Raiders and, as troops disbanded after the war, he organized a gang and robbed banks, trains, stagecoaches, and stores.

I think the characteristics of railroads and banks at that time should be noted. Railroads were the main means for the new country to integrate lands and people, while banks were advance guards to incorporate different regions into markets. In the process, however, farmers were deprived of their private lands by railway companies, and Confederate supporters were forced to sell gold and silver to buy Federal dollars. At that moment, James emerged, humiliating trains and banks, which must have offered emotional relief to families of Confederate supporters.

His death was a shock to them. He hid out in St. Joseph with his first cousin and wife, Zerelda, and two children under the pseudonym of Tom Howard. The new governor of Missouri announced that the government would pay a reward of $10,000 for killing or capturing him.

Despite living with a $10,000 reward on his head, he recruited brothers Bob and Charles Ford to rob another bank. The brothers calculated that it would be safer and more profitable to kill him rather than to rob a bank.

Jesse James' childhood home
©2005 Hong E.T.
On April 3, 1882, James was standing on a chair to straighten a painting hung on a wall when Bob Ford arrived and shot a bullet through the back of his head. The legendary robber who had started killing people in his teens finished life in this dramatic fashion. The epitaph on his tombstone, selected by his mother, is vehement in the extreme: IN LOVING MEMORY OF MY BELOVED SON, MURDERED BY A TRAITOR AND COWARD WHOSE NAME IS NOT WORTHY TO APPEAR HERE.

That he was killed by a betrayer should not have eclipsed the fact that he was a robber. Two thousand mourners, however, attended his funeral. He was not just an outlaw but also a hero for Confederate supporters. The end of Ford brothers was also tragic. Instead of receiving $10,000, they were charged with murder and, after being released, Charles killed himself, and Bob was killed in a barroom brawl.

Poetic license has been routinely abused by movie directors. This is particularly true in movies about James. Jesse James (1939) described him as becoming an armed robber to avenge the murder of his mother by a greedy railway executive. After carrying out his retribution, he went back to a normal life and abruptly got shot in the movie. He was no more a robber murdered by an accomplice of robbery.

The Western movies that are nation-building myths in the United States fall into two categories, depending on the main characters: great robbers and great sheriffs or knights-in-shining-armor.

The former focuses on individuals who fight against bigger-than-life invaders or oppressors by attacking trains or banks, symbols of power. The latter features spreading the frontier spirit and the recovery of order in lawless lands by defeating American Indians or capturing outlaws.

What Jesse James is in the former category is John Wayne in the latter. I visited Wayne's birthplace some time ago, located in Winter set in Madison County, Iowa, well known as the background of the novel and movie Bridges of Madison County. Compared to the James Farm, it was a just modest cottage. Though it is nonsense to compare the actor and the real figure, I am wondering who deserves more respect.

It differs from one region to another. Out West Wayne is admired: e.g., the mounted Wayne Statue in Los Angeles and another statue at John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California. In the middle of the country, however, James outdoes him in the number of museums and celebrations. He was not only a hero challenging power and capital, but also a fighter for the Confederacy.

The James Farm
©2005 Hong E.T.
Though the war was over a long time ago, he is still fighting in people's minds. Some did not or could not believe he was dead, so various rumors spread. One of them was that he (had) killed someone, pretending that he was the person killed, and escaped. "That's right. He could carry out such a plan."

This rumor became popular, and did not die out. Even in 1948, someone said that he saw James in Oklahoma. Supporters couldn't part with him, so Hollywood soothed them by depicting him as an individualistic hero. At this point, I worry about the danger of movies justifying his Confederate cause, such as slave holding and racism.

In the end, a "real" Jesse James showed up in the 1940s and lent credence to the rumor by saying that, to avoid capture, he had killed somebody and ran away to Oklahoma and Texas under the name of Frank Dalton. It did not matter to him that not many believed in his claim. He died as James in 1951 at 104, the age James would have been.

James' family wanted to clear away mysteries and unfounded claims and, in 1995, exhumed the body buried in Missouri. The DNA analysis gave a 99.7 percent probability that it was Jesse James. That should have put an end to the controversy. His descendents were so ambitious, however, that they wanted 100 percent certainty. A court order was granted in 2000 to exhume and test Dalton's body in Granbury Cemetery, Texas.

Before carrying out the DNA test, it was evident that the body was neither James' nor Dalton's, for it did not have an arm, and both Dalton and James had two arms. Dalton's tombstone had been mistakenly planted over a different grave. Until they exhume each body in the cemetery in turn or all the bodies in it, in the worst case, the doubt surrounding James' body cannot go away. The Jesse James Museum in Stanton, Missouri, has gathered all the evidence supporting the rumor that he was not killed in 1882.

Jesse James, even dead, is fleeing capture, and the Civil War has not ended yet.
©2005 OhmyNews
솉깮 湲곗옄뒗 <룞븘씪蹂>뿉꽌 궗쉶遺-젙移섎-援젣遺 湲곗옄濡 씪뻽쑝硫 끂議곗쐞썝옣(2001뀈)쓣 吏깉뒿땲떎. 誘멸뎅 誘몄<由щ븰 꼸由ъ쬁 뒪荑⑥뿉꽌 꽍궗怨쇱젙쓣 留덉낀쑝硫, 誘멸뎅쓽 씪뵒삤 봽濡쒓렇옩 <湲濡쒕쾶 꼸由ъ뒪듃>쓽 봽濡쒕꽌濡 씪븯湲곕룄 뻽뒿땲떎. 쁽옱 <삤留덉씠돱뒪> 씤꽣궡뀛꼸 렪吏묎뎅옣쑝濡 옱吏곸쨷엯땲떎.
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