Farmington Museum lecture will focus on myths surrounding Jesse James
Jeffrey Richardson will provide unvarnished portrait of outlaw
FARMINGTON — Every time Jeffrey Richardson delivers his "On the Trail of Jesse James" presentation, as he will this weekend at the Farmington Museum at Gateway Park, he knows he's going to get the same reaction. He nearly always hears from somebody — or several somebodies — proudly claiming to be a descendant of the notorious outlaw.
Richardson, the curator at the museum and the author of several books and magazine articles on Western history, shakes his head and wonders what motivates people to claim that heritage, even on the off chance that it happens to be true.
"It's like saying, 'I'm related to a cold-blooded murderer,'" Richardson said. "I don't know if people would go around saying, 'I'm related to Ted Bundy.'"
Despite his blood-splattered resume, James — the late-19th century Missouri outlaw who headed the James Gang that included his brother Frank and the Younger brothers — occupies a unique space in and epitomizes the mythology that marks much of the American West, Richardson said.
James became a symbol not just of the outlaw spirit, but a stand-in for the lingering resentment of Southern sympathizers who were smarting from their side's defeat in the Civil War. In his middle teens, as the conflict raged around him, James had left the family farm in Missouri and joined his brother in a gang of guerrillas led by "Bloody" Bill Anderson, a move that became his introduction to a life of violence and hiding.
Supposedly, it was that experience that led to James becoming a "misunderstood" hero to those who cheered his exploits, Richardson said. When James turned to a life of crime after the war — robbing banks, trains, stage coaches and state fairs, and murdering many of those who resisted him — they justified his actions by claiming his hand had been forced by agents of Northern tyranny and Reconstruction.
"They say he got caught up in the violence and upheaval, and that propelled him to a life of violence," Richardson said. "But that doesn't take into account the millions of other people who were caught up in the same scenario and who resumed a normal life after the war."
James became a convenient excuse for relitigating the famous "Lost Cause" among members of that crowd, Richardson said, citing Kansas City Times editor John Newman Edwards as one of James' chief apologists.
"They tried to change the narrative of why the South lost the Civil War," he said. "(They claimed) It was about technology and manpower, not their morals and agenda. Jesse James became the embodiment of that."
Not all of James' contemporaries bought into his widely peddled Robin Hood persona. Richardson recalled the words of one such unnamed James critic from that era.
He said, 'Jesse James robbed from the rich, but he did so because the poor had no money,'" Richardson said. "I think that really sums up Jesse James and the actions that he took."
Richardson described the outlaw himself as a master manipulator, one who quickly learned how to take advantage of the mass media of that time, newspapers. But James also could be his own worst enemy, Richardson explained, noting that James' many letters to newspaper editors often began with a denial of the crime in question but just as frequently ended with a justification for the act in question.
In another letter, he denied responsibility for a specific robbery on behalf of himself and the Younger brothers. The problem was, Richardson noted dryly, the Younger brothers had not been tied to that crime until James publicly outed them in the letter.
"Cole Younger was not happy about that," Richardson said. "That helped create some animus between the two men."
While Richardson's lecture will deal with those origins of the mythology surrounding James, its focus will fall on the ill-fated raid by the James and Younger brothers and others on a bank in Northfield, Minnesota, on Sept. 7, 1876. The townspeople unexpectedly fought back after they were alerted to the robbery, leading to the death of two gang members and the wounding of two others.
After a relentless manhunt that stretched 400 miles and lasted three weeks, the Younger brothers were apprehended. But the James brothers escaped and would continue their outlaw careers for several more years. Nevertheless, Richardson said, the tide had turned against the gang leader.
"That was a pivotal event for Jesse James," he said, explaining that the James Gang had been an experienced, cohesive unit made up mostly of former Confederate guerrillas up to that point. The capture of the Youngers and the killing of other gang members in Minnesota brought that to an end, and the men James recruited to his gang in the aftermath of that event were poor replacements, Richardson said.
"The gang is not the same. They don't have the same cohesion. That ultimately leads to Jesse's own demise by one of his fellow gang members," Richardson said, referring to the killing of James in 1882 by Robert Ford, one of the very men the famed outlaw had brought into his fold after Northfield.
Though he has been dead for nearly 150 years, the power of James' legend is as strong as ever, Richardson said, noting the many depictions of the outlaw in popular culture over the years — nearly all of which have presented him as a heroic figure. A notable exception, he said, was "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," a 2007 film starring Brad Pitt that is based on the 1983 novel of the same name by Ron Hansen.
Richardson will address many of those misleading portrayals in his lecture, but only to illustrate how they have helped perpetuate the mythology surrounding the man, he said.
"I want to frame Jesse James for who he truly was," he said.
Richardson will deliver his lecture at 3 p.m. May 18 at the museum, 3041 E. Main St. in Farmington. Admission is free, but seating is limited, and the lecture series usually draws a capacity crowd. Call 505-599-1174.
Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610.