A Missouri legal historian's well-researched but lackluster answer to the question of whether Jesse James was "the last great rebel of the Civil War or the first notorious robber after [it].”
Since his death in 1882, outlaw Jesse James has been immortalized in books and films as the “noble robber” who committed crimes in the name of “protecting the former Confederate States from Northern exploitation.” Attorney Muehlberger takes exception to this myth and sets out to show that James was anything but noble. He seeks out the “smoking gun” in personal papers, newspaper reports and sworn testimonies from criminal trials involving both Jesse and his brother Frank. The author examines records of a successful suit brought against the James brothers by Henry McDougal, a man who not only founded Muehlberger’s law firm, but was also an important figure in late-19th-century Missouri politics. What emerges is a story of a man who was a faceless Confederate bushwhacker until 1869. In December of that year, he and his brother robbed a small-town Missouri bank, killed a former Union captain–turned-cashier and made off with another man’s prized thoroughbred horse. John Edwards, the Kansas City Times editor and a former Confederate soldier, seized upon the story and helped James write extravagant letters that extolled the virtues of the Confederate “Lost Cause.” According to Muehlberger, those letters not only created the Jesse James myth, but also diverted attention away from the fact that James supported his penchant for gambling and his taste for fine horses through theft and murder. James’ story is intriguing, but it often gets lost in the larger historical context Muehlberger provides, as well as in the detailed descriptions of court proceedings involving the James brothers.
Of possible interest to Jesse James and/or Civil War buffs, but not to a wider audience.