An action-packed, admiring portrait of the James-Younger gang that robbed people, banks and trains for a decade before retiring, dying or stewing in prison.
Western historian Gardner (To Hell on a Fast Horse: Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett, and the Epic Chase to Justice in the Old West, 2010) has done impressive research in the Old West’s abundant but relentlessly unreliable sources (lurid newspaper articles, jailhouse interviews, self-serving memoirs by elderly gang members) to deliver a colorful portrait of men who do not deserve his admiration. Jesse James (1847–1882), Frank James (1843–1915) and the Younger brothers grew up in the Midwest. Confederate sympathizers, most participated as “bushwackers” in the nasty partisan insurgency that wracked Missouri during the Civil War. Inured to violence, they later coalesced into a criminal band that traveled widely and became national news. Gardner summarizes their lives and early depredations before settling in to describe their last, spectacularly bungled 1876 robbery of a Northfield, Minn., bank. The clerk refused to open the safe. By the time the gang lost patience and killed him, the citizenry had gathered whatever weapons they could find, killed two gang members and wounded the rest before the robbers fled. There followed a massive, disorganized manhunt from which only Jesse and Frank escaped. Jesse later recruited another gang and committed several robberies before one member killed him for the reward.
Written in the breathless prose that seems obligatory for this genre and with more sympathy to the subjects than seems necessary, the book is still a gripping read and probably tells all there is to tell about a legendary group of psychopaths.