In this excellent biography of the famed bandit, journalist/historian Stiles reveals his subject as less a Robin Hood than an Osama bin Laden for his time.
The son of a luckless itinerant preacher who died broke in the gold fields of California, James (1847–82) came of age among hardscrabble Missourians who shared “a willingness to resort to violence . . . to resolve private disputes or keep public order.” When the border war flared up between slaveholders and pro-Union sympathizers along the Missouri River, James became a murderous member of one of the small guerrilla cells “that fought without central direction or official Confederate sanction” and were not shy about killing their supposed secessionist allies when it suited them, to say nothing of dismembering enemy corpses for pleasure. Though liberal in his range of targets, he was not apolitical, and long after war’s end, he took pains to terrorize Unionists and other enemies of the Confederacy; Stiles suggests that he even chose to stage his fateful raid on the First National Bank of Northfield, Minnesota, because the abolitionist hero Adelbert Ames owned a controlling interest in it. James had a powerful ally and publicist in newspaper editor John Newman, an unapologetic champion of the Lost Cause who glamorized him as a friend and protector of the common man in the face of greedy carpetbaggers. On the contrary, Stiles insists, Jesse James was a terrorist. The author matches a real flair for the biographer’s art with an appreciation for the historical complexities of the time, especially for the ironies of the post-Reconstruction era, when much of the nation repudiated the radical goals of abolitionism, “sandpapered away by the economic depression and Democratic intransigence,” and white supremacy was restored, making the world safe for the likes of Jesse James and his carefully constructed myth.
A thoroughly impressive, eminently readable work of revisionist history.