He remains lodged in the national memory like a cyst, one of that pantheon of cheap thugs whom legend and wishful thinking have transformed into a parody of the Robin Hood myth. His name was Jesse James, and between 1866, when he and his gang robbed their first bank, and 1882, when his chips were cashed in for him, he so terrorized the state of Missouri that one governor was elected largely on the strength of his promise to rid the area of him.
Yet even in his own lifetime, he was apotheosized by that curious American trait of giving the luminosity of glamour to acts of plain criminality. And he loved the publicity, even contributed to it himself by writing long, self-righteous letters to the Kansas City Times and other newspapers. An excerpt from one of them in 1876 is typical: “If the Express companies want to do a good act they can take all the money they are letting those thieving [Pinkerton] detectives beat them out of and give it to the poor. The Detectives are a brave lot of boys. … Why don’t President Grant have the soldiers called in and send the Detectives out on special trains after the hostile Indians? A Pinkerton’s force with hand grenades will kill all the Indian women and children and with the women killed it will stop the breed and the warriors will all die out in a few years.”
Aside from his activities as a bank and train robber, James was also a known back-shooter, so his own end is particularly apt. On the morning of April 3, 1882, while hiding out under the name Thomas Howard in St. Joseph, the back of his head was blown away by Robert Ford, a peripheral member of his gang.
Ford’s brave deed won him a reward of ten thousand dollars and a sour kind of immortality as “the dirty little coward who shot Mr. Howard and laid poor Jesse in his grave.”