An outlaw whose image rests these days mostly in folklore, Jesse James was a product of the Civil War. It was a war he refused to admit was over, even when he transformed from rebel to infamous outlaw. What I appreciated in reading this biography was the deep dive author T.J. Stiles took on this subject, and the subsequent detailing of the times Jesse James rode in back in the 1800’s.
You know the biography in your hand is a good one when the author winds up his work with a summary of different historians theories about Jesse James, and then inserts Karl Marx into the argument. I do believe this is the first book on the Old West where the words of Karl Marx were used to prove or disprove a theory.
It may seem silly on the surface to talk about different social theories in connection of Jesse James but the truth is, he was a product of the times. In fact, another point Stiles brings out is the way in which James was made tone deaf to violence. There is a psychological ‘scale’ as you will, to how one becomes desensitized to blood thirst and it applies to James. I found it amazing that it is the same scale used to profile terrorists or extremists in groups like ISIS (and this book was written before ISIS came onto the scene).
If you think the bloodletting in the mid-1800’s doesn’t compare to groups like ISIS then you definitely need to read this book. There was decapitations for the sake of making a point. There was the taking of scalps and bragging about how many you took. There was killing for the sake of killing. In fact, the number of robberies where James shot someone first and THEN announced the robbery is pretty astounding.
Stiles does a great job of diving into the psychological profile, the politics of the day which drove everything, and the stories of the men James associated himself with along the way. Outside his brother Frank and the Ford brothers, I doubt if most people reading this can name anyone else.
I counted at least ten states that James committed crimes in during his short life. His mark on the annuals of American crime came when railroads were first branching out and guns were becoming the weapon of choice. Before the Civil War, most violent crime was done with a knife. But all those soldiers came home knowing how to use a weapon and numb to the killing. Most people don’t realize it, but the N.R.A. was actually formed in an effort to insert gun control and curb the violence during this period. Oh, the irony of it all.
I can’t say enough about this book or the Pulitzer Prize winning author. If the Old West, the Civil War, Civil Rights, and the outlaws/gunfighters of the time are on your radar of interest, then I highly recommend this book. A solid 5 of 5 on the rating scale.