The story of Jesse James is one of America’s most familiar myths — and one of its most wrong-headed. James, so the legend goes, was a Western outlaw, but in reality, he never went west. He has been called America’s own Robin Hood, yet he robbed both rich and poor, and was never seen to share his ill-gotten gains. He was known as a gunfighter — but his victims were almost always unarmed. Less heroic than brutal, James was a member of a vicious band of Missouri guerrillas during the Civil War, and sought vengeance for the Confederate defeat afterwards. In a life steeped in prolific violence and bloodshed, he met what was perhaps the most fitting end.
AMERICAN EXPERIENCE presents Jesse James, the true story of an outlaw who has captured the imagination of generations of Americans. “There’s something about this legend that Americans have a hard time letting go of,” says film producer Mark Zwonitzer. “Perhaps it’s the much-needed idea of a hero or the allure of an outlaw. Either way, I hope this film will set the record straight.”
At age 16, Jesse James was a kid in appearance but a warrior in spirit. Raised in a household where half the family income came from slave labor, Jesse and his brother Frank were destined to fight for the southern cause. Missouri was a divided state — Union troops occupied much of the territory. Federal forces commonly lynched Southern sympathizers, burned down their houses, or seized their livestock. An eye for an eye was standard practice, and some citizens sought vengeance through guerrilla warfare, joining one of the dozens of “bushwhacker” groups in the state.
In the spring of 1864, when Jesse rode to war, there were no papers to sign, no brass-button uniforms, no government-issue firearms — Confederate forces had left the area. Jesse simply followed creeks and hog-trails into the darkness of the Missouri woods, where guerrilla fighters made camp. Over the next year, he would be schooled in violence and terror.