If history is such a “boring” subject, then why are the various forms of mass media always jacking with it? Why not just go make another boring movie about pretty sparkly vampires and leave real-life events alone? See, the problem here is that they usually get the story so very wrong, which has the unfortunate side effect of distorting the public’s perception regarding the real events. Or, as I once said to a fellow historian, “The problem with history is having to dig down through all the years of encrusted bulls**t to get to the facts.”

For example, much of what you think you know about “The Old West” is dead wrong and is based more upon 1940’s and 1950’s mass media presentations rather than the reality of life in that time and place. Westerns were mega-popular during the middle of the twentieth century (the cowboy largely replaced the superhero in post-war comics, and the 1950’s Disney version of Davy Crockett was a major breakout mass-market hit of that decade, ranking right up there with Elvis); the public couldn’t get their fill of tales set in the late nineteenth century American frontier.

But so many of then were just made up. A few years ago, for example, I picked up a cheap boxed set of DVDs of an old TV show called Legends of the Old West, because the text on the box said that the story ideas were “taken from 1890’s newspaper stories”.

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Rather than being at least loosely based on true stories of the frontier, the show was actually a (deservedly) obscure 1950’s TV series starring some forgettable actor in some forgettable role as a railroad detective (I think?) who traveled around the west to arrest famous outlaws and badmen, collaring everyone from William Quantrill to Geronimo. That’s pretty damned impressive, considering that the historical characters this guy faced were widely separated by geography and time, often operating literally decades apart. I only watched maybe two of the shows. The one I especially remember featured Doc Holliday; his portrayal as a dentist was the only bit of historical accuracy to be found anywhere in the episode. The series is so bad and so wrong that it makes the two Young Guns movies seem like PBS documentaries.

The American frontier is one of my “pet” historical periods. I won’t claim to be an authority on the subject but I’ve done a fair amount of research, enough to know that digging through the bulls**t can be as excruciating a process as extracting a T-Rex fossil from a Utah cliffside. More specifically as pertains to this post, I’ve read extensively on the subject of Jesse and Frank James, even the awful “hero worship” books published in the years after Jesse’s death. I’m not an expert on this topic, but I know enough about it to discern the B.S. when I smell it.

Jesse James Comics #1, August 1950

Back in 1950 Avon Comics saw the public’s collective comic reading taste moving from superheroes toward westerns and crime comics; they decided to cash in on the trend. In addition to the single issue of Pancho Villa (previously explored in this blog), Avon launched comic book titles based on historical figures of the American west, among them Geronimo, Wild Bill Hickok, Kit Carson, and Jesse James. The latter book was the most successful of the line, lasting twenty-nine issues between 1950 and 1956 (narrowly edging out Hickok by a single issue).

I’m not trying to rain on anyone’s parade here, but why would someone take a fascinating story about a couple of real-life outlaws and then try to tart it up with a whole lot of fictional incidents? Oh, right – to sell more comic books. Take this panel from issue #1 as an example:

Jesse James Comics #1, August 1950

This group is portrayed as “Jesse’s gang” throughout the story. But there are some major problems. First, Belle Starr was named Belle Shirley at the time depicted in the tale, and she never rode with Jesse James. Her connection to the James brothers was tenuous at best. Belle was rumored to be Cole Younger’s lover (and even that’s in dispute among historians), hence her “connection” with Jesse James was, at best, one which was once removed. It’s possible that the two met and were acquaintances, but Belle Shirley was never part of any of Jesse’s gangs. Likewise the presence of Sam Starr in this panel is a problem. He and Jesse James never even met. Starr’s only “connection” with the James Brothers is that he was later married to the ex-lover of a guy who occasionally rode with Jesse James. (“There was an old lady who swallowed a fly…”, and thus comic book stories are born.)

I’ll grant that some of the incidents portrayed in Jesse James #1 are based on fact, but only loosely. Take the following sequence depicting the near-lynching of Jesse’s stepfather Reuben Samuel, for example. Have a look (right click and open in a new tab for a larger view) and we’ll get together afterward for a closer examination of the facts behind the tale:

Jesse James Comics #1, August 1950

Jesse James Comics #1, August 1950

Jesse James Comics #1, August 1950

Pretty exciting stuff, huh? The trouble with it is that it’s mostly crap, and that the true story is so much better.

Missouri was a hotbed of conflict in the 1860’s, with the populace divided over slavery and secession. Although the state had a star in the Confederate battle flag, Missouri never actually seceded from the Union; in fact, the state’s government remained pro-Union throughout the Civil War. That fact, however, didn’t stop some Missouri boys from enlisting in the regular Confederate army, while others operated closer to home as partisan guerrillas. (Some would say “terrorists” but there’s a fine distinction between the two terms, one which we won’t delve into here.)

Frank James joined William Quantrill’s guerrillas, a unit with a well-deserved reputation for violence and bloodshed. Jesse was too young to join up, so he stayed at home on the family farm with his mother Zerelda, his stepfather Reuben Samuel, and his younger siblings.

A bit after noon on May 19, 1863 the commander of the local Union militia, Lt. Louis Gravenstein, was approached by a Clay County local who informed him that two men claiming to be part of Quantrill’s guerrilla organization were in the area. Unbeknownst to Gravenstein the story was bait for a trap. The lieutenant and four of his men took off after the suspected bushwackers, and subsequently ran right into a Quantrill ambush. Two of the militiamen were killed in the first volley. The aftermath illustrates the brutality of the Missouri partisan war: Gravenstein and the other two men surrendered, but were murdered by the guerrillas after being taken prisoner.

Frank James was part of the bushwacking party which, after the attack on the militiamen, then went on a minor rampage through Clay County for nearly a week. Unfortunately Frank and a fellow guerrilla were recognized and reported to the militia unit, and the manhunt was on. Frank and the rest of the partisans went to ground, hiding out in the deep Missouri woods not far from the James farm.

On Monday May 25 fifteen year old Jesse was working in the family field (just as you saw in the story above) when he was suddenly seized from behind by a couple of Unionist militiamen, dragged by the throat back to the yard outside the house, and then soundly beaten by several militiamen. His stepfather, Reuben Samuel, was likewise being roughly questioned as to the whereabouts of his stepson Frank. Meanwhile Jesse’s mother Zerelda was giving the Unionists a large piece of her mind. Jesse’s mother, a staunch secessionist, is often described as having been “strong willed” and “opinionated”, which is parlor room talk for being about fourteen kinds of a mouthy hellion on wheels. Believe me, she wasn’t screaming for help like the story shows – she was just plain screaming at the militiamen, telling them exactly what she thought of them. This verbal abuse wasn’t exactly helping her husband much, but I’ll tell you this from personal experience: once you get a Southern woman pissed off at you to the point where she’s screaming in your face, it’s damn near impossible to get her to shut up until she’s good and ready to quit. And Zerelda was nowhere near a stopping point; she was loudly and energetically (to use modern vernacular) ripping the tresspassers a new one.

For his part (and to his credit), Dr. Samuel wasn’t giving up any information about Frank and the other guerrillas. Finally the militiamen lost patience, tied a rope around Reuben’s neck, threw the other end over a high tree branch, and gave the rope a good hard tug. One big swing off the ground was all it took for Reuben Samuel to immediately rat out his stepson and the other partisans, to the point of giving the Union militia specific directions on how to find them. The militiamen gave Samuel and Jesse a few last kicks for good measure, then rode off hell for leather into the woods where they surprised Quantrill’s men in camp, and scattered the rebel raiders to the four winds; it would be weeks before the partisans would reform into a cohesive unit again.

To me, that’s a much cooler story than the way it’s portrayed in Jesse James #1. The Unionists weren’t some renegade marauding band, they were local militia – actual Clay County neighbors of the James/Samuel clan. Nobody was threatening to rape Mrs. Samuel. Jesse didn’t bravely cut the rope around his stepdad’s neck, being as he was a bit tuckered out from taking a redassed beatdown at the hands of the militiamen – and there was no subsequent whipping incident (as in the comic book) either.

In fact, there’s nothing remotely heroic about this true-life tale. It’s a story of brutality, thuggery, and betrayal, made worse by the fact that most of the people involved knew each other. It’s powerful stuff, likely too powerful for the comic book market in 1950. Instead the creators of the book chose to go along with the popular mythology surrounding Jesse James, that he was a misunderstood man to whom the hand of fate had been most unkind, a man who became a sort of Robin Hood who robbed from rich Yankees and gave the spoils to poor Southerners. While I won’t argue against the idea that Jesse James and his actions were at least partially shaped by his life and circumstances, I’ll also opine that Jesse himself had a hand in many of those circumstances: for example, he voluntarily joined Quantrill’s guerrillas as soon as he came of age knowing full well their reputation for violence and brutality. And the whole “Robin Hood” thing is complete hogwash. Jesse robbed banks, trains, and even a county fair – he’d grab any easy money he could get his hands on which, in the days before FDIC, meant that at least some of his loot was gained at the expense of the very neighbors who aided him. Jesse never gave money to anyone but himself; he was an opportunistic crook and outlaw, plain and simple, albeit a very interesting one with whom the public is still fascinated a century and a half later.

I’m not necessarily knocking comics like Jesse James; I’ll wager more than one western historian first became interested in the subject due to some mass market (mis)representation of a character or event from the period. It’s in that spirit that I’ll encourage you to read some of these old western comics, but likewise encourage you to read some factual accounts of these fascinating people and places. You’ll soon discover that the facts are often far more entertaining than the subsequent fictional tales.

As always, thanks to The Digital Comic Museum for the page scans.

Have fun! — Steve

Copyright 2013, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.