Rebel With a Cause

A new biography recasts Missouri's natural-born killer Jesse James as a political terrorist

On the James' Kearney farm, Ambrose Samuel, born into slavery, was at the age of eighteen still laboring as the family servant in a practical state of slavery, in 1875, ten years after emancipation. "He was still illiterate. He received no education," Stiles says.

"Meanwhile, Perry Samuel, who was a mixed-race child (probably fathered by Reuben Samuel, the James brothers' stepfather, or by Frank or Jesse James), was working at age eleven and was listed in the census as a servant. He was, again, being raised in a practical extension of slavery.

"This is the family's and Jesse James' view of racial relations in society.

Biographer T.J. Stiles
Brice Hammick
Biographer T.J. Stiles

"That's the sort of thing we've forgotten," Stiles says. "Even some very well-researched books about Jesse James will maybe mention the fact the family had slaves and then skips right over it. I devote an entire chapter to finding out who they were, trying to re-create their lives to the extent that we can and then asking the question how did this affect them and their view of the world. It's central to everything.

"But of course slavery is an uncomfortable question because everybody, even people who romanticize the Confederacy, accept that slavery is wrong. So it's an embarrassment to people. It's much more enjoyable to think of the Civil War as a battle between two sides that are both noble and both brave and both right.

"It's not that there wasn't a lot of bravery and honor on both sides, but the cause is very stark.

"That's the battle that Jesse James waged."

And he succeeded. By the time of James' death in 1882, Missouri, which was a Union state before the war, had become a state run by Southern, or Confederate, Democrats. The pro-Reconstruction Republicans had been removed from office.

Outside his home in St. Joseph, after the news came that the man killed in the house on the corner of Thirteenth and Lafayette was the outlaw Jesse James, a shout went up from the crowd.

"Long live Jeff Davis!"

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