Jackson Podcast: Making Jesse James a Folk Hero

podcastlogoFor the 85th episode of the Journalism History podcast, host Ken Ward spoke to Cathy Jackson about the outsized role that newspapers played in making a folk hero out of Jesse James.

Cathy Jackson is an associate professor in the Department of Mass Communication & Journalism at Norfolk State University. Jackson previously has shared her expertise about Jesse James on the Travel Channel’s Mysteries at the Museum and PBS’s American Experience.

Featured image: Jesse James portrait, c. 1882 (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)


Cathy Jackson:  When they told the stories of him robbing the rich to give to the poor, then they meant that Jesse James was one of them. He was the little person who had lost everything in the Civil War, who had lost family members. He was getting something for them, something back for them that they had lost.

Ken Ward: Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to reexamine the stories you thought you knew, and the ones you were never told.

Teri Finneman: I’m Teri Finneman, and I research media coverage of women in politics.

Nick Hirshon: And I’m Nick Hirshon, and I research the history of New York sports media.

Ken Ward: And I’m Ken Ward, and I research the journalism history of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.

And together, we’re professional media historians guiding you through our own drafts of history. This episode is sponsored by Taylor & Francis, the publisher of our academic journal –


Journalism History. Transcripts of the show are available online at journalism-history.org/podcast.

You’d be hard pressed to find a character in American history so thoroughly mythologized as Jesse James. He’s the subject of more than a dozen movies and countless books, and he’s often depicted as an American Robin Hood, stealing from the rich to give to the poor. Of course, this is despite any evidence that James was anything other than a clever but brutally violent criminal. The conversion from bandit to folk hero was well underway even as James and his gang were actively robbing and sometimes killing victims, much of that crime occurring in the state of Missouri, and in this episode Norfolk State University associate professor Dr. Cathy Jackson explains the outsized role newspapers played in making a hero out of the murderous Jesse James.

Cathy, thanks for being on the show. So why don’t you start by giving us just a little bit of background information? I think a lot of us –


feel like we have an idea who Jesse James was, but you know, who, who was he? Where was he? When was he doing the things he was doing?

Cathy Jackson: Jesse James lived in Missouri. He was active from about 1867 until he was assassinated or murdered by one of his gang members in 1882. So he had this long string of robberies, stagecoach robberies, train robberies. He even robbed a mail coach once. He robbed a state fair in Kansas City, and he was never captured. Many people don’t even believe, because of the mythology about him, the legends, that he was even a real person now. I’ll ask, someone will ask me, “You did research on Jesse James? Was he a real person?” And it’s yes, he was real, but there have been so many –


movies about him. In the 20th century, for each decade of the 20th century, there was a movie about Jesse James.

Ken Ward: Huh. Well, and, you know, as you described that, he reminds me a little bit of Robin Hood and we’ll talk more about that a little bit as we, as we get into how the press covered him, but that’s the same idea in, in my mind as Jesse James, was he real, was he fiction? That sounds a lot to me like Robin Hood where we have this criminal who did he exist, did he not, and, and, you know, what sorts of things was he doing? Were they crimes or, or were they not? So, you — oh, go, go ahead.

Cathy Jackson: Well, when you’re talking about outlaw heroes of this type, antiheroes, that is the thing that they all have these similarities. Robin Hood, he robbed the rich to give to the poor. Jesse James robbed the rich to give to the poor. But in reality, Jesse James believed that giving to the rich or whatever –


that all of that stuff began at home. He kept all his money. He didn’t give anything to the poor. He didn’t care about them. Their money was in the bank, so he was robbing them, too. Why would he give it back to them? But the legends that sprung up about him are the same ones about Robin Hood, about any antihero. They tell – and that is the beauty of folklore, that the stories are the same over and over again, that the method of telling these stories is the same over and over again. You must have someone who says something that is familiar. Like Joe, down, you know, down at the corner store, he told me, or my grandfather told me, are sprinkled with places that everyone recognizes to make that story homebound. You talk about sense of place studies. It is about folklore, how we are tied to the land, to the people who walked that land at one time. It is our history and we live it – 


over and over again through these heroes and these stories we tell about them.

Ken Ward: Gotcha. So we’ve used some terms like, like folklore, folk hero. What, what is it about a folk hero that makes them a folk hero? You, you talked about that sense of place and this connection to place. Why is that so important and how does that factor into that overall definition?

Cathy Jackson: In the case of Jesse James, we need folk heroes. They needed a hero in the time of the Civil War. Missouri was very unique in the Civil War in that it was divided. At one time in the beginning, Missouri had two governments, one Union, one Confederate, until the Union troops ran the Confederates out. They went down South to Arkansas somewhere where they stayed the rest of the war.

Ken Ward: Mmm.

Cathy Jackson: But citizen, neighbor was divided against neighbor. You didn’t know who you could trust. It wasn’t like this Mason-Dixon line.


That didn’t occur in Missouri, and so it was even more devastating because you didn’t know whose side anyone was on. And after the war, they just really felt betrayed by everything.

Ken Ward: So how does that lead to or how does the press cover that, right? So we have these –

Cathy Jackson: Right.

Ken Ward: – crimes and, and you’ve, you’ve noted already that how the press covered these crimes is very different from what he actually did. So where, where does the difference lie? What is it that he did then, and what did the press say that he did?

Cathy Jackson: The press covered all of his crimes. You have to remember that even though this was in the 19th century, they still recognized a good story. If you parallel that to what we call news values – prominence, proximity, unusualness — all of these things were there in the Jesse James story. He was someone that everyone knew. He became their hero because –


in the times of crisis, people who study folklore, sociologists, they understand that you need someone that you can say this person speaks for us. When they told the stories of him robbing the rich to give to the poor, then they meant that Jesse James was one of them. He was the little person who had lost everything in the Civil War, who had lost family members. He was getting something for them, something back for them that they had lost. You can’t separate any – we have this myth about objectivity, but you can’t separate people from the times in which they live. Reporters, journalists, editors, they lived in these times, too, and this is where the legend began, in Missouri, and it spread across the country and around the world. There was a international historians poll done –


many, several, many years ago when I was doing this research, and they said that Jesse James is the third most recognizable American character from history. And so this story that began in Missouri, in the countryside of Missouri, somehow spread, became an American story, and then an international story, and the media, the newspapers, I found to be the source for that story. When people tell stories, that’s orality. It’s impermanent. It does not last, and it’s known as being, you know, this fake story people are telling. But legends are based upon bits and pieces of real events, action, history, and so when you tell this story about Jesse James, this legend is real, and it becomes something different.


When it was written down in the newspapers, it became authenticated, real for all time.

Ken Ward: You, you, you mentioned that you know, this, this narrative about Jesse James is so rooted to, to this place, this place that had gone through, you know, this really tumultuous period, as much of the United States did in, during the Civil War.

Cathy Jackson: Yes.

Ken Ward: I’m very curious. So, so if, if the myth began in this part of Missouri and then the story spread throughout the United States, and as you just said, you know, throughout the world, why is it that the rest of the country and, and, you know, outside of this region adopted this same Robin Hood ideal, right? I understand a little bit about this sort of conflict-filled area and then wanting to sort of find, find this story to rally around and sort of all identify with. What about other parts of the United States? What do you attribute that adoption of that narrative to?

Cathy Jackson: It’s a, it was an exciting story. Um, you think of Missouri was at that time, was civilized.


It wasn’t back in the Wild West days, but it was still a part of the country, say for the Eastern papers, that they thought of as being this wild and wooly place. And Easterners, other parts of the country, they always loved these stories about the Wild West, and what else was Jesse James? He was riding through the night with his guns blazing. He had the best horses. All of these things were in the newspapers about him. He could shoot the fastest. He had the steely gaze. You know, all of these things was like the dime novels that people loved, especially the last part of the 19th century. Even before Jesse James died, there were dime novels being written about him, mostly from people who were reporters in Missouri. They wrote the stories that went back East, and that is where the story started spreading.

It was an exciting story.

Ken Ward: That’s really interesting in that, you know, today we talk a lot about, or there’s a lot of talk about sort of like helicopter journalism or parachute journalism where when we think about an area in the interior of the country like Missouri we think of sort of coastal reporters plopping in to get a news story when there’s –

Cathy Jackson: Mm-hmm.

Ken Ward: – some sort of crisis in that region, and going back and reporting from, from one of the coasts. This is an interesting case where we see kind of the opposite happening, where Missourians seem to be writing this story and determining the tone that the rest of the country will take toward the, the story, right? Sort of establishing this, this folk vision of who Jesse James was, and then that sort of disseminating out to the rest of the United States.

Cathy Jackson: Right. There is, there was really no proof that anyone from New York City came to Missouri to cover this story. All these stories were transmitted via telegraph, the AP, clip and paste –


what we call clip and paste now. So the stories started there in Missouri, and I tried to trace the stories in looking at, I looked at how the stories appeared in different parts of the country. Like I did Kentucky, the New York Times I looked at New Mexico, papers in New Mexico. In order to tell if – or in Chicago. Chicago kind of was – mmm. Missouri and Chicago –

Ken Ward: [Laughs]

Cathy Jackson: – had this rivalry going on. You know, Chicago would send down the Pinkertons in the Missouri newspapers after the Pinkertons were killed at the Jesse James farm. “Send some more down here. We’ll take care of them, too.” I mean it was just whole stories –

Ken Ward: Wow.

Cathy Jackson: – editorials that were being written back and forth. Missouri was protecting its own Jesse James. Kentucky, where his, his family came from –


when they moved to Missouri – they’re originally from Virginia, but they moved to Kentucky and then they moved to Missouri, so the Kentuckians were in on the story, too. And he robbed like two banks in Kentucky so, you know, they wanted to be part of the story. So it was, from what I could determine, these stories were transmitted from Missouri to the rest of the world because they were word-for-word what the Missouri newspapers had written.

Ken Ward: Huh. That’s, that’s so interesting what you, what you said about that rivalry between Missouri and Chicago. Um, and I wonder how much of the way then, you know, with the Missourians sort of writing the first draft of the story, and it sounds like the main draft if other people are just picking it up over the wire, something like that –

Cathy Jackson: Mm-hmm.

Ken Ward: – you know, sort of that, that defensiveness that they seemed to take. I wonder if that factored into the way that they told this story and some of the motifs that they chose when it came to sort of, I don’t know, they were reluctant to –

put out a bad image of themselves with Jesse James. It was almost like, you know, sort of they were saying, OK, we understand that this is a criminal but, you know, it’s, it’s not all bad, or something like that. Right? Knowing that other places like Chicago or somewhere like that is going to be judging Missouri and what’s going on in those places.

Cathy Jackson: Well, there was this conflict, this dissent. As you look at my research, I used the 12 heroic motifs of Richard Meyer, and all of them were in the news — in the news stories. Dissent was among – and you found that in the editorials. There were several newspapers in Missouri that knew he was a criminal and wrote about him as such, in that way, yet at the same time they were protective of him. If someone else wrote about him, they would say, you know, they would clap back. We, they were far from partisan journalism at this time –


but when it came to the story of Jesse James, they were very partisan and protective of Missouri. “How are you gonna talk about our criminals? You’ve got all these criminals up there, people killing each other, ah ya ya.”

Ken Ward: [Laughs]

Cathy Jackson: You know, it just went back and forth between them.

Ken Ward: Well, and I find the motifs that you identified or, or applied to, of the case of Jesse James really fascinating. Right? These, some of these motifs, like the native son, the clever hero, the escape artist, the undead – right?

Cathy Jackson: Yeah.

Ken Ward: Uh, can you, can you explain some of these motifs, what, what they mean just generally and then how they applied to the case of Jesse James?

Cathy Jackson: Okay. The native son, of course, is the fact that he was from Missouri. That was always recognized. They would talk about his, his family, where he was from what he did. His crimes originated in Missouri. They were very, as, as we talked about before, they seemed to be very proud of the fact that he was one of their own.


The, the folk hero in the — in the sense of place, he has to be from this place where he is recognized. People hid him out in Missouri. If they knew that the officers were coming, then they would let him know or they would go and tell him. They knew about the caves that they — he supposedly hid in and hid his gold and all of this stuff. So that was the native son. Um, the clever hero. He was always outwitting the posses or anyone who was after him like he was, you know, an escape artist. At one time, they said that he had his horse walking backwards or some such nonsense.

Ken Ward: [Laughs]

Cathy Jackson: And then when he, the ultimate was when he escaped from Northfield, Missouri – I mean Minnesota. Hundreds of posse men in the story said they were after him –

and yet Jesse James, he had, he had lost his horse, somewhere they said he lost his shoes, he was hungry, and yet he made it hundreds of miles, he and his brother, Frank, all the way back to Missouri. The escape artist. And they wrote these stories about the posses and how they were so stupid and how they were just, you know, idiots, that they could not catch him, the clever hero, Jesse James.

Ken Ward: And you know, you certainly can see then why a newspaper would, would pick up a story like that. Um, what then is the effect, right? So, so in the end how much of what we think we know about Jesse James is true, how much of it is kinda half true and half false, and then how much of it is just fabrication, right? Because I would assume that these, these news reports, even though they’re using these, these motifs, are basing what they’re reporting in fact.

Right? Where’s the line?

Cathy Jackson: There wasn’t really a line. When you talk about folk heroes, in the lexicon of folklore, Jesus Christ was a folk hero. There was little known about his birth or his life, like Jesse James. I probably know more about Jesse James than he knew about himself.

Ken Ward: [Laughs]

Cathy Jackson: Because there’s so very little written about him. What we know is from the news stories, and he even, as part of the clever hero, he would even write the newspapers himself, and he would avidly read the newspapers to just see his name in print, and he would tell them, “I was nowhere near that robbery. I was over here at such-and-such place hundreds of miles away.” And whenever there was a robbery anywhere – for example, there was one robbery, bank robbery in I think Kentucky, and during the same day he was supposedly down in Mississippi robbing somebody.


Ken Ward: [Laughs]

Cathy Jackson: He got all that way on a horse, now, in the same day. So there were a lot of crimes that were attributed to him, attributed to him that he didn’t do, and the line you were talking about between what is real and what is not, who knows where that line is? There’s much more in fiction about him than there is in reality.

Ken Ward: And, and so I guess the, the bottom line, then, is the press blurred that line, right?

Cathy Jackson: Yes.

Ken Ward: Right? The — I mean, I guess with a character like Jesse James you wouldn’t expect – I mean what else would there be, you know, crime reports or something like that in this part of the country in this era? It really is just the, the news reports that we have to rely on, but in this case because of the use of these motifs, we just can’t trust it, right?

Cathy Jackson: Right. We can’t trust it because they – and you remember that this is not just straight news reporting like we have today, all the facts –

and nothing but the facts, ma’am. It was very flamboyant. Um, oftentimes they were paid per line, so of course you’re gonna write more lines and fill in more details than what you might even know about in order to get paid more money if you are working as a writer, as a reporter. So they wrote, put more in these stories perhaps than what was there. They listened to what people told them, which is the basis of folklore. There is a famous folklorist Richard Dorson, who said that orality, as I said before, is impermanent, but when print and orality meet that’s where you have the popular folklore, the popular legend about someone, and this is where it met, in the press. When they did the first major –

movie about Jesse James in the 1930s, they used the newspapers in order to write that script.

Ken Ward: Hm. Well, so I guess I did have one more question related to Jesse that I wanted to ask you, but I think you’ve answered it already. I just wanna, wanna hear it definitively. If we’re trying to understand Jesse James as a hero or a villain, with all of your research that you’ve done on this, what is he, hero or villain?

Cathy Jackson: He is a villain. He is probably a, you know, a sociopath.

Ken Ward: [Laughs] Uh-huh.

Cathy Jackson: He, he would kill people. He didn’t really care who he killed. Um, he would rob anyone. It didn’t matter to him. And from what I can understand, he kind of liked, he liked his reputation of being a murderer. When you asked me before about the undead motif, and that is that he didn’t die.

Supposedly there was a doppelganger or someone who took his place and he lived on and he moved to Texas and had a whole different family. By the way, he married his first cousin, Zerelda. So he married, had another family in Texas. And I wanted to go back. Why I started on this story when I was in grad school at Missouri because the year that I was there, they were digging up Jesse for the third time. He had — they had moved his body. His mother had his body moved because people kept chipping away at his stone, and so she put it in the backyard, and then she started charging people to come in and see the grave, and she would charge them to, to get a pebble from the grave. But then they dug him up to authenticate that this was Jesse James actually in the grave, and DNA testing proved that he was 99 percent something –

98 or something like that, that it was Jesse.

Ken Ward: Uh-huh.

Cathy Jackson: So when they were digging him up, there were reporters from around the world over 100 years later for this event to find out if this was Jesse James. What was so fascinating about this man and why do we still care?

Ken Ward: Well, and that, I think, is the an important question to ask, like are there lessons that either journalists should take away from all of this or media historians on the other side should take away from the research that you’ve done here on this, this really fascinating story about Jesse James?

Cathy Jackson: And reading about Jesse, if someone says that they’re a serious researcher and they’re doing this story about Jesse James, they will always make this difference, say that the legend, according to the legend, when they’re talking about what is fake, but then they will say according to newspapers to denote what is real.

There is nothing real in the newspapers about Jesse James, other than the fact he lived, he died, he robbed, he stole, I mean he robbed trains, banks, whatever, and that’s what’s real about Jesse James. All this other stuff that he – well, let me say this. When they say that he was a clever hero – and this is the story that’s told over and over again. It was really in the newspapers. It was in some of his obituaries, that there was a widow and he was in her home eating dinner or whatever, and she told him that the bank was coming to repossess her home ’cause she couldn’t pay. So Jesse gives her some of his bank money to pay off the mortgage, and then the banker comes and he’s surprised, but he gives her the mortgage, and then Jesse is waiting in the bushes, so he robs the banker and gets his money back.

Ken Ward: [Laughs]


Cathy Jackson: It’s the same story they tell about Robin Hood.

Ken Ward: Mm-hmm.

Cathy Jackson: That he did these same things. So stories are, the same stories are applied over and over again. It did not happen.

Ken Ward: Uh-huh.

Cathy Jackson: When –

Ken Ward: Well, we’re – oh, I’m sorry. I was gonna say we’re running short on time, but I did, I did want to ask that one last question that we like to ask all of our guests on this show, and that is, in your estimation, why does journalism history matter?

Cathy Jackson: It matters because it’s the same story that’s being told over and over again, the facts. What is happening to us now with politics, etc., it is nothing new. This hyper-partisan behavior between, say, Fox News and Newsmax and OAN and CNN, it is nothing new. It has happened before. We’ve had politicians who were just as crooked as our last president and his administration. The stories –

are there, and we realize that if we read them that we shouldn’t be surprised at anything. What has happened now, is happening now, has happened before. Journalism history really is that first draft of history, but it tells us of the people who lived in those times, how they felt, how these events impacted them. If we look beneath the words, we can see this story, not just a story of this country but the story of the people who recorded this country for us. This history that we tell now is nothing new, and journalism history tells us that, lets us know that we are not alone in these times. We survived them before, and we will survive them now.

Ken Ward: That’s an excellent sentiment to, to close on. So, Cathy, I appreciate you being on the show, and I really –

I thank you for this really fascinating conversation.

Cathy Jackson: Thank you for having me.

Ken Ward: Well, that’s it for this episode. Thank you for tuning in, and be sure to subscribe to our podcast. You can also follow us on Twitter @JHistoryJournal. That’s all one word. Until next time, I’m your host, Ken Ward, signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow: Good night, and good luck.


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