On this day in 1882 Robert Ford shot and killed Jesse James. James, along with his brother Frank and various other associates, had robbed and pillaged their way across the 19th century American frontier. It is speculated he murdered at least 16 people. Had Ford not unloaded his Smith and Wesson Model 3, Schofield .44 caliber revolver into the back of James’ head, he and his brother Charley would most likely have been numbers 17 and 18.
Ironically, for the action Ford took on this day 127 years ago, he is remembered by history, in the words of Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s famous (though historically incorrect) song as the “the little coward” who murdered Jesse James. That song and its image of Ford as a sniveling coward and James as a noble Robin Hood has been perpetuated through the last century by such populist left-wing luminaries and Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen as well as countless numbers of glamorized and fictionalized Hollywood biopics. In this narrative James robbed the hated banks and railroads to redistribute their ill gotten riches to those in need – as the song says, “He stole from the rich and he gave to the poor.”
Of course, James was no hero. He was a cold blooded psychopath. The money he stole he stole for himself, not to share with others less fortunate.
Remarking on the outrage caused by James’ death, Oscar Wilde observed “Americans are certainly great hero-worshippers, and always take [their] heroes from the criminal classes.”
Was Wilde on to something? Can we draw any contemporary lessons from this? Maybe. Maybe not. However, it is hard to deny that since at least the early part of the 19th Century there has been a streak of occasionally thoughtless and thuggish populism and lust for class war from certain segments of this country. It is not a stretch to say we have seen some of it over the past few months and weeks — not just from citizens but from our elected officals as well.
So, how would Americans react to a modern day Jesse James and/or Robert Ford?