The Jesse James Scrapbook
by George Jansen
Everyone knows Jesse James was an outlaw. More important, he is a figure of the Civil War and Reconstruction, who, in his own time, became a symbol of the defeated and prostrate South --a hero to some, a villain to others.
Everyone knows Jesse James was an outlaw. More important, he is a figure of the Civil War and Reconstruction, who, in his own time, became a symbol of the defeated and prostrate South —a hero to some, a villain to others.
Mr. Thurston James read my novel and said this about it: "The Jesse James Scrapbook is a different kind of book... The cover says it is a novel, but it is not —it is a Scrapbook! Each chapter is a fragment of the James Boys life, told by a fictional witness... but it's stories are based on the traditional history of Jesse, Frank, Cole, and other gang members."
Thurston, who passed away in 2005, was related to Jesse's mother and was one of the leading lights of The James/Younger Gang, a nonprofit organization of James ficionados. I'm very proud that a person such as he liked my book.
I'm also very proud of an extensive review of The Jesse James Scrapbook done by Mr. Frank Mundo, a Southern California writer and activist. If you'd like to read that, please click here: Mundo Review.
I never had no quit in me.
The night we voted quit we stayed in Billy Drury's barn. I wasn't for hiding out there because I never trusted him. Jess said Billy's people were good people, but Billy was not trustworthy in my eyes.
"You all make yourselves to home, now," Billy said.
He was a stubby man with a beard that most times had food stuck in it. He was good with horses, but he liked them better than he liked people, and I could never trust such a man as that.
He brought us supper beans boiled in salt pork but no meat or bread. There was less than a dozen of us left in what had once been Bub Howell's command, but Billy still didn't have enough plates.
"You boys be leaving in the morning?" he asked, ladling out those damn beans.
I make no accusations. I only say that Billy Drury liked horses better than people, that he cut himself off from the world, and that betrayal was in the air.
When the Federals got Bub, they cut off his head and stuck it up on a telegraph pole. They dragged the rest of him behind a mule to Concord and set that up with a sign saying this was the fate of all guerrillas.
I didn't want them to do that to me. Still, I wasn't for quit.
"Beans, Jess?" Billy Drury said as he walked among us. "Coffee, Tom? Beans, Dick? We got plenty."
I make no accusations, but say again, betrayal was in the air.
Captain Sturgis had found us, earlier. He gave us a talk as we ate. Him and his men had quit two weeks before, and he said we should think about quitting, too. Bobby Lee had quit in Virginia, he said. He said there was nothing wrong with quitting when you were beat.
"The Federals will parole you. Just like regular soldiers, all you'll have to do is take the Loyalty Oath."
Tom Novinger said, "I swear no false oaths."
"I swore it," Dick said. "There's nothing wrong with swearing the Oath."
Dick Sturgis was a traitor that's what I think. I think he quit and the Yankees spared him on the condition he go out and get others to quit. If Bub had been living, he would have killed Sturgis. He would have killed Billy Drury, too.
"I don't trust the Federals," Tom Novinger said. "They never once acted honorable in the whole war, and you're a fool if you believe they will now. And what is left for us to go home to? Our farms have been burnt. Our wives have been made impure."
"I got no quit in me," I said.
"It ain't about quit," Sturgis, the traitor said.
I started to say, "Is too," but I stumbled on the "t" and it came out stuttered, like a hundred rifle-guns going off one after the other tat, tat, tat.
When I was a boy everyone laughed at me for this stutter. It was God's creation, but still they laughed. Then, one day, I laughed along with them, and it was less hard after that. When I laughed along, I was in on the joke and not just the butt of it. Still, I never talked much.
"It's quit," I said, "and quit is all."
"We ought to vote," Jess said. His courage had started to flag towards the end. He'd been a tiger at the start, but I hadn't seen the tiger in months. Sometimes, now, his hands would shake so hard that he couldn't load a revolver.
I told Jess, "Your brother got no quit in him." Frank had went with Quantrill to try and kill Lincoln. Booth only got there first.
Jess shook his head. "Ain't about quit."
"Is too," I said, and I didn't stutter.
Dick Sturgis said, "There's just no more sense to warring. Bobby Lee quit, and there's nothing wrong if you quit, too. Men are turning themselves in all over."
Tom Novinger was still a man. "Some things are more important than living," he said.
Jess's people try to tell you he wasn't for quit, but he was. Even they admit it was him who carried the white flag. If Jess wasn't for quit, then why did he carry the white flag? Ask his people that if you will.
The next day we started out towards the Arsenal at first light. As we left, I told Billy Drury I was on to him.
"Watch your step," I said.
He tried to laugh it off, but he was scared. He had neither principles nor honor. I should have gone back and killed him.
We rode right on down the highway like we owned it. When people saw us some waved and some ran. I liked that. Everybody knew Bub Howell's Boys.
When we got towards Arsenal Hill, twenty or so militia come up the road towards us. Jess waved that white flag, but the militia never respected such things.
They started shooting.
Tom Novinger went down.
There was but a dozen of us, but militia never were much, and when we charged, they broke like nothing. But about fifty regulars come up right behind them Wisconsin boys and once they got into it, there wasn't much left for Bub Howell's men.
The horses screamed. The men went down, but not Dick Sturgis. He was up in the van but untouched. He ran for it when it started. I make no accusations but only ask why.
My horse fell and me with it. Jess reached down and gave me a hand up behind him. I could see blood on his shirt, but he still got me up. He could be a man when he wanted. I give him that.
"Go," I said, once I was up.
He gave his horse the spur and we commenced to run, but four Wisconsin boys singled us out and charged. Jess got one, but the next got him, and the next one after got his horse.
I scrambled away, but the horse fell dead atop Jess, and he got pinned to the ground. The Federals fired at him. He fired back and struggled to pull free, but they hit him again. I figured that settled his accounts.
I ran, and the Wisconsin boys pursued me. I got shot in the heel but didn't fall. I started hobbling. I figured I was going to die, regardless, and I thought of Tom Novinger's words about there being things more important than life, so I wheeled and fired.
I got one, and I laugh still when I think of the surprise on his face.
I got him from fifty yards with a pistol, and when he went down, it gave the others pause. They'd never seen shooting like that, and they wanted no part of me.
Now, that is ten thousand years gone by, and we hold reunions. We set up a picture of Quantrill, all framed up in a big, gilt frame. We set around it, and tell stories about the old days. When the dinner bell rings, we all let out a rebel yell and hobble over to the tables. But we're dying, one by one, and there aren't six of us fit enough to be pallbearers. It's a useless fate.
Historically, the American character is one of moral, political and religious paradox. Distinguished, revolutionary, and brilliant, the American created the modern model of democracy by enslaving one entire race of people and nearly committing genocide upon another. Oh, and he left his wife at home while he did it. Enlightened, spiritual, and pious, the American sought freedom from religious persecution, and then he went out lynching and witch hunting those who were different —and brought his wife along while he did it. Discriminate, just, and moral, the American trusted the will of the people to elect its leaders by ignoring more than half of its population, including his wife, who left at home while he did it. From Thomas Jefferson to William Jefferson Clinton, the American character, magnanimous and meretricious, is consistently linked to a dual struggle with morality, politics or religion.
This April, 2004, however, marks the 123rd anniversary of the murder of Mr. Tom Howard of St. Joseph, Missouri, the archetype of this American moral paradox. And one doesn't need to study history to know that Mr. Howard (AKA Jesse James) is still, all these years later, one of the most famous American characters who has ever lived. But, for history buffs, such as George Jansen, author of The Jesse James Scrapbook, Jesse James is so much more. Not only an icon of American paradox, James is a symbol of "the haunted stillness" of a post Civil War America, scarred for life by "that terrible conflict," the bloodiest battle ever experienced on American soil. For others like Jansen, Jesse James is a type of figure who , if nothing else, might help reconcile, not the "the terrible conflict" itself, but the ugly scar it left behind. James, immoral certainly, represents the rebellious nature of the moral American character who, in most cases, eventually sees (even a century later) the most manifest errors of his way. In this way, Jesse James is mirror who exposes, with guns in each hand, both sides of our troubled nature.
The Jesse James Scrapbook is not a historical study of Jesse James; it's a novel which examines the James legend through the firsthand historical voice of the press and people of America fictionally recreated by Jansen (based, however, on "actual" historical documents). If history is told by the winners, then legend must be the response of the losers —and, boy, do they ever respond when it comes to Jesse James.
Jansen's Scrapbook is ostensibly a collection of interviews, letters, newspaper articles and even excerpts from an outlaw's criminal confession: the winners and the losers (but mostly the losers). These documents are first collected by a precocious 12 year old named Tom Gardner in 1906, forgotten about for years, and are then reexamined in 1935 by an older and wiser Gardner, a writer for the government's W.P.A. (Works Progress Administration, an endlessly fascinating organization created by the government during the Depression to keep artists busy and working). The majority of the Scrapbook is made up of interviews which detail the various stages of the Jesse James legend, his youth, his war and his death. A schoolteacher, farmers, a Pinkerton Detective, a commercial fisherman, saloon keepers, a reporter, Confederate Cavalrymen, a school caretaker and even outlaws and informers ("everyone [still alive] who ever knew or saw or was robbed by Jesse" ) all team up to aid in the The Jesse James Scrapbook, the "life work" of Tom Gardner. And although a specific ugliness is missing in the twang of some of these re-created American voices, George Jansen has successfully executed a provocative and entertaining work of fiction worthy of the true legend himself.
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