The author of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford on getting beyond coloring book heroes and villains to understanding a charming psychopath and his killer.
My first published novel was Desperadoes, a fiction informed by fact. In it I presented the history of the notorious Dalton Gang—three brothers and assorted miscreants who supplemented their miserable paychecks as lawmen in what was not yet Oklahoma by exacting tolls on pioneers, selling liquor to Indians, and then cattle and horse rustling, a hanging offense. Warrants for their arrest confirmed them as criminals, and they soon were imitating the earlier James-Younger Gang with a daring series of train robberies and bank holdups until October 1892, when their leader, Bob Dalton, decided to try to outdo Jesse James by robbing two banks at the same time in their hometown of Coffeyville, Kansas. The citizens there successfully defended their institutions, just as those in Northfield, Minnesota, had done against the James-Younger Gang, and four of the five outlaws were killed in the gun battle. Emmett Dalton, the sole survivor, served 14 years in a Kansas penitentiary before his release, at age 35, and he illustrated his rehabilitation by marrying his childhood sweetheart and moving to Los Angeles, where he was an evangelist against what he called “the evils of outlawry” and became, as he puts it in the novel, “a real-estate broker, a building contractor, a scriptwriter for Western movies; a church man, a Rotarian, a member of Moose Lodge 29.”
Emmett’s lout of a father often boasted that he’d once sold horses to the infamous James Gang, and the celebrity of Jesse James after his death had so much to do with the trajectory of the Daltons from honored marshals to murderous thieves that I became an expert in one gang while researching another. And when Bill Kittridge invited me to submit something for a special issue on the Old West he was editing for Triquarterly, I told him I would try a short historical fiction on how Jesse James was killed. Thirty pages into it, I told Bill I could not finish the story by deadline but thought I had a novel in the works.
Along the Missouri River north of Omaha, there was a wilderness park with a forbiddingly steep slope called “Devil’s Slide” and near it, a great dirt cave that was rumored to have been a hideout for the James Gang at one time. We’d sit in that cave as boys and just imagine for a while. My grandfather would have been 13 and handling chores on a farm in Iowa when Jesse James was killed in 1882, so it’s entirely possible that as a little boy he did indeed once find the James Gang genially watering their horses at his family’s stable trough. The haggard men spoke kindly to him, he claimed, and then, hearing hooves on the road, hurriedly galloped away.
So until I began researching Desperadoes, my sole information on Jesse James was dependent either on hand-me-down legend or on some of the 30 or more movie portrayals of him. His own son, Jesse Jr., and Tyrone Power, Roy Rogers, Audie Murphy, Robert Wagner, Robert Duvall, Kris Kristofferson, James Keach, Rob Lowe, and Colin Farrell are just some of the actors who have portrayed Jesse James over the years. Often the outlaw was presented as a Robin Hood who stole from the rich to give to the poor, or as a good and honorable man forced into crime by an unforgiving Union Army, ruthless and carnivorous railroads and banks, or the Pinkerton Detective Agency, a forerunner of the Secret Service and the FBI. And when Robert Ford was introduced at all it was usually late in the film, as a sly, slinking, serpentine traitor, or as the song has it, “that dirty little coward that shot Mr. Howard” and “laid poor Jesse in his grave.”
Such a pat formula may have been fine for old-fashioned movies with their coloring book depictions of heroes and villains, but intensive research convinced me that Jesse James was a fascinating, emotionally complex, and frequently charming man who could also be a cold-blooded psychopath, and Robert Ford was scheming, yes, but his assassination of his friend was in many ways an act of self-defense, and he’d been given pressure and license to do it by none other than Thomas Crittenden, the governor of Missouri.
Even in insignificant details, earlier books and movies got the facts wrong. Jesse was shot on a Monday morning, yet because of Billy Gashade’s enduring but erring song, the shooting was generally located on a Saturday night. Though Jesse’s last words were “That picture’s awful dusty,” editorial cartoons featured him adjusting a needlepoint of “Home Sweet Home,” and other framed images in the movies generally avoided what the picture actually was: a watercolor of the owner’s favorite racehorse, Skyrocket. “Three children, they were brave,” the song has it. Jesse and Zee had two little children, a boy and a girl, and neither knew their father’s real name or what he did for a living, and their bravery was necessary only because of the misery and near destitution they were subjected to after their father’s death.
But it was the controversial Bob Ford who intrigued me as much as the murderer he murdered, for he seemed not only misrepresented by history, but motivated by the tendencies of arrogance, envy, greed, idolatry, and self-aggrandizement of which Shakespearean tragedies are made. On the evening of my 33rd birthday celebration, John Chapman killed John Lennon, the Beatle he deeply admired; and four months later John Hinckley tried to assassinate President Ronald Reagan, permanently disabling his press secretary and wounding the president and two others, all in order to weirdly impress the actress Jodie Foster. There was a good deal about past assassination attempts in the media that year, and I was drawn to the old newspaper coverage of the trial and execution of Charles Guiteau, a mentally disordered journalist and scoundrel lawyer who, because he had campaigned fitfully for Republican President James Garfield, felt he was owed an ambassadorship to Vienna or Paris, and when his crazy entreaties were ignored, shot him. All historical novels in some way interpret and comment on the years in which they were written.
At the same time that Charles Guiteau was collecting hundreds of pages of press attention for his oddities, a fame that most respectable Americans are denied, Bob Ford was plotting the capture of Jesse James with government officials who promised a reward equivalent now to more than a million dollars and, if he was forced to kill the outlaw, full exoneration and pardon. With the grave possibility that Jesse, in his paranoia, hoped to kill Bob and his brother Charley whenever he found the likeliest opportunity, there must have seemed little downside to what the Fords decided to risk.
Often readers of such a novel ask me, “How much of this is true?” It’s a reasonable question, since frequent malpractice has made the historical novel a suspect genre. My rules are fairly simple: honesty and fidelity throughout, meaning no hard facts, however inconvenient, may be dismissed and no crucial scenes, however wished for, may be turned to ends that may be more pleasing to a contemporary audience. In other words, I do not budge from the truth as I know it and I firmly root the novel in the 19th century in spite of 20th-century perceptions of what can and should be done or said. I relied primarily on period newspaper accounts, secondarily on histories, and not at all on the recollections of the descendants of family and eyewitnesses since those “memories” are the most tinged by flattering interpretation.
I have been asked why there is no exit wound in the front of his head if Jesse was shot by a revolver just behind his ear. My answer simply is that there was no exit wound and the bullet was extracted from inside his skull—whether that is a fault of the gunpowder in the cartridge is unknown to me, and did not particularly trouble the journalists at the time.
I have been asked about the claim that Charles Bigelow, rather than Jesse James, was killed on April 3, 1882, and whether J. Frank Dalton, who claimed to be Jesse and thus was 103 years old when he died, was the real thing. Looking at the last item first, J. Frank Dalton was not the man’s real name but one taken up in middle age on his first inclination to pretend to be Bob Dalton’s older brother Franklin, and J. Frank had almost no resemblance to photographs of Jesse; he also claimed an impossible relationship with Howard Hughes, and he seems to have been one of the unknown heroes of World War I. A fraud, in other words, but a fascinating one.
Recent medical examinations have proved the DNA of the remains in the Kearney, Missouri, grave of Jesse Woodson James in fact match the DNA in samples of other items known to have belonged to him. Cranks who still believe otherwise are not worth the argument. But even before such tests were available, the Charles Bigelow conspiracy theory made no sense. Were the funeral of Jesse James a fake, it would mean Zee James and Jesse’s mother, Zerelda, were the finest actresses of the century, and Jesse, the famously loyal family man, was content to witness his wife and children living in abject poverty until Zee’s premature death. Also, the corpse photographed and forensically examined in St. Joseph, Missouri, in 1882 contained every injury, physical characteristic, and dental repair of the famous outlaw.
Those injuries are much in evidence on actor Brad Pitt in the Warner Bros. film adaptation of my novel. Having grown up in Missouri, Brad was familiar with the glamorous but false representations of Jesse James and, like me, was intrigued far more by a historically accurate, psychologically acute, warts-and-all presentation of this shrewd, spellbinding, and improbably durable celebrity.
Andrew Dominik, the Australian director and screenwriter of the film, had chanced upon my novel in a used bookstore in Melbourne, and when, after the success of his stunning first film, “Chopper,” Andrew was contacted by Brad about the possibility of working together on a project for Pitt’s Plan B production company, Andrew suggested The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Within months, Andrew produced a wonderful script that is completely faithful to the novel, and on Aug. 29, 2005, principal photography began, with Casey Affleck as Bob Ford, Sam Rockwell as his brother Charley, Mary Louise Parker as Jesse’s wife, Sam Shepard as Frank James, and a host of other interesting and persuasive actors playing supporting roles.
Alberta, Canada’s woodlands, prairies, the mountains near Banff, and the old-town streets of Winnipeg provide settings that look far more like 1880s Missouri, eastern cities, and Bob Ford’s final home in Creede, Colorado, than the authentic locations do today. Walking through the sets, I marveled at the details, with “Thomas Howard’s” house at 1318 Lafayette Street in St. Joseph reconstructed exactly according to the architectural blueprint and furnished with real antiques from the period. I had a job as an extra one Wednesday afternoon—I played, without flourish, a journalist—and was costumed in some long dead man’s actual 19th-century frock coat, stiffly-collared shirt, and carefully brushed black bowler hat.
The honor that the whole production—cast, crew, and studio—is paying to this fragment of America’s history is gratifying to the author, of course, but more importantly it is doing justice to the named and the nameless who lived in the turbulence and violence of the post-Civil War Reconstruction, and against all odds, settled a disorderly frontier.
—Ron Hansen is literary editor for Santa Clara Magazine and Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., Professor in the Arts and Humanities at Santa Clara University. A new edition of his novel The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is forthcoming from Harper Perennial.