The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, by Ron Hansen

Unwieldy title aside, Hansen’s 1983 historical novel is a fascinating account of the life and death of America’s most notorious outlaw, and the dissolution of Robert Ford, the man who shot Jesse James in the back on April 3, 1882.

Hansen begins the book with a recounting of the final robbery of the James Gang, in September 1881, then spends a section of the book telling the tale of the outlaw and his robberies. The retelling of the James Gang’s exploits, including the famous botched robbery in Northfield, Minnesota, is handled briefly. This is not a biography of Jesse James.

When the novel picks up again, it is the aftermath of that final train robbery. Jesse James is hiding under the name of Thomas Howard, and his gang has split and gone in different directions. The novel traces the most important members of the gang, Jesse’s cousin Wood Hite, Dick Liddil, Charley Ford and his younger brother Bob Ford, as they make their way in the world. These are crude, violent people and intelligence is not particularly high on their list of attributes. There are sporadic bouts of violence. Wood Hite has a confrontation with Dick Liddil over a woman. When a subsequent confrontation turns violent, Hite is killed by Bob Ford and Dick Liddil is on the run.

Thinking that Hite was killed by Liddil, Jesse James goes on the hunt for Liddil to avenge his cousin.

James recruits the Ford brothers to serve as the nucleus for a new gang, though he is highly suspicious of Bob Ford. With good reason. Bob Ford is in cahoots with the Governor of Missouri to turn over Jesse or kill him.

The death of James is no surprise. It’s enshrined in a folk song about that “dirty little coward” who shot him in the back as James straightened a picture hanging on the wall. For most people, that is where the story ends. Hansen, however, has James killed roughly 2/3rds of the way into the book, leaving the remaining pages to tell the fascinating story of what happened to Robert Ford.

Ford gained a high degree of fame and celebrity for killing James. He recreated the act on stage countless times to packed houses. But Ford’s arrogance also served to alienate many people. Near the end, he was trying to make it as a saloon keeper, and still trying to trade on his name as “The Man Who Shot Jesse James.” He was driven from town and eventually killed himself was shot down ten years after the death of James.

Hansen recreates the Western setting deftly. This is not the West of John Ford and John Wayne in Monument Valley; this is the West of rolling plains in Missouri, small towns, and isolated houses. The characters, especially the two title characters, are vivid and realistic. James is portrayed as a loving family man who cherished his wife and children, but who was also a psychopath and cold-blooded killer. There is a great ambiguity to Robert Ford. Aside from the title, and the opinions of almost all who cross his path, the idea that Ford was truly a coward is questioned. Yes, he shot Jesse James in the back when James was unarmed. However, he had excellent reason to believe that James was planning on killing him later that night, James was almost never unarmed, and James was far better at handling a gun. In a fair fight, there is no way that Robert Ford would not have become just another nameless victim of Jesse James. And Jesse likely would not have fought fair when the time came.

What is most interesting in the book is the retelling of Ford’s experiences after the killing of James. Robert Ford is first hailed as the hero who killed the villain. As time goes by, it is Ford that starts to become vilified, and James who starts to gain stature as some kind of American folk hero. As the years go by, the fame and status of Jesse James grows and the hero worship of Robert Ford becomes outright disdain, leading to his eventual assassination.

Throughout the book, Bob Ford reminds me particularly of Mark David Chapman, the killer of John Lennon. Ford was a wannabe, who worshipped Jesse James, collected newspaper articles and memorabilia. He wanted to be Jesse James. When this proved impossible, Ford the Stalker decided that the only way to link his name forever with that of James was to kill him. Unlike Chapman, who followed a similar learning curve with the ex-Beatle, Ford worked with the law to ensure a large reward (which was never paid to him) and total exoneration for the crime (which he half-received: he was found guilty of murder and sentenced to hang but then received a full pardon).

The book also serves as a refresher on the truth of Jesse James. For some reason, America has always had a love affair with the villains of the past. Billy the Kid, Jesse James, John Wesley Hardin, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, Pretty Boy Floyd, John Dillinger…these are the names of genuinely bad people, notorious villains and murderers. Yet their names evoke certain wistfully romantic images of riders on horseback, Model-T cars, tommy guns.

In many ways, Jesse James was a Confederate terrorist. He started with Quantrill’s Raiders after the Civil War, and embarked on his life of crime in order to avenge members of his family who were killed by the Union. James wanted the money to be had in bank and train robberies, but he was also a die-hard Confederate soldier on a mission long after the Civil War had ended. He was a murderer and a psychopath. There is absolutely nothing romantic about his life and crimes, yet just the name evokes startlingly powerful mental images of a time before any of us were born. It is perilously close to a sort of national nostalgia.

Is it the movies? Did Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway turn the idiot murderers Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker into star-crossed lovers? Did the great team of Robert Redford and Paul Newman neuter the reality of Butch and Sundance so much that they became some sort of comic heroes?

Partially, perhaps, but not completely. Long before the movies, singers were writing songs about villains like Jesse James, extolling him as a good and noble family man. Later, Woody Guthrie would write a song about Pretty Boy Floyd that turned the murderer and bank robber into some kind of Robin Hood.

America is a country that has always looked to the future, while dreaming of a largely mythic past. As the past becomes a romantic legend, the villains also take their part. The rational mind understands the reality of thugs like Jesse James, but who ever said nostalgia had to be rational?


UPDATE: I fixed a poorly constructed sentence that made it seem as if Robert Ford committed suicide when, in fact, he was murdered.

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