As a kid growing up in Missouri, Mark L. Gardner didn't just have Jesse James on his mind. He also had the legendary bad guy on his wall.
"I was fascinated by Jesse and pretended to rob banks and trains during recess, all the while doing my very best imitation of the notorious outlaw," Gardner writes. He even plastered wanted posters next to his bed.
Many years later, Gardner would search for something almost as elusive as Jesse James: The truth about a bloody bank robbery and the outlaw's epic last days.
Gardner unspools the story in his masterful 2013 book "Shot All to Hell: Jesse James, the Northfield Raid, and the Wild West's Greatest Escape," which is now out in paperback.
This week, the town of Northfield, Minn., south of Minneapolis, is remembering the 138th anniversary of the 1876 robbery of the Northfield First National Bank. The James and Younger gang killed two, a bank cashier left with a bullet in his head and a bystander, but townspeople managed to shoot two members of the gang to death. Then a wild and woolly manhunt began.
Northfield is still home to Carleton College, which plays a role in the bank robbery drama, and it's still a major player in American legend. It has its own take on the tale: Its week-long commemoration is called "Defeat of Jesse James Days" and honors those who stopped the robbery. "It is the extraordinary courage of these ordinary men that we honor this week," declares the Northfield Historical Society.
In an interview, Gardner talks about the questionable mythology around Jesse James, the impressive generosity of 19th-century Americans, and the legacy of an outlaw's story.
Q: In his own time and ours, Jesse James is a hero to some people – especially those sympathetic to the Confederacy, which he supported – even though he was a murderer and robber. What do you make of his reputation?
A: "You can go all the way back to Robin Hood, who was an outlaw. But the folk tale said he stole from the rich who were oppressors and gave to the poor. That's easily translated to Jesse James, even though it went in the face of reality.
The gang didn't give to the poor. They gave to themselves. But there's something very powerful about the idea that these people are outlaws because they were being oppressed.
It's a way of striking back at those in charge. Here's a former rebel who seemed to not have given up, even though he was robbing banks and killing people. They felt he represented them."
Q: One of the most remarkable things about bank robberies in the 19th century is how the savings of entire families could be wiped out and nobody could do anything about it. How did that play out?
A: "There was no federal deposit insurance in 1876. If a bank was robbed, you're not getting the money back even if it's your life savings.
It helps explain some of the resistance of the Northfield cashier. A bank's reputation is based on how they're going to protect your money. This is all to make their customers feel secure in giving the bank their money and trust.
[The dead cashier, Joseph Lee Heywood] took that to heart: We have to protect the customer's money. And he knew the bank held the money for Carleton College. If this money is gone, there are a lot of people who are going to be hurting, and the town is going to be hurting."
Q: Did this understanding motivate the residents of the town who pulled out guns and began shooting at the robbers once they realized what was going on?
A: "The townspeople are bank customers, and they also have a sense of right and wrong: We're not going to let a bunch of gangsters come in and do this in our town. We're not going to let this happen.
They had to be a kind of citizen police force, to act as their own law and order."
Q: They did a pretty good job, didn't they?
A: "They did an excellent job. I'm amazed at how quickly they assembled and gathered weapons. Northfield, Minnesota, was not the Wild West. They didn't wear guns on their hips to keep the peace or try to make trouble.
Once they knew there was a robbery, they had to run and find guns. Then they had to go fight the robber. Some were Civil War veterans, but not all of them were.
The reason that the advantage went to the townspeople was that they had shoulder guns, rifles and carbines, while the outlaws were using revolvers –handguns. The townspeople could take a steady bead on these individuals, and it was deadly."
Q: What surprised you about the Americans of that time?
A: "I was awed in a good way about their innocence.
Back then, if you were in the big woods of Minnesota or in the prairie and a stranger comes up, you were expected to help them out, give them a meal and a place to sleep.
The outlaws could go to any house and say, 'We're chasing the robbers,' and people would give them food and help them. People were very trusting with an innocence that you don't have now. I liked that about that time."
Q: Did you wrestle with how to portray Jesse James, who's so charming amid all his brutality?
A: "That was the most difficult part for me, and I still grapple with it.
I'm very sympathetic to what created Jesse James – the most horrible war that this continent had ever seen, especially in that area around Kansas and Missouri. He experienced this as a teenager: He sees his stepfather strung up in a tree, and Jesse himself is whipped by Union soldiers. If the Jameses and Youngers were outlaws and killers, this country made them that way.
He's not a hero, not a psychopath. He's in between, and he did things that are unacceptable. I try to leave it to the reader to decide if he's someone we should be sympathetic to or not."
Q: What about his likability?
A: "Jesse James was indeed very likable, and the guys who rode with him liked him better than Frank. He could be funny, gregarious, intelligent. They liked being around him. He was definitely a family man – had there not been a civil war, who knows what he might have been. His father was a Baptist minister and one of the founders of William Jewell College.
But he does kill people. He doesn't do it for a cause, he does it to line his pockets. In a way I want to like Jesse, but I don't like what he did. The real heroes are the ones who stood up against the outlaws."
Q: Frank James, Jesse's brother, survives the aftermath of the botched robbery and manhunt and even thrives, to an extent. Cole Younger, another robber, also lives on in semi-respectability. How did that happen?
A: "Frank James was only in jail briefly, and is acquitted in two trials. He lives for 30 years as a peaceable citizen.
It was hard or difficult for people like Frank and Cole Younger to find regular jobs. They couldn't all of a sudden become farmers or attorneys.
They end up taking odd jobs and really do become beloved figures at the end of their lives. They were revered elder statesmen of the Wild West."
Q: They weren't revered in Northfield, right?
A: "The people of Northfield never forgot.
They did attempt to bring Frank James back to Minnesota, but as part of a deal, the governor would not extradite him.
Not everyone elsewhere was a James or Younger worshipper, either. James was up for doorkeeper of the state legislature in Jefferson City, Missouri. Several legislators spoke up and said, 'We won't have a former outlaw as a doorkeeper.' He lost the job."
Q: What's the legacy of the story of the robbery and the aftermath?
A: "The people of Northfield amazingly responded to an attack on their community, and the entire state banded together in a pursuit of these marauders who'd been defeated and were fleeing for their lives.
Like any epic story, it's about the human experience, how people react to extraordinary circumstances. We're endlessly fascinated by that."
Randy Dotinga, a Monitor contributor, is president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.