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The Real Jesse James: Bandit or Hero?


He was a bank robber, a train robber and cold-blooded killer. But to the poor in the south after the U.S. Civil War, Jesse James was nothing less than a hero. VOA's Rebecca Ward explores the myth behind the man - who comes to life in a new movie starring Brad Pitt.

Think of it as an early form of gangsta rap. There are 30 recordings at the Library of Congress in Washington that immortalize the outlaw as a folk hero. Kind of like Robin Hood -- who he clearly was not.

Stephen Winick, a folk historian with the Library Of Congress, explains. "By and large, when he robs trains, he didn't go through the train and steal from individual people as some train robbers did. He just stole what was in the safe. But, of course, when you rob a bank, especially in those days before federal insurance, you're robbing the money of the people who put it in the bank."

For nearly 20 years, Jesse James stayed one step ahead of the law. But he was not just a gunslinger, he was a ruthless gang member - and a former Confederate [a supporter of the Confederate states that seceded during the U.S. Civil War] guerilla.

Winick says it was the latter affiliation that really helped his reputation. "He was a confederate - a sort of guerilla fighter on the Confederate side. And there was a concerted effort in Missouri during his lifetime to get the Confederates, the former confederates, back into power politically, who were the Democratic Party at that time. And that was one of the things behind Jesse James becoming a folk hero."

Based on the novel by Ron Hansen, "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" explores the months and days leading up to Jesse James' death. Brad Pitt is the notorious outlaw whose trust was obviously misplaced in a relatively new gang member -- Bob Ford.

Winick says, "One of the reasons people reviled Bob Ford so much is that it was pretty clear that he was in cahoots with the governor at the time that he committed the assassination, or killing, of Jesse James. He was arrested for that, he and his brother, and they went to jail. And they were immediately pardoned by the governor and they also got part of the award money."

Jesse James' status as folk hero or merciless bandit notwithstanding, many believe that with Brad Pitt in the leading role it makes the movie a surefire hit.