JESSE JAMES “JR.” – A FAMILY DRAMA ON FILM

In the previous post, Westernsreboot discussed the real-time intersection of the historical Old West and film in the figure of Pancho Villa. Villa starred as himself in a 1914 film made by the Mutual Film Corporation in order to raise funds for his revolutionary efforts in Mexico.

There is another individual from the historic West and its era of outlaws that links to the early 20th century via film….the son of Jesse James himself, Jesse Edwards James (1875-1951).

Jesse E. James was born in Nashville, Tennessee while his Missouri-born father was based in that state during his outlaw career. Son Jesse was known as ‘Tim” in his youth to conceal his background and he carried that as a nickname into adulthood. He was present, along with his mother Zee and his younger sister Mary, in the rented home in St. Joseph, Missouri when his father was assassinated on April 3rd, 1882 by Bob Ford.

Jesse James the son would go on to become a lawyer, marry in 1900 and have four daughters. He would practice law in Missouri and eventually move to Los Angeles.

Jesse E. James / Image – Greg Ellison

His father, Jesse Woodson James, moved from 19th century celebrity to legend with his death in 1882. The mythology of Jesse James has often portrayed him as a Robin Hood-like figure that resisted the corporations, banks and railroads exploiting the common person. Within that specific myth, his outlaw ways have been contextualized as resistance against a federal government and business class that unjustly persecuted him.

Recent historical scholarship has framed at least some of his actions in the context of ex-Confederates striking back at the Union following the US Civil War. This interpretation has been added to or replaced the views that he was simply lawless or chose to fight against corporate wealth. There has yet to be any documentation that he shared his spoils with anyone outside of his outlaw gang and family circle.

As 19th century dime novels both during the lifetime of Jesse James and afterward created fanciful fictional exploits which highlighted the Robin Hood myth, so too would many of the film portrayals.  

In 1921, Jesse “Junior” would be asked to portray his father in two consecutive silent films, Jesse James Under the Black Flag and Jesse James as the Outlaw. The first film depicts the teenage James joining Confederate guerrillas during the US Civil War and his return to a peaceful post-war life and subsequent marriage to his wife, Zee.  The second film contributes to the James myth – the dreams of Jesse James to live quietly are ended when he is wrongly accused of robbing a bank. James is thus forced to become an outlaw and the pattern of being falsely accused continues. Despite persecution by the malicious Pinkerton Detective Agency, James is able to act as a Robin Hood for local citizens until his assassination by the cowardly Bob Ford.

Screenshot – Jesse James Under The Black Flag (1921) (Image – stevelensman.hubpages.com)

Considering that the younger Jesse  was present as a young boy at the assassination of the elder James, it is poignant to consider that the first portrayals of Jesse James on film would have the son play the role of the father. His sister, Mary, also had a role in the first film.

In 1899, a book written by Jesse entitled, Jesse James, My Father, had been published and in that text Jesse Edwards James both defended the humanity of his father and shared some of his childhood remembrances of when his father was alive:

It was….in this house on the hill in St. Joseph that I best remember my father. I was then six years old. I remember my father as a tall, rather heavily built man, with a dark sandy beard. He was very kind to mother and to sister and to me. I remember best his good humored pranks, his fun making and his playing with me. I did not then know his real name or my own.”

The second half of this book details Jesse’s own story of having been accused of a train robbery in 1898 – he was acquitted.

This screenshot from The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), directed by Andrew Dominik, shows Jesse James (Brad Pitt) walking with his son “Tim” to their St. Joseph home as Bob Ford (Casey Affleck) stands waiting.

 (Copyright – Chad Beharriell)

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10 thoughts on “JESSE JAMES “JR.” – A FAMILY DRAMA ON FILM

  1. Jesse James’ mulatto stepbrother Perry Samuel was also in Under The Black Flag. I own a photo of him as well as the photo of Jesse Jr. you used in your article.

    1. Hi Gregory…thanks very much for the visit and that interesting info. I’m aware of Perry Samuel within the James family – my sources place him as the biracial child of a former slave on the James farm (the father’s identity unknown) – but did not know he had a role in that film. Perhaps it’s not a surprising fact, given that Perry would be tied to the James family for his entire life, working as a servant for Jesse’s mother, Zerelda.

      The Jesse E. James photo above is in the public domain (i.e. taken from Wikipedia.org) and so it’s also interesting to know you have a a photo copy of such!

      Thanks again,
      Chad

      1. Chad Beharriell, I have a photo of Perry Samuel and his wife. I also own the original copy of the photo above. It is part of my Jesse James Collection that was owned by Frank Walker Poor who lived next door to Jesse James Jr. and his mother in Kansas City. Jesse James and his wife Zee had the same grandfather Abraham Poor. My collection is on display at the Ray County Museum just ten miles from where Jesse James grew up. I have no problem with it being used. It was never on the internet until I posted there,

        Greg Ellison

  2. Thanks for your follow-up comment and additional background information, Mr. Ellison. As first mentioned, I found the image via a Wikipedia link but given the provenance you provide, I have amended the caption to include your name. It sounds like a very interesting collection that you have housed at the Ray County Musuem.
    Cheers,
    Chad

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