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Jesse James: The Best Writings on the Notorious Outlaw and His Gang

edited by Harold Dellinger, The Globe Pequot Press, Guilford, Conn., 2007, $16.95.

One admirer called him “this wonderful outlaw,” but others labeled him “notorious”—and a whole lot worse. What do we really know about Jesse James? Perhaps writer, historian and editor Harold Dellinger puts it best: “Contradictory, convoluted, layered, for every solid fact there are a dozen rumors and fabrications. For every champion, there’s a detractor.”

Jesse Woodson James was born in 1847 and died (shot from behind by Bob Ford, a member of his outlaw gang; see the 2007 movie The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, now out on DVD) in St. Joseph, Mo., on April 3, 1882. Yet even before his death at the hands of “that dirty little coward,” Jesse James had become a part of the American myth, sometimes hero, often villain.

Dellinger has assembled a “best of” collection of writings about Jesse James, mostly nonfiction but also fiction, poetry, folk songs and fiction that passed for nonfiction. This particular best of includes fiery James booster John Newman Edwards’ “interview” with James, first published in the St. Louis Dispatch in 1873, and accounts by fellow bushwhacker Jim Cummins and attorney William H. Wallace (who unsuccessfully prosecuted Jesse’s older brother, Frank, in 1883). James’ son gets his say, as does frontier doctor Henry Hoyt (the man who said that Jesse James, going by the name of Mr. Howard, met Billy the Kid at a hot springs near Las Vegas, New Mexico Territory). With more recent writings from historians John Koblas, William A. Settle, T.J. Stiles and Ted P. Yeatman, Dellinger’s book is sure to entertain and inform.


Originally published in the April 2008 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here