The name "Jesse James" still has a bit of romance in it, but nothing close to what it once carried. For reasons that are almost beyond me or anyone right now, Mr. Jesse James and his gang had something of Robin Hood's reputation. Maybe it grew from his otherwise gentlemanly ways or the fact that he maintained, somehow, a peculiar religiousity, something he gained, I suppose, from his father, a Baptist preacher, who died when he was just a boy.
He was known for pitying working men during his raids and pilfering rather exclusively from the rich, when he had the time and opportunity to discriminate. But those who died at the hands of his gang were not specially chosen; they were killed because they got in the way of robbery. Nonetheless, murderers are murderers until their list of victims reach epic proportions; then they become legends. Jesse was a legend.
But so was Robert Ford, the man who killed him, then tried to call the Governor of Missouri to let him know that deed had been accomplished. The most amazing fact in this whole heartland saga--or so it seems to me--is that Mr. Robert Ford went on to replay the event of the murder of Jesse James some 800 times, with appropriate alterations, of course. In the play, The Outlaws of Missouri, Robert Ford played himself, doing voice-over narration when he wasn't reenacting the deed, quitting finally when the audience threw too much garbage on the stage, at him. He never became the hero he thought he'd become, but he certainly became famous.
Just imagine that--replaying cold-blooded murder, telling the whole awful story 800 times. It's a wonder he had any life at all after that; but unlike his brother Charley, who took his own life, Robert Ford lived on and became his own kind of legend, eventually, ironically, succumbing to an assassin's bullet himself.
It's a story told grandly by Ron Hansen in a book I just read, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
It's a story about America--our fascination with the west, our penchant for legend, our passion for fame, our bizarre tastes in entertainment. And this too--our often blindingly contradictory humanity as sin-riddled image-bearers.
This morning's thanks is for nothing more or less than stories that plumb the depths of who we are. Good stories. Good books.