The infamous outlaw Jesse James was killed on April 3, 1882, and he has since become a piece of American folklore. Jesse James’ name and characteristics were used in western novels during his life as his infamy grew. Shortly after his feath, he was the subject of dime store novels (which often portrayed him as a rebel against industry and Reconstruction). His death was reenacted onstage, oddly enough starring his actual assassin, Robert Ford. In the early 20th century, he became a Robin Hood-like hero to the Populist movement and Progressives. He has been the subject of many films throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. The 2007 film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which was lauded for its historical accuracy, portrays Jesse James as a self-aware showman.
After visting James’ hometown in Missouri, Oscar Wilde observed that “Americans are certainly great hero-worshippers, and always take their heroes from the criminal class.” During the 1880s and 1890s, dime store western novels often romanticized Jesse James as a folk hero, a charming and charismatic rebel standing up to the big banks.
(Cover of a 1901 dime novel)
Jack Wright and His Electric Stage is sympathetic to its “notorious bandit king” anti-hero. James is portrayed as dangerous, but charismatic, daring, clever and restless. The anonymous author does not offer any moral justification for James’ robberies. Rather, the plot is almost purely action (there are no real paragraphs, only single-line sentences interspersed with dialogue) and the thematic emphasis falls on Jesse James’ daring and adventurous nature. After escaping from Sheriff Timberlake, Jesse immediately suggests another robbery. He observes that “we all lost every dollar we had, playing faro in the city. How are we going to ride back to Missouri without a cent? It’s my opinion that we’ll have to do some work about Wrightstown to get ahead.” His works consists of forging a check, withdrawing $5000 from a wealthy inventor’s bank account, and disarming, bounding and gagging Sheriff Timberlake. The novel does not depict any of the brutal murders that contributed to James’ infamy. He is amoral and motivated by self-interest and adventure, but he isn’t exactly evil–he’s a sympathetic and charismatic ruffian, an outlaw, yes, but a daring and intriguing one.
As the title suggests, this novel also addresses modern technology. Jesse James and his gang just happen to leap off of their train in the hometown of “an inventor of electric machines for flying through the air, navigating under water, and running over the land,” the titular Jack Wright. They promptly swindle the genius, using low-tech means; Jesse asks him humbly for $10 so he can pay his train fare, and Jack Wright makes out a check without hesitation. Jesse then takes the check to his hostel, makes out a blank check for $5000 in the inventor’s handwriting, and then, because he cannot forge Wright’s peculiar signature, he places the $5000 unsigned check under the original for $10 and tore them both in half to separate the dollar amount and the signature. He matched the signature to the $5000 check, and went to the bank, explaining that he had accidentally torn the check. Because the halves matched, the teller believed his story and handed him $5000. Jesse James, an uneducated man who still travels by horseback, outwits a genius.
I wrote earlier of the anxieties surrounding the new technology at the end of the 19th century. Even the bicycle was controversial in the 1890s, so Jack Wright’s “electric overland engine” was, at the time, fantastic and somewhat frightening. In fact, the vehicle is called the Terror; it runs on electricity, “can run at the rate of fifty miles an hour over rough ground,” and is bulletproof. Jesse James pushes against the advancements. Sheriff Timberlake credits James’ success to his wits and his horse “named Siroc which is unequaled in speed and intelligence by any horse in the world that I know of, and he can easily outfoot the fleetest animal that ever chased him.” In contrast, Jack Wright’s power lies entirely in his ability to harness and control electricity. He brings the sheriff to his workshop, and dazzles the lawman with “scores of incandescent electric lamps,” which “illuminat[ed] the room as if by day.” In 1893, electricity was a modern marvel and the focus of hopes for American greatness. A few years after Jack Wright and His Electric Stage was published, Buffalo, NY hosted the Pan-American Exposition, which boasted the Electric Tower as the greatest attraction and remarkable technological achievement of the time.
The novel is apprehensive and ambivalent over scientific knowledge and power, however. The story downplays new technology’s inaccessibility to the masses and its association with the educated elite. Even though Jack Wright’s invention is more advanced than any existing vehicle, he emphasizes its simplicity:
“It don’t require a skilled electrician to see how the Terror operates.” said Jack, as he showed the sheriff the interior, “for I have based her construction upon the simplest known principles.”
Jack Wright’s sudden departure from proper grammar at the beginning of this sentence signals a change in the novel’s sympathies. Jack Wright may be a genius, but he operates under the principle of simplicity and approachability, synonymous with democratic ideals. He claims that he invented the stage “just for fun” because he has “plenty of money and leisure,” but now he can put it to a purpose–revenge on Jesse James, not to recover his money (he has plenty, after all) but to defend his pride and avenge a crime. Jack Wright has principles, unlike Jesse James. However, he only becomes the hero of the novel when he also steps outside the law; he insists on vigilante justice when Sheriff Timberlake tries to persuade him to “league [himself] with the State government against the outlaws.” Jack, too, is an adventurer; he tells Sheriff Timberlake, “I rather like the wild, exciting adventures in view if I run after those outlaws” (ibid). This appeal to adventure and excitement cause Sheriff Timberlake to abandon the regulated channels of the State and join in the chase of Jesse James and his gang. Jack proves to be more in-line with the rugged masculine ideal of the time than a typical scientist; in fact, after the initial explanation of the engine, Jack’s scientific knowledge is not mentioned and has nothing to do with his success against the James Boys. Instead, he relies on his “iron grip” and steely will, and the Terror is only a fantastic tool and convenient plot device. The heroes have to become more like the charismatic outlaw to appeal to the reader’s sympathies, which still partially lie with Jesse James. The novel continues to aggrandize him, even as it describes him as evil and detestable, and emphasizes the virtues of Jack Wright.
The Terror ultimately defeats Jesse James. The James Boys push an enormous bolder onto the Terror’s roof, crushing its body, though somehow leaving the engine undamaged. The chase continues, with Jack eventually intercepting Jesse, desperately driving his horse to his limit. Jack shoots Jesse James in the head, and though it’s “only a scalp wound,” the blow is enough to allow for his arrest. The horse, Siroc, escapes, to Jack’s chagrin, and after Jack leaves town, Jesse and Frank escape as well; the victory was short-lived. The wild power of the horse and Jesse James are beyond the reach of technology, requiring Jack to get started on a new “mavelous invention.”
Noname. Jack Wright and His Electric Stage, or Leagued Against the James Boys. New York: The Boys Star Library, 1893.