The Near Assassination of Jesse James by the Fantastic Electric Stage

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.
 
Jesse James' Long Chance (Book Cover)
(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.”    

Works Cited

Noname. Jack Wright and His Electric Stage, or Leagued Against the James Boys. New York: The Boys Star Library, 1893.

Weddings and Spectacle

In the early and mid 19th century, wedding guests used to shower the newlywed couple with rice and shoes as they departed on their honeymoon, or as it was often called at the time, wedding journey. That’s right, shoes.

This practice fell out of popularity in the late 19th century, partially due to restrictions from railways. An article in the September 1897 issue of The Ladies’ Home Journal praised a New York City railroad company for banning the throwing of rice and shoes at its terminal. One would assume the reason for the ban was the mess of rice littered all over the platform, but the author focused on the disturbing undercurrent of overwrought emotions and threat of violence as a reason to restrict the practice. The author laments the devolution of what was once a sweet, sentimental and elegant practice:

We have not been able to keep these graceful customs within their bounds. The little papers of rice have become large handfuls… hurled with force into the faces of the bride and groom… The sentiment of the customs has been lost. (“Rice and Shoes at Weddings,” 14)

The author continues on about the dangers of this excessive fervor, recalling one incident in which a bride suffered permanent damage to her eyes as the result of overly rambunctious rice-throwing. This article is just one of many from the time expressing disapproval of the presence of spectacle in weddings, which threatens to lure out malicious, invidious emotions among the guests. The wedding ceremony is supposed to be a celebration of unity and community, but the “Rice and Shoes at Weddings” article suggests that the modern guest has introduced discord and violence, resulting in a rupture with tradition.

Similar arguments were used in the early 19th century against public executions; many feared that overwrought emotions would override the rational thinking individual and transform the gathered spectators into a passionately violent mob. The presence of strangers in the gatherings that formed around railroad platforms, spectators hoping to get a glimpse of the bride in her travelling costume, also added to the anxiety. In William Dean Howells’ first novel Their Wedding Journey, the newlywed couple discusses their embarrassment at being recognized as “bridal,” and they create a sort of game in which they try to act like a long-married couple on an anniversary trip, rather than their wedding journey. Howells deliberately avoids any discussion of the wedding in order to focus on the marriage; the novel ends with the couple’s happiness to return home and settle into the normalcy of marriage, free of the excessive sentiment and spectacle of the wedding.

In the early 19th century, the wedding was a fairly low-key, community-based event, but around the 1870s, more elements of the wedding were on public display; the bride’s trousseau was often available for semi-public viewing, the rising standard of formality required a special white wedding dress, and rings were a newly incorporated tradition. All of these symbolical elements were also objects of public attention and fascination. These elements also introduced the market, and the accompanying skepticism of capitalism as irrational, into the wedding. Pecuniary display is part of the aesthetic of the wedding, and cause for moral discomfort. Other articles attempt to conceal the monetary aspect of weddings by overcompensating with the sentimental components; the anxiety of “Rice and Shoes at Weddings,” then, is that, if sentiment is
lost, the commercial aspect will dominate the wedding and threaten marriage and the family-based society. The conspicuous, glamorous bride threatens to supplant the wife, and the ephemeral, picturesque ideal of the wedding displaces the stability of marriage.

In another article, published in 1895 in The Ladies’ Home Journal, Reverend Charles H. Parkhurst insists that “the meaning and sanctity of marriage is badly enfeebled by being brought into the market and made a matter of trade and dicker” (Parkhurst 15). Thorstein Veblen describes marriage as a financial transaction in The Theory of the Leisure Class. For Veblen, the wife herself is a symbol of conspicuous consumption; women are, traditionally, charged with displaying the economic prosperity of their husbands by refraining from labor. The bride is even more impractical and a sign of conspicuous consumption, in her white dress, her jewels, her flowers.

The public and domestic spheres blur in the commodification and spectacle of weddings, which recall other points of contact more overtly threatening such as women’s entry into the public sphere as voters. Blaming the wedding ceremony for the failures of marriage is a way to avoid the very real Marriage Question of the 1890s, which, as Sarah Grand explains in “The New Aspect of the Woman Question,” was inextricably bound to the Woman Question. Women’s possible rejection of wifehood and motherhood as oppressive and unsatisfying threatens the core of the social structure; resultantly, the wedding ceremony grows increasingly sentimentalized, elaborate, and extravagant to reinforce the centrality of marriage and the family. These changes in the wedding ceremony, however, make marriage’s contamination by the market even more overt, thus provoking further anxiety over the survival of marriage and the effectiveness of weddings as community events.

Similar anxieties over excess in weddings (both material and emotional) persist today, especially the undertones of materialism and spectacle. The wedding industry has exploded and the average cost of a wedding has grown exponentially (and so have divorce rates). TV shows like Bridezillas, Four Weddings, and Who’s Wedding is it Anyway? inundate the wedding with drama, material expectation, performance and competition. I think that the concerns and criticisms surrounding weddings in the late 19th century and those surrounding weddings today reflect a general anxiety about the state of marriage at both points in history. In the late 19th century, it was the Woman Question and fears over an emasculated, effete western culture. Now, the high rate of divorce, the fact that fewer Americans are choosing to marry, and the push for gay marriage rights have raised anxieties over the relevance of marriage as an institution and departure from established traditions. As a result, the wedding ceremony is again saturated with spectacle to allay those fears and instead fixate on creating an image of perfection.

Works Cited:

Parkhurst, Rev. Charles H. “Marriage and its Safeguards.” The Ladies’ Home Journal 12.8 (July 1895).

“Rice and Shoes at Weddings.” The Ladies’ Home Journal 14.10 (September 1897).