Cultural depictions of Jesse James

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A dime novel featuring Jesse James from 1901

Cultural depictions of Jesse James appear in various types of media, including literature, video games, comics, music, stage productions, films, television, and radio. James is variously described as an American outlaw, bank and train robber, guerrilla, and leader of the James–Younger Gang. After the American civil war, as members of various gangs of outlaws, Jesse and Frank James robbed banks, stagecoaches, and trains across the Midwest, gaining national fame and even sympathy despite their crimes.[1] James became an iconic figure from the era, and his life has been dramatized and memorialized numerous times.[2]


The James brothers became a staple in dime novels of the era, peaking in the 1880s following Jesse's death. James has often been used as a fictional character in many Western novels, including some published while he was alive. For instance, in Willa Cather's My Ántonia, the narrator reads a book entitled 'Life of Jesse James' – probably referring to a dime novel.

In Charles Portis's 1968 novel True Grit, U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn describes fighting with Cole Younger and Frank James for the Confederacy during the Civil War. Long after his adventure with Mattie Ross, Cogburn ends his days in a traveling road show with the aged Cole Younger and Frank James.

John Newman Edwards, editor of the Kansas City Times), was largely responsible for creating the legend of Jesse James and his fellow Confederate guerrillas.

During his travel to the "Wilde West", Oscar Wilde visited Jesse James' hometown in Missouri. Learning that James had been assassinated by his own gang member, "an event that sent the town into mourning and scrambling to buy Jesse's artifacts", and heightened the "romantic appeal of the social outcast" in his mind, Wilde wrote in a letter home that: "Americans are certainly great hero-worshippers, and always take [their] heroes from the criminal classes."[3]

Video games[edit]

In Bill & Ted's Excellent Video Game Adventure, the characters must give an Uzi to Jesse James.[4][5] Jesse James has been playable in two games Gunfighter: The Legend of Jesse James for PlayStation[6] and Gunfighter II: Revenge of Jesse James for PlayStation 2.[7] He appears as an antagonist in Call of Juarez: Gunslinger (2013),[8] where he is faced down against Silas Greaves in a duel.[9] Jesse James' severed hand (or "shooting hand") makes various appearances throughout the Sam & Max point-and-click adventure game adaptations, often used as a solution to in-game puzzles.


In 1969, artist Morris and writer René Goscinny (co-creator of Asterix) had Lucky Luke confronting Jesse James, his brother Frank, and Cole Younger. The adventure poked fun at the image of Jesse as a new Robin Hood. Although he passes himself off as such and does indeed steal from the rich (who are, logically, the only ones worth stealing from), he and his gang take turns being "poor," thus keeping the loot for themselves. Frank quotes from Shakespeare, and Younger is portrayed as a fun-loving joker, full of good humor. One critic has likened this version of the James brothers as "intellectuals bandits, who won't stop theorizing their outlaw activities and hear themselves talk."[10] In the end, the at-first-cowed people of a town fight back against the James gang and send them packing in tar and feathers.


Stage productions[edit]

The musical melodrama "Jesse," written by Bob and Marion Moulton with lyrics by Prairie Home Companion writer/performer Vern Sutton and music by William Huckaby and Donna Paulsen,[11] has since 1976[12] (the centennial of the James-Younger gang's Northfield bank raid) traditionally been performed in Northfield, Minnesota, during the town's annual Defeat of Jesse James Days.[13]


There have been numerous portrayals of Jesse James in film and television, including two wherein Jesse James, Jr. depicts his father. In many of the films, James is portrayed as a Robin Hood-like character.[14]



The killing of Jesse James was depicted on the CBS radio show Crime Classics on July 20, 1953, in the episode entitled "The Death of a Picture Hanger". The episode featured Clayton Post as Jesse James, Paul Frees as Charley Ford, and Sam Edwards as Robert Ford.


  1. ^ Hayworth, Wil (September 17, 2007). "A story of myth, fame, Jesse James". Seattle Times. Archived from the original on December 29, 2008. Retrieved December 7, 2008.
  2. ^ Stiles, T.J. (2002). Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War. Knopf Publishing. ISBN 0-375-40583-6.
  3. ^ Wellington, Jan. "Oscar Wilde's West". Literary Traveler. Retrieved August 27, 2009.
  4. ^ WLau (June 28, 2001). "Bill & Ted's Excellent Video Game Adventure". GameFAQs. GameSpot. Retrieved April 5, 2018.
  5. ^ "Bill & Ted's Excellent Video Game Adventure". GiantBomb. Retrieved April 5, 2018.
  6. ^ Davis, Ryan (January 11, 2002). "Gunfighter: The Legend of Jesse James Review". GameSpot. CBS Interactive Inc. Retrieved September 3, 2012.
  7. ^ Hayball, Anthony (June 15, 2013). "Gunfighter II is simply just another shallow Time Crisis knock off that you should avoid". GameSpot. CBS Interactive Inc. Retrieved April 5, 2018.
  8. ^ Ashcraft, Brian (9 June 2012). "New Call of Juarez Is Called "Gunslinger", But You're a Bounty Hunter". Kotaku. Gizmodo Media Group. Retrieved 19 January 2019.
  9. ^ Rath, Robert (25 July 2013). "History and Legend in Call of Juarez: Gunslinger". Escapist Magazine. Enthusiast Gaming LLC. Retrieved 19 January 2019.
  10. ^ Fans de Lucky Luke website." Archived 2008-07-05 at the Wayback Machine (in French)
  11. ^ "Lockwood Theater Company". Retrieved September 12, 2011.
  12. ^ "Jesse James musical returns to Northfield". August 31, 2010. Archived from the original on January 12, 2011. Retrieved September 12, 2011.
  13. ^ "The Defeat of Jesse James Days Celebration". DJJD Committee, Inc. Retrieved September 12, 2011.
  14. ^ a b "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford". The Times. London. November 29, 2007. Retrieved December 7, 2008.
  15. ^ Williamson, Jerry Wayne (1995). Hillbillyland: What the Movies Did to the Mountains and what the Mountains Did to the Movies. UNC Press Books. p. 283. ISBN 9780807845035.
  16. ^ Armstrong, Richard B.; Armstrong, Mary Willems (15 November 2000). Encyclopedia of Film Themes, Settings and Series. McFarland Publishing. p. 148. ISBN 9780786445721.
  17. ^ Stephens, Stephanie (August 2015). "J.D. Souther. At Long Last, One of America's Best Songwriters Breaks Decades of Silence" (PDF). p. 4. Retrieved 19 January 2019.
  18. ^ Ebert, Roger (17 August 2001). "American Outlaws". Retrieved 19 January 2019.
  19. ^ Rafferty, Terrence (16 September 2007). "Jesse James, an Outlaw for All Seasons". The New York Times Company. Retrieved 19 January 2019.
  20. ^ "Review: Assassination of Jesse James", Eric James website
  21. ^ Zicree, Marc Scott (1982). The Twilight Zone Companion.