The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

Opinion

February 15, 2013

Blurring history and myth

History and myth often collide in our everyday goings on across this planet, as anti-heroes and often fanciful tales spring up like so many dandelions on our lawns.

It’s often difficult for people to distinguish what is fact, what is fiction and what is the blur used in history past that created bigger-than-life characters like Robin Hood, Jesse James, John Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde.

Hollywood and the cinematic arts always have done a great disservice to history, weaving fictional stories and characters into historical events that have no real truth to them, and push the line of reality into entertainment — historical fiction.

In was done in the dime novels of the Old West, when real bad guys and gals had some endearing qualities, yet their stories of want and mayhem blurred who they actually were.

I started thinking about this curious oddity that rests in just about all of us, while following the news from California and the stories still unfolding of Christopher Dorner, his manifesto against police and Big Bear shootout earlier this week.

Twitter and Facebook have been alive with people sympathizing with Dorner over his plight, seeming to overlook that the guy probably killed at least four people. They relate to his cause, which in his mind obviously was just, and not the actual mayhem.

In some cases, it’s just what some people do.

In the 1930s, infamous characters like Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson and Oklahoma’s own Pretty Boy Floyd, commanded national headlines for killing people, robbing banks and terrorizing middle America.

We don’t place people like Jeffrey Dahmer or Charles Manson or Timothy McVeigh on pedestals and call them misunderstood heroes. So, why so much sympathy for Christopher Dorner? Why still so much interest in infamous characters like Jesse James?

No easy answers here.

Jesse James was and still is considered a post-Civil War Robin Hood, who was at times charming in his youthful exuberance, was a rebel against authority and a sometimes tragic figure that sprang from our nation’s greatest tragedy — the American Civil War.

Eastern writers sought to entertain the public with tales of romantic figures, who stole from the rich and gave to the poor.

Yet, Jesse James in actuality was a cold-blooded killer, a robber, horse thief, racist and domestic terrorist. You would not have wanted him as a neighbor, except for the fact he seemed to be able to endear himself to his Missouri neighbors, and just about everyone else in his native Clay County home.

He was born to noted Baptist revivalist Robert S. James, a respected man who helped found William Jewell College, and whose mother, Zerelda, was known as a hard-working, strong-willed farm woman.

Yet, from this solid religious foundation sprang a killer of immoderate personality and deadly intent.

No genteel upbringing could have steeled young Jesse to the ravages and bloodletting that would transpire as part of the Border War between Missouri and Kansas in the years leading up to the Civil War.

No doubt, his eventual jaded outlook on reality was painted in the killing, burning and looting that hit both sides of the bordering states, eventually helping bring a near-rending of this nation during four bloody years of Civil War.

Also no doubt, Jesse James was powerfully influenced by being a part of William Quantrill’s infamous Confederate partisan raiders, who blurred the lines between war and outright barbarity every chance they got.

When the war ended in 1865, Jesse and brother Frank never really laid down their arms, and helped other men who came out of that war with nothing but the clothes on their backs write a new chapter in American history by continuing to kill and rob.

It’s all they knew.

And, the James-Younger gang as it was known, first robbed Liberty’s Clay County Saving Association Bank in his home territory Feb. 13, 1866, making off with $60,000 in a daylight heist that killed an innocent 17-year-old boy.

Jesse and his gang quickly ran afoul of the famous Pinkerton Detective Agency, and were further pushed to continued violence when agents surrounded his mother’s farm house. Hoping the outlaw was home, agents tossed a smoke bomb inside to flush him out.

Thinking it a loose stick from the fire, Jesse’s half-brother, young Archie Samuel, tossed it into the fireplace and it exploded, killing him and causing Zerelda to lose her hand.

That incident profoundly turned public outrage against the “law” for its callous disregard for human life, and helped cement Jesse’s legend.

And yet, he eventually died by the gun, as did Bonnie and Clyde, Dillinger and almost every other anti-hero who blurred the lines between historic fact and historic fiction.

Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Go to his column blog at http://enid news.com/historicallyspeaking

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