The Missouri we know has the even, polite temper of the Midwest, with occasional turns to Southern boisterousness. But for much of the 19th century, Missouri was a frontier land, filled with tough young men who kept their firearms close.
That’s the setting for “Missouri Outlaws: Bandits, Rebels & Rogues” by Missouri historian Paul Kirkman of Independence, Mo.
Much of the book centers on the James brothers, Jesse and Frank. Kirkman notes that after serving as a Confederate guerrilla, Jesse James tried to surrender to Union soldiers in Lexington, Mo.
“Before he could get close, the Federals put a bullet through Jesse’s lung and changed the world. Had he surrendered, signed his oath of allegiance and reentered society, Jesse James may well have ended his days as a relatively unknown farmer in northwest Missouri. Instead, after recovering from his wound, he rejoined Archie Clement’s band of outlaws.”
Many of the people in this account lack standing as criminals — for instance, the pro-slavery Missourians who waged a preview of the Civil War against the abolitionist Jayhawks of Kansas. Some of the bad guys wore sheriff’s badges.
Some, like Jesse James, became celebrities of a sort. Kirkman notes that Hollywood has made more than 80 shoot-em-up movies about James.
Missouri’s terrain gave bandits and rogues some advantages. “Southwest Missouri seemed like a particularly good area to disappear into,” he writes, adding: “More than one criminal disappeared into those woods, whether on purpose or with masked riders dragging them there.”
This book will have special appeal to architects and architectural historians, given its detailed attention to jails built throughout the state in the 19th century. Pictures abound — of the jails, and of the people who spent time inside them.
The pictures reproduce splendidly on the shiny, thick paper used in the book. Trouble is, the shiny pages may give some readers problems in focusing on the type, a thin font that can get lost in reflected light.
That aside, “Missouri Outlaws” makes for entertaining reading about an entertaining era. Kirkman writes about vets returning from the Civil War who “felt little desire to settle back down to tending farms. For these young men, the adrenaline rush of riding into town with guns blazing and riding out loaded down with money and other loot far exceeded the simple pleasure of slopping the hogs.”
Or, as he writes at book’s end, “In Jesse James, Missouri gave America its Robin Hood and, along with Harry Truman, a pair of straight-talking, straight-shooting cultural icons … whom you wouldn’t want to play chicken with.”
Harry Levins of Manchester retired in 2007 as senior writer of the Post-Dispatch.