THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)

"NOBODY GETS TO BE A COWBOY FOREVER." -- Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) in MONTE WALSH (NG, 1970)

Total Pageviews

Monday, October 28, 2013


This is a review of two books: Wildwood Boys: A Novel by James Carlos Blake and Bloody Bill Anderson: The Short, Savage Life of a Civil War Guerrilla by Albert Castel and Thomas Goodrich.


Here we have a novel and a biography that cover the same historical territory.  Assuming that the reader is interested in the subject, which should he/she read first? 

For someone who is not very familiar with the history surrounding William T. Anderson, it probably would be more enjoyable to read the novel and then follow-up with the biography.  Since the biography goes into more detail and provides more historical context, it could serve as a reality check to see how far the novelist departed from the historical record by interjecting his imagination into the story.  Of course, it is his right and his duty as a novelist to do just that.  Otherwise, we would just set his novel aside and read the biography, because it shouldn’t stray from the historical record.  And this one doesn’t.  Despite its short length (144 pages), it is thoroughly researched and well written.  After all, as the subtitle indicates Anderson did not live a long life.

It has been argued that geography is destiny, that where we are born and where we live shapes our fate more than we can ever imagine.  Today, greater mobility and mass communication has lessened the impact of geography on our lives, but have not removed it entirely.  However, in the 19th century (and earlier) it was a powerful influence on where and how people lived.

Geography certainly played its role in the lives of the Anderson brothers, William and Jim, as it did in the lives of two other sets of brothers, the Youngers and the Jameses.  They found their lives and those of their respective families enmeshed in conflict in the border war between Missouri and Kansas six years before the firing on Ft. Sumter officially touched off the beginning of the Civil War.  After the war began, all three sets of brothers eventually became members of irregular Confederate guerrilla bands, which the Unionists referred to as “bushwhackers.” The war continued along the border and spilled over into the area north of the Missouri River in the state of Missouri.  All of the brothers, except for Jesse, fought in the band commanded by the most famous of the Missouri guerrilla leaders, William Clarke Quantrill.  When William Anderson, who had been one of the chief lieutenants in the band, quarreled with Quantrill, he and his followers broke away and formed their own band.  Frank James and Cole Younger elected to follow Anderson.  Jesse, who became a guerrilla fighter at age sixteen, may have later joined Anderson’s band, or maybe not.  That he became a guerrilla fighter is documented, but he never fought under Quantrill, despite what some novelists have written and what Hollywood has produced, and the evidence is sketchy regarding whether or not he was ever a member of Anderson’s band.
William Clarke Quantrill

Anderson earned the nickname “Bloody Bill” after his rampaging depredations became even more violent and more deadly after the death of his favorite sister.  I will leave the details to the reader as to the cause of death, but whether or not it was their fault, Federal authorities were blamed.  To this point Anderson was not all that well-known by the Federal and state forces that were attempting to control the guerrilla bands.  However, the murderous rampage that followed his sister’s death made him and his band the most feared guerrilla fighters in Missouri and Kansas, even eclipsing Quantrill’s reputation.

William T. Anderson
As Castel and Goodrich wrote, “[n]ow he had become the ‘devil incarnate,’ the most ferocious and feared bushwhacker of all – and for Federal troops, the one they wished most and tried hardest to kill.  Scarcely a day passed without the commander of the Union District of North Missouri, Brig. Gen. Clinton B. Fisk, telegraphing one or more of his officers to ‘exterminate’ Anderson.  But his soldiers rarely so much as engaged him, or if they did, usually it was they, not he, who got the worst of it.

To begin with, they had trouble locating him.  He knew where he was going; they didn’t.  He had plenty of sympathetic civilians willing to shelter and feed his men and provide information about the ‘bluebellies’ – where and how many.  The Federals had their sources of aid and intelligence also, but not as many or as reliable.  Consequently, in this particular chase the fox enjoyed an advantage over the hounds.

And this fox, if brought to bay, turned into a wolf – with deadlier fangs.”

Federal and state forces attempting to control the guerrillas also committed their share of atrocities.  Moreover, bands of marauders from Kansas, known as “Jayhawkers,” crossed the border to engage in the burning and pillaging of the property of Missourians and did so without making much if any distinction between the property of Unionists and that of secessionists.  The losers in this internecine conflict, as always in civil conflicts, were the civilians that were caught in the middle.  Guerrillas had to have the support of the rural inhabitants in order to survive and the Union forces had to neutralize that support in order to prevail.  Therefore, both sides were guilty of using violence and intimidation in an effort to win support for their cause.  In the process, the citizens of the area feared both sides, but neutrality wasn’t an option.  It was a dirty, violent, uncivilized conflict in which all the rules of war were ignored.

If it is true that the Civil War began on the Kansas-Missouri border six years before the rest of the country entered the conflict, it could also be said that in some respects that it did not end with Lee’s surrender at Appomattox in 1865.  For after the war many of the ex-guerrillas took the tactics they had learned during the Civil War and applied them to the art of robbing trains and banks.  The most notorious gang was that led by the Jameses and the Youngers.  There is no doubt that had William Anderson survived the war he too would have become one of the prominent outlaws.  In fact, his brother Jim did become an outlaw.  Therefore, in some ways the war did not end until Frank James was tried and acquitted almost two decades after the war officially ended. 

Castel and Goodrich, both natives of Kansas, have written a fair and objective account of the man who became the “devil incarnate” in a civil struggle that in many cases destroyed the cohesion that had united families, communities, and the society at large.  Both historians are considered the leading authorities on the Kansas-Missouri border war and the guerrilla conflict that plagued both states during the Civil War.

Castel’s other books include: Civil War in Kansas: Reaping the Whirlwind; General Sterling Price and the Civil War in the West; and William Clarke Quantrill: Terror of the Border.

Among Goodrich’s books are Black Flag: Guerrilla Warfare on the Western Border, 1861-1865 and Bloody Dawn: The Story of the Lawrence Massacre

James Carlos Blake is a naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in Mexico.  When he was six-years old, his family moved to Brownsville, Texas.  As a novelist Blake is, much like Cormac McCarthy, drawn to the subject of evil.  He is fascinated with the lives of outlaws and, as one reviewer noted, he “explores human nature at its worst.”  Obviously then, one of the common threads running through his novels is violence, whether the subjects are historical figures such as John Wesley Hardin, Pancho Villa, 1930’s gangster Harry Pierpont, “Bloody Bill” Anderson or fictional characters such as the Wolfe brothers.

In an interview in GQ, Blake said that he was interested in [historical] outlaws, but that his real interest is in their private lives.  He went on to say, “These guys all had childhoods, families, lovers, interests other than crime and where there is no historical record of those things, I enjoyed inventing their interior lives without violating any of the factual evidence.”

In fact, Blake found himself, intentionally or unintentionally, humanizing Anderson.   Many people believe that Anderson was a violent, cold-hearted murderer, an example of “human nature at its worst,” whose character was totally devoid of human compassion and therefore beyond redemption – even at the hands of a skilled novelist.  Ironically, Anderson’s behavior was even more brutal in real life than in Blake’s portrayal.  It is a classic case of truth being stranger than fiction.

Blake also said in the GQ interview, “Violence is the most elemental truth of life.  It’s the central shaper of history, the ultimate determiner of whether A or B is going to get his way…. At its core, history is a story of violence at work.”

I must confess that although it was hard for me to accept some of the sections of the book where he invented “interior lives without violating any of the factual evidence,” overall Blake does generally stick to the known historical record and in the process of writing a gritty, brutally realistic novel he also passes along a lot of interesting history about a very unfortunate period in the life of our nation.

After all, as Oakley Hall wrote in the introduction of his best-known novel, Warlock, a thinly disguised treatment of the Wyatt Earp-Doc Holliday friendship, “By combining what did happen with what might have happened I have tried to show what should have happened….The pursuit of truth, not of facts, is the business of fiction.”  

James Carlos Blake

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

ARM OF THE BANDIT: The Trial of Frank James by Johnny D. Boggs

Frank and Jesse James were not admirable historical figures, but they were important ones.  If nothing else, they were responsible for the preservation of more artifacts, buildings, caves, and other sites than any other Americans with the possible exception of George Washington – and maybe even him, too.

Of the two brothers, Jesse is the most legendary.  Carl Sandburg wrote, “Jesse James is the only American bandit who is classical, who is to this country what Robin Hood or Dick Turpin is to England, whose exploits are so close to the mythical and apocryphal.”  Ah, but there’s the rub: the mythical and apocryphal.

The legends that have grown up around Jesse reflect two opposite characters: Robin Hood on the one hand; cold, cruel, callous thief and killer on the other.

Was Jesse a Robin Hood, who robbed the rich and gave to the poor?  Was he driven against his will into a life of crime by greedy bankers, railroad officials, and crooked and corrupt politicians?  Or was he simply an adventurous youth who developed a taste for excitement and plunder because of his experiences as a teenaged guerrilla fighter during the Civil War and thus was unable to adjust to the peacetime pursuits of a simple farmer?

In a 1949 speech by another famous Missourian, Harry Truman remarked, “Jesse James was a modern-day Robin Hood.  He stole from the rich and gave to the poor, which, in general, is not a bad policy.”  That may have been good politics at the time, but it is questionable history. 

It is true that most of the time Jesse did rob the rich, for to go around robbing the poor would have been incredibly stupid, and he wasn’t stupid.  But the truth is he really made no distinction regarding the financial status of his victims when he decided to commit a robbery.  It is also true that on several occasions he shot and killed innocent and/or defenseless victims in cold blood.  No self-respecting Robin Hood would ever engage in such acts.

But this we do know, no other outlaws in our history match the record of the two brothers from Missouri when it comes to the evasion of the law.  The law never caught them.  For more than a decade and after more than a score of holdups in ten different states that resulted in fourteen deaths, including that of three outlaws, Frank and Jesse were never apprehended by federal or state authorities.  Moreover, the Pinkerton Detective firm hired by the railroad interests also failed in its quest to track down the brothers.

Why is Jesse the more legendary brother?  Part of the reason could be the alliteration of his name.  Personality is also part of the explanation.  Jesse was much more outgoing than his more introverted older sibling who would have been content to settle down and live the life of a country gentleman farmer.  However, each time Frank made the effort to do so, Jesse would entice him back into a life of crime.

But the greatest factor that explains Jesse’s exalted position among American criminals is the fact that he died young, shot down in his own living room by one of his own gang members, in the presence of his wife and two children.

When Jesse was assassinated on April 3, 1882, there was much speculation and many rumors that Frank would take to the revenge trail.  Instead, five months after his brother’s death, he surrendered and was charged with murder and train robbery.  His case went to trial in September 1883.

Frank James about 15 years after his trial

William H. Wallace was a highly successful prosecuting attorney in Jackson County, the county in which Kansas City and Independence are located.  And even though Frank was tried for crimes committed in Daviess County and therefore stood trial in Gallatin, Wallace nevertheless served as the lead prosecutor.  Why?  Because he had successfully prosecuted Bill Ryan, the only accused member of the James gang to have been tried and convicted in Missouri. 

The trial was good for business in the small village of Gallatin.  The courtroom in the Daviess County courthouse would not accommodate all the spectators who wanted to attend the trial so it was moved to the Gallatin Opera House.  A team of eight attorneys represented the defendant and Wallace was assisted by five other prosecutors. The trial lasted sixteen days, including four days of closing arguments.  The jury reached a verdict after less than four hours of deliberation. 

Opera House, Gallatin, Missouri
I suppose most people know what the verdict was.  But just in case there is someone who wants to read the book and isn’t aware of the trial’s outcome, I won’t disclose it here.

Two of the more interesting historical personages associated with the trial are  General Joseph Orville (Jo) Shelby and Major John Newman Edwards.  It was General Shelby who refused to surrender at the end of the Civil War and marched his Confederate brigade to Mexico City to offer their services to Emperor Maximilian, who had been placed on the Mexican throne by the French.  The French had moved into Mexico at a time when the disunited United States was in no position to prevent them from doing so.

Maximilian declined Shelby’s offer but did grant the general and his men land with which to establish a colony.  Shelby and some of the men accepted the offer and remained in Mexico for two years, returning home after the French departed and Maximilian was overthrown and then executed.

The general was an outspoken supporter of ex-guerrillas such as Frank James.  When called upon to testify in the case regarding a sewing machine (too complicated to discuss here), he became defensive and blatantly belligerent and had to be cautioned by the judge several times.  In the middle of his testimony, he also asked the court if it would be okay if he went over to the defense table to shake hands with his good friend, Frank James.  The judge denied his request.  At the end of his testimony, he again made the request and again it was denied.  If this sounds as though the general was a shade on the tipsy side, that was not the case.  No, he was past that stage.  He was drunk.

Major Edwards
General Shelby

At General Shelby’s side throughout the war was his faithful adjutant, Major John Newman Edwards, who also accompanied him to Mexico, remaining there for two years.  After the war, Edwards pursued a career in journalism, working for newspapers in Kansas City, Sedalia, and St. Louis, as well as founding one newspaper in Kansas City.

He wrote two books, very unreliable but interesting reading, about Shelby and his command’s exploits during and after the Civil War.  He also wrote one, equally unreliable, praising the exploits of the Confederate guerrillas who terrorized the countryside during the war.  As a journalist, he became an apologist for the ex-guerrillas who had taken to the outlaw trail.  More than any other individual it was Edwards who created the Robin Hood myth associated with Jesse James.  Jesse was so appreciative of the Major's efforts that he named his son Jesse Edwards James. 

Edwards did not testify in the trial, but he played an important role.  He served as the intermediary between Frank and the governor in the negotiations that led to Frank’s surrender.  It’s just as well that he did not testify since he had an even bigger drinking problem than the general did.

That brings us to Arm of the Bandit: the Trial of Frank James, a novel by Johnny D. Boggs.  In an interview, Boggs was quoted as saying, “I try to make my novels fairly truthful.  But I always say,’Don’t quote me in your term paper.’”  This is how it should be when novelists write about actual historical individuals and events.  If readers want only facts then they should read a serious historical study of the subject.  Novelists are less constrained by the historical record and are free to elaborate, speculate, and fill in the blank spaces.  And that is what Boggs does with this novel.

As far as the trial itself is concerned, he adheres faithfully to the historical record.  It is outside the courtroom that he exercises the novelist’s prerogative of using his imagination to create a narrative that might not withstand cross-examination in the court of historical inquiry, but nevertheless meets the standard of plausibility.

If there is a hero in Boggs' story, it is the prosecuting attorney, William Wallace.  The heroine is Frank’s wife, Annie Ralston James, who stood by her husband through thick and thin (mostly thin) down through the years.  It is in developing these two characters that Boggs takes the most liberties.

William H. Wallace

Annie Ralston James

Boggs has done his research and his novel is an enjoyable and interesting read even for someone who has spent many years (yours truly, for example) studying Missouri’s tragic civil war within America's Civil War and its reputation as the “outlaw state” after the war.  It should be even more enjoyable – and informative – for readers who possess less knowledge about that history but would like to know more.

But even if the historical events recounted in the novel are of no great interest to the reader, it should still have appeal to those who enjoy a well-written courtroom drama, one that occurred very much the way Boggs presents it.

It is apparent that Boggs has an abiding interest in the subject.  One of his earlier novels was Northfield, which is an account of the James-Younger gang’s botched bank robbery in Northfield, Minnesota.  His research on that book and Arm of the Bandit led him to write Jesse James and the Movies, a non-fiction work that analyzes Hollywood’s depiction of the outlaw and how it conflicts with history.

Johnny D. Boggs
Among the many awards Boggs has received for his work are a Wrangler award from the Western Heritage Museum and six Spur awards from the Western Writers of America.  These are highly coveted awards in the Western writers community.