In doing some research between chapters, I recently read quite a lively and distressing biography of Jesse James by T.J Stiles. Most people think of the Jesse James they saw in Western movies, a train-robbing Robin Hood who only hated banks. Johnny Cash and Kris Kristoferson even made a movie about him. Some of that, Stiles, explains is because James constructed his image self-consciously that way. He wrote letters to the newspapers signed "Jack Shepherd" after a famous English criminal folk-hero. What most people don't know is that James got his start running with William Quantrell's pro-slavery "border ruffians" in the Kansas border wars. James stayed true to the Confederate cause, and when he quoted from his “Jack Shepherd” letter during an Iowa train robbery he and his gang were dressed in Ku Klux Klan outfits. Jesse James is still popular, and thanks to the internet, we can sort of measure his popularity. If PBS’s “American Experience” poll of viewers of their recent documentary about James is any indication, On July 8, 2006, 66% of those who responded to the poll said that James’ “life of crime” was justified.
While PBS doesn’t have a poll on John Brown to correspond with its most recent documentary John Brown’s Holy War, American Heritage does have a Brown poll, in which 46% found John Brown to be a “madman” and only 13% found him to be a hero.
Ideology works a lot of magic.