27 April 2011

Cowards: Robert Ford

By Carrie Lofty

Jesse James is a legend in the history of the American West, and his killer, Robert Ford, who shot James in the back, is nearly as notorious. His name became synonymous with cowardice, even to the point on inspiring the title of a Brad Pitt film, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

Born in the warzone of Civil War-era Missouri in 1862, Ford grew up a poor admirer of Jesse James's Confederate vigilantism and outlaw pursuits. By the early 1880s, while the nation was still healing, James was the most wanted criminal in Missouri, if not the entire United States. But he had already fostered a post-war following among Confederates who resented Reconstruction changes to their antebellum lives. This sense of Robin Hood-type chivalry was quickly amplified by dime novels who put James on the side of poor Confederates who battled money-hungry Northern carpetbaggers and bankers.

Ford joined the gang in early 1882. By this time most of James's trusted cohorts had fled, assumed new identities, or been jailed or killed. Even Jesse's brother, Frank, had retired to Virginia. Jess James settled his family in St. Joseph County, Missouri, and went by the name Thomas Howard. The Ford brothers, including Robert's brother Charles, posed as his cousins.

While Charles Ford had participated in James Gang raids, Robert was still new and untested. Jesse James planned one last raid on a bank in Blue Cut, Missouri, even as the Ford brothers met with newly-elected Governor Crittenden. Crittenden had made the capture or death of Jesse James a prominent part of his inaugural promises. He also made promises to the Fords: $5,000 each and exemption from prosecution if they killed Jesse James.

Keep in mind that no matter how Robert Ford went about killing the notorious outlaw, Jesse James had, by the end of his life, participated in anti-Union massacres, robbed dozens of banks, and terrorized citizens throughout the Midwest. James was not a great guy.

But the fact he was shot in the back in his own home became the stuff of legend. Storytellers used Ford's supposed act of cowardice to magnify James's Robin Hood-style legend. Countless depictions of unaware, "innocent" James straightening a picture on his wall, with Robert Ford looming at his back, graced newspapers and magazines across the country. Especially because James's pro-Confederate image hearkened back to the mythologized Old South--where gentlemen dueled face to face--his murder seemed especially tragic to those who mourned an extinct way of life.

Rather than the hero's status Ford assumed he would receive, he was ostracized. Political forces in Missouri were split along many post-war factions, and few agreed that Crittenden's scheme had merit. The Ford brothers were convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to hang, only to be pardoned within hours by the governor. They were paid but a portion of the bounty promised; the railroads that had posted the reward had no incentive to pay up once their villain was dead.

Following the killing, Ford lived a tumultuous life. His brother, a tubercular morphine addict, died in 1884. Robert Ford drifted from job to job, opened a salon, survived would-be knife assassin, and wound up at a mine in Colorado. There, a petty outlaw named Edward O'Kelley, convinced he would be revered as a hero for killing the ultimate coward, shot Ford point-blank in the chest with a shotgun. Ford was only thirty years old, his place of cowardice in the violent history of the American West secured.

What do you think about Robert Ford and Jesse James? Was Ford a coward for taking down an outlaw by any means necessary? Or has history made James out to be a more sympathetic "victim" than he merited?

Carrie Lofty's next historical romance, PORTRAIT OF SEDUCTION, is available May 2. Later this year watch for Carrie's new Victorian series from Pocket, as well as her "Dark Age Dawning" romance trilogy from Berkley, co-written with Ann Aguirre under the name Ellen Connor. "Historical romance needs more risk-takers like Lofty." ~ Wendy the Super Librarian

27 comments:

Blythe Gifford said...

"That dirty little coward who shot Mr. Howard..." Amazing what a littls song can do to mess up your reputation.

Carrie Lofty said...

And then it gets in your head and you're STUCK!

KMS Ford said...

Jesse James was a terrorist and a menace. Robert Ford may have been a wimp in his everyday life, but he did America a favour. I feel only for Jesse's wife.

Pro-Ford.

Linsley said...

I think Robert Ford was in the right. Yes, he might have shot a man in the chest in his own home, but this man was dangerous, and was probably soon to kill both him and Charles if the act wasn't committed. James suffered from depression. Why would he unarm himself in front of those men anyway? He knew that Ford was kind of fishy. Especially with his obsession over James and his willingness to strike back at Jesse's smart remarks. It seemed to me like he asked for it. Like he wanted to die. Fors wasn't in the wrong, but staging the shooting put him in the wrongs thinking he would be a hero, was dumb.

Vance said...

To shoot someone, who has just fed you, who is unarmed & standing on a chair with his back to you, in the head, is not my idea of heroic. There are, however, a lot of people like that around. You are safe as long as you don't turn your back to them.

Anonymous said...

Jesse James wasn't wholly bad -fact and apart from any kindnesses half of the things he did were not selfish acts but risking his life for other causes. You can appreciate individual experiences and influences at that period. I believe he had had enough. It's evident that he did care for both his family and the Ford brothers so it leaves to question why he disarmed himself. They had a relationship closer than other friends and he knew their intentions. What did he understand? He didn't even begin to clean the 'dusty picture' -audience appreciation and it was not welcome at the time to speculate Jesse James of suicide.

Anonymous said...

robet ford did what he did think was right giving the situation that they did not know if jesse will kill them any moment. Jesse was asking for it by turning and walking away, he was depressed and was a public terror. so he is no coward. no matter how you kill a criminal facing you or by the back he ended a bad apple. missed him because they had a relation ship

Marcos said...

Go live in a country where thugs and criminals rule and terrorize decent and honest people, and kill orderly and law-abiding cops with families and children mercilessly and with cruelty. When you face those ruthless people and they kill your father or uncle or mother, then, only then you can open your mouth to say that Jesse James was a good guy. Feel the fear when a powerful criminal enters your small city and everyone and everything fear him, obviously including law officers.

Ford was no saint, and he paid for what he did. But rest assured that the death of James was a favor he did for your country. He deserves better.

I know because I live 130 years behind you Americans.

Leo Martinez said...

Who knows if Jesse James was good or bad? Only God can know that. What we are discussing is if we should categorize Robert ford as coward or not. Leaving aside the question of if at the end what he did was the best for the nation (which i think is an exageration), shooting someone from his back is already an act of cowardice, and adding that that person is unarmed, on top of a chair, just fed you and trusts you (i dont think someone like Jesse James would had been unarmed around many) tells you how coward you are...
I can think many ways of killing Jesse James more honorable than that one.

Leo Martinez said...

Who knows if Jesse James was good or bad? Only God can know that. What we are discussing is if we should categorize Robert ford as coward or not. Leaving aside the question of if at the end what he did was the best for the nation (which i think is an exageration), shooting someone from his back is already an act of cowardice, and adding that that person is disarmed, on top of a chair, just fed you and trusts you (i dont think someone like Jesse James would had been unarmed around many) tells you how coward you are...
I can think many ways of killing Jesse James more honorable than that one.
No matter how good you think what you are doing is... If you don't do it right, you are a coward... Now drug dealers and criminals have more honor than Robert Ford, when they kill eachother nowadays, at least they do it face to face!

Anonymous said...

Jesse James was a documented muderer, thief and a general piece of crap. Thank you Bob Ford.

Anonymous said...

Jesse James was a member of Bloody Bill Anderson's gang who murdered men, women & children.
He was scum.

Anonymous said...


Jesse James was a member of Bloody Bill Anderson's gang, who committed numerous massacres of men, women & children.
Read a little about bloody bill Anderson & your eyes will open a little wider.
Jesse James was scum.

Anonymous said...

How many innocent, unarmed people did Jesse James gun down? Decent, hardworking, people?
Bob Ford only did to him, what Jesse James did to many others.
Bob Ford wasn't a coward, he just took an opportunity that Jesse himself would have taken without thinking twice about it.
Rest in peace, Bob.

Anonymous said...

hey guys! guess who I am! I am related to Robert ford!

Mamafiend said...

Jessee James would have been known as a terrorist today. When he tied people up and took their weapons didn't that put them in the same position as being unarmed with their backs to him?Same cowardice everyone is accusing Ford of in my opinion. Ford did the right thing in taking whatever opportunity he had to rid this country of an evil terrorist. It's too bad he died with a cloud over his head.

Mamafiend said...

James would be known as a terrorist today.Why did he need to surround himself with gunslingers to protect him and help kill innocents. We sent an entire Army after Sadaam for that. He tied up and took away the weapons of his victims before shooting them. That is the same as what Ford did to him in my opinion. Ford did what had to be done for his country by whatever means he could. It is too bad he died with a cloud over his head. He should be revered a hero, not a coward for removing this menace from the streets of our country.

L said...

Completely agree. He murdered like 17 people. Robbed and stole and terrorized anybody he wanted to. And where the hell does this robinhood image come from. No way in hell did he ever give a dime to the poor. He kept most of everything he stole.

L said...

Jesse James killed many a person by shooting them in the back without them looking including his friends. He would have to be considered a coward too then.

L said...

Wrong

L said...

Agree completely. Guess people seem to forget that one don't they

L said...

Who cares

L said...

Completely agree

L said...

Jesse James did the exact same.

Muhammad Naveed Tariq said...

well i think jesse james was an outlaw even in his last times he was trying to rebuild his murderous gang and bob ford just a 20 year old boy at that time did too much of a courageous act to kill an outlaw how many of u can kill an outlaw

Unknown said...

Jesse James killed MANY people by shooting them from behind. While reading the paper James read something that tipped him off the Fords were double-crossing him. Instead of anger he elaborately feigned good will.
The fords had no doubt he would have killed them then and there but his wife and kids were present. Continuing to pretend to be relaxed about what he had just read James removed his guns, something they'd never seen him do, as if going out of his way to show them he wasn't mad and he didn't suspect them, but they knew he was enraged and fully planned to murder them at the first opportunity. They weren't fooled by his pretended nonchalance.
he then stood on a chair to either dust or straighten a picture and the fords exchanged a look which meant--it's now or never. we'll never have a better chance. so they drew their guns and bob ford shot first, killing james.
James wasn't planning on getting killed. he never would have left his family in desperate poverty with children so young. he didn't think they would kill him in front of his wife and kids but he was wrong. He'd killed god knows how many people. He was no loss too humanity and is only famous by an accident of history--he has a great name: Jesse James. If his name had been francis gumbutt no one would remember him. he was just a thug, a person turned into a hateful murderous sociopath by the civil war. No more.

066motocross said...

Jessie James was a bad guy. Bob and Charlie Ford weren't angels in any way either but I believe that the Ford's were just impressionable young guy's who felt powerful being with Jessie. I feel sorry for Bob Ford because of all the coward talk, jokes, and songs. Bob Ford knew he had to do what he had to do. According to the movies and documentaries I've seen and read, Jessie also killed unarmed people. He even killed a so called friend by shooting him in the back. We live in a society of these kinds of people today. The old West is still alive and well. Prisons all across this country are full of these types of people even now.