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