Mark Lee Gardner’s Shot All to Hell: Jesse James, the Northfield Raid, and the Wild West’s Greatest Escape is the thrilling true story of the botched bank robbery and subsequent manhunt that contributed to the American legend of the outlaw Jesse James.
What drew you to this story?
I was born and raised in Missouri and grew up with the lore of Jesse James all around me. I’d just done this book about Billy the Kid [To Hell on a Fast Horse], which reminded me of the Jesse James stories I’d grown up with. This book was a chance for me to get back to my roots and explore my heritage, and the legend that as a child I loved, and as an adult I am still intrigued by.
Are you more interested in preserving the mythic or the historic Jesse James?
With his strong significance in American culture, [his legacy] bears examining more than once. We should revisit it and ask, Why does the Jesse James name still resonate? Should it still resonate today? One of the reasons I was fascinated with the real Jesse James was because the things he did were so nearly superhuman and larger than life, and they still remain incredible deeds—even in the 21st century. But I certainly don’t want to preserve the idea that someone who’s a murderer is someone who should be looked up to.
The word “outlaw” belongs uniquely to a bygone American era. Would a modern Jesse James be more likely to be termed a terrorist?
When you say the word terrorist today, we automatically jump to a different kind of criminal than Jesse James was, but there were some elements of what he was doing that had a terroristic element to them. Jesse James was a southern partisan, and in a way he never stopped fighting the Civil War—a lot of the things that he did had a political undertone. That does fit in with what you would call a terrorist, but he wasn’t creating mayhem purely for political or anarchistic reasons—part of it was just to make money.
Is America today capable of creating folk heroes like Jesse James?
I’ve always felt like that trend ended with the public enemies, like Bonnie and Clyde, Dillinger, and Pretty Boy Floyd. Today there’s more of an immediacy to crimes, and especially ones that involve murders. In the 19th century, when someone was killed, we didn’t necessarily see photographs. We could talk about the daring of the robberies and holdups, because there was not a closeness, we did not personally experience the terror. Today there’s more of an immediacy, and we see the violence; I don’t see how that can become romanticized.