Outlaws, both. Ned Kelly was a bushranger; Jesse James a bushwhacker. They were contemporaries, (Kelly, 1855-1880; James, 1847-1882) but Ned Kelly was from Victoria, Australia, Jesse James from Missouri. There are a number of parallels in their stories. I just finished reading Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, and I couldn’t help thinking of the most famous American outlaw, Jesse James. I grew up being fascinated by Jesse James because he was from Kearney, Missouri, where my dad grew up and where some of our family still lived. Mention was occasionally made of ‘the James place,’ which wasn’t all that far from the ‘Carey place’–my dad’s family home. (Writer, Peter Carey, btw, is Australian; no relation to me or my dad’s family…just an odd coincidence in this post.) Anyway, to get back to the point… When I got to Australia and began to learn about Ned Kelly, famous bushranger and folk hero, I naturally thought of him in the same way as James. I suppose the overriding question in my mind has always been: Why have we made folk heroes out of outlaws? What’s that about??
Listen to Bruce Springsteen sing the Ballad of Jesse James
Hear Red Gum sing about Ned Kelly
Well, as you can imagine, hearing those songs and reading Carey’s book brought all that to mind again. So I couldn’t resist digging a bit deeper. Carey’s book is a fictionalised account of Kelly’s life, written in the first person as told through Kelly’s eyes. It made me want to know more about Jesse James, to ferret out more of his story. I haven’t done extensive research — nothing like it — but just enough to reveal some common threads. Both men (and their gangs) have been widely portrayed in movies, books, songs and folk tales. I have absolutely nothing new to add to any of it, but I just had fun bringing the two together. I’ll give you a quick run-down of the ‘common threads’ as I saw them, then I’m going to share my own fanciful (silly?) version of a meeting between the two…
But first some similarities between the two (in no particular order of significance):
- The fathers of both men were born in Ireland
– Kelly’s dad was transported to Van Dieman’s Land (now Tasmania) for allegedly steeling two pigs
– James’ dad was an educated man, and a Baptist minister
- Both fathers died when the sons were children
- Both mothers remarried twice
- Both James and Kelly had a number of siblings and step-siblings
- Both men started out with a political agenda
– James was first active in the Confederate guerillas during the Civil War
– Kelly was protesting against the (Protestant) Government, which favored squatters, and which deprived and harrassed the the poor Irish Catholics
- Each had a brother who later became part of his ‘gang’ (Dan Kelly and Frank James)
- The activities of both gangs caused the mothers and other family members to have to move away from their homes
- Both believed that if they could ‘explain’ their activities to the people, they would be understood and have the public’s sympathy
– James had a newspaper editor friend who happily printed James’ numerous letters, and also wrote editorials supporting James
– Kelly repeatedly wrote letters to politicians and newspapers in hopes of getting them printed, but never succeeded; he also went directly to a printer to have a statement printed himself, but that failed as well
- Both men were ‘religious’
– Kelly was an Irish Catholic
– James was a Methodist (presumably after his Baptist father died)
- While they both maintained their rage against their original political enemy, they each developed other ‘agendas’ as their criminal activity took over
– Kelly was determined to get his mother out of prison, as well as other friends later on, and he did spread a bit of the wealth from his robberies around amongst his poor supporters
– James seemed to develop a taste for the spoils of his escapades–the money and booty
- Both men were hugely popular with a large segment of the community and often relied on that to help avoid detection.
They were seen as heroes and adventurers, and no doubt some people applauded their political agendas.
- Both men were known to enjoy hamming it up when they had an appreciative audience for their exploits, showing off their riding and shooting prowess for onlookers when they robbed a bank
- Ned Kelly is famous for wearing a peculiar, homemade suit of armor. Jesse James never did anything so flamboyant as that, but he did on at least one occasion wear a KuKluxKlan hood.
Jesse James and Ned Kelly Meet in Purgatory
The year is 2010; the place is the (very crowded) waiting room in Purgatory. The magazines are all pre-1948. Two bearded, bedraggled men notice each other across the room. One has just arrived; the other seems to have been there for a little while. He hasn’t found a seat yet, but he has worked his way closer to the (empty) water cooler, in hopes it gets refilled at some point. His neck is red and bruised, his eyes bloodshot. He watches the newcomer enter and look around the room as if hoping to find someone he knows. A relative, perhaps. He sees that the new man has a big, ugly bullet hole in the side of his head. Bloody hell.
The newcomer sees the man near the water cooler and thinks he recognizes him. He starts toward him, then realizes his mistake and turns away. Pushing his way through the crowd, he continues looking. After a while he gives up. There are just too many people. Eventually he finds himself standing near the man he first mistook for his brother, Dan. The one with the beard, over by the big empty jug. The man is dressed strangely, in what looks like pajamas with arrows all over them. And his neck is red and badly bruised. He looks like he’s been hanged, thought James. He noticed the man looking at him oddly. Probably just noticed the bullet hole, he thought. The man appeared to try to nod, or give a jerk of the head, to call him over, but the effort wound up just making his head flop over in a most unseemly manner. But James thought he understood. He started pushing his way over to where the man stood.
It took a while, but he finally managed to reach the man. “I’m Jesse James,” he said, offering his hand.
“Ned Kelly,” said the man with the floppy neck.
“What is this place?” asked James, looking around. He seemed completely unaware of the effect the bullet hole in his head was having on the people around him.
“This is adjectival purgatory, man. Ain’t you religious?”
“Sure. I’m a Methodist. I’ve heard of purgatory, but I never heard of — what was it you called it, agivital? purgatory?” replied James.
“ADJECTIVAL, mate. It’s what you say when you don’t want to curse. It just means effing, essing, whatever swear word you’re thinking but don’t wanna say.”
James considered this, looking at Kelly for a long moment. “Where you from? You’ve got a funny accent. You English?”
“You shut your gob! I ain’t no effing English. I’m Australian.” Kelly was clearly riled by the question. “You must be a Yank. The Yanks don’t know nothin’ about us Australians.”
“Hey! I ain’t no Yankee, so don’t even say the word. I fought with the Confederates, and if I could I’d stop all that Reconstruction business. So don’t call me a Yank.”
“So where are you from, then?”
“I’m from Clay County, Missouri. But I’m famous all over the country. Haven’t you heard of Jesse James, the famous outlaw? ”
“So what are you doing here, then?” asked Kelly, looking at the bullet hole.
“On account of Robert Ford, the coward. He tried to shoot me in the back, but I turned my head when I heard the gun click. That’s why he got me in the side of the head. We were supposed to be planning a job, but he was spying for the governor, hoping to collect the reward. An adjectival coward,” said James, grinning.
“Yeah, I know what you mean. I were turned in by a two-faced liar on occasion, too.”
“So what were you doing? Were you a bushwhacker too?” asked James.
“We call ’em bushrangers where I come from. Same thing, I reckon.”
James considered that for a moment. “Ever kill anyone?”
“Only when I had to,” replied Kelly. “Mostly just the adjectival traps.”
“Coppers. Don’t you know anything?”
“Never heard ’em called traps, that’s all. So how long you been here, Kelly?”
“I don’t know, exactly. I was hanged in 1880, but I been here a long time. How ’bout you? When did you get here?”
“Hell! I didn’t get shot til 1882. You been here two years?”
“I been here a lot longer that that. There’s a sign on the far wall says it’s 2010. I been watching ’em change that sign ever year since ’bout 1911, so I guess it’s true.”
Jesse James just stared at Kelly in disbelief. “You gotta be pullin’ my leg. How can you have been in purgatory for 130 years?”
Kelly laughed–more of a snort, really. “Mate, this isn’t purgatory. This is the waiting room to get into purgatory.” Both men stood silently for a while, thinking things over. “So what took you so long to get here if you died in ’82,” asked Kelly finally.
“I been outside, waiting to get in here,” said James at last.
“Yeah. Waiting to get in the Waiting Room.” Nobody said anything for a while. Finally James asked, “Does anybody know what we’re waiting for?”
“Well, the best anyone has been able to figure, is that we’re waiting to go in and find out where we go from there.”
“Hell, I already know where I’m goin.’ I’m goin’ to hell, that’s for sure. Why don’t they just get on with it and send me there?”
“Well,” said Kelly slowly, “I reckon it ain’t that simple. A lot of folks figured we was heroes. Even though we killed some folks, and robbed some banks and stuff, we seem to be what they call Folk Heroes, and nobody’s ready to say we hafta go to hell for what we did. There was a lot of bad stuff done to us as well.”
“So how long do you think we’re gonna be here, just waitin’ to get into purgatory?”
“Hard to say, Mate.” Ned Kelly replied. “It’s all part of purgatory, and they say it takes a long time to get things sorted out. There are lots of forms to fill out and papers to sign. Then it all has to be reviewed and approved. They say that’s all that purgatory is. Red tape. Lots and lots of adjectival red tape.”