Ballad of Jesse James | The Midnight Company

Although James is mostly known as an outlaw and bank robber, Hanrahan said he felt James could be classified as “more of a terrorist.”


Even the name Jesse James has a romantic ring to it—and as in many romances, hard facts are difficult to come by. But Joe Hanrahan’s Ballad of Jesse James tries to shed light on the life of one of Missouri’s biggest legends.

Although James is mostly known as an outlaw and bank robber, Hanrahan—who not only wrote the play, but also directs and acts in it—said he felt James could be classified as “more of a terrorist.” From before the Civil War until James’ death, his life was an act of revenge against the North.

“[James] was not just an outlaw,” Hanrahan said, “He was an insurgent. And he was not Robin Hood. Every step he took was a continuation of the Civil War.”

The father of the James family was a preacher and a pioneer, moving west to Missouri. Jesse’s father went west once more, to find gold in California, but he died there of pneumonia before his family could join him. Their mother remarried and the family became slave owners. As the Civil War brewed, they sided with the states’ rights agenda of the South. When the South seceded, Frank, four years older than Jesse, went to fight for the Confederate Army. Jesse stayed home, but after he was beaten by Yankee soldiers, he joined William Quantrill’s Raiders and wore a gray uniform, although Quantrill’s violence was not entirely sanctioned by the Confederate Army.

The Raiders evolved into variations of the James Gang. They were responsible for the first daylight bank robbery in history. They targeted northern banks with large sums of money in the vaults. Jesse made a show out of the crimes, so everyone would know who was stealing Yankee money. But there were only a few robberies each year. In between, Jesse and his wife lived a “normal” life.

“These guys weren’t cowboys,” Hanrahan said. “They were farmers and soldiers.”
The play does not try to debunk certain myths, such as that of James robbing the banker who took a widow’s money, then returning the money to the widow. But Hanrahan does try to “accurately present some of the excitement of the outlaw life,” along with “some of the normalcy of his life, his family.”

How does one put together a play based on a historical figure? “I love historical research,” Hanrahan said. However, he found many of the newspapers of that era to be “full of propaganda, so nailing down the pure truth [was] tough.” To recreate dialogue, Hanrahan relied on instinct, scraps of surviving dialogue, letters written by James, and, “honestly, probably a lot of unconscious memory from movies.”

The play offers multiple possibilities for one of the key situations in the history of James, the aftermath of the failed Northfield Bank robbery, which many consider the last battle of the Civil War, even though it took place 11 years after the war officially ended.

But, Hanrahan said, “Probably the most audacious speculation is just our assessment of what was really important to him, and about him.” One can only imagine the difficulty of capturing the inner life of someone as driven as James, and as given to showmanship.
“Missouri in his time was more like Bosnia or Beirut than our vision of a pastoral heartland,” Hanrahan said. “Today we’re in a global effort to defeat terrorists. It seems obvious to me that to do that…we have to understand them. A step in that is understanding that 150 years ago, this was happening in Missouri, and we were them.”

The upcoming production of The Ballad of Jesse James isn’t new; it has played several times in St. Louis, and even in Kearney, Mo., on the porch of the James Farm, where, Hanrahan said, “the boys were born, where Frank died, where Jesse was buried…

“We felt honored to be there and obligated to do a great show.” And the play was a success—the relatives of the James brothers “indicated we had done the best job they’d ever seen with their family’s story,” Hanrahan said. The Midnight Company will be staging the play in Kearney again on June 24, for the Friends of the James Farm.

You can see The Ballad of Jesse James in St. Louis, and take advantage of this opportunity to do what we all say we should: learn from history. Hanrahan said the show is appropriate for children aged 12 and up as well as for adults, as it is a history lesson and an exciting story to boot. A video clip of the show on the Midnight Company Web site gives a small preview of the play.

“After thinking a lot about the guy,” Hanrahan said, “as a historical figure, he reminds me of Elvis Presley: He was the right guy, in the right place, at the right time, with the right name.” 

The Midnight Company presents Joe Hanrahan’s Ballad of Jesse James March 24 through April 9 at Technisonic Studios (500 S. Ewing, near Jefferson and Hwy. 40 in St. Louis). Showtimes are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 7 p.m. Sunday, with a special $5 matinee at 2 p.m. on Sunday April 9. Tickets are $15 ($10 for students and seniors). Reservations can be made by calling 314-773-1503.

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