The bad boy hero is a staple of romance novels. The rough-around-the-edges man just waiting for the right woman to tame him appeals to the idea that we, as women, can have sway over a powerful man simply by the force of our love. It’s a romantic notion that doesn’t always hold true in real life.
The outlaw Jesse James may be the ultimate bad boy hero. He was handsome – with thick, sandy hair and piercing blue eyes. He was brave, having made a name for himself as a fearless guerilla raider during the Civil War, while he was still a teenager. He was intelligent and well-spoken, as proved by the letters he wrote to newspapers defending his reputation, and the press releases he sent out publicizing his crimes. He was charming – the men and women he robbed often mentioned his gentlemanly behavior. After the robbery of an omnibus in Lexington, Missouri, the Lexington Caucasian reported: ” Prof. Allen doubtless expresses the sentiments of the victims when he tells us that he is exceedingly glad, as he had to be robbed, that it was done by first class artists, by men of national reputation. ”
Jesse James may have been a hero to some, but he was also a killer responsible for the deaths of as many as 16 men. He stole tens of thousands of dollars from banks, railroads and ordinary citizens who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Yet even these crimes get softened by the romance and maybe the force of Jesse’s own personality. Even while he was perpetrating the worst of his crimes, some members of the press and public painted him as a kind of western Robin Hood, standing up for the little man against the corrupt and greedy banks, railroads and big corporations. Jesse would have been a hero of the Occupy Wall Street Camp of today, a champion of the 99 percent.
Jesse lived a wild and violent life. From the time he was fifteen or sixteen he was on the run from the law, with a price on his head. And yet, he was a family man, too. Even the folk songs celebrate this: “Jesse had a wife, who loved him all her life; two children, they were brave.”
What kind of woman loves a man like Jesse James? More importantly, what kind of woman has the power to tame a man like Jesse – to win his love? This was the question I set out to answer when I began researching the life of Zee Mimms – the woman Jesse loved and married. Zee was Jesse’s first cousin. The idea seems a little icky to us now, but in that day and age, marrying your first cousin was perfectly acceptable. Edgar Allen Poe, Charles Darwin, Vice President John Calhoun and Albert Einstein all married first cousins.
Zee nursed Jesse back to health when he was seriously injured in a guerilla raid. She was twenty, he was two years younger. They became engaged, but it would be nine years before they were married. Almost immediately, she joined him on the run. They honeymooned as Mr. and Mrs. Howard in Texas. She took the name of Josie Howard, and called him Dave.
Zee apparently did love Jesse all her life. She wore widow’s weeds and mourned him in the years after his death, and the family stories hold she eventually died of a broken heart. Zee never completely tamed her bad boy, but maybe she didn’t want to. Maybe being with Jesse – loving Jesse – was worth all the hardship and subterfuge.
The Woman Who Loved Jesse James, by Cindi Myers is a novel based on the love story of Zee and Jesse James. It’s available from Bell Bridge books now.