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Brigandage and Piety | The Nation

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Brigandage and Piety

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Jesse James may have been a robber and a thief, but at least he was a member in good standing of his church.

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Sidney Zion celebrates the courage and independence of the late Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas

You want a good sex scandal? This one from the nineteenth century had it all--and more.

The extraordinary doings in Missouri concerning the death and burial of Jesse James, the noted robber and murderer, have attracted a great deal of attention from the press, though hardly as much as they merit. James was a successful brigand of the worst kind for nearly twenty years. He served as a guerilla in the war, and when peace was concluded became a common bandit of the Greek or Italian type, hot without holding his victims to ransom, there being no proper facilities in this country for transporting captives. His operations, however, were extended over an area, and conducted with a boldness, which make the most famous of the Greeks or Italians seem a petty knave. He robbed all along the Mississippi, from Minnesota down nearly to Louisiana, and some of his greatest exploits were performed in broad daylight, and not on lonely roads, but in the streets of small towns, and in business hours, and were frequently accompanied by murder. In fact, when we consider the extent of country over which his jurisdiction extended, the character of his crimes, the long period during which he enjoyed impunity, and the smallness of the force with which his blows were struck, we must admit him to be the greatest robber of either ancient or modern times, surpassing in many respects both the condottieri and the buccaneers.

The manner of his death, too, has something unprecedented about it. All the great robbers of old times, and of other countries, lived in caves, or in mountain fastnesses to which it was difficult for troops to pursue them, or in strong castles, or kept the sea in long, low, rakish black schooners. James, however, lived in a comfortable house, surrounded by a loving family, and went off on his expeditions apparently as a business man goes off to collect debts or to solicit orders. Moreover, although the State of Missouri had for long years been trying to arrest him, it was never able to do so, and in order to compass his death the Governor had to resort to the means by which the Venetian Council of Ten and other medieval powers occasionally tried to got rid of obnoxious foreign sovereigns. He hired an assassin to go and kill him unawares, so that James really died what may be called a royal death. He fell as Henry IV, and William the Silent, and Admiral Coligny fell, the victim of the hostility of a great community who were unable to get the better of him in open fight, but felt that taking off was necessary to their safety and prosperity. The Governor in fact justifies his own course in language which might have been used by Elizabeth after the defeat of the Armada. He describes the assassination of James as the relief of the State from a great hindrance to its prosperity, and as likely to give an important stimulus to real estate speculation, to railroad enterprise, and to foreign immigration.

"If you want to know the value of the deed," he said, "ask the managers of banks; ask the owners of land in that part of the State; ask the managers of the many railroads constructed in this State; ask the ticket agents at St. Louis Kansas City, Omaha, and Chicago; ask the hotel keepers at St. Louis and Kansas City ask the property-holders and real-estate agents at Kansas City and in Jackson County; ask those who own land in Clay and Platte; hear all their responses, and then say it was not a good deed in behalf of law, order, and general prosperity."

James's relations to the church, too, had a curiously medieval flavor about them. He was the son of a Baptist minister, but his career apparently did not strike his mother, or any of his family or neighbors, as inconsistent with the possession of a stock of fundamental and ineradicable piety. When he died, she rejoiced in the thought that he had gone to heaven. Two Baptist ministers performed the funeral services, and a vast concourse of friends, including the sheriff, who was deeply affected, followed the remains to the grave, not sorrowing, apparently, as those who are without hope. In fact, the James territory, which includes the adjacent corners of four States, is a region which seems closely to resemble in its religions and moral condition a Frankish kingdom in Gaul in the sixth century. Every one knows how very early in the history of the Church the tendency to make faith take the place of right living began to show itself. St. James had to warn the very first generation of Christians that pure religion and undefiled consisted not in sound belief, but in good deeds. The difficulty of making people show their faith by their works has beset Christianity ever since. Barbarians rapidly accepted the Christian dogmas, and took eagerly to the rites and ceremonies of the Church, but they never were quite ready to accept its views about behavior. Gregory of Tours, in his most instructive chronicle, tells some very grotesque stories of the difficulties which the bishops had in Gaul in his day in refusing the communion to notorious evil livers. One Frankish chief &mdash a great robber and cutthroat &mdash insisted on having it administered to him, and the bishop had to let him have it, in order to save life, for be threatened to kill all the other communicants it he was not allowed to partake also. The comfort the Italian and Greek brigands find in the external observances of their creed, while committing the most atrocious crimes, is now an old story. A sceptical or agnostic robber is in fact unknown in eastern or southern Europe.

The devout brigands all belong to the Catholic or Greek Church, which has always greatly exalted the value of external worship and pious credulity, and thus furnishes only too much temptation to those who are ready to believe without limitation for the purpose of postponing any change in their habits. The Protestant Church has been much more exacting in the matter of conduct, and in fact has afforded in its teaching but few of the refuges for easy-going sinners which its great rival provides so plentifully. But the fight between faith and right-living nevertheless rages within its borders unceasingly, and not always to the advantage of the latter. It is not only in the James district in Missouri that one comes on the strange compromises by which a certain external devoutness is made to atone to the conscience not only for spiritual coldness, but for long and persistent violations of the fundamental rules of morality. Startling as are these revelations about the state of society in that part of the country, they are hardly more startling, everything considered, than the frequency with which our defaulters and embezzlers in this part of the world prove to have been vestrymen, deacons, Sunday-school superintendents, and prominent church members during long years of delinquency and perfidy. There is nothing new about it at all. It is, in fact, as we have said, simply another phase of one of the oldest struggles in the moral world. But the James story derives much freshness from the fact that he is probably the first Protestant who managed to keep his standing good in the local church and retain the affection of his pastor, and maintain a happy home, while openly pursuing robbery and murder as a profession.

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