Wednesday, 15 November 2006

Jesse James and the Black Cobra

An edited version of this letter has previously appeared in Fortean times issue 214 in answer to previous correspondence about the plausibility of claims that Jesse James had had a black lieutenant in his gang known as the Black Cobra.

In 1949 a John Trammell, claiming to be 110, swore an affidavit that as a newly-freed slave at the end of the Civil War, but on the run from the law, he had strayed into the James gang camp. Jesse James had forced him into his gang as a cook and unpaid servant and that he had stayed with the gang for an unspecified time. The affidavit is light on details, being only a few sentences long and mainly concerned with Trammell’s statement that he had seen Jesse James alive after his supposed murder. Carl Breihan also quotes an equally brief letter from Trammell in his Saga of Jesse James (1955).

Redman’s Conspiracy Nation website features a web version of Del Schrader’s Jesse James was one of his names (Santa Anita Press 1975) in which Trammell has morphed into The Black Cobra, James’ right hand man. This does not appear to be supported by history. The James-Younger gang’s exploits have been thoroughly researched – researched to death in fact – with no mention of Trammell. James’ political sympathies make the story of a trusted black lieutenant as unlikely as Schrader’s thesis that James, William Quantrill, John Wilkes Booth and the Emperor Maximillian all survived their various ambushes, murders and executions to form a secret cabal ruling much of the US.

Jesse and his brother Frank came from a slave-owning family from the troubled Missouri-Kansas border. Kansas was a free state - the then capital Lawrence was settled by abolitionists - but Missouri was a slave state. Both states were mostly settled by small farmers to whom slavery was the major economic issue, not just a moral question. The brothers had spent their adolescent years in a country where both abolitionists and slave owners had formed militias and conducted raids and murders of their opponents. The burning of Lawrence by a slave-owners' militia force from Missouri and John Brown's Powatomie Massacre and his raid on the Harper's Ferry arsenal are the best known incidents from this pre-war period usually called the Border Wars or the Bleeding Kansas crisis.

During the Civil War both Jesse and Frank had served on the Confederate side under the command of the most fanatical and ruthless guerilla leaders. Frank had joined William Quantrill’s force and had participated in the infamous massacre of 200 unarmed opponents of slavery in Lawrence in 1863. Both Jesse and Frank were participants in the Centralia Massacre of 1864. Following Quantrill's death in an ambush, Jesse rode with Archie Clement who routinely robbed banks and executed prisoners and civilians, black and white, particularly black soldiers and white abolitionists. Jesse also served with Bloody Bill Anderson whose men not only followed Clement’s example but who also mutilated the dead and collected scalps. When he was killed in ambush Anderson was found with evidence of fifty-three scalps as his personal tally.

In the same period, the problem of the Missouri slave-owners who gave such strong support to these guerillas was solved by Lincoln's Secretary for War ordering a campaign of ethnic cleansing so ruthless that the region along the Missouri-Kansas border was known until recently as the Burned-Over Country and was uninhabited for many years. This did not win hearts and minds for the Union cause.

Following the Civil War, during the period known as Reconstruction (1868-1877), guerilla warfare continued throughout the Mid-West, much as it had preceded the war in the Bleeding Kansas crisis (1854-1860). Men like Frank Farris, the Younger brothers and the James brothers are the best-known leaders of bands usually described as “outlaws” but who should be seen as “social bandits” with a political agenda. Examples of social bandits would include Australia's Ned Kelly and Sicily's Salvatore Guilliermo.

During Reconstruction ex-Confederate soldiers, particularly officers ruined by the war, had spread into the Mid-Western and Western states, often homesteading or joining the restless populations of railroad and mining towns. Many pursued their political beliefs organising to dissuade African-Americans from voting or registering to vote, or from owing land or working in certain occupations. This usually involved violence or threats with over 1,000 lynchings taking place as well as 68 assassinations of congressmen and US government officials. The guerilla bands had supporters and occasional recruits from this population.

During Reconstruction in Missouri, black men were given the vote and white Confederate sympathizers were disenfranchised by the state government which was in the hands of radical Republicans (Lincoln's party). The James gang robbed banks and businesses owned by their political opponents and seem to have given support to the terrorizing of black voters. Jesse often left press releases at the scene of his robberies and sent letters to newspapers in which his strongly pro-Confederate views were articulated (although some of these manifestos may have been the work of sympathetic editors). The James gang also robbed the railroads that were being established by Northern business interests. The gang usually went after the strong box, although if one was not carried they were happy to rob the passengers.

Alan Pinkerton's detectives, good men for breaking a strike or guarding a payroll, were never quick enough to catch the James boys because the gang had extensive popular support. But as time went on this support waned as the Confederate cause seemed less relevant. The governor offered the brothers a deal if they would turn themselves in. Frank accepted and after acquittal in a trial where the fix was clearly in, was given a pardon for his crimes. But Jesse wasn't just whistlin' Dixie, he was a rebel, so the governor placed ten thousand dollars on his head and one day at a social gathering his friend Robert Ford said "Jesse, y'all like to reach up and straighten that there picture?" and with Jesse's hands away from his guns, shot him in the back of the head, to widespread rejoicing.

It is only in later years that Jesse James has been reinvented as a defender of the poor and a gallant outlaw. In his lifetime he was viewed as a partisan for a racist and reactionary cause, albeit a popular one. I cannot see him having a black gang member, let alone risking his life to rescue him. If Trammell served James it was probably in the role of, essentially, a post-Emancipation slave – a role that James would have derived some amusement from.


terryh said...

Any connection with Charlie Smith who claimed to be 130 and was a James gang member?

Anonymous said...

never headr of this black cobra and ive read alot about outlaws who wrote about him