Just about everyone, at one time or another, has heard of Frank and Jesse James and the James gang. As many people as have heard of the Jameses, an equal number have never heard of William Harrison Ainsworth. So, what is the connection?
Jesse and Frank James, when children, led farely normal lives. Frank wanted to become a school teacher and was a great reader. He read through most of the books in his late fathers library probably sharing stories with his younger brother Jesse. We know he liked Shakespeare, but I also suspect he liked the novels of Ainsworth.
Ainsworth became famous about the same time Charles Dickens did. He, however, won fame by his depiction of Highwaymen as likable anti-heroes rather than cold blooded thieves and murderers. His first such depiction was “Dick Turpin” in the novel “Rookwood.” Rookwood was a runaway success, everyone fell in love with the likable scoundrel, Turpin, (who was based on a real-life bandit from the 1700s, by the way). When “Jack Sheppard” appeared (another bandit novel), as many as eight different play versions were soon going on at the same time.
During and after the civil war Frank and Jesse did their best to promote an image of themselves as “Robin Hood” style bandits in the tradition of Ainsworth’s idealized rogues. When Jesse wrote letters to the newspapers about the gangs exploits and the political reasons behind their banditry, he and Frank signed their names “Jack Shepherd, and Dick Turpin.”
Frank and Jesse may not have always lived up to the qualities of their prototypes, but as far as the public was concerned they were heroes. Jesse was universally mourned when he was shot in the back, and Frank was acquitted of all charges when he finally went to court.
The disenfranchised South had found a voice in two men who had, quite likely, found that voice in two works of historical fiction.