Many books have been published about the infamous Jesse James but the majority of them fail to fully explain and identify the man behind the legend.
There are so many stories, rumors and legends about James that it’s hard to know what to believe. Fortunately, a handful of authors have attempted to tackle this problem and have succeeded in writing some of the best books on Jesse James, his gang and their outlaw ways.
The books on this list are considered some of the best on the topic and have great reviews on sites like Amazon and Goodreads and also have great reviews from critics.
I’ve also used many of these books in my research for this website so I can personally say they are some of the best on the topic.
The following is a list of the best books about Jesse James:
(Disclaimer: This article contains Amazon affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.)
1. Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War by T.J. Stiles
Published in 1993, this book by T.J. Stiles is about how the Civil War made Jesse James the man that he was.
In the book’s prologue, Stiles argues that James’s crimes, and the public’s reaction to them, were deeply rooted in the politics of the Civil War:
“Jesse James was not an inarticulate avenger for the poor; his popularity was driven by politics – politics based on wartime allegiances – and was rooted among former Confederates…He promoted himself as a Robin Hood; his enemies derided him as a common thug. His sudden death froze those masks in place, leaving later generations to consider him either as myth or anti-myth, unaware that each characterization is equally empty. This book cannot make the dead man speak, but it can take the masks away, pull a syllable or two from his lips, and set them amid the chorus of his contemporaries. In the end, he emerges as neither epic hero nor petty bully, but as something far more complex. In the life of Jesse James, we see the places where politics meets the gun.”
Stiles goes on to argue that since there were political motivations behind James’ murders, robberies and other crimes, he could be considered a “forerunner of the modern terrorist.”
Stiles explains that even though he can’t be compared to modern day terrorists like Osama Bin Laden, he was a “political partisan in a hotly partisan era” and his actions made him a symbol of Confederate efforts in post-war Missouri.
The book received positive reviews when it was published. A review in The Independent described it as engrossing:
“This book is an engrossing read. The only thing that Stiles is not very good at is making a gunfight in a bank come alive: he is always pulling together just one source too many. However, he wasn’t born with the gifts of a first-rate novelist, but those of an excellent and illuminating historian.”
A review in the New York Times praised the book for its great research yet criticized it for focusing more on dispelling myths about James than explaining what he was really about:
“”Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War” is so carefully researched, persuasive and illuminating that it is likely to reshape permanently our understanding of its subject’s life and times. James has become far more human, more complex and less admirable. Stiles works on a large canvas, and his descriptions of the events leading up to the Civil War in the West, the horrific guerrilla campaigns in Kansas and Missouri during the war and the complex political struggle after the war are clear and vivid. His portrait of the defeat of the more visionary aspects of Reconstruction and the destruction of the hopes of black Americans is restrained and moving…Thanks to Stiles’s tireless detective work, we learn much about what he was not; what he was is less certain. We never quite understand why he excited such loyalty, respect and fear in his followers. The man behind the gun remains remote. ”
A review in The Guardian described the book as outstanding:
“The book is quite simply outstanding…In the end, after countless murders, robberies and assaults, Jesse James, that invincible symbol of the struggle of a world long changed, was shot while standing on a chair and dusting a picture. That this ending comes to us as tragedy (despite its obvious absurdity) is a mark of Stiles’s achievement, and that we can mourn the passing of even such a vicious man as Jesse James is a testament to a writer whose allegiance is not with the easy and obvious but with the subtle and defiantly humane.”
A review on Salon.com dubbed it the “best-ever biography on Jesse James” and described it as “perhaps the finest book ever written about this American legend.”
The book was named a New York Times Notable Book, it was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Biography, was named one of the Five Best Books of the Year by the London Sunday Times, was also named an American library Association of Notable Book and one of the New York Public Library’s 25 Books to Remember, and was also named a Best Book of the Year by Library Journal, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Bookpage, and the London Independent.
T.J. Stiles is a biographer who has written three notable biographies: Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America; The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt; and Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War.
In 2010, Stiles won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for his book The First Tycoon and won the Pulitzer Prize again in 2016 for his book Custer’s Trails.
2. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford: A Novel by Ron Hansen
Published in 1983, this novel by by Ron Hansen is a novel about the life of Jesse James and his death at the hands of Robert Ford.
The novel tells the story of the 30-something-year-old Jesse James and a young teenage outlaw, Robert Ford, who joined James’ gang and eventually turned on him, shooting James in the back in 1882.
The novel received positive reviews when it was published. A review in Newsday praised Hansen for turning “low history into high art” and described the novel as “a terrific book,” The San Francisco Chronicle called it a “wonderful achievement” while the Christian Science Monitor called Hansen “One of our finest stylists of American historical fiction.”
A review in the Richmond News-Leader said it was the quintessential book on Jesse James:
“Here is THE James book . . . Put Hansen on your bedside table.”
Ron Hansen is a novelist who has written a number of novels, including Desparados, Atticus and Mariette in Ecstasy.
Published in 1966, this book by William Settle debunks the myths about Jesse James in order to understand who he really was.
Settle not only scoured contemporary news accounts to learn more about James but he also interview eyewitnesses and people who actually knew him.
When the book was originally published, it was considered the first ever scholarly book on Jesse James and received many positive reviews. A review in the Journal of American History praised the book for its great research and ability to separate fact from fiction:
“William Settle’s well-documented volume cuts cleanly through the tangle of folklore, identifies the demonstrable facts, and labels the remainder as fable and legend.”
A review in the Journal of American history also praised the books for its great research and described it as scholarly:
“It is not an overstatement to say that if the James brothers had not existed they would have been invented, for indeed the legend is primarily a tale untouched by truth. William A. Settle’s well-documented volume cuts cleanly through the tangle of folklore, identifies the demonstrable facts and labels the remainder as folklore and legend. Much of the volume deals with the historical setting. . . . Of the multitudes of volumes (not to mention the hundreds of pulps and celluloid monuments) devoted to the James brothers, Settle’s is the first which is scholarly throughout.”
Fellow Jesse James biographer T.J. Stiles wrote, in a review of the book on his personal website, that it is a landmark, although outdated, book that should be the starting point for anyone interested in learning more about James:
“Settle’s grasp of the political context, his critical approach to the limited primary sources surrounding the topic, and his citations of now-lost primary sources (including letters from Robert James to his wife Zerelda, and interviews with Frank James’s son, Robert) make his book a landmark. Indeed, he seems to have been taking great pains to differentiate his book from the others on the subject, which were mostly sensationalistic or works of folklore…His work remains the indispensable starting point for any investigation of Jesse and Frank James.”
William A. Settle Jr was a professor of American history at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma. Jesse James Was His Name; or, Fact and Fiction concerning the Careers of the Notorious James was his first and only book.
4. Frank and Jesse James: The Story Behind the Legend by Ted P. Yeatman
Published in 2000, this book by Ted P. Yeatman also attempts to debunk the many myths about Jesse James.
In the preface, Yeatman explains that Jesse James and his brother Frank have often been depicted as one-dimensional characters and his goal was to provide a more thorough picture of what they were really like:
“Usually they were depicted either as ‘American Robin Hoods’ or simply as ‘hoods,’ depending on the source. I have attempted to provide a truer, more rounded picture somewhere between these extremes, utilizing sources that are uncolored by the often partisan contemporary politics of late-nineteenth-century Missouri.”
In addition, Yeatman goes on to explain that his book is intended to be a supplement to what he considered the best book on the Jesse James:
“With the exception of a handful of works (the most notable being the late William A. Settle’s Jesse James Was His Name), accurate, well-documented accounts of James story were not the norm. In the thirty years since Settle’s book appeared in 1966, a considerable body of new information has come to light that has significantly altered what is known…Therefore this book is intended as a supplement to Settle’s impressive and pioneering volume.”
Fellow Jesse James biographer, T.J. Stiles wrote, in an a review of the book on his personal website, that Yeatman’s book is a must-read for any Jesse James aficionado but also states that the work has flaws and lacks critical analysis of its sources:
“Yeatman’s book is an essential resource for any investigation of Jesse James. In it, he approaches the James brothers seriously, and uses good judgment in piecing together events. However, it has some limitations. First, it is not a scholarly work of history, in that it does not address the academic historiography on the period or on banditry, and (most important) does not attempt to explain the James-Younger outlaws and their larger significance…Yeatman’s aim is to fill in the details of the lives of the James brothers, but there are some important gaps in his research…His treatment of primary sources is often uncritical… Despite these failings, Yeatman’s is an excellent summary of key sources and details, and is an absolutely essential resource for any look at the James and Younger brothers. Indeed, any reader of Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War who is interested in pursuing the subject further should consult Yeatman’s book, particularly for its more detailed treatment of Frank James and of certain episodes, such as the Huntington, West Virginia, robbery.”
Yeatman, who died in 2009, was a freelance writer who wrote many articles about the Civil War for publications such as True West Magazine, Old West, Civil War Times Illustrated, and The Quarterly of the National Association and Center for Outlaw and Lawman History.
5. Shot All to Hell: Jesse James, the Northfield Raid, and the Wild West’s Greatest Escape by Mark Lee Gardner
Published in 2013, this book by Mark Lee Gardner explores what really happened during the James-Younger gang’s botched Northfield Raid in September of 1876. The raid was the first time the gang had ever been challenged and defeated and the book attempts to figure out why.
In the book’s prologue, Gardner explains that there are a lot of mistruths, rumors and speculation about what happened at the raid and his book aims to uncover the truth:
“Fortunately there are a number of eyewitness accounts from the men who defeated the James-Younger gang in 1876, including the surviving bank employees, the deadeye Northfield citizens, and the several posses that pursued the bandits. But these eyewitnesses don’t always agree, as is common after any event marked by excitement, great confusion, and tragedy…Newspaper reports are another significant source of information about the raid and the manhunt, but in their craze to publish any pieces of news about the robbers, these papers often ran items that were nothing more than rumors and speculation. Still, my efforts to uncover the true story of the raid and its aftermath have led to new discoveries – and new answers to old questions – that are published here for the first time. The following narrative is the most accurate account of the nineteenth century’s most famous robbery and manhunt.”
The book received positive reviews when it was published. A review in Publisher’s Weekly called it “An elegant narrative that’s as entertaining as it is historically accurate… A must-read” while Kirkus Review said it was “Action packed…A gripping read and probably tells all there is to tell about a legendary group of psychopaths” and also praised the book for its “impressive research.”
A review in the New York Times described it as rollicking:
“Gardner’s book introduces the brothers at the start of their prolonged crime spree, but the heart of his story is the 1876 Northfield, Minn., raid and its aftermath, which he depicts in rollicking style…Equal parts violent melodrama and meticulous procedural…with enough bloody action to engage readers enthralled by tales of good versus evil.”
A review in the Washington Post states that the book is a much-needed new addition to the countless other books on Jesse James:
“Mark Lee Gardner, in his new book, ‘Shot All to Hell,’ makes a pretty good case for adding one more volume to this surfeit of Jamesiana. I haven’t read enough of the literature to assess Gardner’s claim that his is ‘the most accurate account’ of the Northfield affair, but it would be hard to imagine a more thorough one.”
A review in the New York Journal of Books also praised the book for its great writing and research:
“Shot All to Hellis one of those very well researched, wonderfully written, and clearly objective histories that any reader will enjoy.”
Gardner is a freelance writer who has written, in addition to Shot All To Hell, many articles for publications such as the Los Angeles Times, True West Magazine, Wild West, American Cowboy and New Mexico magazine.
6. Jesse James and the Lost Cause by James P. Muehlberger
Published in 2013, this book by James P. Muehlberger explores the trial of Jesse and Frank James for a horse theft that occurred during a deadly bank robbery in Gallatin, Missouri in 1869.
The trial is notable because it was the first time Jesse James was publicly identified as a dangerous outlaw and the flurry of newspaper accounts of the trial and robbery sparked his rise to fame.
As a result of all of the attention from the trial, it was later discovered that during the robbery, Jesse James killed a bank clerk because the James brothers had incorrectly identified him as the Union officer responsible for the death of their Confederate partisan leader, “Bloody Bill” Anderson, during the Civil War. It was this politically-motivated murder that first cemented Jesse Jame’s reputation as an American Robin Hood and defender of the old Confederate cause.
Muehlberger explains in the book’s prologue that in 2007 he tracked down the lost case files in order to find out the truth about this trial and the effect it had on James’ life and reputation:
“At the Daviess County clerk’s office, I spent nearly a week during a sabbatical from my law firm in 2007 carefully paging through a wall of file drawers of lawsuits, each drawer containing about one hundred cases. Finally in drawer No. 145 I found what I was looking for: the long-forgotten, dusty documents titled Daniel Smoote v. Frank and Jesse James. These papers proved that the legendary prosecution had indeed taken place. What I discovered bore little resemblance to what I’d seen, heard, or read. In fact, much of the history of Jesse James is as firm as gun smoke. I also interviewed descendants of participants in the events recounted here. I read over five hundred original sources, including legal records, newspapers, personal papers, letters, memoirs, and army reports in order to prepare the manuscript.”
The book received mostly positive reviews when it was published. A review in the New York Times praised the book for its great research and storytelling:
“He superbly describes the trial and its personalities, building suspense and revealing much about the time, the character of the place and the personality of Frank James. He also submits new evidence that puts a distinctly different spin on the brothers’ motives and exploits.”
A review in Publisher’s Weekly described the book as both thrilling and insightful:
“All the front-line players receive Muehlberger’s close attention, and his history works well as both a thrilling Wild West drama and an insightful portrait of a country trying to rebuild under the burden of still-simmering resentments and conflicting loyalties.”
A review by Kirkus Review described the book as “intriguing” yet said the answer to the question of whether Jesse James was the last great rebel of the Civil War or just a notorious robber was “lackluster” and that James’ story often gets lost in the larger historical context in the book.
James P. Muehlberger is a lawyer in Kansas City, Missouri and has written a number of articles on litigation and legal history for publications such as the National Law Journal, For the Defense, and Wild West Magazine.
“The Lost Cause by James P. Muehlberger?” Kirkus Reviews, www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/james-p-muehlberger/the-lost-cause/
“Nonfiction Book Review: The Lost Cause: The Trials of Frank and Jesse James.” Publisher’s Weekly, www.publishersweekly.com/978-1-59416-173-5
Meredith, D.R. “Shot All To Hell: Jesse James, the Northfield Raid, and the West’s Greatest Escape.” New York Journal of Books, www.nyjournalofbooks.com/book-review/shot-all-hell-jesse-james-northfield-raid-and-wests-greatest-escape
“Shot All To Hell by Mark Lee Gardner.” Kirkus Reviews, www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/mark-lee-gardner/shot-all-to-hell/
Krist, Gary. “Shot All To Hell: Jesse James, the Northfield Raid, and the Wild West’s Greatest Escape’ by Mark Lee Gardner.” Washington Post, 11 Oct. 2013, www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2013/10/11/8deb0632-e278-11e2-a11e-c2ea876a8f30_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.7c5ae9d56338
Nicholas P. Hardeman, Jesse James Was His Name, or, Fact and Fiction Concerning the Careers of the Notorious James Brothers of Missouri. By William A. Settle, Jr. (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1966. 263 pp. Maps, illustrations, notes, bibliography, and index. $6.00.), Journal of American History, Volume 54, Issue 1, June 1967, Pages 161–162, doi.org/10.2307/1900388
Barra, Allen. “’Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War’ by T.J. Stiles.” Salon.com, 16 Oct. 2002, www.salon.com/2002/10/15/stiles/
Poolman, Jeremy. “The Baddest Man in the South.” The Guardian, 8 Feb. 2003, www.theguardian.com/books/2003/feb/08/featuresreviews.guardianreview7
Nicholls, Richard E. “Thoroughly Bad Guy.” New York Times, 27 Oct. 2002, www.nytimes.com/2002/10/27/books/thoroughly-bad-guy.html?mtrref=www.google.com&auth=login-email
Glover, Michael. “Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War, by T.J. Stiles.” The Independent, 17 Jan. 2003, www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/jesse-james-last-rebel-of-the-civil-war-by-t-j-stiles-124656.html
Stiles, T.J. “Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War.” T.J. Stiles, www.tjstiles.net/bio.htm
Tobin, Greg. “Original Gangsters.” New York Times, 20 Sept. 2013, www.nytimes.com/2013/09/22/books/review/the-lost-cause-and-shot-all-to-hell.html