Famous outlaws are an impossible-to-ignore part of 19th-century Missouri's history – from Quantrill and Anderson to the James-Younger Gang.
The stories behind those outlaws – how that part of local culture came to be and how they affected the perception of Missouri culture – have been chronicled by Independence historian Paul Kirkman in the book “Missouri Outlaws: Bandits, Rebels & Rogues.” The book, from Arcadia Publishing and The History Press, was released earlier this year.
Kirkman said this subject wasn't something he explicitly set out to write about, but he “negotiated” his way there quite naturally.
While finishing his history degree at Columbia College more than a dozen years ago, Kirkman had done an internship with the Jackson County Historical Society and co-written with David Jackson from JCHS on a book about the 1859 Jackson County Jail. He has worked as an archivist with Kansas City Parks & Recreation, wrote a book on the Battle of Westport toward the end of the Civil War and did his senior thesis on notorious characters from the Border War.
While working on the book about the jail (“Lock Down: Outlaws, Lawmen & Frontier Justice in Jackson County”), Kirkman said, he came to appreciate the local historical significance of jail buildings from the 19th century, several of which have been preserved.
“They become part of the community,” he said. “Everybody knew everybody who was in jail. Everything was a lot more personal.”
Arcadia Press contacted Kirkman about doing on book on those old jails across Missouri. As editors started giving their input, he was digging into stories about some of those jails' famous inmates.
“I said, 'Let's see what we can do to put it all together,'” he said.
With the slow expansion westward, the transportation stopping posts at Independence and points nearby, the rough-and-tumble nature of many lines of work, hostilities before and during the Civil War, Missouri was a fertile breeding ground for outlaws, Kirkman said.
In the first generation of Missourians in the early 19th century, with the explorers such as Daniel Boone, the main businesses included mining, trapping and fur trading, and in the next couple decades the state had several small wars.
“It was a very violent culture, just as rough and rowdy as you can imagine,” Kirkman said. “Most of the men had experience fighting and shooting. Missouri just had a ton of fights.”
Many would-be outlaws had been Confederate fighters or guerrillas, and after the Civil War economic struggles and disenfranchisement became common in their families. Jesse James' father, for example, had been a successful farmer and preacher before he died, and Cole Younger's a state senator.
“They got from being a respected leading family to not being able to do anything,” Kirkman said. “The children of those who had slaves, they couldn't hold office or sometimes even be a member of a church.”
Even if one didn't turn to robbing banks or trains, many citizens had some sympathy for those that did, as they shared many struggles in daily life.
“Other people, they didn't go along, but they understood,” Kirkman said. (The outlaws) had people looking out for them. They were difficult for law enforcement to do anything with. Frank James was treated like a celebrity here (at the Jackson County Jail).”
Some outlaws – and lawmen who fought them – found their way further west, like in Tombstone, Arizona, and some even became part of the early Hollywood and showbiz culture, taking part in the silent movies or traveling shows.
“It goes from Daniel Boone to the movies,” Kirkman said of Missouri's early history, and “Missouri Outlaws” proved to be an especially enjoyable book to research and write.
“I like picking a chunk of time,” he said, “and telling the bigger story of how it happened.”
Kirkman's book is available at many local bookstores and on traditional online sites for book sales.