An epic history of the family of Frank & Jesse James has garnered the esteemed Milton F. Perry Award.* The James-Younger Gang Conference of 2013 conferred the prestigious award upon author Eric F. James. His book, Jesse James Soul Liberty, is the first of five volumes the author is writing about the family stigmatized by their outlaws. The author’s acceptance, below, paid tribute to the James family, whom the author says defines what it means to be American in their actions, character, and soul. The James family alone, says the author, reveals why Jesse James endures as a cultural America icon.
I thank the James-Younger Gang for this award. For a long time, I was aware this award is given only to those who make some ground- breaking contribution to the historical record. That makes this award special, and one well worth having. Especially gratifying to me are my friends and colleagues who advanced the candidacy of my book. I thank them, too.
When first publishing my research and genealogy findings for public review on our website Stray Leaves, starting in 1997, I fully expected assassins to come out gunning for me. Indeed, they did. Over ten years, mostly blank pot shots were fired, principally by claimants, charlatans, and detractors with no foothold in the facts. But there were others, too, who also came forth. They were more firmly grounded in factual history and evidence collecting. They offered contributions of their own, making the data, even more, bullet proof. I thank those contributors, also.
Curiously, I thought I would have received this award years ago when the ground-breaking genealogy for this book first was made known. When I last addressed you in Northfield, Minnesota in 2005, though, I was made keenly aware that not everyone wants to deal with the hardcore, dry data, which irrefutable genealogy provides. I will never forget the words of Rex McBeath. Before me and all of you, Rex took dead aim at me and said, “Old Eric there, he’s only interested in who begot who. I’m interested in who be-shot who.” I recognized then that the new history my genealogy research possessed would have to find its audience in some other way. So, this narrative history was begun. Then, one book turned into two books, and quickly into three, and now into four books. For the history book now, and the three yet to come, thank you, Rex McBeath.
I next want to thank Jesse’s great grandson, the late Judge James R. Ross. Jim followed my study intently and avidly. He was always prompting me for the “evidence.” Little did I expect that after I had presented him an abundance of it, Judge Ross would hand me a 10-year sentence. “Why don’t you write a book about our family,” Jim asked. “Everyone writes about Frank and Jesse. No one ever writes about the family.” Meeting the James family, it was quickly clear. The James family had lost its history and its identity. One family line could not recognize another. I thank Jim and his wife Rosemary, and their next generation of Jesse James’ great grandchildren, for all of their continuing support.
This award deserves to be shared with the Jesse James family itself. After 130 years of self-imposed silence and self-inflicted anonymity, they finally broke their silence to recapture their lost identity and to reunite themselves in this effort. By offering me their documents, personally written memoirs, letters, and photos, and by making themselves available for long and intensive interviews, the Jesse James family now self-defines who they are, and what the James family is all about. As no historian can, the James family alone presents us the personality, character, and soul that they genetically share with the two disreputable family members who stigmatized and imprisoned them for so long.
Individually, I’d like to thank Barbara James, daughter of Daniel Lewis James, the Hollywood screenwriter, blacklisted as a Communist by the House on Un-American Activities Committee of the U. S. Congress. When Dan wrote his award-winning book Famous All Over Town, using his assumed pen name of Danny Santiago, Dan James was exposed and additionally brown-listed by the Hispanic literati. Thanks to Barbara’s first-hand testimony, the chapter in my book about Dan James was commissioned to be made into the play produced by Chicago’s Tony-winning Steppenwolf Theater. The award-winning Hispanic playwright Carlos Murillo has written the play and production is pending. Ironically Carlos lives on the same street, two blocks away from where I grew up. Carlos and I share a common belief that some divine hand has directed our works.
Among other descendants of Drury Woodson James, I additionally thank J. Mark Beamis for making me custodian of his mother’s research records. The writings of Joan Beamis show clearly she knew there were much more James family genealogy and history to be known than what she had published in Background of a Bandit. Illness and death overcame Joan’s attempt to write a biographical history of the James family. I’m privileged and grateful to pick up what Joan left uncompleted.
Thanks, too, to Joan’s brother, Father James Burns Malley, a Jesuit priest in Boston. Father Jim provided his biography, showing how those among the James, who intentionally performed good works still became the targets of the government, social persecution, and ostracism – just like their notorious cousins. Like Father Jim, Judge Ross also was made a pariah. When Jim handed down the first judicial decision in America to help gay rights, Judge Ross was driven from his bench by masked political forces. The first purpose of Frank and Jesse to defend people’s rights continues today. For Father Malley and Judge Ross, we all should be grateful.
The many others whom I thank, you will find in the “Acknowledgements” chapter of my book. I’m sorry I could not be with you tonight. When informed of this award ceremony, I already had pre-scheduled commitments. I thank Charlie Broomfield for standing in.
In closing, many among the James family denied me access, as they did before with Joan Beamis. Joan wrote, “I was specifically warned not to try any correspondence at all with any relatives in Missouri.” I was told more strictly, “to mind my business.” Hopefully now, your approval and the imprimatur of your award upon this new history, will serve as a standing invitation to those among the James family, still dis-joined. It’s never too late to hold a family reunion. Without any doubt, there is more Jesse James family history to come.
More than my book, it is the James family who defines Jesse James’ soul liberty. More than my book, it is their stories, their deeds, and their history that represent in no uncertain terms what it means to be American. The James family alone elucidates why Jesse James endures as a cultural America icon.
My thanks to them, and my thanks to you.
* The Perry Award is named after Milton F. Perry, the founder and curator of the Harry S. Truman Library.
Perry also founded and was the first curator of James Farm & Museum in Kearney, Missouri.