Whittling Down History Tidbits to Add A Little Setting Spice to Your Novel



Jesse James dressed in a Qunatrill’s Raider uniform.

Today I thought I’d share a fun factoid I read while researching my novel. You can’t research the old west and not read about Jesse James. You may know he was an outlaw. He robbed banks for a living. He had been one of Quantrill’s Raiders before and during the Civil War. They were a group of men who attacked free-staters in Kansas. Free-staters were against slavery. Kansas was a territory being settled by those both for and against slavery. The settlers hoped to gain enough population with the same view on slavery in order to sway statehood votes in their direction. Quantrill’s men would burn out anti-slavery towns and murder their residents in hopes of making Kansas a slave state when it sought statehood.


Guerrillas in the Civil War

If not for the Civil War these men would have been arrested and hanged. But the confederacy recruited them. These murderous outlaws became a special guerrilla unit who wreaked havoc on many fronts in support of the war effort.



I was surprised to see how many times Jesse had his picture taken. And yet people rarely identified him as the one who committed the crime.


Robberies no Robin Hood

After the war, Jesse along with his brother Frank formed a gang and began their infamous adventures. The banks and trains the James -Younger gang robbed were believed to be owned by former union officers and other Yankees they felt wronged their family. The former soldiers were now part of the Republican Party and active in Reconstruction. They became the target of revenge for wrongs inflicted on the south. James Edwards, a newspaper reporter painted Jesse as a Robin Hood character. But there is no evidence that the gang ever shared their loot with any in need.

jesse-james-robert-ford-edited-by-matthew-t-raderJesse James was eventually shot and killed in his home by Robert Ford.  Ford, a member of Jesse’s own gang, wanted to claim the $5000 reward the railroad placed on James.

Hiding loot

When visiting Merrimac Caverns with my children years ago, we learned James and his gang hid out in the caverns. And it was believed they hid loot from robberies there, as well. The caverns are a dark and dangerous place and unless you are familiar with the tunnels you could get lost for days.23579635

Women’s clothes

While reading about Inns and how they accommodated travels during post-Civil War America a story was told about Jesses James. Theses Inns were no Holiday Inn. The large room had rows of cots and all the travelers shared the same space. The women might be housed in a separate room.

The story goes, in order to escape capture after a bank robbery, Jesse disguised himself as a woman. He spent the night at a roadside Inn. The Innkeeper thought it odd that the woman insisted on sleeping with her valise. She would allow no one to even touch it. The discovery of the woman’s identity came after Jesse was long gone. I imagine the outlaw’s stay became a great draw for future guests.

Seasoning your story with tidbits from research

I found Jesse’s disguise as a fun addition to my own villain’s escape plan in my novel, Secrets and Charades. Because Evangeline left Missouri to go west, she feared robbery and mentions the James gang as having robbed the bank not too long before she headed west. Just a few tidbits of history from all the volumes of facts I learned to give a feel of place and time.

What interesting factoid have you learned while researching for your book?

Did you find it fascinating or fun?

Did you add it to your story?