By the latter part of the nineteenth century train robberies had become big business among western outlaws. During one period trains were being robbed on an average of one every four days. The Union Pacific Railroad created a special posse that rode the trains carrying a large payroll. Another car carried their mounts so the posse could hit the ground running. Private detective agencies like Pinkerton’s were hired to use any means necessary to run the outlaws into the ground.
Common people generally despised Banks and railroads, especially in the West following the Civil War. They saw them as high-handed, public-be-damned, oppressive bullies who took advantage of the common folk. In a time known as the “Era of Good Stealing,” they read about the Credit Mobilier and Boss Tweed scandals where millions of dollars were stolen from American taxpayers. A band of outlaws robbing a bank or train for a mere $10,000 didn’t seem like much in comparison. They cheered openly for those who tweaked the nose of corporate America. This gave rise to what is known as social banditry. Many saw outlaws as Robin Hoods and provided outlaws on the lam with food and fresh horses. The myth of the social bandit began with a man named Jesse James, and a journalist named John Newman Edwards.
There has always been a great deal of appeal for the social outcast, the figure who was wronged by corporate America, the railroads or banks and turned to outlawry to fight injustice. No outlaw fits this Robin Hood image more perfectly than Jesse James. Along with a friendly newspaper editor named John Newman Edwards, Jesse acted as his own press agent. In reality, he bore little resemblance to the Robin Hood legend. Like many, he was the product of an era that spawned a breed that couldn’t, or wouldn’t return to a normal life after the War.
The James-Younger gang was the most celebrated of all the western outlaw bands. Their bold and daring robberies made them legends in their own time, and inspired a whole slew of imitators.