The other day, as I was reading Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove, I had a revelation. If Henry James Sr., the father of the novelist Henry James and the philosopher and psychologist William James, had started calling his sons Billy and Hank, there's no way they would have grown up to become hyper-intelligent, effete scholars - the authors of Portrait of a Lady and The Varieties of Religious Experience respectively. In fact, the hypothetical Hank and Billy James more likely would have been legendary, hyper-intelligent bank robbers, mainly because these names are startlingly similar to that other set of famous James brothers – the outlaws Frank and Jesse.
Curiousity (and idleness) got the better of me, and I looked all four of these guys up on Wikipedia. Both sets of brothers lived at approximately the same time; they were all born in the 1840s, entered adulthood during the American civil war, and lived through the wildest days of the outlaw west. Frank and Jesse James fought for the Confederacy in the Civil war, and became outlaws afterwards. In 1876, a failed bank robbery in Northfield, Minnesota left most of the gang dead or captured, except for Frank and Jesse. Aside from one final heist, the James brothers essentially retired from crime. In 1882, Jesse James was murdered in his home by a friend – an event which was later reimagined in Ron Hansen’s novel The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. After his brother’s murder, Frank James turned himself in, but coasted on his reputation for many years after.
By contrast, William and Henry James were born to a wealthy Boston family and did not fight in the Civil War. Two of their other brothers, however, fought for the Union. Some scholars suggest that William was not healthy enough to join the war effort, but in The Metaphysical Club, Louis Menand intimates that Henry James Sr. tried to prevent his smartest two sons from serving in the military, protecting his substantial financial investments in their future. Unlike those other James brothers, the lives of William and Henry James only begin to get interesting in 1880s. William James’ education was repeatedly interrupted by a strange, undefined illness; he only earned his M.D. in 1869 after nearly a decade as a graduate student. He traveled a lot and wrote sporadically until 1870 or so. He married in 1878, became a full professor at Harvard University in 1885, and wrote his best works around the turn of the century. Henry James dropped out of law school, traveled a lot, and moved to Europe permanently around 1880. He wrote his best novels there- Portrait of a Lady, Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, and The Golden Bowl, among others— and only returned to the United States twenty-five years later. Henry James never married or even seemed to have a romantic life of any sort, people continue to speculate about his sexuality to this very day.
All this leads me to one very obvious, yet startling conclusion: William and Henry James and Frank and Jesse James are one and the same. That’s right, in the 1860s, young William and Henry James, upset with their father for refusing to let them fight in the civil war, fell back on their tremendous wealth, positions of privilege and substantial intelligence to craft false identities for themselves, and then used these identities to perpetrate some of the most daring bank and train robberies in American history. If the James brothers were smart enough to write some of the canonical texts in American literature, they easily could have falsified a few documents here and there, especially by civil war era standards. As a career academic and a professional writer, William and Henry James had the independence to travel whenever and wherever they liked – providing the perfect cover story for a string of heists and a matched set of double lives.
After the botched bank robbery in Minnesota, they probably realized that notorious bank robbers rarely have the option to retire quietly, and decided to devote themselves to their academic pursuits full-time. Henry/Jesse James was married with small children by this time, and had developed a reputation as a notorious, Robin Hood-stylized desperado and a ruthless killer to boot. There was simply no way Henry/Jesse James could simply return to Massachusetts without being recognized, put on trial, and convicted, so he convinced Robert Ford to help stage his murder and abandoned his family. He moved to London, where he could evade criminal punishment and focus on writing his novels. After spending years writing while on horseback, hiding from the law, in between protracted gunfights, or worse yet, while raising two small children, Henry/Jesse James’ writing blossomed in much calmer surroundings. Faking his death offered Henry/Jesse James the opportunity to come to terms with his latent homosexuality as well. After spending years with every variety of old west prostitute trying to figure himself out, Henry/Jesse James also probably contracted some terrible strain of syphilis that rendered him impotent, but still had to keep it a secret from all but his closest friends for the rest of his life.
William/Frank James, had not developed quite the same reputation as his younger brother. He was certain that he could convince a jury to acquit him. Five months after Henry/Jesse’s “murder,” Frank/William surrendered his guns to the Missouri governor, with the understanding that he would be tried only in the post-civil war south – where he could rely on influential friends, tremendous economic resources, and local sympathy for his fabricated background as a Confederate soldier to get acquitted. Then, shedding his identity like a snake, William/Frank James returned to Harvard University, and after spending years as an instructor and low-level assistant professor at Harvard, and developed into one of the most pre-eminent minds of the century. William/Frank’s attempts to come to terms with his participation in numerous murders largely informed his later writings on spirituality and religion in The Varieties of Religious Experience. His attitude towards religion in general shows his sociopathic side as well. As religious conservatives have argued for years, any man who attempts to examine the psychological underpinnings of religious belief must have no moral values of his own. This was clearly the case of William/Frank James. But with his brother in hiding, and most of his gang long dead, William/Frank couldn’t help but feel nostalgic for his days as a bank robber, often adopting the guise of the legendary outlaw Frank James in isolated appearances as a railway ticket-taker or horse race promoter.
But the James brothers couldn’t have pulled this off without the help of two of the most powerful institutions in America. After all, they didn’t even bother to change their last names for their alternate lives. When Harvard higher-ups discovered that two of their proudest graduates had led double lives as sociopathic killers, they covered it up. It would have damaged Harvard's reputation considerably to admit that two of their best and brightest products, led double lives as homicidal criminals. But what institution could provide them better cover than the wealthiest, and most lauded American institution of higher education? Further, it would have damaged the U.S.’s international reputation to admit the same, especially in the aftermath of the civil war. William James, after all, was friendly with Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. Admitting that William James was a fugitive from justice would hang a shroud of doubt on the highest institutions of American democracy as well. Rumor has it that the American government protected the James brothers for the rest of their lives, even censoring a train robbery plotline from early drafts of The Ambassadors.
At its best, this theory sounds like the plot of a Thomas Pynchon novel. At it’s worst, it seems like the plot of National Treasure 3 (any film series that begins with the proposition that there’s a treasure map on the back of the Constitution would have no problem with William and Henry James burying treasure in the Old West). But one thing’s for certain: there’s more truth to my theory than anything in Holy Blood, Holy Grail or The Da Vinci Code.