Grade Level: Middle School; can also be used for grades 3-5 gifted classes
Approximate length of time: Two-Three 50-minute class periods
Goal: Students will participate in a reader’s theater “The Trial of Jesse James,” in order to understand the conditions in western Missouri during the American Civil War.
Through oral discussion and formal writing, students participating in “The Trial of Jesse James,” will be able to analyze James’ behavior in light of the conditions that existed in western Missouri during the American Civil War.
Download the lesson plan, along with the following materials, at the bottom of this page.
Project the Governor’s Proclamation offering a reward for Jesse James. Have students read the poster and discuss the crimes listed. Ask students what they believe may have caused Jesse James to become a criminal. Discuss.
- Show students the map of Little Dixie. Explain that Jesse James’ family lived in Clay County, Missouri. Why do they think so many people were slaveholders in the middle counties of Missouri, which was known as Little Dixie? Explain the migration of people from Kentucky and Tennessee and point out the proximity of the counties to the river.
- Explain that the class is going to conduct a mock trial as a reader’s theater in order to understand the difficulty of living in Missouri during the 1860’s. For the purpose of the class, James will only be tried for one crime, the murder of Captain Sheets. The characters in the play are real, except for the expert witness Dr. McGeorge. The names of the judge and attorneys are fictional. Emphasize to the students that in reality, Jesse James was never tried for his crimes. Show the section “Wanted Dead or Alive.” By clicking on the word “killed,” the students can see an engraving of Bob Ford shooting Jesse James. Students will be interested to learn that Bob Ford re-enacted the shooting in a traveling stage show and was eventually shot and killed in Colorado.
- Randomly assign student parts. After students have had a few minutes to review their parts, offer them the chance to trade with each other. Ask students to find their parts and circle any words they don’t understand/know how to pronounce. Help clarify those words before beginning.
- Explain to the students that after the play is over, each of them will become a juror and will have to write an opinion as to whether Jesse James was responsible for his behavior or whether he had a mental defect due to the circumstances in his life. Suggest that students may want to underline important facts as they read through the script.
- Rearrange the classroom as a courtroom and show students where to sit.
- Read through the mock trial.
- After the trial, cover the following in your class discussion:
- In the Missouri border wars, what were the opposing sides and what ideas did they represent?
- What were Zerelda’s beliefs regarding slavery?
- How did the actions of the Jayhawkers compare to those of the Bushwackers?
- For what event did Bill Anderson seek revenge?
- What were the steps in the “violentization” of Jesse James?
- Why were some churches in Missouri forced to close during the Civil War?
- Do you feel the Constitutional rights of those Missouri citizens with Southern sympathies were violated? Why or why not? Were the actions of the government justified?
- Organize students into a circle. Act as the jury foreman and help the students discuss the case. Poll the jury several times allowing students to state their opinion as to why Jesse James should or should not be held accountable for the crime. If not, stop when the students have all had a chance to voice their opinion and the discussion has run its course.
Explain that in a murder trial, the jury must be unanimous, but in this case, the majority will rule. Take a final vote to determine the outcome of the trial. Announce the results.
Tie in “The Ballad of Jesse James” reportedly written by minstrel Billy Gashade after James’ death. Use the ballad to discuss yet another perspective on the life of Jesse James.
Stiles, T.J. Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War. New York: Alfred K. Knopf, 2001.