Could Bobby Brady have really met the son of somebody who was murdered by Jesse James? Just how realistic was that episode of The Brady Bunch?
If you’re like me, and you used to obsess over The Brady Bunch as a kid, you may have had a fleeting thought or two about whether the show was completely off kilter or maybe onto something. After all, the episode “Bobby’s Hero” aired on February 2, 1973. Jesse James died on April 3, 1882.
So is it possible that the son of a victim of Jesse James could have visited the Brady household? Was The Brady Bunch accurate when it comes to the history of Mr. James that it provides in the episode?
Well, we shall see.
Today's "TV Lesson" Breakdown:
A Little About The Brady Bunch Episode, “Bobby’s Hero”
The episode unfolds like this: Bobby writes a composition for class, in which he is supposed to pick somebody as his hero. He picks – Jesse James.
The school's principal calls Mike and Carol in for a conference. They all have an interesting discussion about glorifying bad behavior. You can kind of see that they're all sort of dusting themselves off from the raucous 1960s.
"It disturbs me when impressionable children like Bobby read books and see movies that glorify men like Jesse James and turn them into folk heroes," Mr. Hillary says.
When Carol says she is surprised that Bobby would choose Jesse James as something of a role model, Mr. Hillary says, "Well, don't be, Mrs. Brady. Look what's happening today. The press write stories about gangsters and skyjackers. They make them seem very glamorous in the eyes of the children."
(By mentioning skyjackers, I wonder if Mr. Hillary was thinking of D.B. Cooper, who had jumped from a plane just two years earlier.)
"Right," Mike says. "Today's criminals will probably be tomorrow's folk heroes."
Mike and Carol have a talk with Bobby. Well, the long and short of it is that Bobby thinks the principal and his parents are wrong, and that Jesse James was absolutely a great, cool guy, sort of a modern day Robin Hood who, yeah, stole stuff, but he gave back a lot of it to the poor.
Later in the episode, when it's clear that Bobby isn't changing his mind about Jesse James and apparently imagining their youngest son someday turning to a life of a crime, Mike decides he has had enough. He starts reading up on Jesse James to make a case that this was one bad guy with a gun -- and even tracks down the author of a book about the outlaw and invites him to the house to have a talk with Bobby.
This is why Mike Brady is one of television’s best dads ever. He really raises the bar for all of us parents out there, trying our level best but often falling short, certainly by Brady standards. To my utter shame, I have never invited an author of a book to our house to give a presentation to my daughters.
Bobby Meets Mr. Collins
So Mr. Brady invites Jethroe Collins to the Brady residence, though we never hear the author’s first name (in the credits, he’s listed as Jethroe Collins).
Mike introduces Bobby and says to his son, “I think you're going to find this gentleman very interesting. Did you know that his father actually knew Jesse James?”
“He did?” Bobby asks. “Wow, am I glad to meet you!”
It was probably a stretch for Mike Brady to say that Mr. Collins’ dad knew Jesse James, since it sounds like their encounter lasted maybe several unpleasant seconds, but okay. Anyway, the conversation went like this:
Mr. Collins: I hear Jesse's a hero of yours.
Bobby Brady: I wrote a whole composition about him for school.
Mr. Collins: I wrote a whole book about Jesse James, only he wasn't a hero to me.
Bobby Brady: He wasn't?
Mr. Collins: Nope, Jesse James killed my father.
Bobby Brady: He did?
Mr. Collins: Shot him in the back. That's how he usually shot them, too cowardly to face them, I guess.
Bobby Brady: I can't believe that, Mr. Collins.
Carol injects with: He's telling the truth, Bobby.
Mr. Collins: Son, you know the legends; I know the facts.
Mike Brady: Mr. Collins, why don't you tell Bob about how it was with your father?
Mr. Collins: Well, I was just a little boy at the time. My father was riding a train to California. Jesse James held it up.
Bobby Brady: Did they have a shootout?
Mr. Collins: Well, wasn't much of a shootout -- my father, with his face to the wall, his hands in the air, and not wearing a gun.
Bobby Brady: Then why'd Jesse shoot him?
Mr. Collins: Because that's the kind of man that Jesse James was, a mean dirty killer. My mother used to cry about it in her sleep. When I was old enough to understand, I used to have nightmares about it myself. Awful nightmares -- about that train robbery.
After that harrowing conversation
Bobby, as all fans will recall, goes to bed and that night and then has his own awful nightmare.
Rewatching the scene now, I’m stunned with how effective it still is – and it shouldn’t be. The Bradys are inside a train that looks like something you might see in a high school play. I’m sure the set designers figured they could get away with it; he’s dreaming, after all, and so the train doesn’t have to look completely realistic.
But what really strikes me now is that when Jesse James shoots the Brady family (except for Bobby) in cold blood, he shouts, “Bang!”
Think about that. This actor who is dressed as Jesse James is not firing off a gun, where we see bullets whizzing out of it, or hearing a terrifying gunshot. No, he is shouting, “Bang.”
"Bang! Bang, bang, bang!"
This terrified me as a kid.
And it almost makes me kind of nauseous to watch the scene now, as an adult.
That’s because when the girls scream, they truly sound terrified, and even though the Bradys do these dramatic, exaggerated deaths, Bobby truly looks horrified. And Jesse James looks gleeful as he kills this family.
It’s definitely the most unnerving scene in The Brady Bunch series (granted, it’s a low bar to cross). I can kind of imagine then 9-year-old and future movie director Quentin Tarantino scribbling on his pad of paper, watching this episode and taking notes.
By the way, we learn in the dream sequence that Bobby received only a C+ for his paper on Jesse James.
So how was the Jesse James history in “Bobby’s Hero”?
Yes, let’s finally get to that.
Well, as noted earlier, Jesse James died on April 3, 1882, and “Bobby’s Hero” aired on February 2, 1973. Mr. Collins would have had to be – bare minimum – a 91-year-old. But since he describes himself as a little boy when the incident happened, let’s assume that he was at least two years old when his dad was murdered.
OK, well, as late as 1881, Jesse James was robbing trains, and so if Jethroe Collins was a two-year-old, he was born in 1879, and he would have been a 94-year-old author talking to Bobby, Mike and Carol. So I’m happy to report that while it may seem to strain credulity that Mike Brady could find the son of a murder victim of Jesse James in 1973, it was definitely a plausible scenario that Sherwood Schwartz and writer Michael Morris came up with.
Now, Jesse James’ last train robbery was on September 7, 1881. It was a robbery near Glendale, Missouri, but there don’t seem to be any stories of people being gunned down.
However, a train robbery on July 15, 1881, was another story. People did die during that train robbery. I’d say that Mr. Collins’ dad was on a train near Winston, Missouri, when he was gunned down. The train line that the James gang robbed and that Mr. Collins was probably on (yes, for the purposes of this exercise, I’m assuming that the Bradys are real and that this all really happened) was the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad.
At the time, I don’t think it went directly to the Pacific Ocean, but Mr. Collins’ dad could have definitely been on the train, planning to hook up to another train and make it to California.
In any case, on July 15, 1881, two men were killed (three if Jethroe’s dad was aboard and somehow his death didn’t make the papers).
William Westfall was the train's conductor and told to hold up his hands, according to The Saint Joseph Weekly Gazette, which reported on the incident on July 21. Unfortunately, Westfall was a little slow in complying – and shot through the heart. John McCullough was a stone cutter from Wilton Junction, Iowa. The poor guy turned in his seat, probably to see what the commotion was as the James gang boarded the train, and he, too, was shot through the head.
Was Jesse James the ruthless killer that The Brady Bunch made him out to be?
Yes, with some caveats. Jesse James didn’t have a reputation for shooting people in the back, the way Mr. Collins made it sound and as The Brady Bunch in general describes. I assume Mr. Collins understandably held a grudge against the outlaw for what he did to his father and may have assumed the worst of Mr. James.
That said, Jesse James was not a nice guy – and he did kill people without just cause – and thus he deserves Mr. Collins’ wrath and The Brady Bunch's derision. I’m just not so sure there’s a lot of evidence that he lined people up and shot them in the back. For instance, during the first James-Younger bank robbery in 1866, a 17-year-old boy, George Wymore, was caught in the crossfire.
But that was an accident. In fact, Jesse James wrote a letter of condolence to George’s mother, apologizing for the incident, and that apparently helped give him that “Robin Hood” type persona that Bobby Brady latched onto.
On the other hand, on December 7, 1869, the James gang rode into Gallatin, Missouri, and held up the Daviess Country Savings Association – and purposely shot John Sheets, a guy he mistook for Major Samuel Cox, someone James disliked from his days in the Civil War.
But there is no lengthy list of people who Jesse James shot, and if we assume or pretend that Mr. Collins’ dad was there and killed by James, it may well have been his gang than Mr. James himself. He wasn’t Billy the Kid, who once bragged about killing 21 men but probably had his hand in nine deaths.
Still, Jesse James was no saint. The letter to Mrs. Wymore aside, James wasn’t Robin Hood, and there’s no evidence that the money he stole went anywhere but himself and his gang.
Interestingly enough, though: Jesse James died because he was shot from behind.
In any case, Mike and Carol – and Bobby’s principal – were right to be concerned. Bobby could have done better picking a hero to admire. There's no shortage of people he could have chosen to write a composition about. If he wanted to focus on a hero of the American west, he could picked Wyatt Earp, the legendary sheriff, or the Apache leader Geronimo or maybe Little House on the Prairie's Laura Ingalls.
On the other hand, Bobby was a good kid, and I doubt very much that in a family like the Bradys, his fondness for Jesse James was going to lead him anywhere close to a life of crime. Maybe Mike and Carol should have been more worried about his C+ and hired a writing tutor.
Articles similar to this one: If you found this interesting, you may enjoy reading about The Brady Bunch – and when the practice of doctors made house calls stopped. Or may want to check out this look at Bloodlust!, a pretty cheesy 1961 horror movie starring none other than Robert Reed, a.k.a., Mike Brady.