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Book Review 240: The Love Pirate and the Bandit's Son

July 12, 2012 - Harry Eagar
THE LOVE PIRATE AND THE BANDIT'S SON: Murder, Sin, and Scandal in the Shadow of Jesse James, by Laura James. 306 pages, illustrated. Union Square, $19.95

Although forgotten now, Zeo Zoe Wilkins was the Nicole Brown Simpson of her day, a gold-digging easy lay whose savagely beaten and bloody body was discovered in her own home, setting off a nationwide news furor, although no one was convicted.

In fact, in Wilkins' case, no one was even tried.

It was an all-American crime, and author Laura James, a lawyer, is a good person to tell about it, because peculiarities of the law are important.

Born dirt poor, Wilkins' career ran a hectic quarter-century until 1924. James could have made more of the setting. Wilkins was a gold-digger, and gold-diggers and vamps were a preoccupation of the time. James does not go into why, but it no doubt had a lot to do with unease about the independence of the modern girl – with her own career, own home, own money and own husbands – five for Zeo Wilkins.

Beautiful in a hobble-skirt kind of way – James says she never opened her mouth to smile for photographers because her teeth were bad – Wilkins was ruthless about getting ahead.

With limited opportunities, she choose osteopathy as her opening. James could have penned an amusing discursion about the Still osteopath school, run by one of the great American quacks; but while James does not always deny herself excursions, she does here.

Wilkins' prey were small fish, go-getters in the oil boom towns of Oklahoma, later in Colorado and Missouri. An affair with a Joplin banker got her publicity as a scarlet woman from coast to coast and a fortune.

The ins and outs of her career are too complicated to recount here, but by 1924 she was a fading alcoholic who needed a lawyer in Kansas City. She hired Jesse James Jr. (Wilkins seems to have been drinking three bottles a day of Jamaica Ginger, a patent medicine that contained a neurotoxin that in heavy users paralyzed the extremities, leading to a malady known in the Southwest, where Jamaica Ginger was popular, as jake-foot; but Laura James does not describe the implications of being a Jamaica Ginger drunk; it might also have contributed to Wilkins' irrational behavior even more than regular booze.)

The son of the Missouri badman had had a rocky career of his own and was broke after sinking big money in a movie about his father's Civil War deeds. By the time they met, he was a fixer for the Klan and, apparently, one of the worst lawyers in the history of Kansas City. Laura James (no relation) says women murderers got a free pass in the widest-open town in America, and in a generation only one was ever convicted – the one defended by James.

Even Harry Truman has a walk-on role here.

To sum up, somebody killed Wilkins for bonds, stocks and diamonds that may or may not have been in her house, and Laura James thinks it was Jesse James Jr., who shortly after had a breakdown.


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