A poker game with Jesse James


I’m now past the halfway point of my workshop series which has student produce creative writing pieces through the lens of family stories.

Some weeks have been difficult. My teen and tween students have found it particularly challenging to ferret out stories from their families’ pasts and then retell them in a voice that is fresh and creative.

This week I decided to throw them a lifeline; their assignment is to imagine an ancestor who met or interacted with a famous person from history.

Of course, some of my students have ancestors who did interact with famous people. One of my student’s father’s had a chance encounter and personal exchange with Pope John Paul II. Another student had a relative who met Wolfman Jack. Those students are allowed to write about those events—though I also gave them the option to take the initial option of imagining an unknown ancestor who met a famous historical figure, which would allow them a greater flight of fancy.

So, this becomes a “what if?” exercise. What if your ancestor was Joan of Arc’s jailor? Or was apprenticed to Leonardo da Vinci? Or acted in William Shakespeare’s company of players? Or worked in the court of Genghis Khan? Or . . . well, you get the idea!

I have a moment in my own family history in which an ancestor met a famous person. My great-great-grandfather, George Washington Richard (Dick) Spoonemore, is said to have played poker with Jesse James. In a previous post, I told the story of how George survived the aftermath of the American Civil War by eating “pizen” tomatoes, but did not cover the episode of him meeting Jesse James because it didn’t really fit into that narrative.


Apparently, the meeting between George and Jesse took place after my great-great-grandfather was captured by the Confederate army and placed in a prison camp. As the story was related by my Great-Aunt Hazel (George’s granddaughter), George met a young fellow who was slim, tall, and good-looking, with black hair and flashing black eyes. It was the man who was to become the famous outlaw, Jesse James. According to my great-great-grandfather, the future folk hero was good-natured and fun-loving and, at that time, about eighteen years old. “Just a kid,” he said. He also said that Jesse James was one of the “nicest young fellers” he had ever met. As far as my great-great-grandfather was concerned, Jesse James was driven to outlawry by the railroad officials, and their cruelty, and land grabbing.

Now, by this information, I have to assume that Jesse James was one of my great-great-grandfather’s guards while he was in prison, because historical fact is that Jesse James fought for the south and our family account is that George fought for the North. Of course, the entire story of the meeting between the two could be fabricated. I’m not sure how the story of them playing poker fits into the overall tale. Maybe that’s just an embellishment!

Well, I’ve been trying to write the assignments that I give to my students, but I feel I’ve already given George his due, so I’m going to work on something a bit more whimsical. Time to roll up me sleeves and get to work!

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