The unquiet grave of Jesse James

Jesse James, Frank James, Old West, Wild West, outlaws, Missouri
Jesse James never got any peace. He grew up in western Missouri in the 1850s, where a bitter border war with Kansas was the background to his childhood. He was a teenager when the Civil War started and got beaten up by a Union militia. Eventually he joined a group of Confederate guerrillas, and when the war was lost he was unable or unwilling to return to civilian life. His years as an outlaw were ones of constant struggle, and even after he got assassinated by Robert Ford in St. Joseph, Missouri, he didn’t rest easy.

After his death rumors started circulating that he wasn’t really dead. Some claimed he had murdered someone so he could get away from the police, but Jesse craved publicity and often sent boasting letters to the press. Giving all that up for a life of anonymity doesn’t fit with his character. Some say Robert Ford had in fact killed Wood Hite, Jesse’s cousin. There’s good evidence that he did, but this was a year before he shot Jesse James. In fact, fear over Jesse’s finding out who killed his cousin became one of the main reasons Ford betrayed him.

Other stories claim Ford killed a different man. Both versions would have us believe that Ford was part of a conspiracy to hide Jesse from the law, something Jesse had been doing successfully for almost twenty years. They would also have us believe that all of Jesse’s friends, family, and associates were in on the conspiracy and took the truth to their graves. Jesse’s body was on display in an open casket both in St. Joseph and Kearney and nobody at the time voiced any doubt that the dead man was Jesse.

This didn’t stop a steady string of impostors from hitting the carnival trail looking to make a quick buck. This infuriated Jesse’s surviving relatives and if any of the impostors dared come through Missouri they’d end up face to face with a real member of the James family, and an angry one at that.

%Gallery-108698%Over time these impostors reduced in number, but even as late as the 1930s old men were puttering around telling anyone who’d listen that they were Jesse James. In 1931 a fellow named John James claimed to be Jesse, but when questioned by family members couldn’t answer basic questions about the family, such as the name of Archie, the half-brother killed in the Pinkerton raid on the James farm. Frank James’ wife Annie brought him Jesse’s boots and challenged him to try them on. Jesse had had unusually small feet, and like O.J.’s gloves, the boots didn’t fit.

But John James continued to claim he was Jesse. It only ended when his brother signed an affidavit that John was lying and put him in a mental institution. It turns out John James really had been a an outlaw. Back in 1926, at the age of 79, he’d killed a man who tried to collect a loan of 50 cents!

Then another impersonator appeared. J. Frank Dalton was first brought to the public’s attention in the 1940s by Ray Palmer, editor of the science fiction magazine Amazing Stories and perpetrator of the famous Shaver Mystery, which got thousands of Americans believing that malevolent underground robots were zapping people with mind control rays and sleeping with Earth women. Compared with that, Dalton’s story is almost believable. Well, not really. Dalton played the rodeo circuit claiming to be Jesse and told wild tales of how he was a fighter pilot in World War One at the age of 69. Stretching credibility even further, two of his gang members toured with him. All three claimed to be over 100 years old. Dalton spent his last years doing promotional work for Meramec Caverns in Missouri, celebrating his (alleged) 103rd birthday there along with a Billy the Kid impostor.

In 1950 Dalton went to court to change his name back to Jesse James. The judge made the wise ruling that: “There is no evidence here to show that this gentleman, if he ever was Jesse James, has ever changed his name. If his name has never been changed, he is still Jesse James in name and there is nothing for this court to pass on. . .If he isn’t what he professes to be, then he is trying to perpetrate a fraud upon this court.” Dalton died the next year.

Jesse James wasn’t the only person who attracted impostors. His wife Zee and brother Frank had their share of impostors too. It didn’t take much to get a media frenzy going, and there was easy cash to be taken from the gullible. This is common with important historical figures. Everyone from Bloody Bill Anderson to Hitler have accumulated stories of their survival. It seems we don’t want to let these people go, even if we actually want them dead.

All these stories caused no end of headaches for the James family. At first Jesse was buried at the James Farm in order to keep the grave safe from relic hunters. Eventually he was moved to the family plot at Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Kearney, Missouri. Doubts about who was really in the grave lingered, however, until in 1995 his remains were exhumed and subjected to DNA testing. When compared with the DNA living descendants, it was found that the body was, indeed, Jesse James. Descendants of some of the hoaxers were on hand for the results, and they insist the DNA tests don’t prove anything. Stories continue to circulate about how Jesse James survived his assassination.

The legend lives on. . .

Don’t miss the rest of my series: On the trail of Jesse James.

Jesse James robs his first bank

Jesse James, Liberty bank, James gang, Frank James, jesse jamesThe Civil War was over. In Missouri, defeated Confederate soldiers trudged home and tried to pick up their lives. This was harder in Missouri than many states. Many discovered their land had been seized during the war for nonpayment of taxes, and now Union veterans farmed their fields. New Missouri laws forbade ex-Confederates from voting, holding public office, teaching, or even preaching. Former rebels were left bitter and marginalized.

Former guerrillas like Frank and Jesse James felt even more bitter. Their war had been more brutal than most people’s, and adjusting to defeat and peacetime wasn’t in their nature. Jesse bore at least three wounds from the war. The tip of the middle finger of his left hand had been shot off. The most accepted story of how this happened was that he shot it off himself while loading a pistol. Being a good Baptist, Jesse wouldn’t swear even in this situation, and shouted out “Dingus!”, which became his nickname for the rest of his life. The second injury was a bullet through the chest courtesy of a German immigrant who objected to having his saddle stolen.

The third injury is a source of mystery. In 1865, as the war was winding down, Jesse got shot through the lung. Some reports say he got this in a gunfight, but Jesse himself later spread the story that he was shot by Union troops while trying to surrender at the end of the war. This story served two purposes: it made him look like the victim of Yankee oppression, and it acted as an alibi for the first daylight bank robbery in the United States in peacetime.

At 2pm on February 13, 1866, it was snowing in Liberty, Missouri. The Clay County Savings Association was open as usual. The bank’s cashier, Greenup Bird, sat at his desk. His son William sat at another desk to his left. Nobody else was in the bank when two men wearing Union army overcoats walked in and warmed their hands by the stove. After a moment one went up to the counter and asked for change for a ten-dollar bill. William got up to help the customer and was greeted with a pistol pointed at his face. The other man also drew his revolver and both leapt over the counter, telling the astonished father and son that they better be quiet or else.

%Gallery-108291%One robber gave William a smack with his gun and pushed him into the vault, demanding the money. Meanwhile the second robber told Greenup to give him the cash on his desk. Once they’d taken all the money, the robbers pushed the two bank workers into the vault and shut the door. They neglected to lock it, however, and after a few tense moments Greenup and William came out, opened a window, and shouted that the bank had been robbed.

At that moment a group of about a dozen mounted men galloped past. One fired at a pedestrian who was also sounding the alarm. This was George Wymore, a student at Liberty College. Ironically, one of the founders of this college was none other than Robert Sallee James, Frank and Jesse’s father. The bullet tore through George’s body and he fell to the sidewalk dead.

Townspeople quickly formed a posse, but the robbers got away. Back at the bank, Greenup and William tallied their losses: almost $60,000, more than $3.5 million in today’s value. There was no insurance in those days, no FDIC. Many farmers and merchants lost their life savings. Greenup and William lost their jobs when the bank failed.

Everyone thought that ex-guerrillas had done the deed. The robbers’ trail led to a crossing of the Missouri River frequently used by bushwhackers during the war. Plus everyone knew the guerrillas rode fine horses and carried revolvers just like the robbers had. Several suspects were named, all former members of the bushwhacker band of Bloody Bill Anderson. Frank and Jesse were part of that band too. Most scholars of the James gang are convinced that Frank helped rob the bank that day, but did Jesse? The two leading James biographers disagree. Ted Yeatman, author of Frank and Jesse James: The Story Behind the Legend, thinks Jesse was still bedridden from his lung wound. T.J. Stiles, author of Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War, thinks Jesse exaggerated the seriousness of his injury in order to have an alibi for his early crimes.

Whatever the truth, the robbery has become part of the Jesse James legend. The Jesse James Bank Museum in Liberty has restored the bank to what it was like in 1866, complete with the original vault and safe. An easy day trip from Kansas City and the Jesse James farm at Kearney, it offers a glimpse into a time when the wounds of the Civil War were still raw.

So what was the war like for Frank and Jesse James? We’ve already looked at Jesse James in the Civil War, but what was it like for his older brother Frank, who was in the war from the very beginning? Come back tomorrow for that part of the story.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: On the trail of Jesse James.

Coming up next: Frank James: the war years!