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.

The Jesse James farm

Jesse James, Frank James
Jesse James grew up both lucky and unlucky. His father, Baptist preacher Robert Sallee James, owned a prosperous farm in Clay County. His slaves cultivated hemp and other cash crops, and Jesse and his older siblings Frank and Susan grew up in comfort. Robert kept a large library and both his sons became avid readers. Frank loved Shakespeare, while Jesse was more devoted to the Bible and newspapers.

The boys’ luck quickly changed. Although Robert had founded a successful Baptist church and was respected by his neighbors, he wasn’t content. In 1850 he decided to go to the gold fields of California to preach to the miners. Jesse James, then only two years old, clutched his leg and begged him not to go. Robert went anyway, and within a few months had died.

This was a financial disaster for the James family. It turned out Robert had left many debts and some of the family possessions had to be auctioned off. Jesse’s mother Zerelda, a tough Southern woman, married a wealthy farmer named Benjamin Simms, a man twice her age. This saved the financial situation but did not stabilize the children’s lives. Simms rejected his stepchildren and made them move into a relative’s home. Simms soon died by falling off a horse and Zerelda, showing little grief, married mild-mannered physician Reuben Samuel. The children moved back to the farm and Samuel treated them as if they were his own.

All should have gone well, but Clay County was on the border of the Kansas Territory. In the 1850s, there was a bitter fight over whether Kansas would be admitted into the Union as a slave state or a free state. Immigrants from the north arrived armed, ready to make Kansas free, while Missouri “border ruffians” crossed the border to disrupt local elections and skirmish with the Free-Staters. Kansas “Jayhawkers” raided Missouri, freeing slaves and killing slave owners. As slave owners themselves, the James family wanted Kansas to become a slave state. The majority of Missourians agreed with them, although a growing minority were outspoken abolitionists.

%Gallery-108204%Bleeding Kansas, as the fight was called, was the precursor to the Civil War. When the Confederacy formed in 1861, Missouri’s governor and much of the legislature wanted to join, but they met fierce resistance. Soon there were two Missouri state governments on opposite sides of the Civil War. Jesse was still a boy, but Frank was old enough to enlist in the Missouri State Guard, a Confederate outfit. He saw fighting at Wilson’s Creek and Lexington, both Confederate victories, then fell ill and was left behind and captured. Frank swore loyalty to the Union and went home, but when the Unionist state government required that all able-bodied men join a local Union militia, he fled and became a guerrilla under the command of William Quantrill.

Quantrill’s band of guerrillas, often called “bushwhackers”, terrorized Unionist civilians and attacked Union patrols. They became famous for their lightning raids and merciless persecution of Unionist civilians. Their worst atrocity was attacking Lawrence, Kansas, a center of abolitionism, and killing 200 mostly unarmed men and boys.

Everybody knew Frank rode with Quantrill. The local Union militia, the same one Frank had refused to join, showed up at the James farm. They had heard Frank and the bushwhackers were camped nearby. Finding 15 year-old Jesse working in the field, they demanded to know where Frank was. When he refused to tell, they beat him. The militia had better luck with Reuben Samuel. They put a noose around his neck, threw the rope over a high branch, and hauled him up. Just before he passed out, they dropped him back down, then hauled him up again. Eventually Samuel revealed where Frank was. The militia rode off in pursuit, but the bushwhackers got away.

Jesse never forgot that beating, and when he was sixteen he joined the bushwackers. He became one of the toughest of a tough crew and participated in the Centralia Massacre in 1864. His mother Zerelda stayed at home throughout the war, helping her boys on the sly and giving the militia a severe tongue lashing any time they appeared on her property. A local Union commander called her “one of the worst women in the state.”

After that the James farm never knew peace. Frank and Jesse, unable or unwilling to adjust to life after the war, continued their guerrilla activities as outlaws. They lived more or less openly on the farm. Many of their neighbors supported them as loyal Southerners, while others were too afraid to cross them. One night in 1874, a group of Pinkerton detectives, thinking Frank and Jesse were home, snuck up to a window and threw a bomb inside. The explosion mangled Zerelda’s arm and killed eight-year-old Archie Samuel, Frank and Jesse’s half brother.

In 1882 Jesse was assassinated by Robert Ford and Frank gave himself up shortly thereafter. He was found innocent of all charges (this was a time before fingerprinting and CCTV) and settled down to a peaceful life. Zerelda stayed at the farm until her death in 1911, giving tours of the farm for the curious. She even sold pebbles from Jesse’s grave for 25 cents. When she ran out of pebbles, she’d go down to the nearby creek and get some more.

At the James Farm Museum just outside of Kearney you can still buy a pebble from Jesse’s grave, and they still cost 25 cents. The visitor’s center explains the life and times of Frank and Jesse and displays many artifacts from the family. Hidden behind a screen of trees the James farm looks much as it was, lovingly restored in the 1970s by James devotees and filled with family heirlooms. The legend lives on there, as it does in many other spots where the James brothers fought, robbed, and died in Missouri.

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

Coming up next: Jesse James robs his first bank!