Best-Known American Badman...
Jesse James Still Lives in Tradition and Legend
by David Dary
Joplin Globe, April 3, 1972.
By David Dary, School of Journalism, University of Kansas for the Associated Press
KANSAS CITY - Jesse Woodson James, outlaw, died on
April 3, 1882. On that day, as Bill Gashade's song tells, "Robert
Ford came along like a thief in the night, and laid poor Jesse in his
That was 90 years ago.
Today the story of Jesse James is larger than
life. The James legend exceeds James the man. Jesse James
is perhaps the best known badman in all America.
More than 500 books and pamphlets have been written
about him, plus a dozen motion pictures and a television series.
In Jesse James country -- Northwest Missouri --
Jesse is alive in tradition and legend, thanks to private
enterprise. There is the house where Jesse James was born, a
restored bank museum where the James boys are said to have pulled the
first daylight bank hold-up in America, and the house where Jesse was
killed. A few miles away is the grave where he is buried.
For the traveler who starts early, all of these sites can be seen in one day.
Along Highway 169 on the south side of St. Joseph,
Mo., is the frame house where Jesse James was shot in the back by Bob
Ford. Ray Miller owns the house, which has been in its present
location 33 years. It was moved there in 1938 from a high bluff
on the east side of town. Today it is next door to the Jesse
"Several hundred persons visit the house each week," according to Miller.
It is an unpainted dirty-black frame structure
preserved by linseed oil. There is no indication that the house
was painted white, with green shutters, in Jesse James' life.
Just inside, visitors, who pay the admittance fee,
see a framed piece of embroidery that reads "God Bless Our Home."
Miller said that Jesse was straightening such a frame, standing on a
chair, when Bob Ford pulled his gun and shot him.
Below the frame is the bullet hole. Now under
glass, it is probably 10 times its original size. Before the
glass was installed many years ago, souvenir hunters cut, tore and
chipped away pieces of plaster until today only a corner of what
apparently was the original bullet hole can be seen. It is marked
by black crayon.
Leaving the house where Jesse James died, your next
stop may be Kearney, Mo., -- along the Jesse James trail. It is
about 45 miles away.
The first stop in Kearney is Mount Olivet Cemetery,
just west of the intersection of Missouri 33 and 92. Jesse James
is buried there in the family plot along with his wife, mother,
stepfather and halfbrother.
The grave is on the west side of the cemetery in the
afternoon shade of two evergreen trees. Jesse James was buried
there early in this century. Before that his body rested under a
large coffee bean tree at the James farm home, the next stop.
The James farm home is about 3 miles northeast of
Kearney. Following M-92 through Kearney, travelers will soon see
a large white sign with black letters directing them to the James farm.
The farm house is not visible from the road.
But as the visitor turns through a gate and follows the gravel road to
the top of a knoll, the James farm home appears, nestled in a grove of
At the gate the visitor usually meets one of two
grandsons of Jesse James. On Sundays both grandsons, Lawrence H.
Barr, 69, and Forster R. Barr, 67, team up to conduct tours. The
farm is still owned by the daughter-in-law of Frank James, Mrs. Mae
James, who now lives in a nursing home.
The log part of the home was built in 1882, and the
2-story east wing was added in 1893. The stump of an old coffee
bean tree in the southwest corner of the yard, you are told, is where
Jesse James' stepfather, Dr. Reuben Samuel, was hanged by some "home
guards" in the early 1860s. Mrs. Samuel cut him down before he
died and he lived to be an old man.
Nearby is where the body of Jesse James was first buried in 1882.
After paying an entrance fee, visitors to the house
are told by the Barr brothers about Jesse James and the family's
history as they tour the kitchen, sitting room and bedroom in the east
Leaving the James farm home the last stop along the
Jesse James trail is Liberty, Mo., about a 20-minute drive south on
Following the signs it is easy to find the bank
Museum located on the northwest corner of the public square in the
Inside the green-shuttered red brick building was
the first daylight bank holdup in the United States. The date was
February 13, 1866, as noted on an outside wall plaque. It was
placed there by the Liberty Chamber of Commerce in 1958. The
robbery is attributed to the James gang.
Jack B. Wymore owns and operates the bank
museum. It was opened in the spring of 1966, one hundred years
after the outlaw gang strode across the plank floor and escaped with
perhaps as much as $72,000 in cash and bonds.
Wymore pointed out that as far as is known, none of the cash taken in the robbery was ever recovered.
For a small admittance fee visitors can see the
results of Wymore's painstaking efforts to restore the bank as it
existed at the time of the robbery.
It was here in the Liberty bank building that Jesse
James launched his career that ended 90 years ago on April 3, 1882, in
a small house at St. Joseph, Mo.