Dead Outlaw Has Historians On Edge of Their Seats
Springfield NewsLeader  July 17, 1995

MIKE O'BRIEN

    Folks from one end of the Ozarks to the other are interested in what scientists might find today when they dig up remains said to be those of outlaw Jesse James in a graveyard north of Kansas City.

    In Pineville, residents are curious to see if the exhumation will ruin the ending of a 1930s movie made in and around that quaint community in the southwest corner of the state.

    Watching from Stanton on the northern edge of the Ozarks are 73-year-old Francena Turilli, who operates the Jesse James Wax Museum, and her son, Les, whose Meramec Caverns is reputed to have been one of the James Gang's hideouts.

    Meanwhile, some Minnesotans who recently weathered a controversy concerning Jesse James have sage advice for Missourians.

    Details:

    Pineville's annual Jesse James Days festival, scheduled for Aug. 23-26 this year, memorializes the summer and autumn of 1938, when Hollywood producer Darryl F. Zanuck brought rising stars Henry Fonda, Tyrone Power, Randolph Scott, Brian Donlevy, John Carradine and Nancy Kelly to McDonald County to film "Jesse James," one of the first grand-scale westerns shot in Technicolor.

    Twentieth Century-Fox has reissued the movie on video.  The tape jacket describes the feature as "a box-office sensation in 1939...one of the greatest screen westerns ever made."  It also claims: "There were many hardships on the set.  Nearly the entire cast and crew became ill, and Power, Fonda, and several costars were injured."
   
    The "hardships" hoopla arches Larry Bradley's eyebrows.  "That kind of surprises me," says the data-processing director at the Missouri Habilitation Center at Nevada who has documented the film shoot in a book, "The Making of a Legend."

    Bradley's dad, Curt, 69, who still lives in Pineville, was an extra in the movie.  From him and other old-timers, Bradley believes he's learned virtually all the details of the filming.  Bradley also extensively interviewed the director, Henry King, before his death in 1982.

    "Nobody said anything about illnesses or injury - not to two-legged actors, anyway," Bradley says.  "One thing that did happen was that a horse was killed in a scene where the James brothers jump off a bluff into a river.  Somebody sneaked onto the set with a 16-millimeter camera and got some unauthorized footage.  Then the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Animals got ahold of it.  It caused a major uproar in the industry, and was the last time animals were treated that way in Hollywood films."

    Pineville's Jesse James Days festival includes a carnival, parade, talent contest and, of course, a screening of the movie - which ends with Jesse gunned down at home in St. Joseph by turncoat gang member Bob Ford, enticed by a $5,000 reward and promise of a pardon by Gov. T. T. Crittenden.

    The scientists scheduled today to dig up what are supposed to be Jesse's bones are trying to settle a persistent legend that the 1882 assassination was a hoax.  As that tale goes, another fellow was laid to rest in Jesse's grave while the outlaw himself lived on under aliases until 1951.

    If the investigation, including DNA testing, proves someone else has been buried beneath Jesse's tombstone all these years, it will be welcome news to the Turilli family.

    The late Rudy Turilli, husband to Francena and father to Les, claimed to have encountered the real Jesse still alive in 1948.  "He had all the proper identification and everything," says Francena, who for more than 30 years has displayed documentation of her husband's research, along with undisputed James Gang artifacts, at her wax museum just off Interstate 44 an hour this side of St. Louis.

    "Needless to say, we hope it's not Jesse in that grave," says Les, whose cave, while spectacular in its own right as a geological formation, is heavily advertised as a former James Gang hideout.

    The exhumation of the grave has caused extra interest among visitors in recent days at both tourist attractions, the Turillis report.

    "Several visitors have made remarks about it to my employees," says Les, "and we've had about six phone calls inquiring about Jesse's connection to Meramec Caverns."  His mom, too, has been fielding inquiries:: "I even got a call from the Netherlands the other day, wondering if I knew what was going on with the grave," she says.

    Watching all this from afar, but with keen interest, are residents of Northfield, Minn., where would-be bank robbers identified as the James Gang were routed by townsfolk in 1876.

    Northfield, too, has an annual festival, Defeat of Jesse James Days, held the weekend after Labor Day.  So Northfieldians were understandably upset a few months ago when an outside historian claimed to have deduced that Jesse didn't participate in the bank attack.

    "But our local historians pretty well ripped his theory apart," says a relieved spokesman for the Northfield Chamber of Commerce, promising this year's festival will be "bigger and better than ever."

    Orrin DeLong, president of the Northfield Historical Society, confirms he is satisfied that Jesse was, indeed, among the bandits repelled from the southern Minnesota town almost 120 years ago.  And he says he's seen nothing to convince him that Jesse lived beyond 1882.

    "But you must realize that Jesse and his brother, Frank, were very good at what they were doing," DeLong cautions.  "They always did anything they could to confuse those who were struggling to capture them.  Jesse effectively used a number of aliases.  He might well have known how to stage his own death and disappear.

    "I'm old enough to not be surprised at anything anymore."

    Stay tuned.