Dead Outlaw Has Historians On Edge of Their Seats
Springfield NewsLeader July 17, 1995
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
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.
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
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
The exhumation of the grave has caused extra
interest among visitors in recent days at both tourist attractions, the
"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
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
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
"I'm old enough to not be surprised at anything anymore."