Jesse's Mother 'Feisty'
The Joplin Globe, October 11, 1979
KEARNEY, Mo. - The elderly mother
of Frank and Jesse James could be feisty and hateful and would gulp
bourbon by the quart when it was smuggled to her by her famous son,
according to a former housekeeper at the James cabin.
"Her son Frank would bring her a bottle when he came
to visit, and since he knew I was opposed to her drinking, he'd hide it
in the grass outside and she would sneak out gulp it down," said Mrs.
Mary Ellen Clemens of Weston, Mo. "After a few drinks, she would
yell, 'I'm wild and wooly and hard to tame, but my name's Zerelda just
Mrs. Clemens, 88, is working with historian Milton
Perry in restoring the original Jesse James cabin in this northwest
Missouri community. It was there that Mrs. Clemens said she
worked from May 1909 until that October, when the James boys' mother,
Mrs. Zerelda Samuel, went to Oklahoma to live with son Frank until her
death in February 1911.
Mrs. Samuel's more notorious son, Jesse, died April 3, 1882, at the age of 34.
Perry stumbled onto Mrs. Clemens by accident.
A tour guide taking visitors through the cabin recently heard Mrs.
Clemens remark that the cabin was not arranged as she remembered
it. The guide notified Mr. Perry, who contacted Mrs. Clemens and
verified her story, then asked for her help in the restoration effort.
"She's telling of things that only a person who
lived in that house would know," Perry said. "I believe she's for
Mrs. Clemens arrived in Kearney from Millersburg,
Ky., as Mary Ellen Hill and was referred to Mrs. Samuel. She was
employed as a cook and housekeeper at $5 a week -- four times what she
was making in Kentucky.
It wasn't an easy task, she recalled.
"When I first started working for Zerelda, she did
her best to try to scare me. She'd tell me she was going to shoot
me, and I stood up to her. I told her that if she shot any faster
than me, she'd better hop to it!"
Mrs. Samuel was 86, senile and extremely jealous
during Mrs. Clemens' five-month stay. She would go into a rage
when someone would talk without including her in the conversation.
Once, when Mrs. Clemens received a telephone call at
the farm from her sister-in-law, Mrs. Samuel became violent when she
was not included.
She began beating the housekeeper over the head with
the stump of her right arm, a part of which had been blown off in 1875
when Pinkerton detectives, in pursuit of Frank and Jesse, lobbed a
lighted turpentine ball through the kitchen window of the cabin.
"I just put down the phone and grabbed her and sat
her down and told her that that was just enough," Mrs. Clemens recalled.
The mother had a capacity to capitalize on her
famous sons, Mrs. Clemens said, charging curiosity seekers who wanted a
glimpse of the cabin and what once was Jesse's grave.