The Jesse James Legend (cont'd)


     Jesse James stopped robbing banks and shooting people 100 years ago, but the legends about him endure, especially in Missouri where he lived and died.
    They flourished there, thanks to the efforts of people like Rudy Turilli, who operates the Jesse James Museum in St. Louis.  Turilli tells everyone who'll listen that the outlaw died of old age in 1951.  But not everybody listens; plenty of sober citizens in Franklin County, Mo, prefer to believe that Bob Ford shot Jesse in the back of the head in 1882.
    The dispute was settled legally last month in Franklin County Circuit Court.  Not only did a jury say Jesse was laid in his grave by that dirty little coward Ford, it also nicked Turilli $10,000 for telling people otherwise.  Ironically, the award, all nice and legal, is to be paid to Mrs. Jesse James Jr. of Los Angeles, 85-year-old daughter-in-law of the outlaw.
    Turilli's museum is just off Route 66 where it heads southwest from St. Louis toward New Mexico and California.  "Meramec Caverns, Jesse James Hideout," read blood-red billboards - the legend, alive and well in Missouri.

    Rudy Turilli came to Meramec Caverns in the mid-1940s, married the daughter of the cavern owner, Lester Dill, and took over the job of publicizing the tourist attraction.  In 1948 Turilli's life changed forever.  An old man woke up one morning out in Lawton, Okla. and announced that he was Jesse James.  People at the local newspaper believed him, and the story was published: using the alias J.Frank Dalton.  Jesse had been living in hiding until his 100th birthday ; he was coming forward now to live out his remaining years under the name he had made famous.
    Smelling a good thing, Turilli took up with the old man in St. Joseph, Mo. and persuaded him to visit Meramec Caverns.  Dalton did and promptly recalled that this had been one of his favorite hideouts.  Turilli and Dalton turned up some known members of the old gang, including two who came to the caverns, chatted with Dalton and proclaimed him to be the McCoy.  Dalton provided detail after detail, apparently from memory, about the life and times of Jesse James, and he even showed body scars matching those Jesse was known to have had.
    The new Jesse revealed the truth about his death.  He said the man that Bob Ford gunned down in the James home in St. Joseph on April 3, 1882 was a gang member named Charlie Bigelow and that the James family had told everyone the victim was Jesse.  He, Jesse, had escaped to South America and returned a couple of years later to the Indian territory in Oklahoma.
    By now believing his own publicity, Turilli maintained Dalton at the Caverns for two years.  In 1950 he took the old man to court in Franklin County to have his name legally changed (changed back, he said) to Jesse James.  Wheeled into court on a stretcher, Dalton was in a cantankerous mood.  "Cut out that damned picture taking," he snapped and waved spectators back with an old frontier-model six-shooter that he produced from beneath his blanket.  He chewed his "eatin'" tobacco vigorously, from time to time spitting tobacco juice into an old tomato can.  The judge was not impressed with the day-long testimony of the outlaw.  He said that if Dalton had ever been Jesse James he still was and didn't need a change of name, and if he wasn't, he was trying to perpetrate a fraud on the court.  He denied the petition.
    Sick and disillusioned, Dalton decided to leave Meramec Caverns in 1950 and went to Granbury, Texas where he died obscurely and alone in 1951 at the age of 103.
    Turilli has spent the last 22 years trying to convince people that Dalton was indeed Jesse James.  In 1967, on the nationally televised Joe Pyne Show, Turilli said he would pay $10,000 to anyone who could prove otherwise.  Jesse's daughter-in-law was watching the show in Los Angeles.  She provided Turilli with family affidavits proving that the man killed by Ford in 1882 was the real Jesse.  Turilli wouldn't accept her proof so she sued for the $10,000.
    The case finally reached court in Union, the seat of Franklin County, early last month.  The 12 jurors, all plain-dressed, plain-spoken residents of communities in rural Franklin County, were not convinced by Turilli's evidence, which consisted mainly of the testimony of Jesse's former gang mates at the 1950 trial.  They did believe an affidavit provided by Mrs. James which had been signed by Thomas Mimms in 1938.  Mimms, a brother-in-law of Jesse James, swore that he had identified Jesse's body in an undertaker's parlor the day after the shooting.  The jury also seemed to like the way Mrs. James's attorney characterized Turilli: "This man once went to New York City in a leopardskin suit to get publicity."
    The jury returned its verdict at dusk, in a quiet corner of a county long since past caring who shot Jesse.  Bob Ford did, they said, and told Turilli to cough up the $10,000.
    Vehemently denying that he was a publicity hound, Turilli said he would, by God, appeal.  Mrs. James could not travel all the way to Union for the trial, but her lawyer's final words to the jury summed up her feelings of the James family : "Dalton was probably a derelict all his life, and in his waning years he wanted to get a little publicity."  Probably was.

             -Pat Strickler