Legend of Frank, Jesse James Thrives Throughout Missouri
Dec. 12, 1971

    By A. H. Rogers

    KEARNEY, MO - In Northwest Missouri is Jesse James country, that portion of the state steeped in the legend of America's best-known bandit and most famous outlaw since Robin Hood roamed England's Sherwood Forest.  An afternoon's drive out of St. Joseph or Kansas City can easily take in the main shrines to the memory of Frank and Jesse James, the "James Boys" who left behind a trail or terror and adulation when they swept across the post Civil War Midwest.
    A good place to start a Jesse James pilgrimmage is the old James farm, the boyhood home of the outlaw brothers.  The old farmhouse, still in the possession of relatives, is located a short distance north of highway 92 between Kearny and Excelsior Springs.  Though open to the public, the James House is unadorned and "untouricized."  One can almost expect to see the "boys" come riding up while looking apprehensively over their shoulders for a pursuing posse.

    IN NEARBY Liberty, county seat of Clay County, is another memento of the Jesse James era.  A brick building on the northeast corner of the town square today houses a museum, but in 1866 it was the home of the Clay County Savings Bank and the scene of the first daylight bank robbery west of the Mississippi.  Only the robbery during the Civil War by Confederate raiders of a bank in St. Albans, Ft., surely the northernmost land engagement of that great conflict, takes precedence over the Liberty holdup in this type of crime which, along with train robbery, would become a specialty with the James boys.
    However, Jesse James the bank robber supreme probably did not make a forcible deposit out of the Clay County Savings Bank that memorable day.  Instead he was probably back at the farm, still recuperating from gunshot wounds suffered when he turned himself in, along with other Confederate guerillas, at the conclusion of the Civil War.  It is believed that Frank represented the family on this occasion.  Frank was probably accompanied by Cole Younger of Lee's Summit who later married Belle Starr, the feminine contribution of Carthage and Jasper County to the list of legendary outlaws.  The old Younger home may be seen from highway 71 by-pass just south of Lee's Summit.

    THE LAST stop on a Jesse James tour could be the house in St. Joseph were Robert Ford, a turncoat member of the James gang shot Jesse in the back of the head.  Jesse James had been residing in St. Joseph with his family under the name Thomas Howard.  Hence the words of the old folk song: "But that dirty little coward that shot Mr. Howard has laid Jesse James in his grave."  The house that was the last scene of the tragedy has been removed from its original site in the older part of the city to highway 169 or the Belt Highway at the east edge of St. Joseph.  Here in a location more accessible to tourists it adjoins a motel appropriately named the Jesse James Motel.

    With the death of Jesse James in St. Joseph the legend was born even though his somewhat less famous brother Frank survived until 1915.  Jesse James' widow died in 1900 and Mrs. Frank James in 1944.  By this time the songs and stories of the James boys had multiplied and spread all over the country.  A further boost to the legend came in the twentieth century from motion pictures.  The first movie of the James epic was "Under the Black Flag," which premiered at Plattsburg, Mo., in 1921.  This film was made in the Jesse James country, Jackson, Clay and Clinton Counties, Missouri, and starred Jesse James' son Jesse Edwards James in the role of his father. (The older James was Jesse Woodson James).  In 1927 Jesse Edwards James was technical adviser for the Paramount production "Jesse James" starring Fred Thompson the silent cowboy star.  Jesse Edwards James died in 1951.

    However, the most successful cinema depiction of the James legend was the Twentieth Century-Fox production made in Pineville in 1938 and released in 1939.  The film starred the late Tyrone Power as Jesse and Henry Fonda as Frank.  Its production called for the transformation of twentieth century Pineville into nineteenth century Liberty.  Dirt was piled on the paved streets, wooden sidewalks were erected and false fronts lined the square.  The McDonald County Courthouse was said to resemble closely the old courthouse at Liberty.  Thus a part of the Jesse James Legend was transferred still further afield to McDonald County and Southwest Missouri.