Researchers Eager to Exhume James
Joplin Globe July 16, 1995
KEARNEY, MO. - The last time Jesse James' bones saw the light of day, they also saw a drenching summer rain.
His wooden coffin had decayed, and as someone pulled
it from the grave, moving it from the family farm to the family plot,
the base collapsed. As water streamed from above, the base and
remains were removed. It is said James' skull rolled back into
the empty grave.
The skull was recovered and, with the bones, put
into a metal box that rainy Sunday, June 29, 1902, and reburied in Mt.
Olivet Cemetery, where they have rested ever since.
On Monday, a 15-member team exhuming James' body will have science on its side.
"Hopefully it will not collapse on us like it did in
1902," said James E. Starrs, a law and forensic science professor
leading the exhumation team. On hand will be inflatable pads to
put under the coffin, just in case.
If the casket has collapsed, reporters and onlookers
will be made to leave while the remains are painstakingly
gathered. The excavation differs from an archaeological dig
because James has direct, living descendants concerned about privacy
"This is too close, you might say, to the bone," Starrs said.
Anthropologists and other scientists hope to settle
questions that have vexed and perplexed historians, family members and
would-be descendants for decades.
The main one: Are the bones really those of Jesse James?
"I can't understand myself why people want to be related to such a scoundrel," said Starrs.
But, he said, many people do. They claim Jesse
did not die when he was shot in the head as he was straightening a
picture in 1882 at his house in St. Joseph. Instead, they say, he
lived to father more children. The believers include one team
member who claims his wife is related to James and even Starrs' own
daughter-in-law, Starrs said.
"Everywhere I turn someone is related to Jesse
James, so I can understand the fury and the furor of the family to put
this to rest," he said.
Starrs said that using mitochondrial DNA, which is
passed through the maternal line, he can determine whether the pile of
bones belongs to Jesse James.
The casket and remains will be taken to a crime lab
in Kansas City for initial preparation. Midweek, the bones will
be taken to Kansas State University where they will remain until they
are returned to the grave. They will be X-rayed and cleaned,
metal-detected and cataloged.
DNA samples will be sent to Pennsylvania State
University, and other samples will be sent to Florida for drug
analysis. The DNA question should be answered by mid-September,
Descendants, proven and otherwise, are all for it.
Some people say James staged his death in 1882 as a
hoax and lived under aliases until he died at the age of 107. One
of them is Jesse Franklin James, of Leander, Texas.
Sharing the same zest for the exhumation is a
Californian who believes the bones in Kearney will prove to be those of
the outlaw Jesse James. James' great grandson, James R. Ross, of
Fullerton said his family has filed - and won - three lawsuits in the
past 60 years against alleged Jesse James imposters and their
"Maybe this will settle it once and for all," said
Ross, 69. "I'm tired of it and when this came along, I said I'm
Identity isn't the only question.
If the remains are shown to be those of the bank and
train robber, a cadre of pathologists, anthropologists, computer
technicians, toxicologists and firearms experts will try to discover
details of James' life and death.
Was James really shot once in the back of the head
by Robert Ford, a renegade member of the James gang seeking the reward
money? Did Charley Ford take a shot at him, too? Did James
use morphine to ease the pain of previous injuries, like Civil War
bullet wounds? Are photographs purported to be of James authentic?
"We'll know a great deal about the wounds he
suffered," Starrs said. "DNA will not be able to stand on a
pinnacle all its own. There were a lot of bodily anomalies,
wounds suffered in his chest, even the bowlegs of a cowboy. We'll
look carefully at the teeth."
Starrs and his crew are to spend today preparing the site, and the exhumation is to start Monday.
What Starrs and the others find in the casket will
depend on its condition: whether it sprang a leak and whether a
monument placed over the grave pushed the roof in.
"Secondary burials always create problems," Starrs
said. "When the skull fell back in, it could have been fractured,
so we would have to analyze it and determine if the fracture was before
or after he died."
"It's easier in one sense," he said. "I'm not
worried about getting his remains out without moving them internally,
if the casket happens to slip a little bit," Starrs said. "I'm
sure they were not put in there in anatomically correct order."
In fact, during an excavation of the James farm in
1978, part of James' original wooden casket, a bullet and bones -- some
of them human -- were found.