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 violations.

    "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, Starrs said.

    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 descendants.

    "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 for it."

    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.